Water is holy to midwives.
Midwives know that it is through water, in all of its forms, that new life is brought into this world.
Much of our job is spent monitoring water: hydration, urine analysis, vomit, and, most importantly, the water in which a new life grows and strengthens.
This amniotic water plays a central role in our relationship with a developing life. We have to make sure there isn’t too much, or too little. We examine the color, the smell, the consistency. We pay careful attention to the way in which a growing baby interacts with the water it lives in, that cords are not tangled by aquatic acrobatics, that the little one is completely surrounded by water so that the sac it is contained by doesn’t restrict developing limbs. That when the bag breaks, and water trickles out like drizzling rain on cloth or bursts forth like a river from a dam, nothing gets caught or positioned where it shouldn’t.
We know firsthand the dangers of infected and contaminated water.
When outside toxins are introduced into the uterus, and pass through the protective bag into the water, the health and lives of mother and baby are in real danger. Maternal temperature starts to rise- heart and respiratory rates increase. Baby’s heart rate starts to rise in response to the stress and direct exposure to infection. With this stress, baby’s anal sphincter loosens and feces are introduced into the water that swirls in and around their lungs. The water, formerly sterile and literally life-inducing, begins to turn color, becomes foul smelling and toxic. Babies can and have died as consequence of infected water.
Water is holy to midwives.
Water is our first medicine, a key part of our physical make-up. In the Bdewakantunwan Dakota creation story, humanity came to be at the junction of two great rivers. Their colliding forces helped to carve out the earth necessary for the creation of the human body, and from that place, Dakota people were born. Modern humans are created the same way: two fluids colliding to create life.
This Dakota site of genesis resides in a place still named for the power of its water: Mnisota Makoce, translated by my grandfather as “land where the waters reflect the skies.” The image it invokes is that of the early morning, with the mist rising off the water as the sun’s first rays begin to peak over the horizon. In Dakota, we have a word for this mist: “anptaniya,” or “the breath of the dawn.” This is the first hint of the power that awakes with the rising of the sun. Fire, greeted, purified and awakened by water.
From the time I was little, I was instructed in the importance of water. My geographical knowledge of my nation’s territory was marked by rivers. I grew up overlooking the Minnesota River valley, where the Yellow Medicine River joins the first great tributary of the Mississippi. Between ethanol plants draining the water table, farm chemical run-off contaminating the river and the utter destruction of the wetlands, people cannot eat the fish or swim for long in the river anymore. The river my grandmother speaks of, the one she used to play in as a girl whose water was so clean she could see the bottom and drink from it, is gone. The water wars here began a long time ago.
Water is holy to midwives.
Lately the news has been filled with people dealing with the dangerous consequences of contaminated water. From the lead-contaminated water poisoning the children of Flint, Michigan, to cancer caused by PFOA contamination in the water of Hoosick Falls, New York, to Newark public schools giving lead- contaminated water to their entire student and staff population, safe water is becoming an issue in the American national media. Sadly, as Indigenous people, this is not new for us: water contamination as consequence of uranium mining, nuclear waste facilities, fracking, oil spills and outdated public works systems is and has been a lived reality for many Indigenous nations for the past several decades.
The results of this deliberate negligence are plain to see: increased rates of rare cancers, lead and heavy metal poisoning, radiation poisoning, birth defects. All of this on top of the perinatal health disparities that already exist because of the historical legacy of genocide and colonization, indigenous midwives have much to fear when we consider the future of our nations and the health and well-being of the babies we are trusted to safeguard.
Colonization and genocide are not words that I take lightly. I was fortunate to grow up amongst groups of Indigenous scholars, to whom my family belonged, and was a part of the conversations outlining the exact nature of the horrific crimes perpetrated in the name of God, in the name of America, in the name of progress. Colonization and genocide were never buzzwords to me, but ideas that haunted my steps from the time I was a little girl, and I saw the hypocrisy and tactics used to keep people like me oppressed and complacent. It was through the work of Fanon and Memmi, LaDuke and Deloria, that I came to midwifery.
Not only did I see the obvious ways in which Indigenous mothers and babies were attacked, tortured and murdered, I saw the more insidious ways. The way traditional food systems were destroyed in favor of western diets leading to the rise of food based diseases. The way new religions undermined feminine power, imposed the idea of struggle in birth as sin, and called traditional medicine and women’s knowledge witchcraft and devil’s work. The way in which the obstetric war on midwifery targeted specifically midwives of color, and confined pregnant women to lives away from walking, swimming, or squatting. The way in which the Allotment Act, the Relocation Act and the boarding school systems preventing extended family networks from supporting new families and passing on crucial knowledge. The way first farming, then logging, then mining, then railroad, then chemical companies began to rape and contaminate the landscape, including all who lived on it, including Indigenous babies.
The more I have seen, through the eyes of a midwife, the eyes of a Dakota woman, the more enraged I have become.
Water is holy to midwives.
My family and I went to Standing Rock. Friends and family live there, directly downstream of where the Dakota Access Pipeline construction is planned. We crossed the Missouri River late at night, watched it sparkle below us, utterly vast in the darkness, reflecting stars in the shifting water.
The force of the camp, mighty in numbers and intention, was truly awe-inspiring. I had doubted I would ever see such a display of Indigenous strength here in my lifetime. Looking at the children running around, young people riding horses through tipi lodges, old grandmas chatting as they set up their tents, I started to cry. I cried again when I saw young women leading a chat of “Mni Wiconi, Water is Life” next to grandmothers holding a sign saying “We Are Unarmed,” facing down riot cops in the streets of Bismarck. I cried when my son clung to me in fear from the uniformed people sent to quell the restlessness of the Indians.
As Indigenous peoples, as Dakota people, we understand that “Mni Wiconi” is not some fluffy abstract concept designed to fuel some hokey pseudo-spiritual practice. We understand that clean water is important, because all life hinges on its existence. We understand that while clean water has the power to heal, contaminated water has the power to kill. We also understand that each oil pipeline that has gone through has contaminated untold volumes to water, and killed much of the life surrounding those spills. The risk of contamination to a water source that so many people depend on to live is simply too great to be allowed to continue.
As midwives, we hold water to be holy, a sacred vessel for life. As midwives, it is our professional, ethical and spiritual obligation to stand up for the protection of water. Because we know, if water is contaminated, it is only a matter of time before the infection becomes deadly.
Unkitamakoce k’a oni unkitawapi- for our land and way of life.
From the illegally occupied territory of Mnisota Makoce. Wicanhpi Iyotan Win Autumn Cavender-Wilson is Wahpetunwan Dakota from Pezihutazizi K’api Makoce (Upper Sioux Community). She is a certified midwife, Dakota language revitalization worker, a member of the Anpao Duta Okodakciye, and a fierce decolonization activist. She lives with her husband in the Minnesota River valley and they are raising their son to understand the importance of water.