A baby girl born October 12 at a water protector camp near Standing Rock Sioux Reservation has infused new meaning into the struggle against the Dakota Access oil pipeline.

Birthing the Sacred: Baby Born at Water Protector Camp Bears Hope

Mary Annette Pember

For Zintkala Mahpiya Wi Blackowl, Sky Bird Woman, the birth of her baby girl at one of the water protector camps in North Dakota was the ultimate act of resistance.

Baby, as yet unnamed, was born early in the morning in a tipi on October 12 directly into her mother’s arms as their family slept nearby. The family’s tipi is pitched alongside the Cannonball River.

Baby is healthy and thriving. Blackowl plans to take her to Indian Health Service this week for a well-baby check-up.

“I birthed her by myself,” said Blackowl, of the Sicangu and Ihanktonwan Lakota tribes.

Although her husband and family were sleeping in the same tipi, the birth was a private event. In the traditional Lakota way, the mother gives birth alone.

“That space in which we give birth is so holy,” she said. “At one time our people realized that.”

This is Blackowl’s sixth child, all of whom were born at home with the help of a midwife. Her other children are ages 3, 6, 8, 11 and 13.  Although Blackowl’s husband Lowicha of the Pit River and Oglala Lakota tribes woke up almost immediately after baby arrived, the little girl is the first child born alone to her mother.

The decision to have her baby here at the water protector camps where people are opposing the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) was a conscious one.

“Having babies is my act of resistance; our reproductive rights as Native women have been taken away from us in so many ways,” Blackowl said.

“At one time, we were forcibly sterilized; assimilation has come down really hard on us.”

Blackowl, 35, is a stay-at-home mom. She has not participated in any of the frontline actions but has focused on exposing her children to life in the camp, keeping them close to ceremony and being a part of the school where her children attend classes.

Her journey to give birth here began in August. She and some women friends and children drove from her home in Oregon to support the protector camps. She noticed a lodge in which the men could meet, but there was no space for women.

“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,” she said of herself and other women.

So she went back home and began to fundraise for a large tipi to take back to the camps that would serve as a women’s meeting place. She returned with her family and the tipi last month and began to prepare a space for her baby to be born. But beyond family and close friends, Blackowl told no one of her birth plans.

“In our culture, we really guard our babies,” Blackowl said. “I didn’t talk about being pregnant until the very end. There has been something really important and special about this pregnancy. I really felt that this was where she wanted to be born.”

Blackowl had plenty of help, however, in preparing for the birth, and many people available nearby if she needed. One of her sisters is an indigenous midwife and the other is an indigenous doula. Both were close by on the night Baby was born and were with her at the births of her other children. Having her sisters nearby also helped comfort her husband.

She did her own prenatal care, consulting with her sisters, listening to Baby’s heartbeat with a fetal scope and conducting a full blood screen during her pregnancy.

Blackowl has a longstanding commitment to home birth. She was also born at home; her mother also spent time at the camp and helped prepare for baby. It has been challenging, however, to come up against mainstream attitudes about birth that medicalize the process.

“Even my own people, including the Emergency Medical Technicians here, encouraged me to go to a hospital to have my baby,” she reported.

The EMTs insisted she keep a walkie-talkie near her at night, but she turned it off.

“I’ll birth where I choose. It’s not for any man to tell me where I can have my baby,” she said. “In the end, though, they respected my wishes. I didn’t need a bunch of people all on edge around me.”

For Blackowl, birth is her center and her strength. Although many people have suggested she become a midwife, she chafes at the notion of midwifery as a paid career.

“We need to restructure our notions that you have to pay to get this knowledge, this is knowledge that belongs to all women,” she said. “Native women have become so disconnected from our bodies and our roles as a result of the mainstream colonial culture that is steeped in patriarchy and toxic male ego; we have a lot of healing work to do before we can teach our children how to be healthy.”

Part of that healing should include teaching girls about birth and their bodies beyond where to buy tampons.

“We should also teach our sons that it is part of their sacred duty to make it safe for women to do the work they need to do,” she said.

The most profound part of her baby’s birth has been the fact that she is a girl.

“I was so sure I was carrying a boy. Her being a girl, however, is of great significance,” Blackowl noted.

Many Native women at camp, however, told her of dreams they had of her birthing a girl.

Baby will get her name soon, in ceremony. In the meantime, Blackowl is mindful of protecting the new life and spirit, explaining to others that the family needs privacy.

Baby’s placenta has been buried in the earth, as is the Lakota way.

“She will know where she came from, that she came from very strong women who all stand behind her wherever she goes,” Blackowl said. “I definitely felt those strong spirits near us when she was born.”

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