“An empowered community is made up by empowered individuals and empowered families, and to me empowerment is feeling at home with who you are, and that begins with the moment of birth. So my own birth story is a great source of strength to me. And so when you ask the questions about our children, I have to go the long way around and say it begins with the way they get born.” (Mohwak Midwife Katsi Cook in an interview by Wessman and Harvey)
She was tired. Labor was coming on fast. Her contractions were strong, and she cried out for a moment’s rest, a moment of relief. “Ambe little one”. Her body takes over. Her partner’s strong hands hold her through the waves, and I place a cool cloth infused with sweet oils on her forehead. Breathing through. “Send your breath to him. Send your breath to him.” I sing the water song in my head. “Speak to him in the language. He is coming. Nipiy. Nipiy. Hiy Hiy Chee Migwetch Gitchi Manitoo….”
… and he was born.
For mothers and families around the world the ways in which we birth our young babies is an act of sovereignty, self-determination and ceremony. Here on Turtle Island (Canada), there are strong hands, hearts and minds which dedicate their lives to ensure that indigenous babies are born in ways which uphold culture, their language, ceremony, and the land. Sadly, racism is alive and well within health care institutions across Turtle Island, and it is paramount that indigenous families and mothers can access care from indigenous birth-workers, midwives and doulas (“aunties”). Our family alone has lost more than one family member due to racist neglect and inadequate care in the Canadian health-care system and Indian Hospital system. As Western medicine, often male-dominated, took precedent over indigenous healing traditions (from the mid-1800’s and on), many traditional healers, often women and two-spirit, were removed from positions of healing authority. Our teachings, our medicines, our songs, our ways were regarded as alternative, less scientific, and ultimately inadequate for the delivery of healthy and safe births. The impacts of the removal of births from the home territories, waters, and hands of indigenous communities has had deeply “profound spiritual and cultural consequences, which are difficult to quantify. The loss of traditional birthing practices has been linked to the loss of cultural identity.” (NAHO, 2008)
As indigenous birth-workers, we believe that the woman carrying a child is profoundly spiritual and sacred. She is a spiritual entity which connects the elder Kokum-Pîsim to our home Kã wee ooma aski through the rush of nipiy. Our teachings remind us that our children are closest to the Spirit World and hold special authority in our communities. Women’s bodies are intimately interconnected to water, as it passes through with new life in child-birth, and shares the cycles of the moon with our own cyclical menstruation. (Anderson, 2000)
In upholding these responsibilities, women have the opportunity to inspire a relational accountability to the land and water and challenge younger generations to reflect about the ways that our ancestors protected the lands and waters. Birth does not begin with conception nor end at entry into this world; birth begins in the Spirit World and continues through the entire life of the being. The land provides the medicines to heal the little ones as they grow into strong healthy relatives, and the water allows the breastmilk to nourish their journey. Our existence is not separated from the land. Of course, our responsibility to the mothers, families, and little ones cannot be divorced from our sacred responsibilities to defend the land and waters and protect the sacred.
We, as birth-workers, regard those who carry life as those who also carry cultural teachings, relationship, and care for the Nation. Cherokee elder Marilou Awaiakta reminds us that carriers of culture are accountable to the well-being and strength of the entire community. Furthermore, in her book Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back, Annishinaabekwe Leanne Simpson explains that breastfeeding is a child’s first exposure to relationship based on reciprocal exchange, enabling them to learn about “treaties, the relationships they encode and how to maintain good treaty relationships.” In this way, “the family is a microcosm of the nation,” and how we care for our families determines how we care for our nation. These ideals are not constricted to gendered notions of femaleness but rather require a personal commitment for all community members to protect and pass on cultural teachings to future generations. The fragmentation of family and the undermining of the role of motherhood through colonial political genocide has created a crisis and the need to rebuild strong families.
For indigenous birth-workers, birth is an act of resurgence. Birth is an act of love for our people. Love for the lands that raised us and the waters that bring us forth. Birth is a process which binds us to one another in relationship and accountability. Birth is what connects us to our ancestors before us and to our generations to come. From the “Birthing The Nation Project” at HOʻOULU ʻĀINA in Kalihi Valley, Hawaii, to the “Seventh Generation Midwives” in Toronto, Canada to the “ekw'í7tl Indigenous Doula Collective,” to the “Indigenous Freedom Babies,” to “AMUPAKIN Achimamas” in Ecuador, indigenous birth-workers are birthing the Nations around the world. To us, the way we birth our little ones is an act of ceremony. Of governance. Of truth. Of resurgence. Of memory. Of life. Of joy. We believe that all indigenous families should have seamless access to indigenous care-takers. All indigenous families have the right to birth their children in ways which are culturally significant, safe and dignified.
I wake up at sunrise and bless nipiy before I drink her in. I smudge and give thanks. I ask that my hands may be steady and my heart strong. I ask that I may know how to best support and love the Mother in her time of labor, and offer friendship for years to come. In a few moons, my own sister-in-law will give birth. We will travel to southern territories and learn from birth-workers in Brazil. I hope my grandmother is proud of me. I feel honored to be a part of this circle. This circle of blood, water, earth and memory. Hiy Hiy Chee Migwetch Bizindawiyeg. Mii Sa Go Minik.
About the Authour:
Erynne M. Gilpin is of mixed Saulteaux-Cree Métis, Filipina, Irish and Scottish ancestry. She is a PhD candidate of Indigenous Governance (UVIC) and Doula. Her research centers Indigenous land/water based healing traditions as emancipatory practices of contemporary governance; with specific attention to women’s leadership, body-governance birth-work traditions as decolonial praxis.
Connect with Erynne via Instagram @erynne.michelle