A timely inquiry into the treatment of Native women in the Bay Area suffering from tuberculosis in the early 20th century will be the subject of the next edition of the Amah Mutsun Speaker Series on November 6. The lecture series, a joint project of UC Santa Cruz’s American Indian Resource Center and the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, focuses on issues vital to the Indigenous community of Santa Cruz and beyond.
Caitlin Keliiaa, a historian and assistant professor in UC Santa Cruz’s Feminist Studies Department, will be presenting her talk, “Settler Colonialism is a Sickness: How Federal Indian Health Failed Native Women,” a discussion on the young Native women who contracted TB, but received subpar treatment—or no help at all—due to their ethnicity.
“The sad reality is that they weren’t getting the treatment that they needed,” Keliiaa said. “Local hospitals at that time did not want to take Native women, and the Indian Health Service wasn’t a system that had many resources or well-equipped medical staff. Native women should have been able to tap into and benefit from both local and federal hospitals, but that’s not what happened.”
The plight of these young Native women, many of them between ages 14 and 19, should sound familiar to anyone following the news about the current coronavirus pandemic, according to Dr. Keliiaa.
“We all know that because of certain kinds of disparities, whether it’s poverty or race, certain people are going to be more at risk for certain types of illnesses, whether that’s tuberculosis or COVID–19,” she said. “I’m trying to tie that into what this history looks like, and, unfortunately, it’s a very sad picture.”
The picture is even broader than that. Keliiaa’s upcoming talk is adapted from a chapter of her forthcoming book Unsettling Domesticity: Native Women and 20th-Century Federal Indian Policy in the San Francisco Bay Area, which explores the Bay Area Outing Program, an exploitative program that sent Indigenous children living in boarding schools into nearby communities to serve as laborers.
“The goal for these boarding schools was assimilation,” Keliiaa said. “A lot of times we think of that as a soft thing, when in reality, it can be really aggressive. And if you pair that with the fact that Native girls are being put to work in these private homes, with little to no oversight, it is clear that the government willingly placed them in potentially dangerous situations. One of the things I’m always looking at is the root of the labor exploitation of this program that is always peddled as ‘work experience.’”
While Keliiaa’s research touches on decades of inequality that minoritized communities have experienced throughout the U.S., the subject of her book also has a deeply personal resonance. Her grandmother attended Stewart Indian School in Nevada starting at age six and, as part of the Outing Program, began doing domestic work before she relocated to the Bay Area.
“I had to go back a couple of decades in my research to really understand that that’s where it all started,” Dr. Keliiaa said. “I became driven to understand this story.”
Keliiaa’s talk “Settler Colonialism is a Sickness: How Federal Indian Health Failed Native Women” will be held through a Zoom conference call at 1 p.m. on November 6. Registration is required.