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Reflections of an Indigenous Doula

Klara Miller

Written by Erynne M. Gilpin • Photograph of Karu Peruzzo Mineira by K. Peruzzo 

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“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

Ophelia Bloom • A Birth Story

Klara Miller

Written by Mary Grace      Photographs by Daddy & Grandma

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Ophelia Bloom -- born at home on the most perfect July afternoon.

On the days leading up to her birth, I was starting to lose my cool. I just wanted her here with us already. I was sick of being pregnant and was doing everything I could to coax her out, but nothing seemed to work. She already had a mind of her own -- and she picked the perfect day to come. 

The day before she was born, we spent what was to be our last day as a family of three. We wandered the upper east side,  got lunch at one of our favorite places, afterwards we had ice cream and visited with Michael's grandparents. The perfect summer day.

I was going to walk all the way home in hopes that it would trigger something, but decided against it. I was already tired and didn't feel like exerting tons of energy to only be disappointed. Instead, when we got home Michael and I had a corona and listened to Dr Dre's, The Chronic. We danced and joked and I bounced up and down while eating hot cheetos.

A few hours later, at around 12:30am, my water broke. I was excited - overjoyed and full of so many nerves I felt like I was going to burst! THE BABIES COMING! 

I called my mom right away.

I wasn't having contractions yet so I took a shower and started setting things up just waiting to feel the first one. They did not start. My mom arrived at the apartment and we all went back to bed. Throughout the rest of the night they started coming slowly -- I slept. Only waking up as they came and went.

By 7am they were coming regularly. We filled up the pool. Had coffee and breakfast and waited it out.

By 10:30am I called the midwife.

Olive was wide-eyed and curious with excitement. 

Olive really wanted to get in the pool with me. She couldnt believe it -- a pool! In the living room! As things started getting a bit more intense -- she decided to take a bath.  When she was ready, she came back out.

Right before the baby came out -- she went into our room and just stood in front of the mirror, looking at herself. I wonder what she was thinking --

Everything's a blur, but I remember her presence -- everyone's presence. Olive was kind and gentle -- pouring water on my arm, wetting a cold wash cloth to drape over my head. My husband was my strength and comfort -- the feel of his skin on my cheek and the strength of his embrace. My mother was my reassurance -- talking calmly and soft. And my midwife was there to guide me. She never interrupted the flow and gave me space so that my body could guide me. 

 I remember my mother giving birth. I remember sitting and waiting. I wasn't afraid. And neither was Olive. I hope that I have given her a respect for birth - respect for the strength of women - and the power of bringing life into this world. Birth is intense, messy and loud but there is so much beauty and power within it. As my sister said "you are moving the earth" The most incredible gift. Life.

Connect with Mary Grace through her Instagram @msmarygrace

Women's Circles: The Alchemy of Community

Klara Miller

Words and self portrait by Alison Love

In the beginning there were circles. Since ancient times, humans on this planet have engaged in circle work; huddling around the fire, sitting as a tribe and gathering as a community. Our history and future is women gathering in circle.

Circle work is not a definitive name labeled by any one path or lineage. It is a multidimensional path that is as simple as sitting in circle, and it available to us all. It serves as a door and portal to human history, a place for learning, prayer, practice, governance, ritual, celebration, remembering and most importantly, BEing. In this unique, modern time we are in a resurgence of women remembering who we are. We are awakening to our truth,  remembering that we are sovereign beings with the right to live our truth and our path as humans. Circle work is a supportive component of this awakening.

My own history with circles is rich and still expanding. In my early years, the desire to gather and circle was innate, whether a sewing circle in my high school Home Ec class, smoking a joint as a teenager in the parking lot, or a knitting group from my daughter's school. Circles have been a way that women naturally gather. We share in-depth stories of our lives, as a way of making meaning and understanding ourselves through the eyes and reflections of others. Storytelling, caring for others, listening, celebrating milestones, and honoring many of life’s thresholds and initiations are a part of our humanness and womanhood. In circle, we can return to the power of coming together, a tangible manifestation of the communal web that has been and can be a vehicle for collective transformation.

In my early thirties, it became clear to me that gathering in circle is a multidimensional path. After divorcing myself from community living for 10 years, I was searching for what spirituality meant for me. I had thrown the baby out with the bathwater and wasn’t interested in chanting, yoga or much of anything I had known and done. A friend of mine introduced to me medicine ceremonies. These ceremonies threw away the notion of the hierarchical guru, books of teachings and formal practice as I knew it, and allowed me to connect directly with God and ultimately myself. Being in a circle made sense, without having the proper language to explain my experience, I just knew it made sense. The accessibility of spirit was in the nature of all things, the circle itself, the medicine man/woman holding space, the participants bringing prayers, our pain, suffering, song, celebration, and music!The connection of life came alive from the relationship with the earth, her voice, her rhythm. My connection to this was instant.

