When I found out that my midwife Erin O’Day, CPM, LM was traveling to Oceti Sakowin Camp, a camp close by Standing Rock Indian Reservation, I thought I’d indulge in her tremendous birth stories, the birth junkie I am. Instead, upon her return, there were no birth stories; our conversation turned to Race. Simultaneously, I worked on a piece about what I had learned about Race at the International Breastfeeding Conference, and where I fit in the movement toward equity. Speaking with Erin helped me to process the complexities surrounding Race. She sets an example of what it’s like to be an ally to People of Color.
Erin traveled to the camp for about two weeks in the middle of December 2016 shortly after the water cannon incidence.
“Things were relatively tense,” she recalls.
There wasn’t any particular connection that drew Erin to Standing Rock except that she said it was something she thinks is “right.” She felt the need to “stand in solidarity with Indigenous People for a fight that could potentially affect all of us.”
At the same time, it’s a fight that doesn’t necessarily affect us all, but the people who have been oppressed for more than 500 years, Erin reminds us.
She’s dedicated to owning her role in ending racism, even if it’s uncomfortable.
“We need to feel the guilt, the weight, the stuff that’s uncomfortable, so that we can do everything we can to step back and allow other cultures in our country to step forward and take the lead…” she said.
In this light, while Erin offered her midwifery services she makes clear her trip was not a volunteer mission and that she didn’t arrive with a rescue mentality. Instead, she went as someone humbled; someone ready to follow the leadership of the Indigenous People.
Erin’s main role during her stay was to simply stoke the fire in the midwife yurt. She and other women’s health advocates handed out yeast infection and UTI treatment, condoms and pregnancy tests. While she did provide some perinatal counseling, she says most of the women at the camp preferred care from the Indigenous Midwife.
“There was a lot of tea pouring, warming people up, and inviting people to sit and process whatever they needed to process through,” Erin remembers.
As an ally, that’s where she felt she fit in: creating and holding safe spaces for others.
Erin also collected and delivered winter camping supplies including a face cord of kiln dried firewood, a four season tent with wood stove, about 40 long john underlayers, bulk food items like beans, rice, honey and coffee and hand and foot warmers.
It was evident to Erin that most other visitors were ill-equipped to withstand the sub-zero conditions at the reservation. This is what struck her most, that people arrived with a “Burning Man” mentality of which Erin’s experience was nothing like.
“It’s a war zone,” she said. “You are subjecting yourself to potential trauma.”
What’s more, sometimes helping hurts; perceived help was more a burden in that Standing Rock leadership became responsible for the well-being of their guests.
Erin’s stay overlapped with that of about 2,000 U.S. military veterans which pushed the total population at the camp to about 10,000.
“Port-o-potties were overflowing, almost to a crises point,” Erin said.
Not long after, a snowstorm hit and many people left. Erin called the “ebb and flow” of protesters “interesting”; perhaps an illustration of taking on the ally role when conditions are convenient and walking away when they’re not.
During her stay, an Indigenous friend Erin met at the camp had a disagreeable encounter with a visiting man. The encounter amounted to this man declaring that “He doesn’t see Race” which further upset her friend.
Erin wondered how she could help and offered to talk to the man. Unsure of the result, her friend ultimately accepted reporting that no one has ever offered to do that.
Erin approached the man and explained that his intention meant nothing, it was his impact that mattered.
She reflects on this encounter:
“The example it sets in my mind is that we all have the power to speak out if we see racism happening. We all have the power to show we are capable of shifting perspective and standing in a place that educates each other versus the constant need of education coming from people of color, letting us know what it is that offends them. We should know already. We should be changing our rhetoric and recognizing what it is that we say that has a negative impact. We should allow that uncomfortable feeling to set in to give us perspective and admit when we are wrong in our choice of words… It’s a story of what it looks like to speak out as an ally.”