It's a good day to be Indigenous.
Concerted efforts to reclaim and revive Indigenous traditional knowledge and culture are mending beautifully with modernity. Indigenous people all over the world are utilizing new technologies to create a new generation: a generation moving beyond the constricted and damaging frameworks of colonialism to a better future where the past meets the present in a practical and spiritual way. I am aware of many of these movements within the United States and I am hopeful that we are moving in a positive direction. We are shaking off the bonds of racism, fighting on the same grounds as our ancestors and leaders of the past. Their guidance and their perseverance paved the way for a renewed sense of Indigenous identity, from language revitalization to traditional crafts, to traditional medicine and plant use.
I am an Ojibwe woman: Anishinaabekwe. I am an aspiring birth worker and activist. It is my goal to see a great revitalization of traditional Anishinaabe birth traditions, and birth traditions in other Tribes as well. Previously, I advocated for more Indigenous women to become birth workers, especially to step in and fill the traditional role of supporter. Today we have a universal word for that woman, whether she is a mother, aunt, sister, or certified professional: we call her a doula. Now, it is time for doulas to recognize the incredible opportunity to help Indigenous women return to their roots.
As an Ojibwe birth worker I am committed to helping my community achieve safe, satisfying, and culturally significant births. We can blend modern technology with ancient wisdom to create a holistic and spiritual birth experience that honors our ancestors and respects our community's new needs. There are several ways doulas can do this (I am considering Ojibwe birth traditions. Other Tribes may have different traditions; doulas should be aware of their Tribe's traditions):
When she is labor, help the woman squat with support from you and/or her partner. Hold her firmly while she rushes. Encourage her to sway and vocalize. If the birthing space allows, she may also use a rope to support her, if it is hanging from a sturdy beam in the ceiling. We know that this allows gravity to work its magic, and may decrease discomfort in the woman, probably allowing her to have a shorter labor and more effective pushing. She may also deliver in this squatting position.
Smudge with cedar through out the entire labor. Make the woman a nettle tea to drink. Nettles are a traditional medicine in our culture. They are very powerful with healing and energizing nutrients.
After the delivery: let the umbilical cord remain intact instead of clamping and cutting it right away. Encourage the woman to let her body recognize when it is time to deliver the placenta. In the old days, a woman would leave the placenta attached to the cord until the cord fell off naturally. We may not see a revival of this tradition especially in hospitals but we can allow the new couple to remain connected as long as we can so the baby can receive those last nutrients and blood from its mother. Use real sinew to tie off the cord. Save a piece of the umbilical cord to give to the child.
In the old days, women would save the placenta to eat when meat was scarce, and because placenta is one of the greatest sources of iron and protein, not to mention healing hormones that come in handy in the days after birth. Today, we have placenta encapsulation specialists who save, dry, and encapsulate the placenta to be taken in pills. All Indigenous doulas should be able to refer their families to placenta encapsulation specialists. Better yet, doulas should be trained to do this themselves! The Creator didn't design the "after-birth" by accident.
Promote and help sustain long term breastfeeding. There is nothing more anti-colonial than breastfeeding. Sustained breastfeeding starts with the birth: help the mother secure a first feeding, uninterrupted, as soon as possible after birth. Encourage skin to skin contact during feedings. Use your doula training to advocate and inform through out the pregnancy if you are a doula who has met with the family previously. Gently and respectfully encourage the mother when she returns home from the birth. Our work as doulas shouldn't end at the delivery. You should be able to refer her to a lactation consultant or an elder with breastfeeding wisdom if she experiences struggles.
Far from the white mans' romanticized and possibly racist depictions of stoic and stone-faced Ojibwe women retreating into the woods to give birth alone, Ojibwe women gave birth in special birth lodges, sometimes in tubs of water, sometimes squatting on a blanket or hide, always surrounded by cedar smoke, and love and support from other women. We can recreate this tradition. Indigenous birth workers can and will take advantage of the forward momentum Indigenous peoples are creating in all walks of Indigenous life.
I'd like to say miigwetch to my fellow Anishinaabekwe, who have helped me gain the traditional birth knowledge needed to help our women return to our Indigenous roots.
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Little Wise One is a blog by a young Anishinaabekwe living, working, mothering, and studying in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. In addition to her studies in Scientific and Technical Communication, she is pursuing DONA certification as a childbirth doula. She uses her blog to comment on all the issues that she cares about: race, rhetoric, education, communication, sewing Powwow regalia, and mostly, her journey to becoming a doula.