We are living in a unique time that calls for ancient practices together with our inner technology to come alive for our souls and bodies to thrive on the planet. With this we are seeing the resurgence of women’s circles from feminine empowerment, to mother and bridal blessingways. For each interest, circles are sprouting up to support them. Women's Circles hold space and gives space for organic wisdom to arise, for the spontaneous to occur that only happens when women gather together.  Natural magic unlocks in each person that attends, whether you're the participant, the facilitator, or host. When attended consistently, there are breakthroughs, gifts, a healing, guidance, and bonds forged. At every circle I have attended, I have always left with more than I came with. I have gone away being more myself, more because I shared, more because I showed up, more because I met someone else’s needs, more because I danced wildly, laughed hysterically, or cried. Ultimately women's circles give permission for me to be me, and you to be you. Sometimes the benefits are immediate. Others are not so quickly translated, they are a time-released capsule that slowly and gently breaks the barriers of the heart. Circles call forth the feminine voice, the one that is receptive, allowing, sensual, creative, wild, and alive! The circle gently restores each individual back to herself, helps us listen, gives permission, activates compassion, builds leaders, and awakens community.

So where is the alchemy? Have you ever had the same day over and over? Have you seen the moon the same way each and every day? Do you have children and do they grow up overnight and right in front of your eyes? There is not one circle that is the same, just as you are not the same every day. The circle changes as we change. Every time you show up to a circle it has a new offering, as do you. The alchemy is the melting pot of souls gathering with intention in sacred space. Women's Circle are a metaphorical cauldron, where we place our hurts, desires, wishes, heartbreaks and by offering them forth together with the hearts and voices of others, they are alchemized.

My suggestion is finding a group you can sit with weekly or monthly, but consistently. Find your rhythm. Find your circle. It may even find you.

In our fast-paced world, women's circles offers us a time to stop, slow down, and listen to deeper voices waiting to be heard. With intention our soul wisdom is called forward and amplified by the collective wisdom of the other souls who are called forth. We sit in agreement, we sit in conflict, we sit with what is. We sit with who comes, committed to a deeper understanding of who we really are and who they really are. Together we make agreements about the good of our circle, and in that we practice the skills our world and our planet most need: compassion, truth, and love. Circle is where we go to remember, who we are alone and who we are together.

Connect with author through Instagram- @alison_love_photo

Weaning With Love

Klara Miller

Words by Denise Watkins

Breastfeeding was never a question for me. I always started immediately in the hospital after my children were born. None of my children have ever had formula and did not drink milk from the bottle (except for on a couple of random occasions). I was always on tap. Always on call. We were attached at the nip.

I’ve never questioned the nourishment breastfeeding provides. There is nothing better for a child than their mother’s milk. I was fortunate that my body produced a great quantity which allowed me to breastfeed. And at 20 months, baby girl was still reaping the benefits.

And the bonding! Being able to provide such nourishment and comfort. We spent a lot of time in close proximity to each other. The twiddling. The acrobatics. The snuggles. The love. I never hesitated to feed my baby whenever she was hungry, whether that be in church or at the mall or in my home or yours, wherever, whenever.

Baby girl was 20 months old and still waking up a couple times a night for a feeding. And throughout the day she was nursing around the clock. I have tons of videos and pics of the smiles we exchanged, the blinking game we played, the falling asleep, the soothing when she was sick or needed comfort, and the poses she’d end up in – oftentimes upside-down or hanging off the side of the couch. There were countless doctor appointments, trips to the store, visiting guests, playdates, you name it, in which I was feeding throughout. And I snapped pics. Every. Single. Day. I cherish these times.

THE DECISION

I had no intention, no date in mind to stop breastfeeding. I had been ready though. And I knew baby girl was ready too.

We had gotten to a point where I was breastfeeding all day at any place. Even while I cooked or answered the door. We spent most of our time together. And usually if we were in close proximity to one another, I was breastfeeding even though baby girl ate table food very well. Breastmilk was no longer her main supplement but more of a snack.

Some children could be weaned to one or two feedings a day until gradually reducing. But with Eden it was all or nothing.

We had tried once before – spent a few days away. But when we got back, she picked up right where we left off, brought my milk supply right back, lol. And that was ok at that time. She wasn’t ready.

