Brianna Theobald: A Birth in the Water Protector Camps

Today we welcome a guest post from Brianna Theobald, author of Reproduction on the Reservation: Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Colonialism in the Long Twentieth Century, published last week by UNC Press.

This pathbreaking book documents the transformation of reproductive practices and politics on Indian reservations from the late nineteenth century to the present, integrating a localized history of childbearing, motherhood, and activism on the Crow Reservation in Montana with an analysis of trends affecting Indigenous women more broadly. As Brianna Theobald illustrates, the federal government and local authorities have long sought to control Indigenous families and women’s reproduction, using tactics such as coercive sterilization and removal of Indigenous children into the white foster care system. But Theobald examines women’s resistance, showing how they have worked within families, tribal networks, and activist groups to confront these issues.

Part of our Critical Indigeneities series, Reproduction on the Reservation is now available in both paperback and ebook editions.


A Birth in the Water Protector Camps

Thousands of Native peoples—and non-Native supporters—journeyed to North Dakota in 2016 to join the Standing Rock Sioux Nation in its protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Zintkala Maypiya Wi Blackowl (Lakota), a resident of Oregon, traveled to Standing Rock with her family that September. The following month, Blackowl gave birth to her sixth child in a tepee alongside the Cannonball River. The Lakota mother chose not to deliver in the nearest Indian Health Service hospital and instead gave birth alone, although Native midwives were nearby. Blackowl understood the birth of her daughter to be connected to the larger political struggle she and others waged at Standing Rock. The decisions she made regarding the birth—where, how, and with whom she delivered—were deliberate acts of resistance.

Although many aspects of Blackowl’s childbearing experience are unusual, including her desire to birth alone, she is part of a small but visible movement of Native women who are questioning or challenging Western models of medicalized birthing. Blackowl had also been born at home, however, which reminds us that these developments are not entirely new. Taking a longer view, contemporary movements to transform Native pregnancy and childbirth can in fact be viewed as a continuation of a movement that began in the 1970s.

Blackowl understood the birth of her daughter to be connected to the larger political struggle she and others waged at Standing Rock. The decisions she made regarding the birth—where, how, and with whom she delivered—were deliberate acts of resistance.

By the late 1960s, 98% of Native births occurred in a hospital. Between 1970 and 1977, however, the rate of out-of-hospital births in the United States doubled, and some Native women participated in this trend. More than four decades before Blackowl’s delivery at Standing Rock, another Lakota woman gave birth in the midst of another widely-publicized Native protest. Members of the American Indian Movement occupied the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1973. During the 71-day occupation, Mary Brave Bird delivered her first child with the assistance of friends who acted as midwives. At a historical moment in which Native youth were reclaiming beliefs and practices that had been repressed due to assimilationist pressures, Brave Bird wanted to give birth in “the old Indian manner.”

She also wanted to avoid the hospital. Brave Bird’s sister had delivered in an IHS hospital, and she alleged that the physician sterilized her without her knowledge. Brave Bird’s sister was not alone in this experience. Sterilization rates on many reservations increased dramatically following the passage of the Family Planning Services and Population Research Act, which subsidized sterilizations for IHS patients. By AIM’s occupation of Wounded Knee, many activists had become concerned that some of these procedures were performed coercively and/or without the patient’s full understanding. Some Native women responded to these troubling developments by calling for a return to Indigenous midwifery.

A Mohawk mother named Katsi Cook led this charge. By 1977, Cook had delivered two children at home and was convinced that midwifery was her calling. After pursuing various forms of medical as well as cultural training, she urged women at the first meeting of the Women of All Red Nations (WARN) that it was time for Native women to reclaim control of their bodies and reproductive health. Shortly thereafter, with some funding from WARN, Cook established the Women’s Dance Health Program in Minneapolis-St. Paul and began training a birthing crew to attend home births in the local Native community.

The idea behind Women’s Dance spread. In collaboration with Jeanne Shenandoah, who had earlier started the Iroquois Midwives Project on the Onondaga Reservation, Cook organized a midwives’ meeting at WARN’s second conference in 1979. By the early 1980s, a version of Women’s Dance had been adopted among some Oneida women in Wisconsin, and Cook introduced the program and began promoting home birth when she returned to the St. Regis Reservation (Akwesasne) in New York prior to the birth of her third child.

As was true for American women more broadly, only a small minority of Native women opted to give birth outside the hospital and/or with the assistance of an empirically trained midwife in these years. But these women’s message of reclaiming control of reproduction extended to a wider group of women who were ready to start thinking differently about pregnancy and childbirth. Women like Cook also inserted reproduction and women’s bodies into Red Power movements for sovereignty and self-determination. The legacy of these women’s efforts carries on in contemporary developments, including Blackowl’s Standing Rock birth. Their reach has proven long-lasting, as Cook and some of the women she has trained continue to promote Indigenous midwifery today.


Photo by Rio Hartwell

Brianna Theobald is assistant professor of history at the University of Rochester. Follow her on Twitter.