Episode 021: Menstrual Equity in Tribal Nations with Eva Marie Carney
Eva Marie Carney is Founder and Board President of the Kwek Society: an organization working to eliminate period poverty in Native schools and communities across the United States. She is a human rights lawyer and an elected legislator of the Shawnee, Oklahoma-based Citizen Potawatomi Nation – of which is also a citizen.
In this episode, Eva dives into her passion for fighting (and shining a light on) menstrual inequities in tribal nations; how the Kwek Society is serving rural, pubescent and un-homed menstruators; and all about the organization’s evolving impact in schools and communities across the country.
- What inspired Eva to become a menstrual equity champion within the Native American community
- The unique and universal factors driving period poverty for Native American menstruators – including financial and resource barriers in rural reservations and lack of free products in schools
- How the Kwek Society is fighting period poverty in Native-majority schools and communities across statelines
- The importance of reaching communities in isolated, hard-to-access areas
- All about the “Berry Fast,” an Ojibwe/Potawatomi tradition that celebrates the beginning of a girl’s menstruation
- How Eva’s role as an elected legislator for the Potawatomi Nation has shaped the Kwek Society’s impact and reach
Eva Marie Carney is The Kwek Society’s Founder and Board President. She holds elected office as a Member of the Legislature of the Shawnee, Oklahoma-based Citizen Potawatomi Nation and works as a human rights lawyer through Just Neighbors, a nonprofit law firm. Eva is a citizen of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and lives in Virginia. She graduated from the University of San Francisco with a BA in history, and received her JD from Stanford Law School. Her two adult children actively support The Kwek Society and their dog Bailey serves as the organization’s Chief of Morale.
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Jessica Williams 0:02
Welcome to the Days for Girls Podcast, a show about breaking barriers for women and girls around the world. I'm your host, Jessica Williams, Chief Communications Officer at Days for Girls International. At Days for Girls, we believe in a world where periods are never a problem. We are on a mission to shatter the stigma and limitations associated with menstruation by increasing access to sustainable period products and menstrual health education for all people with periods.
Jessica Williams 0:34
Eva Marie Carney is The Kwek Society’s Founder and Board President. She holds elected office as a Member of the Legislature of the Shawnee, Oklahoma-based Citizen Potawatomi Nation and works as a human rights lawyer through Just Neighbors, a nonprofit law firm. Eva is a citizen of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and lives in Virginia. Eva graduated from the University of San Francisco with a BA in history, and received her JD from Stanford Law School. This is a really great interview about the impact of period poverty on the Native American community in the United States. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Now, let's go on to the show.
Jessica Williams 1:15
Welcome, Eva, to the Days for Girls Podcast. This is so cool to have you here. Thanks for joining us.
Eva Marie Carney 1:21
Thanks for having me. I'm really happy to be here.
Jessica Williams 1:23
Yeah, for sure. So you're really impressive. You're doing a lot of different things. And so I feel like we could go so many ways today. But what I really want to focus on is that you founded the Kwek Society, and you are the Board President, and you're also a citizen of the Potawatomi Nation. And I want to, you know, really dive into your work with the Native American community in your local area – you live in Virginia, right?
Eva Marie Carney 1:54
Jessica Williams 1:54
Right. Okay, cool. So let's start by maybe talking about how period poverty became an important issue for you.
Eva Marie Carney 2:03
So, you know, for for a long time now, I had been alerted to the issue of period poverty outside of the United States, you know, and knew about the work of groups like dDays for Girls. But I did not have any understanding of what was going on within the United States, actually. So this was probably starting about three and a half to four years ago. I became alerted to the period poverty issues in the US, and particularly those on some of the most remote reservation lands in the United States. I read an article in The Huffington Post, actually, about a group of girls attending school in South Dakota, I guess it was. And during the interview, there were some very disturbing statements that were made by some of the students about the fact that they were missing school, up to a week, every month, because they had their periods and they could not afford and couldn't access supplies. Because they were living in pretty remote areas where convenience stores were really the place where they could best obtain supplies. And sometimes those weren't on the shelves. And if they were on the shelves, they were really marked up. And, you know, money was hard to come by. So that became my entry to the issue for Native American populations.
