One woman’s campaign for safe sex in Navajo Nation

Poverty, geography and stigma combine to turn parts of Indian Country into ‘condom desert’

Keioshiah Peter sees safe sex as another sovereignty issue for Native Americans — sovereignty of their bodies.
Jason Asenap

SHIPROCK, New Mexico — She walked past the rows of folding chairs and into the street with the rest of the parade. Motorcyclists rolled slowly down the street on their machines, tossing handfuls of candy to packs of children. The sound of a high school marching band rat-tat-tat-tatted down the street as the horn section struggled to stay in tune. Then a moment of relative quiet descended on the Northern Navajo Nation Fair Parade. She reached into her bag, produced a handful of condoms and held them up for the crowd to see.

“Free condoms!” yelled Keioshiah Peter. “Protect our bodies, protect our people!”

A few young men giggled at the offer, some older onlookers bristled, and still others held up their hands, took what Peter had to offer and thanked her.

“Free condoms!” hollered Peter again.

A spectator at the Northern Navajo Nation Fair Parade last fall holds up a sign for The Rez Condom tour, a student-organized safe sex campaign.
Jason Asenap

The Northern Navajo Nation Fair Parade was in its 103rd year as it made its way down the main drag of Shiprock, New Mexico, last fall. For Peter, it was the second year for the Rez Condom Tour — a student-organized sex education event centered on promoting sexual health and expression on the Navajo Nation. Its primary feature: giving out safe sex supplies and educating the public on how to use them.

“Why?” a man yelled angrily as Peter passed by. “Give me an example of why!”

“So we can protect our bodies and protect our people by creating —”

The man shook his head in an irritated fashion and shushed her.

“Who is the one that gave you permission to give out stuff like this?” he asked as he pointed to the condoms.

“It’s coming from the youth, and it’s coming from an organization —”

The man interrupted her again with a wave of his hand. One of his companions urged him to let Peter continue walking. Then he shooed her away with a dismissive hand gesture.

“You just don’t do that in front of little kids!” the man yelled after her.

“OK,” Peter said as she walked away. Then with renewed vigor she yelled, “Free condoms!”

STDs on the rise

The Navajo Nation is bigger in area than West Virginia, with towns as large as Shiprock, New Mexico, population 8,295, and as small as the frontier-style hamlet of Tselakai Dezza, Utah, population 171, deep in the Navajo Nation. However, grocery stores, gas stations, health clinics and other places to buy items like condoms that are common elsewhere are few and far between.

“It’s very hard to get condoms that are cheap, pricewise, and of high quality on the rez because it’s like a condom desert,” said Peter. “Being able to access things like fresh food, vegetables, fruits and condoms — those are really hard to get.”

At the same time, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) have been on the rise in Indian Country for years, and American Indians and Alaska Natives continue to face the highest rates of mortality from AIDS than any other ethnic group.

In places like the Navajo Nation, any attempt to keep sexually safe and healthy can run into several obstacles, including geography and poverty as well as a reticence to discuss taboo topics like sex.

“Even if you can get to a place that sells condoms, then you may not have enough money to buy them because your priority is food for the week or you need that extra gallon of gas,” said Alexander White Tail Feather, the executive director of the National Native American AIDS Prevention Center.

In 2010 the Centers for Disease Control estimated that HIV infection was the ninth leading cause of death for Native people ages 25 to 34. In 2010 rates of gonorrhea among American Indians and Alaska Natives was four times the rate among whites, chlamydia had increased nearly 8 percent from the previous year, and syphilis remained 1.2 times the rate for whites. Among Native women, those disparities are even higher.

“These high rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea didn’t happen overnight,” said Lisa Neel, an analyst with the Indian Health Service HIV program. “They’re diseases that count on humans to be people.”


