Where Water Means Life

This piece appears in the Winter 2016 issue of Ms. Subscribe today to get a copy and become a member of the Ms. community!

They call themselves “water protectors.”

These protesters have been assembling in Sioux County, North Dakota, over the past few months in what has become the largest gathering of indigenous people in decades—and they have no intention of dispersing. Their mission is to permanently block construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, the 1,200 miles of pipes that would carry approximately
470,000 barrels of crude oil per day, threatening the water supply and sacred grounds of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.

For many women in the gathering, the pipeline is more than just an environmental issue: It speaks to reproductive justice as well. “As indigenous women, we…are the ones who birthed our nations through having babies. There are many traditions and knowledge about the sacredness of the water—of the amniotic fluid— and our connections to that,” Nicolle Gonzales, founder of the Changing Woman Initiative, told Ms. “There’s lots of ancestral knowledge and relationships passed on through our tribes, through our matriarchal systems, that educate and support protecting our resources: land, water, families, tradition, culture.”

A Native American midwife from New Mexico, Gonzales brought her team to establish the Mni Wiconi Health and Wellness Center, which provides women’s health services to the camp. She is one of many women here to show solidarity with all indigenous communities, to defend the land and water, and to be part of this historic moment. Supporters have set up schools, food centers and other community resources.

In October, the first baby was born in the camps. Gonzales says that the mother gave birth “in a manner that represents her beliefs…[to] be surrounded by women like herself…to birth on her territory in her own way. And although midwives are present in camp, I think the decision for women in camp to birth there may have nothing to do with us. It has a lot more to do with them empowering themselves.”


Erin Gistaro is a Communications Associate at the Feminist Majority Foundation. She’s a passionate reproductive rights advocate, food lover, life-long learner and strong believer that analyzing the world through a feminist lens helps everything make a bit more sense.