Feminist Hero Friday: Midwives at the #NoDAPL Resistance Camp

by Abaki Beck

This week’s feminist heroes are the midwives and women promoting reproductive health at the Dakota Access Pipeline resistance camp on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. For months, thousands of people from across the nation have gathered to camp at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline, which is proposed to run underneath a river that provides the majority of water supply to the reservation. Additionally, the pipeline will go through land considered sacred by the tribe; construction has already destroyed several graves.

The camp has been a site of political resistance to settler-colonialism in several ways: a school has been set up that teaches Lakota language among other subjects, there is a 24-7, volunteer run health clinic, and there is a women’s lodge for community building and education on traditional midwifery. In an interview with Democracy Now, several women and midwives discussed the importance of supporting women’s health in the camps. Caroline Reyes, a midwife, noted the connection between the two issues:

“Sovereignty for indigenous people is only going to come about through the support of women and women’s health, in the same way that we defend and protect Mother Earth is the same way that we need to defend and protect women and the next generations of children being born”

On October 12, the first baby was born in the camp. She was born to Zintkala Mahpiya Wi Blackowl in a traditional Lakota way, alone with her mother in a tipi. Though they were not present at the birth, one of Blackowl’s sister is an indigenous midwife and another is an indigenous doula, both of whom assisted her with prenatal care. Blackowl and her husband have five other children who are also residing at the camp. They arrived at the camp in August, and soon after her arrival, Blackowl noticed something: there was no space specifically for women. She decided to return to her home in Oregon, fundraise for a tipi, and return to build a dedicated women’s space. In an interview with Indian Country Today, she noted:

“I realized that we needed a place, beyond the Moon lodge or the kitchen, where we could council and hold space for each other where we could have those important conversations about how to decolonize ourselves and discuss our new roles as indigenous women.”

Blackowl argues that Native women need to deconstruct and challenge the notion that healing skills should be paid for - and not knowledge learned by all women. There is a long history against of violence against Native women and Native women’s health, in attempts to destroy indigenous family units and community stability. For example, over 3,000 Native women were forcibly sterilized between 1973 and 1976 in Indian Health Services clinics (and some First Nations women in Canada say this is still happening today). Additionally, many Native women lack access to reproductive health care choices. The Hyde Amendment denies federal coverage of abortions, meaning that women who use Indian Health Services are severely limited in their choices. Yuwita Win, a woman at the resistance camp from Cheyenne River, noted in the Democracy Now interview that at her reservation, 90% of births are induced, so the doctor who comes from off-reservation can schedule them. She thinks it’s important for women and families to be connected to the birthing process, and that it helps families both mentally and spiritually. She also argues that because of this disconnection with healing and with the birthing process, many children have issues later in life such as alcohol abuse or drug addiction. Melissa Rose, an Akwesasne Mohawk midwife from Colorado who is at the camp, says that it is also important for those who help families birth babies to be connected to them and to the communities (e.g., not being a non-Native person from off reservation or outside of the community).

They hope that the women’s space can not only be a space of education on reproductive health and healing, but a place to discuss decolonization, matriarchy, and other ways to empower Native women. It is important to remember that environmental exploitation and violence against Native women (including lack of access to health care) are connected. Both are efforts of a settler-colonial nation to disrupt Native lifeways and communities. Fighting for the protection of both ensure that future and current generations are healthy and cared for. This week, we celebrate and bring attention to the amazing women healers, midwives, and water protectors in North Dakota. When women are strong, our nations are strong.