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Native American Heritage Month: Charon Asetoyer

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“Native women will not stand by and allow the US Government to define our reproductive rights, nor will we stand by an allow them to decide the size or gender characteristics of our families.  Reproductive rights are rights of individuals and are up to individuals to define for themselves. We must never turn over the gifts given to us by the creator to be defined for us.  We will continue the endless struggle against the colonial government’s perpetration of genocide against our Peoples.”

– Charon Asetoyer

Charon Asetoyer is an award-winning, nationally-recognized Comanche activist and longtime women’s health advocate, who helped found the Native American Community Board and the Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center. We are excited to highlight the life and work of Charon Asetoyer for our first post celebrating Native activists and leaders during Native American Heritage Month.

At just age 16, Asetoyer brought together students of all races and ethnicities at her San Jose high school and led a school-wide sit-in to protest the fact that their only lunch option – a vending machine – offered food that contained shards of glass or strands of hair. With all the students on board, Asetoyer prepared her fellow classmates to serve as spokespeople and called the local media. By the end of that same week, the students were enjoying an established hot-lunch program on their campus. With this first successful attempt at activism under her belt, Asetoyer realized the power of collective organizing – and she has since gone on to apply this same approach to activism around women’s health, indigenous peoples’ rights, and domestic violence. [1]

Asetoyer left high school in the late 60s to run her own boutique in San Francisco. In that time, she witnessed the anti-Vietnam War protests and riots that flooded the streets and listened to the flurry of intellectual and philosophical discussions happening in the city’s cafés. Coming of age during this period of intense cultural upheaval inspired Asetoyer to become an agent of change, and she leveraged her instinctual knack for organizing and her network to make a difference. [2]

In 1985, Asetoyer founded the Native American Community Board (NACB), which took on women, children, and fetal alcohol syndrome as its inaugural issue. Three years later, NACB established the Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center (NAWHERC), which Asetoyer continues to direct today. The organization, under Asetoyer’s direction, advocates for indigenous women’s rights and related policy on local, regional, national, and international levels – and in 2015, finally helped push through a change in Indian Health Service policy to provide over-the-counter emergency contraceptives to Native American women. [3]

Looking closely at the leading coalitions of indigenous women and women of color in the U.S. and internationally, one would find that Asetoyer is involved in almost every single one. She participated in the United Nations’ Working Group on Indigenous Populations and helped to found the Working Group’s Committee on Health. She has also served on the Boards of the American Indian Center, National Women’s Health Network, Indigenous Women’s Network, and EPA’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Committee. To top it off, Asetoyer was appointed by President Clinton to serve on the National Advisory Council for Health and Human Services. [4]

Despite the numerous accolades she has received – including the Ms. Foundation’s “Woman Of Vision Award,” United Nations Distinguished Services Award, Jessie Bernard Wise Women Award, and Bread and Roses Award – Asetoyer feels there is still much more to achieve. She continues to write extensively on indigenous women’s health and reproductive justice issues and advocate for environmental justice and the Native American community. [5] We at RHAP are inspired by Asetoyer’s tireless efforts to make sure that the needs of indigenous women are satisfied and their reproductive health is prioritized and protected.

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