Birth control and abortion practices differed among various groups of Native Americans. The most diverse of the Native American groups were those in California, who spoke at least one hundred different mutually unintelligible languages and who were organized into five hundred or so different groups. Generalities can be made among the groups because they had much in common, yet generalities do not necessarily apply to any particular group because there was variance among cultures.
Because indigenous peoples in the United States did not leave a written record, information about them comes from either the reports of others or remembered traditions kept alive over the centuries. Because the quality of Native American existence began to deteriorate almost immediately after colonization, all reports of Native American prehistory reflect this impact. Anthropologists did not begin to work among them until 1871. Further complicating the issue is that American and European understanding of Native Americans has been a fairy-tale view of them as living in a wild and beneficent world in which they had only to take what they needed.A deeper look at Native American life reveals that, although Native Americans had a rich environment, they controlled and managed their resources very carefully. They had an intimate and extensive knowledge of plants, animals, weather, astronomical phenomena, and medicine. With such a considered lifestyle, it is no wonder that they were also sensitive to the management of human birth, which affected the balance of life directly. B. W. Aginsky, for example, reported that the Pomo people had developed and imposed birth control methods to keep their population within the limits of the food supply of the valley. This same effort was more or less normative among all tribes. Among the various means used to control population were sexual restrictions, coitus inter-ruptus, infanticide, abortion, and various recipes for menstrual regulation or birth control as well as songs and rituals.
Elimination of unwanted young is known to have occurred among the Yurok, Pomo, Wappo, Wintun, Yana, Sinkyone, Kato, Klamath, Hupa, and Yuma. Undoubtedly it was a general procedure among all California tribes and tribes elsewhere, although its frequency varied. Thus it was often normative practice to kill one of a pair of twins, and deformed infants were similarly disposed of. Generally, abortion was used to prevent the arrival of illegitimate and unwanted children.
Malcolm Margolin wrote that “sexual restrictions were so pervasive throughout California, that they certainly helped reduce the uglier agents of population control that have plagued other cultures: disease, famine and warfare.”
Probably the most widely used method of birth control was abstinence, which was built into the societal fabric through a long list of forbidden times and occasions to have sexual intercourse. Among the northern tribes, men and women had separate dwellings three quarters of the year, and abstinence during that time was the inevitable outcome of these household arrangements. Cohabitation was confined largely to the late summer and fall, when the family camped out together. This meant that most children were born in the spring. This was also a time when food was more plentiful.
Native American wise women like this Athapaskan Hupa female shaman often held the collective medical wisdom of their tribe regarding birth control practices.
Abstinence was often regarded as a necessary part of the healing process, and much of the treatment for illness involved setting standards for abstinence. Abstinence was also required when special tasks were to be performed or special jobs undertaken. For a man to go near a pregnant or menstruating woman, or in fact a woman of sexually ripe age at such a time, would not only invalidate the candidate’s power, but make him ill. It might also cause the death of an unborn child and bring illness and death to infants and children. These then were powerful taboos, requiring not only abstinence but complete avoidance. Preparation for deer hunting, for example, required a period of fasting and sexual continence. Sex was taboo when eating bear meat. After a couple had a child, the husband was not to touch his wife until the child could stand alone on its feet, otherwise the couple would have no more children. Mourners were not to have sex. Abstention was called for while a woman was menstruating and there were taboos against intercourse for mothers who were nursing.
Among many Native American tribes there were men, in the past called “berdaches” by European reporters and investigators, who lived as women, performed the role of women, and had intercourse with men. These men-women were regarded as having special powers in some societies, and their existence as “wives” to other men of society certainly allowed them to be also classed as a factor in limiting population growth.
The Native Americans had a enormous pharmacopeia of plants, many of which were associated with short-term sterility or menstrual regulation. Included in the list were drinks made from the roots of Lithospermum rudedrale, a low-growing shrub, and which apparently results in short-term sterility. Most of the contraceptive drugs taken, however, have not been tested in modern animal studies, but that the Native Americans believed that the drugs acted to prevent pregnancy emphasizes the Native Americans’ wish to limit their population. Supernatural and magical means including songs, prayers, and ritual actions were used to prevent pregnancy and to enhance the effectiveness of other methods.
Abortion was practiced among unmarried women who were pregnant. Various means of abortion have been described, ranging from putting hot stones on the abdomen of a woman, to lifting heavy weights, to jumping off high places, to hitting the stomach. Some tied tight belts around their waist. Abortion inducers were also used that were made from various ingredients including horehound (Marrubium vulgare), silk tassel bush (Garrya elliptica), and mistletoe (Phoraden-dron flavescents va.Villosum). Many tribes tolerated abortion because they believed the child did not get its spirit until after birth. In fact, often special preparations had to be taken during the first ten days of life to make sure the vulnerable spirit of the newborn was firmly lodged in the infant’s body and it could become human. Neglecting such procedures was at least mentally infanticide. Infanticide was not uncommon but was not as morally acceptable as abortion. A common way of performing infanticide reported by informants was for a woman to simply sit on the unwanted child. Strangulation was not uncommon.
There is some debate as to whether the infanticide and abortions reported by European observers were at the same level among the Native Americans before the Europeans appeared. It has been speculated that reports of widespread abortion and infanticide might well have been a response to the degradation the Native Americans suffered at the hands of the Europeans. This is the argument of Sherburne Cook, who believed that abortion and infanticide were clear-cut responses to unfavorable environmental circumstances. They were acts on the part of an individual performed under definite and usually extreme provocation as part of the Native American resistance to the European invasion and dominance. The missionaries, who controlled the
Native Americans in California, for example, wanted an increase in population to gain both more workers and more converts. Abortion or infanticide provided escape for the child and resistance to a system that was eager to increase the population. Women who had a miscarriage or failed to conceive, in fact, were regularly punished by the priests. They were flogged; had their heads shaved; and were forced to dress in sack cloth, cover themselves with ashes, and carry a doll or wooden image of a child painted red if abortion were suspect. On Sundays the accused woman stood before the mission church and received the taunts and jeers of churchgoers even though she might well have become pregnant through rape by nontribal members.
One Catholic priest quoted by Kennedy wrote in 1801:
Knowing full well the inhuman crimes these Native American women so often commit . . . how they commit abortions and are guilty of suffocating their infants, we employ for their correction all care and vigilance, all the expedients, and all the diligence that a matter of such importance demands.
Sarah Hopkins, who lived among the Paiutes in the mid-nineteenth century, wrote:
My people have been so unhappy for a long time they wish now to disincrease instead of multiply. The mothers are afraid to have more children, for fear they shall have daughters, who are not safe even in their mother’s presence.
Such statements are not unusual and force a different view of abortion and infanticide, namely, as a means of protest, perhaps the only means that many women could take, to the conditions under which they were forced to live. When a fetus was aborted or an infant died, the same forms of mourning were expressed as in response to any other death.