And as you mentioned in the introduction, I am a dual citizen of the United States and a citizen of the Potawatomi Nation. We are now in Oklahoma. But we were a people that were living up north around the Great Lakes. So, you know, I have a strong Native identity. And I'm also a trained lawyer. So as I thought about this issue and did a little bit of online research, I realized that there were were no groups that were focused exclusively on period poverty issues in Native schools, Native-majority schools and in Native American communities. And I thought, well, you know, I should do this. One of the reasons I wanted to do it was because I felt that I had a little bit more sensitivity, perhaps, then maybe some others who were not themselves Native American, about approaching these issues and ensuring that there was always a sense of respect for particular cultural beliefs or needs or desires within a particular Native American community. And I also had resources and, you know, some connections within other tribal communities, tribal governments, folks that I could turn to – to provide us both connections to schools and communities who needed our help. And hopefully, contributions or donations, or you know, introductions to others who might help us with the financial need that was obviously going to be part of this, in order to get this done. So that's kind of the origin story in a nutshell.
Jessica Williams 5:40
Great. And can you talk about what you see Native American women and girls experiencing in your communities? Maybe some stories or some examples you could share of what their period poverty looks like?
Eva Marie Carney 5:56
I don't think it looks any different from anyone else's actually. And I say that, other than the fact that there are, you know…I started by mentioning that the piece I had read was about a very rural reservation. So very rural reservation students, you know, would have issues potentially with access because of not having sufficient funds, not being near, you know, any big box stores or other places where supplies might be bought at more affordable prices, and potentially, maybe not even having internet access so that they could order supplies if they needed them. But out of that context, you know, really what we've found is that, oh, it's the same as anywhere. It's the same here. I live in Virginia, there are very few Native Americans – there are a lot of Native Americans here, but there's not a presence of particular Native tribes. That was long ago. And yeah, the settler colonialism, etc. There were natives here, but there are not native communities here. But there are people living, you know, right near me who have issues with affording period supplies, because they don't have have financial resources.
So what I've come to understand is that any student who qualifies for free lunch in the public schools, may, in fact, have an issue with affording supplies. And that's true for our students. So we are now in… I think it's eight states? We are providing to a boarding school in Salem, Oregon, obviously not rural, to students in Oklahoma City public schools, to students up at a school in Maine, pretty poor part of Maine. And then all through New Mexico, into Arizona, we have students who are in Wyoming, you know, I'd say that they're students that want to succeed. And this is – they want this to be a background issue for them, having their periods. They aren't generally students who are, you know, raising their hands and telling everyone about period poverty. They just want to have supplies, so that they can go about their studies and, you know, be part of their families and their communities. So they're really just like us, and they are us. That is one of the messages I think that we at the Kwek Society like to sound, which is that – look, you know, Native Americans are not exotic folks that, you know, you go to a powwow to see. We're still here, we're all around you. We may be your neighbors, we may be your friends.
They're just like all the other students that that needs supplies. One thing I would add is that because of COVID, and the fact that some of the schools that we were supporting were closed, and have continued to be closed, we've done a little bit of pivoting and are also now supplying Native women's groups: one place that supports our un-homed relatives in Albuquerque, the Pueblo Action Alliance; a number of different sort of community centers, where we obviously have access to folks, pandemic notwithstanding, who need our supplies. And so we've expanded beyond just talking about Native students, to talking about Native students and communities which, you know, I'm very pleased that we have had an opportunity to expand in that way. And in fact, Days for Girls and its founder, Celeste, were instrumental in us getting large quantities of masks and other supplies, including period supplies, to Native communities in New Mexico and Arizona, on the Navajo reservation. I think we started that around April to May of last year, some of the really scary pandemic times. And I had gotten a phone call from Celeste who knew the work that we were doing on the Navajo reservation, and saying that she was ready to have your organization turn from some of its manufacturing of your reusable products, to mask making. And that was just a really terrific blessing for the folks that we assist. We will always be grateful for that.
