Native American Sterilization and Racist Motivations Within the Eugenics Movement

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Native American Sterilization and Racist Motivations Within the Eugenics Movement

Devan Forbes

Soc 218, Kaelber

December, 2010


The American eugenics movement in the 20th century began as a means of controlling the perceived rising “degenerate” population and maintaining or protecting the genetically “fit” members in society from being overrun by the genetically “unfit.” As a program to protect racial hygiene in the United States, the eugenics theory essentially entailed taking the principle of natural selection and enforcing it by scientific means. The array of people who were categorized as “unfit” ranged greatly, as the descriptions of which characteristics qualified as a threat to the race were infinitely vague. The so-called unfit were largely people with alleged mental disabilities, however this term was ambiguous enough to include a multitude of members of society who, for whatever reason, were perceived as problematic, either on a micro or individual level, or to society as a whole. The collection was not limited to this broad category of mental disabilities either, as the population of those affected by the eugenics movement was composed of people with physical disabilities as well. Additionally, there existed an underlying concern for specifically racial degeneration – that is, the concern that the “superior” white race was threatened by potential population growth of minority races – at the time of the eugenics movement in the US. Ultimately, policies based in eugenic theory started to emerge, forcing procedural sterilizations and other means of population control upon the people who were believed to be unfit. The underlying racist motives behind the eugenics movement manifested in unduly enforced negative eugenic principles upon many minority races as well.

This paper will attempt to expose the racist motivations behind the eugenics movement and the impact that these motives had on minority races, with specific focus on the Native American population. The historical context of anti-Native American sentiment is extremely important to consider when examining the reasons for which they were disproportionately subjected to forced sterilization, even as late as the 1980’s. Furthermore, there are various social and political factors that lead to the exploitation of this population to be considered. The importance of this subject’s exposure is indefinite, predominantly due to the fact that is so vastly understudied; one is unlikely to encounter the topic of Native American compulsory sterilizations without at least an undergraduate degree, because the subject is, on some level, deliberately kept secretive due to a sort of national embarrassment about an obviously offensive period of American history. Avoiding links to the Nazi genocides and German eugenics program may be the foremost contributor to this deliberate secrecy regarding American eugenics. Furthermore, the Native American population is an extreme minority, and thus widely underrepresented. The historical oppression of Native Americans and policies undeniably based in racist ideologies contributed significantly to their disproportionate sterilization through the eugenics program. It is crucial to consider these issues because there is such little existing common knowledge, not only on the topic of Native American mistreatment but also on the American eugenics movement in general.

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