Lorna Tucker’s ‘Amá’ Shares The Painful Yet Powerful Stories Of Native American Women Forcibly Sterilized In The 1970s.

Jean Whitehorse in ‘Amá’. Image by Tessa Angus, Raindog Films.

This Fall, as election season hits fever pitch, streaming service OVID.tv is securing its place as the premier destination for documentaries and art-house films, announcing a slew of films available to watch starting in October. Among the award-winning films that cover issues such as gun violence, immigration, climate change and more, is UK director Lorna Tucker’s ‘Amá’, available to watch now.

Described as a film that “should be watched by all who want to understand the impacts of genocide and colonization within the United States” according to Nicole Lim, Executive Director of the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center, ‘Amá’, which means “mother”, tells the untold story of the involuntary sterilization of Native American women by the Indian Health Service well into the 1970s. These women were removed from their families and sent to boarding schools, forcibly relocated away from their traditional lands and involuntarily sterilized.

The result of more than a decade of painstaking and sensitive work by filmmaker Lorna Tucker, the film features the testimony of many Native Americans, including three remarkable women who tell their stories – Jean Whitehorse, Yvonne Swan and Charon Asetoyer (who is also a producer on the film) – as well as a revealing and rare interview with Dr. Reimart Ravenholt whose population control ideas were the framework for some of the government policies directed at Native American women.

In light of the heinous reports about migrant women in ICE detention centers being forcibly and involuntarily sterilized, this film is more timely than ever as it forces American viewers to come face-to-face with an ugly practice that has been happening to numerous marginalized women throughout history and even today.

We spoke with both Lorna and Charon about ‘Amá’, what people need to know about the issue of forced sterilization and reproductive freedom, and what they hope audiences will take away from watching this film.

Congrats on the news that “Amá” will be available to stream on OVID starting Oct 8! It feels very timely given the recent news of mass sterilizations happening toward migrant women in ICE detention centers. How did you feel when you heard this news?

LORNA TUCKER: Sadly I wasn’t surprised. The incredible women that you meet in the film are just a few that I met while on this journey that have survived this horrific abuse. AMA focuses on the impact that it had on Native communities by following women trying to make sense of what had happened to them, then uniting to be heard. But it wasn’t just Native women – low income women of color throughout America were also targeted. What broke my heart the most is that I have seen first hand what impact this has on the people behind the new stories.

CHARON ASETOYER: There is not enough attention being paid to the ICE reports. This has been going on for many years and it needs to be continually brought to light.

Amá was an 11 year journey for you as a filmmaker, and you worked closely with Executive Producer Charon Asetoyer (Comanche elder, also in the film) who has been raising awareness of the issue of Native women being sterilized for 30 years. Why has this issue been largely hidden for so long?

LT: Because I don’t think the world has been ready to listen. Native women and men have been shouting about this for a long time. You have to put this into the historical context of how America has and still does treat Native Americans. This is part of a long history of abuses and trauma inflicted on Native Americans and indigenous people. I’ve witnessed the most horrific racism towards people when I have been filming. Some people think they should “just get over it” (I actually heard that being said!).

A generation of women my mother’s age were taken from their families and sent away to boarding schools where they were abused. And also you have to realize, many of the women that found out about forced sterilization found out by accident. Think of how many out there didn’t? I can’t even begin to imagine how I would feel had that been done to me without my knowledge, without my consent. I will never be able to fully feel what the women have gone through. But we can listen and we can back our global sisters and stand behind them.

CA: The awareness about this issue is long overdue. It is a powerful and important marker in American history, and we can’t let it just slide away. The medical community don’t even deny it. For many native women, the trauma is still very real and will never go away. They were denied the ability to have more children. The government is responsible for this violent, immoral and illegal act.

Jean Whitehorse in ‘Amá’. Image by Tessa Angus, Raindog Films.

When filming first began, how did you go about finding the women who would share their stories?

LT: At first I thought we were going to make a short film to try and raise awareness. I was filming bands around 2007 and had become friends with and artist that gave me the book titled ‘Conquest’ By Andrea Smith. The book has some controversy surrounding it because of the author, but at the time it blew my mind, and not in a good way. In England we were taught American History that was so far removed from what I was reading. Native Americans were spoken about in past tense and through all my tours across America when filming bands I had no idea of what was going on. It was a bit of a head fuck to be honest. I wanted to know what I could do, not in a savior sense, but in a practical way. I kept coming across Charon Asetoyer’s work, especially at community level for Native women’s reproductive health (she was fighting to get Native women access to over-the-counter Plan B emergency contraceptive as they were the only women in America that couldn’t get easy access to it. She took it all the way to Congress and won!).

