Charon Asetoyer Papers
Charon Virginia Asetoyer was born Charon Virginia Huber on March 24, 1951, in San Jose, California, to Virginia Asetoyer and Charles Eugene Huber. Virginia Asetoyer was Comanche from Oklahoma and Charles Huber of German and Irish descent. Charon was the younger of two daughters born to Virginia and Charles. The family also included a son from Charles's first marriage and daughter from Virginia's first marriage.
Charon's business acumen developed early, in part through helping out in her father's printing company. At age 16, she started her own dress design enterprise, Charon of California, wholesaling to dress shops in San Francisco. She became immersed in the cultural life of Haight-Ashbury and dropped out of high school. "I just couldn't see staying in school, because I was getting so much more...from what was going on in the coffee shops and out on the street and just a whole different philosophy. And I was ready... I was independent and creative, an entrepreneur. And so I got an apartment in San Francisco, with the blessings of my parents." (Voices of Feminism oral history, 2006 p. 20) In 1968, Asetoyer opened a boutique on Haight Street called Orpheus, but eventually decided to return to school, closing the shop and entering San Francisco City College in 1971.
Already an activist from her high school days, the social and political ferment of the late 1960s-early 1970s San Francisco " really opened my mind up to a whole lot of things that I never thought existed." (VOF p 20) She got involved with the American Indian Movement during the 1969-71 occupation of Alcatraz Island.
Asetoyer married a jazz musician Dennis Duncan in 1972, dropped out of college and went to work in the financial district. In 1975 a friend urged her to join the staff of the Urban Indian Health Clinic where she worked until 1977 as a Nutritional Counselor and WIC (Women Infants and Children Program) Specialist.
Asetoyer described her 10-year relationship with Duncan as "extremely abusive." After years of back and forth with him, she decided a final break required distance and in 1977 she moved to South Dakota where she returned to college, earning a BA in Criminal Justice from the University of South Dakota in 1981. While in school, Asetoyer served on the Board of Directors of Native American Inmates Legal Services in Sioux Falls (1978-79) and was active in the Tiyospaye Council the Native American Student Association. Asetoyer began using her mother's family name after her divorce from Duncan.
In 1981, she and her second husband, Clarence Rockboy, moved to Brattleboro, Vermont, where Asetoyer earned a double Master's degree in 1983 in International Administration and Intercultural Management at the School for International Training (SIT). Her son, Chaska, was born there in 1982. The couple also adopted Rockboy's orphaned nephew Reynolds James Bruguier. After the death of Rockboy's father in 1982, the family moved to the Yankton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota to fulfill Rockboy's four-year cultural and religious memorial commitment. Initially, they intended to stay only four years, but found "there was all this work that had to be done." (VOF p 24)
In South Dakota, Asetoyer created and briefly directed a health program for Women of All Red Nations (WARN) as part of her SIT internship requirements. The program worked to address fetal alcohol syndrome and the many related issues on three South Dakota reservations. Not entirely happy with the administration of the WARN program, Asetoyer left and with, Rockboy, Everdale Song Hawk, Jackie Rouse, and Lorenzo Dion founded the Native American Community Board (NACB) in their town, Lake Andes, in 1985. "I wanted to get serious about this work. I felt that it was an issue that was plaguing our communities and that we really needed to get a handle on it." (VOF p 27) The Board was at first run out of an office in the basement of Asetoyer and Rockboy's home.
NACB's first project, "Women and Children in Alcohol" aimed to address, in Asetoyer's words, "fetal alcohol syndrome and all of the residual issues related to it, because you get into children's issues, you get into education, you get into women's issues and needs. And you get into how women were treated who were chemically dependent and how their rights were being violated." (VOF 27)
Through this project, NACB realized the scope of unmet needs in their community, particularly those related to women and health. At the time the unemployment rate on the reservation was eighty-five per cent, seventy per cent of adults over age forty suffered from diabetes, the infant mortality rate was five times the national average, and life expectancy on the reservation was just forty five years.
Asetoyer began speaking and writing about fetal alcohol syndrome and NACB's program. Conferences and meetings presented invaluable opportunities to meet and build relationships with other women working on related issues. As with the FAS project, Asetoyer worked to expand and reframe the reproductive health agenda beyond simply preventing pregnancy and into "domestic violence,...the right to parent your children in a nonviolent home; the right to live as a woman in a nonviolent environment; the right to food, to be able to feed your family, to be able to feed yourself; the right to health care; the right to be able to have as many children as you wanted - or not." (VOF 39)
Inspired by a visit to the National Black Women's Health Project in Atlanta, Georgia, Asetoyer began to imagine a similar facility in Lake Andes that was more of a center than an office. In 1988 the NACB purchased a house across the street from Asetoyer and Rockboy's home and established the Native American Women's Health Education Resource Center (NAWHERC).
NAWHERC assists women and their families through direct services, public policy advocacy, and coalition building with Indigenous women around the world. The Center is noted for its community-based research and publications, which have influenced policies and practices of the Indian Health Service and other agencies. [See finding aid for the Records of the Native American Women's Health Education Resource Center for more].
In addition to her role as Executive Director of the Resource Center, Asetoyer continues to travel extensively, speaking, and serving on committees, boards, and advisory councils around the world. She has participated in many international conferences including the Fourth World Conference on Women in Nairobi, Kenya in 1995, the Second International Conference of AIDS-Related Non-Governmental Organizations in Paris, France in 1990; the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, Austria in 1994; the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, Egypt in 1994; and the Reproductive Health and Justice International Women's Health Conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1994.
She has been involved in the Working Group on Indigenous Populations at the United Nations from its early stages and was one of the founding co-chairs of the Working Group's Committee on Health. Asetoyer was a delegate to the First People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in October 1991 and was on the drafting committee for the Principles of Environmental Justice. She is an enrolled member of the Comanche Tribe of Oklahoma.
She has served on the boards of the American Indian Center (San Francisco), the National Women's Health Network, the Indigenous Women's Network, the National Environmental Justice Advisory Committee (NEJAC) of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Honor the Earth. During the Clinton Administration she was appointed to one of the National Advisory Councils for Health and Human Services.
Asetoyer ran unsuccessfully for Mayor of Lake Andes in 2005. Highly restrictive anti-abortion measures voted into law in South Dakota in February of 2006 prompted Asetoyer to run for state senate as a pro-choice, pro-women's health Democrat in 2006 and again in 2008. Both of these efforts were unsuccessful.
Clarence Rockboy died on December 24, 2006.
Awards and honors include the United Nations Distinguished Service Award (1985); the Mother Jones magazine Heroes and Heroines Honor Role (1990); the Gloria Steinem Women of Vision Award of the Ms. Foundation for Women (1991); the Jessie Bernard Wise Women Award from the Center for Women Policy Studies (2001); and in 2005 Women's eNews named her one of its 21 Leaders for the 21st Century. Asetoyer's work was featured in the book 250 Ways to Make America Better by the editors of George magazine and in a profile in Glamor in August 2008.