This month is Native American Heritage Month, and like many people across the United States, some Native girls and people with periods struggle to afford period products – and at times have to decide between buying period products and other basic necessities.
Many years ago, I was driving through the southwestern corner of South Dakota – I watched the sprawling prairies change as I entered the Badlands, and then found myself on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The Pine Ridge Reservation is home to the Oglala Lakota Nation, and covers a total land area of 2.1 million acres – making it one of the largest reservations in the United States.
I was blown away by the prices of even the most basic items when I stopped for gas. A bag of chips – usually priced around two dollars – was nearly six dollars on the reservation. Not to mention basic necessities like tampons, pads, and soap, which also had astronomical prices.
However, period products can be prohibitively expensive even in the most urban centers as well. The conversation around Native people and period poverty is often based upon the premise of Native people living “far away” from the rest of society, this simply isn’t the case. In fact, this framing doesn’t even begin to represent the wide-ranging diversity of Native people across the United States.
What is Period Poverty?
Period poverty, or the lack of access to menstrual products or other menstrual health necessities, such as comprehensive menstrual health education, impacts people across America. In a place like Pine Ridge Reservation, which is situation in the poorest county in the US, period poverty is exacerbated by its remote location, inaccessibility to larger stores, and lack of job opportunities.
How Does Period Poverty Impact Native Americans?
A 2017 study found that a box of tampons at a convenience store on the Pine Ridge Reservation cost 86 percent more than at a Walmart 100 miles away. However, you don’t need to live in a rural county or on a reservation to feel the impacts of period poverty. For Native people and others alike, period poverty is a result of financial poverty. In fact, two-thirds of the 16.9 million low-income women in the US could not afford menstrual products in the past year, and half of these people had to make the impossible decision between menstrual products and food.
While the impact of poverty on Native communities is indeed dire, it is important to also shine a light on the vibrant culture, the visionary young people and the persistent efforts of nonprofit organizations who are committed to building a better future for Natives across the US.
What is The Kwek Society?
That’s why I decided to sit down with Eva Marie Carney, a Potowatomi legislator and the founder of The Kwek Society – which means “woman” in the Potawatomi language. Carney described that, before 2018, she was aware of period poverty as “an issue across the globe, but not in the United States.”
Once she became aware of the impact of period poverty on Native people in the US, she started The Kwek Society in 2018 with a goal of “supplying Native students and communities the period products they need to maintain their dignity and celebrate their strength and their moon times.” In numerous Native cultures, “moon time” refers to a person’s menstrual period – considered a time for rest and reflection. In fact, in some tribes, such as the Yurok tribe, people believed the moon time is a time of strength – when menstruators are at the very height of their power.
During trips across New Mexico and Oklahoma, Carney learned that students were unable to attend school because they didn’t have access to affordable period products. She recalled feeling that it was “unconscionable” that a sizable portion of the students in the schools she visited were unable to fully participate in student life.
Early on in her journey Carney realized that no one addressed the unique way that period poverty was impacting Native menstruators, and she decided she was going to do something.
Where The Kwek Society Works
Fast-forward to 2022, and The Kwek Society is working with almost 100 partners, across 15 states, as well as First Nation partners in Canada. When asked whether she thought period poverty was a uniquely Native issue, Carney pointed out that “there is a connection between Natives and period poverty, but [she] also doesn’t believe this is a Native health problem.” She went on to say that the lack of access to period products is a “poverty problem.” This problem is made worse for some of the communities she serves because of very remote locations, where jobs are tight, internet access is limited, and supplies at local stores are “ridiculously priced.”
Eva Marie Carney is certainly one of the Native activists working to build a better future for Native menstruators. And she has not limited her work to provide access to products. Carney is also working to ensure that Native menstruators (as well as all menstruators) are educated about their menstrual cycles, and can celebrate them.
The Kwek Society’s Impact
In the last five years, The Kwek Society has been able to donate 1.2 million products and some 14,000 colorful small moontime bags that have a couple of pads and liners in them. “These bags are meant to show that it’s a positive thing to get your period,” Carney explained. Inside each bag, The Kwek Society places a poem card that reads, “Remember the sky that you were born under, know each of the star’s stories. Remember the moon, know who she is.”
I want to thank Eva and all the folks behind the incredible work of The Kwek Society. The success of this organization wouldn’t be possible without family foundations, such as Native Nations, and individual donors that have made significant financial commitments to this cause. It takes all of us to ensure that all people who menstruate have access to the products they need to maintain their dignity, and even celebrate their moontime/menstruation.
Donate to End Period Poverty Now!
For every 10 products that we sell at Aunt Flow, we donate 1 product to girls and people with periods! We are committed to ensuring that the world is a better place for people with periods! That’s why we got together to pack products for The Kwek Society during our company on-site a few weeks ago!
If you feel called to donate to this cause, please head over to The Kwek Society’s page to DONATE! What a way to support and honor Native American Heritage Month!