How do you know when your child is ready? You’re the mama and you know. You just know.

It was a Thursday night. I had this terrible nagging cough that kept me up most of the night. And in the minutes where my throat was calm, Eden had a restless night, woke up four times, then up for the day at 6:30am.

I knew then that I would not be able to function throughout the day if I were to nurse as usual – for us this would be around the clock, especially because baby girl hadn’t gotten much sleep and would nurse for comfort the majority of her waking hours.

This would drain the little energy I had left and I wouldn’t be at my best for myself and my family. I knew then, at 6:30 on this random Friday morning, that our breastfeeding days had come to an end. This wasn’t the reason why we stopped, just the indication.

PREP

We had a talk. I told her that she’s a big girl now and that she’d no longer drink milk from mommy’s breast. She said ok and just like that, my baby had grown into a big girl.

Truthfully, if she didn’t agree and actually make strides toward this, I’d still be breastfeeding today.

I felt that it was important to engage her and talk about this with her. These have been her breasts for almost two years. She’s a big girl now and it was important to respect that. I made it our decision, not just mine.

TRANSITIONING

Now, don’t get me wrong. There were tears involved. She had one fit. It was about an hour or so after our talk. I think the reality had set in. She wanted it and I didn’t give in. I reminded her that she was a big girl and mommy’s milk was all gone. I held her and asked if I could hug her. I rocked her in my arms and she was soothed. The last thing I wanted to do was rip her comfort away. So I made sure to provide her with the same level of comfort and love to ease the transition. I had plenty of snacks and small meals prepared to offer her at the times when she’d normally be ready for her milk. And I gave her plenty of hugs and snuggles. I even made up and sang a “big girl now” song.

POST CARE

The breast discomfort during this phase is similar to that in the first few weeks of beginning to breastfeed.

Stopping cold turkey has its challenges on the body. Milk just doesn’t stop automatically, though it does slow down to a gradual end. The first day was a breeze. On the second day, my breasts were getting full. And on the third day, I was engorged. I pumped a little to ease the discomfort on those two days – just enough, around 1 ounce. I also wore comfortable sports bras with nursing pads. After that, I didn’t feel my milk coming in anymore. By the fifth day I felt like I had rocks in my chest (clogged ducts). I had 3-5 of them in each breast as my milk slowly leaked out over the course of ten days. Each day I’d feel the lumps travel closer to my nipples then leak. To help ease the discomfort, my husband gently massaged them each night before bed. By the morning they were noticeably better and I had some leakage throughout the day (Days 5-9). On the tenth day I woke up and had my breasts back. No more sensitivity, no more lumps, no more milk.

NEW ROUTINE

The other day baby girl had a flashback and said “milk?” and I replied “You’re a big girl now. No more mommy’s milk.” And she laughed and fell into my chest and gave me a big hug. Just memories now. Great ones.

She’s eating more foods now, but she’s also getting hungry now. You see, throughout our breastfeeding journey, she always had my milk on demand – as soon as she’d wake up, before bed, between naps, in the middle of the night, at Target, on the plane, at Disney, you name it. She had never been hungry before. So, physiologically her body is going through changes that she may not emotionally understand yet. She’s had a couple of fits of frustration, not realizing that she was hungry, particularly in the morning between the time when she’d wake up and breakfast.

I thought nap time would be a challenge because I’d normally nurse her to sleep, but it wasn’t. We’ve replaced the breast with hugs and snuggles. And I have to say – she falls asleep faster, not necessarily in my arms, is so much more independent, and seems a lot happier. She was ready for this! Instead of feeding her to sleep, I simply hold and snuggle her and she falls asleep in minutes! I didn’t want to go from feeding her to sleep to just putting her in bed cold turkey; I want her to know that mama’s love is still right here accessible to her.

Then tonight, on our three week anniversary, I held her before bed. Two minutes in, she leaned away, pointed at her bed, and wanted to go to it. So I gave her a big ole hug and kiss, said goodnight, and tucked her in.

WHAT’S NEXT

My big girl is so much more independent now. She’s eating more and trying new foods. She’s more receptive to leaving my lap and trying new things. She’s falling asleep on her own. I’m looking forward to new milestones. I couldn’t grasp the idea of potty training before; now it doesn’t seem so challenging.

