The Intersections of Indigenous feminism, Reproductive Justice, and our sacred responsibility as Protectors. By: Nicolle L. Gonzales, Navajo, CNM
Artist: Christi Belcourt,Métis
“The protection of our health, lands, resources including air and water, languages, cultures, traditional foods and subsistence, sovereignty and self-determination, and the transmission of our traditional knowledge and teachings to our future generations are inherent and inalienable human rights. These rights are affirmed in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and other international standards, and must be upheld, respected and fully implemented”
A worldview that is shared among Indigenous peoples and communities, are that we are connected to the land. We are taught through the cycles of rebirth, through the changing seasons, through life and death, that we hold great responsibility to protect the things that which give us life. We are caretakers and children of Mother Earth and Father Sky. Recounting prayers said to “rebalance” our spirits, offerings are given, spiritual places named, and the holy people called on for help. A natural order and structure has long been established through our clan systems and healing practices, which are best explained as our “Life Way” teachings. It is no surprise that Indigenous people are fighting to protect our natural resources, from pollutants like oil, heavy metals, and other contaminants that continue to leave their footprints in our DNA. At the heart of this resistance against environmental violence and body sovereignty- are Indigenous women.
In the Navajo culture, Changing Woman is a female spiritual entity that personifies the life force of the Universe. She is responsible for the continuation of life AND is the protector of what she has created. Most traditional Navajo women have names that contain the word Baa’, meaning “female warrior,” as a female warrior, she is expected to protect her family and home.
Historically, patriarchal systems of oppression and gender hierarchies have pushed Indigenous women out of their leadership roles within their communities by placing less value on childrearing, and reorganized traditional governments by instituting laws that transformed marriage, property rights, and family lineage. Despite repeated efforts to displace Indigenous women from their key roles in their community’s, it is this very resistance through the continuation of cultural traditions, family ties, protection of natural resources, and culturally rooted body sovereignty & reproductive rights, that have contributed to Native people’s survival. As I see it, Indigenous women are the life force and are vital to the survival of Indigenous tribes. I believe it is patriarchal thinking that seeks to divide and separate us from the traditional teachings, that which has sustained us for so long. The thinking that we are all connected. The knowing that what affects the earth, affects us as well. Indigenous worldviews make the connection between the land and our bodies. As that the Earth is a living feminine entity requiring respect and protection. With our changing landscapes and growing populations, living in industrialized areas with oil pipelines crisscrossing our rivers, fracking, coal mining, and soils becoming demineralized, the health of our communities is at the frontline of this battle over resources. American Indian communities have already experienced long term health damage from Uranium mining, and are now left with contaminated soils, ground and surface water and hunting grounds. The health affects as a result of this continued exposure over time has been documented as bone cancer, lung cancer, and impaired kidney function.
Katsi Cook, a Mohawk midwife has made this connection between women’s bodies and the environments we live in.
“In 1985, Katsi helped with the creation of the Akwesasne Mother's Milk Project. The project was designed to "understand and characterize how toxic contaminants have moved through the local food chain, including mothers' milk," also stating that another goal was to get woman within the community to learn how to apply science in their everyday lives. The research project was funded by the U.S. Congress, and studied 50 new mothers over several years. The project showed a 200% greater concentration of PCB's in the breast mild of mothers eating fish from the St. Lawrence River near the reservation as opposed to the general population. Mohawk mothers, much to their outrage, were told to continue breast feeding by Mohawk officials despite the project's finding. Katsi stated, "Our traditional lifestyle has been completely disrupted, and we have been forced to protect our future generations....Although we are relieved that our responsible choices at the present protect our babies, this does not preclude the corporate responsibility of General Motors and other local industries to clean up the site."
Like many, I watch the events unfold in North Dakota, as the Standing Rock Sioux tribe block the Dakota Access Pipeline, through peaceful protest, which started April 1, 2016. Environmental violence of this nature has widely been ignored by the media and like many, I have been following these events through Facebook and personal accounts of those who have gathered to protect the water. The Dakota Access Pipeline is intended to stretch across 1,168 miles, while transporting 570,000 barrels of crude oil each day from North Dakota to Illinois. The proposed pipeline route crosses under Lake Oahe, which is half a mile up from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and threatening the Missouri River. Additionally, 380 archeological sites will be desecrated along the proposed pipeline route.
Over a 100 tribes have come together to peacefully protest and protect the water and these sacred sites. Today, like so many times in our lives as Indigenous people we are called on to protect the land and the water. I am not surprised that 50% of the protesters in Standing Rock are women and children. As in the past and now the present, women are responsible for the cultural survival and physical survival of their people. They are exerting their roles as leaders to protect our most sacred resource –water. The expression of Indigenous feminism is to protect our precious resources and in doing so protects our culture, community, and future generations. The relationship between reproductive justice, environmental violence, indigenous feminism, reproductive health, environmental health, and midwifery are all connected and are part of the same corn stalk. As that the corn is a symbol of our lives and fundamental to the survival of our people. The profound out pouring of support for the land and water protectors at Standing Rock is worthy of notice. Please know local organizations in each tribal community are also working hard to protect the land and water near you. If the actions of Standing Rock strike a soft spot in you and you wish to act on those emotions please rally and march with us in Window Rock, Arizona, September 10, 2016.