Why Many Native American Girls Skip School When They Have Their Periods
“They shouldn’t feel like they’re being punished for being a girl.”
Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, S.D. ― Dominique Amiotte, 17, always makes sure to keep a few extra tampons in her locker. It’s not much, but it’s enough to encourage at least some of her struggling friends to come to school when they have their periods.
About half of Amiotte’s girlfriends can’t afford tampons or sanitary pads. As a result, when they menstruate, they’ll skip school for as long as a week. This can lead them to fall behind in class, contributing to the already abysmal graduation rates on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. There are no official records on how many of the young women at the reservation’s 13 schools have felt the consequences of this issue, but individuals we spoke to say it’s an inescapable part of everyday life.
“It makes me angry,” Amiotte told HuffPost unflinchingly while seated in an empty classroom at the Crazy Horse School, where there are 70 girls enrolled in middle or high school classes.
It takes a lot to rattle teenagers who have grown up on the sprawling reservation, which abuts the sacred Black Hills and the craggy Badlands. Oglala Lakota County ― which encompasses most of the reservation’s 3,469 square miles ― is the third-poorest county in the United States. It’s home to the Oglala Lakota, a tribe that’s part of the Sioux people.
Per capita income is $9,150 and 44 percent of residents in this rural area live in poverty. There are so few jobs that getting work usually means heading about 100 miles to Rapid City, the nearest city, or leaving the state entirely.
Youngsters here grow up fast, confronting some of life’s harshest realities before they’re even old enough to transition out of a car seat.
Children here learn to get by without such basics as central heat, even when temperatures drop to -25 degrees. Alcoholism and teen suicide are rampant on the reservation, and rates for graduation and life expectancy are devastatingly low.
For many women and girls not having access to tampons and pads cuts to the heart of another issue: gender rights.
“They shouldn’t feel like they’re being punished for being a girl,” said Julia Chipps, the nurse at the Crazy Horse School.
After a young student lost her grandmother, who was her primary caretaker, she told Chipps that she was considering getting pregnant. That way, she wouldn’t have to worry about buying tampons for a while. Some girls stock up on toilet paper at school to use as makeshift pads. It’s not uncommon to see women on the reservation walking around wearing pants stained with blood, Chipps said.
Girls stream in and out of the nurse’s office throughout the day to get a spare tampon, pad or dose of Midol pain reliever tablets. Chipps spends about $60 every other month to stock her office at the school with feminine products and pain relievers for students, but it’s not enough to keep up with the girls’ needs.
When girls return to school for the 2017 fall semester, Crazy Horse will have a bigger stockpile of free tampons and pads, thanks to a partnership of nonprofits that began shipping products to the school in July. Such programs are unusual on the reservation though, according to Bonnie LaDeaux, a student adviser at Crazy Horse.