Jessica Williams 11:13
Yeah, well, I love how you talk about, it's no different, right. And I hear from a lot of people that they think period poverty is something that just doesn't happen in the United States. And it happens to people of all walks of life, you know, from a variety of different ethnicities and backgrounds. And so I think it's important that we shine a light on that in the United States, so that people are aware that this is not an “over there” problem. It's a “right here in your community” issue.
Eva Marie Carney 11:50
Yeah, I mean, the thing about what we're doing, the folks that we're helping, is that – particularly in the rural schools, in the reservation schools, they don't have close by, better off people to assist them. And that's why we continue to support them and to mail…. to source period supplies from our donors, wherever they might be, and then have those sort of dropshipped in effect to their communities. Because they don't have neighbors and fellow citizens close by to be able to support them. But certainly, you know, a lot of people think about period poverty as being something that is a homeless persons situation or incarcerated women situation. But you know, as you're saying Jessica – it can be anyone who, you know, does not have the financial resources to buy what are very expensive supplies on a recurring basis. You know it's a monthly need. And so you might be able to make it the beginning of a month, but maybe by the end of the month… if your period comes at the beginning of the month, but if it's at the end of the month, and you've spent your funds on groceries and rent, you're out of luck.
Jessica Williams 13:45
So let's pivot and talk about some of the beautiful traditions in the Native American community around women and girls. Some of the ceremonies that you that you hold, because I know that celebrating menstruation, and a woman's rite of passage, is an important part of the community. So is there one in particular that stands out to you that you'd like to talk about?
Eva Marie Carney 14:16
Sure, but just one small kind of correction on that. Just because I don't mean that I am, you know, professing to talk about all Native people. I certainly am not – there are so many Native communities and so many different Native beliefs, even just the federally recognized Native Nations are numbered in the high four hundreds, I think it is now. And there are many, many other communities that don't have that federal recognition. So, I don't know really have an understanding of what the beliefs are for, you know, any particular community other than those with whom we've worked, and where women have shared information with us. But one of the things that we are trying to do – if you go to our website, kweksociety.org, you'll see that we've got a section called traditional teachings. And so far, I think we've focused on three different sets of community beliefs. And the the one that I'll talk about is going to be the Ojibwe and Potawatomi tradition, which is my own – I have a connection to that. And that's called the Berry Fast.
I don't know about you, but my favorite food and all the world are berries, and this recognizes the idea of berries being luscious, and delicious, and something that we want to absolutely devour when they're available. And so the Berry Fast is a tradition that takes place when a young person starts her menstruation, which is that she is, you know, instructed to fast from berries for a year. And this is something that within her community, it's well known that she is doing this. So I find it interesting that while many Western societies sort of have a taboo on discussing the issue of menstruation, that is not the case for my ancestors. And for traditional people that follow this now, the community knows that the girl is on her Berry Fast. And in fact, you know, during different ceremonies or community events, she's the one that's invited to pass around the berries, to serve berries to others, but isn't, you know, to have those berries herself. And it's not, this is not something about punishing that young person. Instead, it's the variety of different things that are that are being taught in this context. I like to think of the sort of the discipline piece of it, which is that, you know, growing into adulthood one needs to have discipline, to control the desire to gorge on those berries or whatever. To have those berries when they're so, so delicious, and in season and beautiful. And also this idea of being in service to others, to be serving berries to those in your community, but not having them yourself. So that's one of the the traditional teachings that is around having one's first period, and I invite listeners to go onto our website and check out the others that we have up there. And this is going to be an ongoing thing where we want to build up this repository of teachings that are very positive about the fact of coming into puberty, you know, coming into womanhood. So just one of several that are up there right now.
