Navajo Nurse Midwife Brings Healthcare to Women and Mothers of Standing Rock

By Hannah McCouch

Midwives Melissa Rose, Nicolle L. Gonzales, and Jennifer Hampton Head

We met Nicolle Gonzales last May when we were invited to screen our “Giving Birth in America” series and to speak at ACNM’s Annual Midwifery Conference in Albuquerque, NM. Nicolle’s dedication and passion to improving the health and wellbeing of indigenous women in the US is imperative. Nicolle spent time with us sharing the history and traditions of Native childbirth practices and made introductions to other maternal advocates and birth activists in the region. Since our visit we have been talking to Nicolle about supporting her Changing Woman’s Initiative in 2017. Over the last month Nicolle’s attention has been focused on the urgent needs of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and their efforts to protect their land and clean drinking water. Nicolle has been working with other members of the Native American birth community to provide culturally appropriate, respectful care to the women who are there.

In April, members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in North Dakota learned that the 1,172 mile, $3.7 billion Dakota Access Pipeline had been rerouted away from Bismarck, and was now “fast tracked” by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to ravage their sacred lands, burial sights and the Missouri River, their main source of clean drinking water. In a show of resistance, a Sioux elder established a camp to protect their “way of life, water, people and land.” Within weeks, a crowd had amassed in solidarity.

By June, Nicolle Gonzales, a 36-year-old Navajo nurse midwife and mother of three living in Ildefonso Pueblo, New Mexico, noticed events unfolding on Facebook. The pipeline struck a familiar nerve — Indigenous lives don’t matter — a sentiment internalized by many of the women Gonzales treats every day.

Then came stories about police in riot gear, tear gas, pepper spray, guard dog attacks…With numbers in the camps swelling to 7000, Gonzales wasn’t the only nurse midwife in her circle wondering who was attending to the health needs of women and children; together, they drove down to find out. “When I saw the tents and teepees all over, people camped out, talking, drumming, the big line of flags representing all of the Nations, to be honest, it looked like a fair. Then I saw signs for “Direct Action.”

Since 1956, Indian Health Services, the federally mandated system that once sterilized indigenous women to control the population, has been the only medical option for Native Americans living on reservations. Traditional Baby Medicine Women or “Umbilical Chord Cutters” are outlawed, and cannot legally practice within their communities.

Oceti Sakowin Camp, North Dakota

Over three days, Gonzales discovered Bismarck, some 100 miles north, was the nearest birthing hospital; the two well stocked herbal apothecaries on site lacked midwives, and more standardized reproductive healthcare — STD testing, birth control, pre and post-natal care.

As the only Native American midwife in her graduating class, Gonzales understands the skepticism some in her community have toward midwifery. “They would like a traditional childbirth, but they want a Native American attending and there are only about 16 of us in the country.” A scarcity she and her midwife sisters have been working to address with Changing Woman Initiative, an indigenous women’s health collective seeking to reclaim traditional birth knowledge through holistic approaches and community empowerment. “Ours is a matrilineal society, traditions and ceremonies passed down from grandmothers and great grandmothers. These women were the ones we could go to for information about how to care for ourselves, what songs do we sing as the baby is born, what herbs to use, how to be healthy in spirit, body and mind. We understand the birth place is sacred and we behave differently here. We burn cedar and sweet grass, scents we associate with the ceremony of life.”

On October 12th, as nonviolent Water Protectors offered prayers and tobacco to the police and security guards who would harm them, the first “Resistance Baby” was born at Standing Rock to a Lakota woman in the traditional way, alone in a teepee. “She is a friend of mine,” Gonzales says, and I respect her decision as an indigenous woman to exert sovereignty over her body and birth. But,” she adds, “Native women don’t want a bunch of outsiders coming to camp to have babies. We’re mindful about people coming here to make a name for themselves.”

While Gonzales recognizes the pipeline protestors may not be around forever, she has been working tirelessly to establish a free standing clinic that will address the clinical and traditional healthcare needs in that community now and in the future. “We are a prideful people,” she reflects, “we can take care of ourselves.”