Midwives At Standing Rock Aren’t Going Anywhere
By Katie Toth
We arrive at Oceti Sakowin camp, next to Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and about two miles north of Cannon Ball, North Dakota, at a moment of transition. It’s Thursday, December 8, and just five days ago, the U.S. Army denied Energy Transfer Partners the easement they needed to keep building a pipeline through the sacred land of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.
It remains a temporary victory. The corps will need to complete an environmental impact statement before deciding whether the pipeline, slated to carry crude oil from the Bakken oil fields in the north to existing pipelines in Illinois, can continue. Some on the ground fear a Trump administration will do all it can to speed up the statement or push the pipeline through. Meanwhile, a brutal snowstorm is expected to blow through the Dakotas, and by the time we arrive, many have been encouraged to leave before the weather gets even worse.
“We need to go home,” says David Archambault, the Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, in a letter after the easement was denied. “A new administration will not easily be able to reverse Sunday’s historic decision. . . . This decision is everything we had asked for: a non-granting of the easement, initiating an Environmental Impact Study, and suggestive of a reroute. We got it!”
“We deeply appreciate all the people who supported us with their presence, but . . . if the camp stays where it is currently located, people are risking their lives. The current weather is severe, making travel impossible. If the camp stays, we run a risk of further provocation from local law enforcement. . . . The longer the camp stays, the greater risk we run of seeing further violence at the hands of law enforcement and potential injury to our supporters.”
Folks at Oceti Sakowin seem divided over whether or not to take that advice.
Elders and children have already been evacuated. Most others are leaving as well, trying not to become a burden as winter weather escalates. But a select few — less than 2,000 were at Oceti Sakowin by the time we arrived, down from more than 10,000 reported at its peak — are bearing down and preparing supplies to stay through the winter. Some people are building permanent structures and sheds to keep equipment out of the elements. Others are chopping and trucking in firewood. Some are staying to clean up the inevitable mess after thousands of people have come and gone.
As the camp changes course, one tent forms a refuge for the space between what’s now and what’s next. It’s the midwifery yurt — and it’s not going anywhere soon.
“We are aware the order by the Chairman has been given to vacate the camp. Whether or not we personally agree with that is beyond the point,” says Wicanhpi Iyotan Win, 26, a Dakota midwife who works in the Pezutazizi K’api Makoce reservation. Speaking over the phone from Minnesota, where she remains one of the key midwives making decisions and coordinating volunteers on the ground, Wicanhpi says, “It is our holy obligation to be among the last to leave. When the last person vacates camp, I’m sure all the medics and healers and midwives will follow suit.”
The yurt smells of herbs and honey, and when we enter, a cackling wood stove and padded walls keep it warm — not the “less cold than the -14 degree winds outside” warmth of other tents, but a “warm enough to make your glasses and your camera lens fog up” kind of warm. The midwifery yurt started in early October, only a few weeks before Standing Rock’s first baby was born in the camp, to a Lakota mother who reportedly gave birth on her own as part of her Indigenous tradition.
The yurt is full of blankets and Christmas lights. One midwife, Melissa Rose, offers us some hot tea “with immune support” because we look so cold that she’s starting to worry about our wellbeing.
The phone I use to record has stopped working; in this inclement weather, its battery drains within minutes.
“If that’s what the cold is doing to your equipment,” Rose says, “imagine what it’s doing to your face.”
Rose, 40, is Akwesasne Mohawk. She tells me that motherhood has always been philosophically tied to the environment — both are about creating space to let life thrive and keep it safe from pollutants. Environmental chemicals like mercury or lead hit a fetus the hardest, and air and water pollution can also affect birth outcomes.
The yurt is managed by a group of Indigenous and ally midwives, Rose says. It started when they learned a group of medics were taking care of wounded and sick people at the camp, but there were no spaces for women’s health care.
“Pregnant women and babies should have their own space,” she says. “Because they’re not sick. It’s not a medical condition. It’s a physiological, normal process.”
While Western midwifery focuses on a brief period of pre-natal delivery and post-partum care, Indigenous midwifery tends to women more broadly. At Standing Rock that means the yurt offers tampons and pads and helps women deal with UTIs, Wicanhpi later tells me. The Standing Rock yurt has also become a space for responding to mental health issues because midwives “are used to holding space . . . and maintaining a sense of calm” in difficult situations, she says. “We are not just baby catchers. That’s not . . . Indigenous midwifery and it’s not super practical in an environment like Standing Rock.”
Outside the yurt, we meet Carolina Reyes. Reyes arrived at camp to act as a midwife, but the community organizer of 15 years quickly found herself also handling logistics on site. When we meet her, we speak for about five minutes before she’s called on a radio to organize a truck that needs to be loaded up with unnecessary supplies as the camp starts downsizing.
I ask if things are always this intense; she says this is nothing. “I’m calm,” she tells me.
Between planning a pickup spot and giving a muscular crew their marching orders, Reyes explains why this place was important to her.
“I was born in Colombia, South America, and so many of us there are a mix — I call it being a mutt of colonization,” she says. “The trajectory of colonization is such that many of us are now completely disconnected through our ancestry [and don’t] have any knowledge of indigenous blood that runs through our bodies because of assimilation — and ethnic cleansing, rape, and genocide.”
“It’s not just one pipeline: It’s a system of colonization that has for centuries brought death and destruction. Its goal is total domination, and the Indigenous people of this continent and of South America have been the victims for too long.”
Reyes points to the 1960s and 1970s, when at least one in four women were forcibly sterilized without consent by Indian Health Services — often when they thought they were being treated for other procedures, like appendicitis.
“That’s an atrocity of genocide. There are aunties and mothers who had their organs taken out,” she says. “That’s fucked up. That’s fucked up.”
“Even if IHS is no longer routinely forcibly sterilizing women there’s still a system of domination of women’s bodies that affects their experience giving birth,” Reyes adds. “Nothing is benign. I just want women to have more options.”
The question of what’s going to happen at Oceti Sakowin still hangs in the air, but Rose and other midwives will be here to see the change through to its conclusion.
“I think . . . this movement and historical occupation set some precedents for Indigenous sovereignty that we will maybe not understand fully for a long long time,” she says.
The camp is in a unique space: It’s not technically part of the reservation, but it sits on land covered by a treaty the Lakota people signed with the United States government in the 1850s. After that treaty was signed, American settlers steadily bit into the land and drew up states until what was left for the Lakota looked like holes in swiss cheese.
Rose says Oceti Sakowin not only resisted a pipeline, but also took some of that unceded territory back — and that some Lakota people have no plans to leave the land that was always theirs.
“It may be time for allies to move on to the next frontline,” she says. “But this land has been reclaimed.”
Lead image: Carolina Reyes directs volunteers outside the medical-tent complex at Oceti Sakowin camp. (Credit: Evan Simko-Bednarski)