Yeah, yeah. I love that. Because there is so much shame and stigma around this. And it's really good to have that kind of warmth and celebration and positivity around menstruation. Agree. Yeah. So the Kwek Society – tell us where that name comes from?
Sure. I'd love to. So it's K-W-E-K. And it's pronounced a little bit differently. We can't really say the Kwek Society. If you were speaking in the Pottawatomie language, you would say “kwek.” For women, “kwe” means a single woman. My native name is Ojindas Kwe which means: “ojindas” means bluebird and “kwe” is woman. And so I wanted to connect a lot of people to our organization. I picked Society as a way to reflect that everyone that is contributing to us in some way is a member of our group. And that certainly includes, you know, all sexes, all sexual preferences, you don't have to be a woman to be a member of the society. You just need to support our cause, in one of many myriad of ways. So it just really reflect that, in effect. We're family and we're supporting this issue that, you know, is something that particularly applies to girls and women.
Jessica Williams 20:28
Hmm, yeah. So you are a lawyer, you're a human rights lawyer. And I'm curious how the work that you're doing with the Kwek Society intersects with your work as a lawyer. I know you work with a nonprofit law firm. So I'm curious if there's any overlap there for you.
Eva Marie Carney 20:50
Um, well, not really. Other than, you know, this recognition from doing humanitarian immigration law for some time, now that having period supplies is a dignity issue. And I think human rights. And the fact that this issue affects half the population, I just find it makes it even more alarming and more important to work toward. The fact that I was a lawyer, I think, meant that I wasn't intimidated about forming a corporation and getting the bylaws and all those crazy things that one has to do to get an organization up off the ground. Recruiting a board, and we just filed our first formal IRS tax filing, because we finally got to a level of actually having sufficient contributions that we had to do that. For that I hired an accountant CPA to assist us though. But I mean, I think being being a lawyer just meant that I, you know, could navigate some of the legal issues surrounding starting the organization. But I have a another job, which is I'm also an elected legislator for the Potawatomi Nation people. And that, I think, has informed this work as well. As I just mentioned earlier on in this podcas, it has given me access to some other tribal leaders, and to a network of Native people who have been instrumental in introducing us to communities that either support our work or that need our help. And that has been just terrific. And there's certainly quite a few o citizens, Potawatomi Nation citizens who follow our work, and actively support us.
One of the things that we do is provide our students and community members with something we call moontime bags, which are small cloth bags that are sewn by our supporters…our citizen Pottawattamie Nation elder women, who enjoy sewing and enjoy making that kind of contribution to us. But those bags hold a few pads and liners or some tampons and liners, and we send them particularly to the unhomed relatives in Albuquerque. Because they're a great way to hold a few supplies and have them in a purse or a backpack or bag when you're kind of, you know, between homes on the road or whatever. They are also used among schools teaching puberty education, and distributed out to the students as part of that, you know, introduction to what will be happening to their bodies. And making sure that the students have what they need, so that they can put these pretty cloth bags that don't scream, “I have period supplies!” in them in a locker or you know, on their person, just have them ready should they get their periods at school for the first time…and not want to run off to the nurse and make it be so obvious as to what's going on. Because we found that it's not a shame issue. It's a…sometimes it's viewed as a very private moment for a lot of the students and you know, they really don't want to get teased by their fellow students. We provide those moontime bags. We also put in the bags a pretty card that has a short portion of a poem by Joy Harjo about the moon. It's just a pretty little gift, we think of giving a gift to all the students of the bag, with the pretty bag with the supplies in it, and the moon, being a way in which we are telling them that it's time to celebrate when one has one's period. And go, here's the supplies that can help you do that and make you feel good about yourself while you're doing it.
