Ethnobotanist wants Native women to continue tradition of using plants for reproductive care

By: - July 2, 2022 9:07 am

Abortion-rights advocates stage a protest outside U.S. Associate Justice Samuel Alito’s house on May 9, 2022 in Alexandria, Virginia. (Photo by Alex Wong | Getty Images)

Native women have been using plants for medicinal purposes, including for reproductive health, for thousands of years, Ethnobotanist and Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Montana Rosalyn LaPier told the Daily Montanan.

LaPier wants to ensure native women continue to learn and pass down knowledge acquired from ancestors about their right to utilize these medicines, citing threats to this practice at both the federal and state levels in the U.S.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization overturned Roe vs. Wade, rolling back federal protections for the right of a woman to receive an abortion.

“There is a threat with this change in federal policy, that it will impact not just medical abortion, but it will also impact how indigenous women, who have been using this knowledge for thousands of years, how it can impact our health, and especially our reproductive health, and the way that we have been practicing medicine for a very long time,” LaPier said.

The right to an abortion is still observed in Montana under the 1999 Montana Supreme Court decision Armstrong vs. State of Montana, which found that Montana’s Constitution protected a woman’s right to privacy while making medical decisions.

Gov. Greg Gianforte previously said he would support a special session to restrict abortions following the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and tweeted last week that he was “in discussions with legislative leaders on next steps as we work to protect life in Montana.”

LaPier, an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Tribe of Montana and Métis with a doctorate in environmental history, cited how some states have written laws that are not only outlawing abortion, but also contraception, and she believes Native reproductive health practices could be threatened.

“There are women practitioners and herbalists and medicine women who’ve been doing this for a very long time, and who are knowledgeable about this,” LaPier said. “My only concern is that with this change in federal policy, with the Supreme Court and Roe vs. Wade, that this might impact how indigenous women have been doing their own kind of health care for thousands of years.”

Statewide abortion bans in a post-Roe world

At least 13 states had “trigger laws” in place to ban abortions statewide following the overturning of Roe vs. Wade, some immediately and some within 30 days. Politicians in these states have also indicated interest in going beyond banning abortions, extending the moritorium to include emergency contraceptives and intraunterine devices, also known as “IUDs.”

Republicans in the Missouri legislature attempted to ban the state’s Medicaid agency from paying for IUDs and emergency contraceptives, known also as the “morning after pill.”  Conservatives in Idaho have also indicated their interest in passing similar bans. Idaho and Missouri were two of the 13 states, with Missouri’s ban already in effect and Idaho’s currently tied up in litigation from Planned Parenthood, the Idaho Capital Sun reported Monday.

LaPier said she doesn’t want to see ethnobotoany practices, used by native women for everything from abortion care to menopause, to become targets to be outlawed in these statewide measures in light of the Supreme Court’s decision.

LaPier said she would not name the plants used because she’s known people who have gone to the emergency room from improper foraging.

“It has been my experience that if you don’t actually know how to use them, you can hurt yourself,” she said. “What time of year are you collecting something? Are you collecting the flower? Are you collecting the leaves? Are you collecting the root? And then how do you process it and then how do you use it? It’s very complicated.”

In a piece for Yes! Magazine, LaPier wrote that the Blackfeet use more than a dozen plants to regulate menstruation, for abortion, for the birth process, and to address symptoms of menopause.

“Blackfeet women also held a religious ceremony during which a sanctified belt decorated with religious symbols was worn to regulate fertility and prevent pregnancy,” LaPier wrote in the story published Friday. “Whether using medicinal plants or religious rituals, Blackfeet people viewed reproductive health and bodily autonomy as part of our relationship with the sacred realm.”

She recommends native women seek out resources on this topic available to them through places like the Native Women’s Society of the Great Plains and the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center.

Native plants like sage have been commercialized as they gained popularity with non-native people with shops selling “sage and smudge kits,” using the indigenous sacred cleansing practice.

LaPier said that could potentially happen with native plants used for reproductive healthcare.

“We have a similar issue here in Montana, with huckleberries and morel mushrooms,” LaPier said. “People over harvest both of those because they sell them commercially.”

Access to Abortion on Reservations

She said that getting a legal abortion on a reservation is difficult.

“Most people have to leave the reservation, travel long distances and usually have to figure out some sort of way to pay for those health services,” she said.

Online, some non-Natives have been asking about the potential for going to reservations for abortion services. Advocates told Kaiser Health News that any plan to open clinics on tribal land that would provide abortions would require going through legal, financial and political hoops, and wondered why the question of accessibility was only raised when abortion rights were threatened to non-Native women.

LaPier referenced how Former Oglala Sioux Tribal President Cecelia Fire Thunder was ousted from leadership after trying to bring an abortion care clinic to the Pine Ridge Reservation. She thought to do this in 2006, after South Dakota put in place strict abortion laws that restricted abortions to medical emergencies.

“She had thought to bring an abortion clinic to her community because it is very difficult if you live on a reservation to get a legal abortion,” she said.

She said the primary health care service on reservations is the Indian Health Service, where it is illegal to perform abortions except in certain cases.

CEO and President of Planned Parenthood Montana Martha Fuller confirmed that IHS, which is part of the federal government, is subject to the Hyde Amendment, which prevents federal dollars from being spent on abortion care.

“Because of the Hyde Amendment, it’s also the piece that keeps federal Medicaid dollars from covering abortion though some states do it with their own money,” Fuller said. “So because of that, unless that were to change, I think that would not be something that IHS would necessarily be able to do.”

LaPier said the “legal loophole” of tribal sovereignty as it relates to abortion services has yet to be determined in the legal system.

In a piece published in the Law and Political Economy Project earlier this month titled “The Indian Country Abortion Safe Harbor Fallacy,” several legal scholars collaborated to lay out the legal, financial, political and ethical concerns the question of tribal jurisdiction relating to abortion services.

“Unfortunately, tribal authority and jurisdiction is rarely exclusive. Tribal power does not necessarily impact whether the state also possesses authority to regulate within Indian country,” the legal scholars wrote. “Given the turmoil of this area of law, it is difficult to predict whether state abortion regulations would be found to be preempted.”

Contributors to the article wrote that Native reproductive health has been under assault since contact with European settlers.

“Native midwifery, healing, marital customs, kinship ties, and gender identity have all been targeted by assimilation policies. Native reproductive health has been corralled into under-funded yet paternalistic clinics,” the legal scholars wrote. “Native bodies, too, have not been exempt. Denigrated. Fetishized. Targeted. The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons crisis articulates a centuries-long exposure to the highest rates of sexual and gender-based violence.”

Another complication could come from the U.S. Supreme Court decision Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta, that states can prosecute non-Native people who commit crimes against a Native person on tribal lands, a move The Native American Fund said “strikes” against the sovereignty of tribal nations and the consequences of the decision for tribal nations, the federal government, and states will take time to unravel.

Attitudes towards abortion

At a Council on Foreign Relations workshop on religion and foreign policy that LaPier attended in New York, she noted an audience member who she said brought up how religions around the world that do not view abortion, or different types of reproductive health care in the same way that Christianity does and wanted the U.S. Supreme Court to take that into consideration.

“I would argue the same is true with Native Americans,” LaPier said. “Native people don’t view it the same way that Christians view this. And so because of that, we have had contraception for thousands of years, we have had abortions for thousands of years.

“That’s just part of the culture and the tradition and the religion of Native people.”

This story has been updated to reflect Rosalyn LaPier’s updated title of Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Montana. 

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Nicole Girten
Nicole Girten

Nicole Girten is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune as a government watchdog reporter. She holds a degree from Florida State University and a Master of Science from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.