Since 2011, the Indian Health Service has increased screening for HIV, STDs and hepatitis C at its facilities at the behest of the CDC as well as the United States Preventive Services Task Force. However, barriers to care continue to exist, ranging from access and poverty to mistrust of government health care facilities like the Indian Health Service, which serves over a third of the nation’s estimated 3.7 million American Indians and Alaska Natives.

“American Indian and Alaska Native gay and bisexual men also face culturally based stigma and confidentiality concerns that might make it harder for them to access education or testing,” said Neel, “especially those who live in very rural communities or reservations where there’s a small population.”

“Beyond statistics — treatment, medication, access to supplies — you can have all those things in front of you, but if you feel stigmatized, if you feel ashamed of your experiences or of your body, if you feel judged by your community for what you’re going through, you’re not going to be in a place to access support,” said Krista Williams of the Canadian-based Native Youth Sexual Health Network. “Stigma, shame and judgment — those are the barriers.”

Another is history.

In 2009 the Canadian Minister of Health reported that HIV/AIDS among the nation’s indigenous people had to be considered in the context of “colonization and historical and persistent marginalization.” Health officials identified poverty, geographic isolation, drug use, limited health care access and a lack of social and political power as drivers of the epidemic. Except for marginalization, history and colonization, the CDC more or less listed the same factors driving infection rates among Native people in the United States.

In other words, for indigenous communities, throwing condoms at the problem won’t change the larger systemic and structural issues associated with the lingering effects of forced assimilation of Native people through religion and education.

How do and did our ancestors see sexuality and bodies, and how has that been influenced by religion, especially when there is so much shame?” asked Williams.

In the past, colonial authorities and the U.S. and Canadian governments confiscated indigenous people’s lands and resources without consent. Today, demanding input in the process, putting safeguards in place and fighting back have become acts of defiance and expressions of sovereignty. In the realm of sex, indigenous activists are applying the same values: Does everyone involved know his or her HIV/STD status? Will condoms be used? Are all parties happy with engaging in sexual activity?

“What we’re talking about is body sovereignty,” said Williams.

Tough battle

Of course, this is easier said than done. For volunteers and activists like Keioshiah Peter, stubborn views on sex remain one of the biggest barriers to having conversations about safe sex practices and promoting the use of materials that could have big effects on rates of HIV/AIDS and other STDs in her community.

“Being out there with my own sexuality, being out there with a handful of condoms, it’s sometimes hard to have people take me seriously,” she said. “They think I’m promiscuous, or they think that I’m looking for multiple partners, and they make certain assumptions about me that are untrue.”

A line of men in cowboy hats made their way along the Northern Navajo Nation Fair Parade route on horseback, carrying the flags of the Navajo Nation, Arizona, New Mexico and the United States.

“Free condoms,” yelled Peter, stepping out of the way of the horsemen and handing condoms to those with outstretched hands. “Protect out bodies, protect our people!”

One man in a wide-brimmed black Stetson and a tan vest called out to her from atop his horse.

“Do you have an extra large?” asked the man.

“It’s not for the horse!” retorted Peter.

“It’s for me,” replied the man with a leer.

Peter laughed politely, then turned back to the crowd and held up the condoms.

“Hey,” said the man. “Come up here.”

The man patted the backside of his horse to show where Peter could sit and she shot him a look that should have cut his throat as crisply as a celery stalk.

“That’s sexual harassment,” she yelled.

The rider grumbled, dug his heels into his horse’s side and rejoined the parade.

By noon along one-and-a-half miles of Shiprock streets, Keioshiah Peter and volunteers handed out over 6,000 condoms, female condoms, dental dams and personal lube packets to Northern Navajo Nation Fair Parade spectators.

Pending funding, the Rez Condom Tour volunteers will begin their third year on the Navajo Nation in June. Although in August, 22-year-old Peter will begin studying for a masters degree in American Studies at the University of New Mexico. 

“I want to give back to my community, I want to be able to talk about sex with my peers, and I want to be able to create safe spaces,” said Peter. “Sometimes that’s hard.”

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