Jessica Williams 25:44
Mm hmm. Yeah, they're there. I've seen photos of them, they're very beautiful.
Eva Marie Carney 25:51
Two Pottawatomie citizen women, two sisters, designed those bags for us, sort of came up with that first pattern. And the pattern is up on our website with a little video that that they put together for us. And, you know, I think we have maybe, you know, 10 to 15 different sewers making the bags from all over the country. From Oklahoma, from Ohio, Tennessee, women in California just started and then some people that are just here in my local community, who are not Native, but love to sew. And you know, put some ads out in some of the local neighborhood webs, whatever platforms like “Next Door” about what we're doing. And it's just been really gratifying to see the number of people who who are stepping up and even just dropping things off on my front porch with a lovely note saying, you know, we love what you're doing, we want to help…um, let us know what else we can do to help. And a lot of those same sewists have also made masks for us. So that's a lot of the work that we've done, in addition to period supply supplying, has been to make sure that the student and community members are safe. So we've got lots of masks out to the communities and I suspect, unfortunately, that's something that's going to continue on for some time now.
Jessica Williams 27:40
So if people want to help the society and want to support the work that you do, what are some different ways that they can get involved?
Eva Marie Carney 27:52
There's many, many ways. Though if you're listening to this, and you have a community or connection to an individual who may be teaching in a Native-majority school, or working with Native people, we would love to hear from you. If those folks need supplies, we are ready to help – we are in a continuous expansion mode because of the generosity of our donors, and because of the need that is pushing us forward. So that's one thing. We certainly accept donations of product, you know, tampons, we don't send out super tampons, we just don't really believe in their safety particularly. So regular tampons, pads, liners, cotton underwear, and all girl's and women's sizes. We also send out puberty education books. So there's an Amazon smile account that we run…that has a list of items that you can purchase and have sent to us if that's something that you're interested in. Of course, we accept donations through a wide variety of platforms. And all that information is on our website under ‘how to help.' We've had different school groups, universities, Daughters of American Revolution groups and other affinity groups host pad drives and then contact us and ask us where it's best to send the supplies directly, and that works out really well. If you wanted to do something like that. I think there's some other ideas as well on the website if folks want to take a look there.
So it's kweksociety.org and the menu top I think is is the prompt to something like ‘how to help.' So starting there. It's also great if people visit us on, look at our Facebook page regularly, we are an Instagram. We are also on Twitter and share our posts and information about what we're doing with others. Because you never know with whom that message might get relayed, and you know, there are more students and communities that we might be able to help. So we're just really appreciative of all efforts to tell people what we're doing. As far as I can tell, we continue to be the one organization that is focused on period poverty issues for Native people.
Jessica Williams 30:52
Amazing. Well, we will link to the website in the show notes for everyone. Could just tell everybody the website?
Eva Marie Carney 31:01
Sure, it's kweksociety.org.
Jessica Williams 31:11
Great, awesome. And if they want to connect with you personally, is that the best way to do that as well?
Eva Marie Carney 31:16
Yeah, or you can send an email to us at the firstname.lastname@example.org. So that's all lowercase, all one word. And there's also a contact us page on the website, which is a way to get information to me as well. And look, I'm all over social media. So if you look for Eva Marie Carney and want to friend me, I'd be happy to do that. Send me a message. Also, I had mentioned, we're on LinkedIn as well. If you're on LinkedIn, you can take a look at what we've got going up there too.
Jessica Williams 31:56
Awesome. Well, like I said, we'll put all those links in the show notes for our listeners to find. Thank you so much for your time, and the incredible work that you're doing. We are so grateful.
Eva Marie Carney 32:08
Thank you, Jessica. And I really appreciate Days for Girls' support over a long time. I guess it's been like two and a half years since I first met Celeste? And from the moment we met, she said, you know, we want to help – we will be helping. And that has been the case. So so thanks for showcasing us and thanks to your listeners for their time.
Jessica Williams 32:31
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