I wanted to know if there was anything she felt I could do to be practical and we started to discuss a film. We weren’t quite sure what that film was, but I knew straight away that I was to be a servant here, not a director. This is why the film took so long to make. It was important this was a project guided by the women I was working with, I wanted to step back and follow their journey as it unfolded, this wasn’t a “point your camera at a subject and ask questions” situation. I managed to speak with quite a few survivors but no one was willing to go on camera as they were scared their families may find out, or have it go public. At first Jean didn’t want to either but we became friends and kept in touch. A few years later, as she started to hear more and more rumors of it still happening, she decided to go on the journey with us to educate young women through her story so that they know how to protect themselves.

CA: It took a long time to find Jean’s story. Native people don’t talk about this issue because it is too painful. But the more we talk about it the better. So many women persecute themselves for what happened to them, because the government has never done anything about it.

Dr. Rosenfeld in ‘Amá’. Image by Tessa Angus, Raindog Films

One of the doctors you interviewed, Dr. Rosenfeld, who performs tubal reversals, recalled a very startling comment from his medical intern days. A doctor told him, “if we’re going to pay for them, we’re going to control them”. Would you say “control” is what these mass sterilizations are about?

LT: He is a hero of mine. That guy went through a lot for speaking out – he lost his medical license, he was threatened, had bricks thrown through his windows, and more.

CA: It is also about coercion. The government and the medical community use coercive tools like withholding welfare benefits and food stamps to force Native women into this situation. They perform an unnecessary amount of C-sections, which in turn limits the amount of vaginal births. But it’s not just about controlling these women. The government and people in power want control over land and resources, and the way they do that is by oppressing people, Native women. We are seeing this happen right now with the Trump administration and the way they want to open up the National Parks for prospecting and development. The wealth of the 1% in this country comes largely from natural resources that are found on the land. Denial of healthcare has become a powerful way for them to achieve their goal.

Jean Whitehorse spoke about how in the Native culture, children are considered wealth rather than money or material things. How has she continued to impact other women in her tribe and community who underwent the same treatment by speaking out?

LT: Jean is such an inspiration, as is Yvonne Swann. They not only spoke out but have been touring extensively putting on community screenings throughout the U.S, and also working alongside the badass Canadian Lawyer Alicia Lombard who is handling the Canadian cases of missing and murdered indigenous women. These women are uniting and more survivors are coming forward, creating their own safe spaces to share and be heard.  

CA: Family is number one in the Native culture. And I’m talking about extended family as well, not just nuclear families. What happened to these women is a heinous crime as they were denied the ability to have the families they wanted. People like Jean are encouraging young native women to speak out, ask questions and know the importance of informed consent.

L-R. Producer Charon Aseytoyer, Yvonne Swann, Director Lorna Tucker and Jean Whitehorse at the Santa Barbara Film Festival Premiere of ‘Amá’.

Whether it is Native women being sterilized, immigrant women having their children taken away from them at the US border, or the attack on access to birth control and abortion, it all becomes part of the control narrative. What are your thoughts about this, after making this film?

LT: Exactly that. That was actually what I wanted to say!

CA: It is about power and control.

How do you hope the film will empower other Native women, marginalized women and others when it comes to taking control of their reproductive decisions and dealing with the medical system?

LT: They say knowledge is power. I hope AMA helps unite the survivors (it has been shown on the tour) so they can start to heal. I hope justice happens for the women that have lived through this. The medical side needs a thorough investigation into ALL IHS hospitals but more importantly, I hope it starts a much bigger conversation in America that is way over due.

CA: I hope more young native women see this to know about the history so they can empower themselves to ensure history does not repeat itself.

You can watch ‘Amá’ now on OVID. OVID is available in the U.S. and Canada. New subscribers can sign-up for a free 14-day trial. After that, subscriptions are just $6.99/mo or $69.99 for an annual subscription. Available on multiple devices including iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, Android, Android TV, Roku, Fire TV and web browsers.