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Native American Women: Health at Risk


Karina L. Walters, Ph.D. (left), and Elaine Congress, D.S.W., at the 4th Annual Women’s Symposium.
Photo by Ken Levinson

The social and historical traumas against Native Americans have led to a myriad of health problems in Native American women, including a rise in HIV infections and in infant mortality rates, a research expert told Fordham University’s 4th Annual Women’s Symposium, titled “Historical Trauma, Displacement and Well-Being of Indigenous Women.”

Karina Walters, Ph.D., the William B. and Ruth Gerberding Endowed Professor at the University of Washington and director of the Indigenous Wellness Research Institute, said that health and well being is tied to land, place and spirituality among Native American peoples. She said that factors like “dis-placement,” invisibility, cultural attacks and microaggressions — a term she used to describe “everyday knicks and tears” on one’s wellness — keep certain indigenous populations in a constant state of trauma. Furthermore, colonialists historically approached Native Americans with a “blank slate” mentality she said, bludgeoning their cultural distinctions with a “kill the Indian to save the Indian” mentality. She described the theft of Indian land, which is often referred to in female terms, as a spiritual theft.

“Our religious spiritualities are land-based, as opposed to Christian Judeo spiritualities, which are faith based,” said Walters, who is an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. “There is no separation between our practice and our beliefs. We think of our place [land]as being connected to spirit and being, and every society needs sacred places. We are torn from our spirit and being when we are dis-placed.”

Walters described the “boarding school period” of the 1880s through the 1930s, as a cultural transgression in which thousands of Indian children were forcefully removed from their families and made to learn English, cut their hair and abandon traditional ways. In such a setting, she said, sexual and cultural abuse became “normative” for Native American girls. Today the rate of violent assault for Native American women is 2.5 times the rate for all females, and double that of African American females, based on government statistics.

In practicing social work, Walters said, it was important not to misread symptoms that are social and historical traumas, as cultural traumas.

“We don’t want to use social work itself as a colonization tool,” she said.

The March 6 symposium was jointly sponsored by the Fordham Women and Girls Institute in the Graduate School of Social Service (GSSS), and the GSSS International Committee. Panelists included Elizabeth Meddeb, Ph.D., assistant professor of English as a second language, York College, City University of New York (CUNY); Elizabeth Cooper, associate professor of law at Fordham University School of Law; Fabiola Fernandez Salek, Ph.D., assistant professor of humanities and chair of women’s studies, York College, CUNY; and Smita Ekka Dewan, a doctoral student in GSSS, a member of the Oraon tribe, an indigenous people in India. Elaine Congress, D.S.W., associate dean of GSSS and the conference coordinator, said that Walters’ issues speak to “concerns about the wellbeing of women and girls, and all the ‘isms’ that affect them.”

– Janet Sassi


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