Amá (2018)

In Amá, Lorna Tucker has followed up her Vivienne Westwood film with a crucially important documentary on the subject of female sterilisation without consent among Native American women.

The Mother of a Scandal

by Phil Wilson


CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Amá (Mother) was a long time in gestation and the Navajo woman who is the focus and main informant in the film clearly took several years to come forward to talk about this taboo subject.

The film operates on several levels. On one hand it is the story of a woman, Jean Whitehorse, who has finally decided to speak out about this hidden system. On another it brings together strong women from other Native American peoples involved in fighting for their community. And on a third it also reflects a narrative history of indigenous America using Jean as a link. From Fort Sumner, where the Navajo were rounded up in concentration camps, to the occupation of Alcatraz in 1969–71 when Jean was in Oakland and the recent Standing Rock demonstrations on the Dakota pipeline.

The issues are complex, although racism and the hint of genocide are never far away once the project got into the wrong hands. It began fairly innocently enough with LBJ’s 1964 declaration of a war on poverty. This was to enable poor communities, of all races, to be better off. But as the project progressed under other administrations in the ’70s other people started interfering with their own agenda.

These included Reimert Ravenholt, who thought people would be better off with fewer children, using sterilisation in the form of tubal ligation once that and funding became available. Interviewed in the film he comes across as a largely unapologetic old man whose patronising, misplaced, good so-called intentions were cruelly forced on other cultures.

Another very articulate interviewee is a specialist from Dallas who points out that although the relevant checks are now in place, there is still the availability of funding which underlay much of the project.

The sterilisation process was forced on all communities – black, white, Native and Hispanic – particularly in rural areas. And subtle pressure was often used.

In Jean’s case she got pregnant and had a child, but was then quizzed over how its upbringing would be funded. A year later, when she went to the clinic with another problem, she was sterilised without consent. This was in Oakland, but the practice was clearly endemic in certain facilities catering solely to the ‘health’ of Native Americans.

This particular grizzly story deals with only the one issue, but other issues might have been raised in passing such as the adoption scandal of Native American children being adopted by white Americans? Well-meaning no doubt.

Amá premiered at the Global Health Film Festival 2018, can be seen at documentary festivals and special Q&A screenings with Lorner Tucker in the UK.

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