Connect with the author through her Instagram @loccrush

A Nest of Our Own

Klara Miller

Words by Genevieve Slonim, photographed by Jael Porat

Growing up, I was never considered a person of color, but at the same time, I didn't consider myself white. Not in the way my friends would talk about 'white people' at least. My ethnicity is Italian, Irish, and Mexican. I had one of those looks where no matter where I was growing up, people asked me, 'Are you Hawaiian?’ 'Are you half Japanese?' ' Are you Indian?'... because I had that Disney whitewashed Pocahontas look that meant I blended in everywhere. My classmates and neighborhood were a mix of Black, Asian, Irish and Mexican. I felt like I was a part of everything (without having to pay any societal penalty for being a person of color).

I am definitely white and have never faced institutional discrimination, structural racism or prejudice in any form. However because of my own family struggles growing up facing domestic violence, financial insecurities, and other experiences of being powerless, I have always looked to people of color as a source of inspiration on how to prevail despite forces against you. Maybe for this reason I have always fought racism and been aware of all the subtle and overt ways it manifests itself.

Growing up in San Francisco with such importance placed on diversity, Ethnic Studies, and just the fact that I only lived and went to school in mixed areas, I never considered Jewish being a different culture. Most Jews I knew were Buddhist. It just wasn't exotic or even worth considering as a 'culture' to understand or adopt to. Years later when I met my husband and I found out he was Israeli, the first question I asked him was “Do you know what Israel did to the Palestinians today” and started talking about the Occupation. He kind of smirked and said, “No, I've been surfing in the Dominican Republic for the past few months.” Later I found out that after being a soldier he joined the Refusenik group and was and remains very politically active against the Occupation and is for peace building.

We lived in Barcelona for a few years in a very international group of friends from Pakistan, Israel, all of Europe, and a few from America. Race as I had known it was transcended as we had a very diverse group of international friends, different 'races', different colors, different languages, different customs, but all of us young and cool and living in Barcelona. Years later after our daughter was born in Barcelona, we made the decision to move to Israel.

Immediately after moving to Israel it was the first time in my life I experienced being a minority. Israel is very 'ethnically' diverse. There are Jewish people from Iran, Tunisia, Europe, Morocco, Iraq, Yemen, Ethiopia and a fourth of the population within Israel are Palestinian Arab. There is also a large number of the Jewish population here (including my husband's family) who are indigenous, meaning they have never left and returned. My husband's grandparents were born here under Turkish rule during the Ottoman Empire and his mother’s family was here before the 'State of Israel' under British Mandate for Palestine as minorities within a largely Palestinian area. That changed with the illegal migration of Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust, and the conflict between Jews and Arabs for land control quickly broke out and sadly hasn't ended. As far as color or look Israel is the most diverse and ethnic place I have ever been to in all my travels, but the dominant culture here is still Jewish.

I was asked daily if I am Jewish. I was asked in the security at airports if I have my own family here, while standing next to my husband and children. I have been called many derogatory names, wasn't able to get married here as a non­-Jew, and have had it explained to me that by intermarrying I am harming the Jewish people. I moved to a place where everything, the national anthem, the holidays, the traditions, is focused solely on the hopes, dreams and values of the Jewish people without something universal that I can relate to. At the same time the Palestinian population is larger than the African American and South American population in the US combined. They equally have a language, dress code, customs and traditions that are rich and beautiful, but only accessible to me from afar.

It took a lot of adjustment for me here. Starting the work and school week on a Sunday. Holidays based on the Jewish calendar and not the Gregorian with no Christmas, Thanksgiving or Halloween. I went through a period of wanting to be called 'Gen' instead of Genevieve to make it less obvious that I wasn't Jewish. So that I wouldn't be left out, or have assumptions made about me. I had to get used to being categorized within a group, not by my individual actions. People would make associations and assumptions about how non­-Jewish people have acted historically towards Jews and accept that, and as far as I personally felt from this history, I was still placed in the 'suspect' category. As my children grew up I would get used to their friends saying, “Well, your mom is not Jewish”, and wonder if my broken Hebrew embarrassed them.

I'm not sure when but at a certain point I began embracing the diversity of our family. I returned to the high value diversity that was in San Francisco. I realized that my outsider/insider status has allowed me to become friends with both Palestinians and Jewish people and I don't carry the historical burden they both have. I realized I have a very unique perspective and it is up to me to define how I relate to the Jewish culture. I began to light candles on Shabbat, do the ceremonial bath, the Mikveh, listen to Arabic music on the radio while driving, pepper my English with Hebrew and Arabic. I learned to love both of these rich cultures and feel deeply for their histories and struggles. Jewish people hold a heavy collective trauma from the Holocaust which is still being processed and the Palestinians in the Territories are suffering under Occupation.

Within all this background we have embraced our diversity as a family. It is a core value that guides us. My children see and experience the world through diverse experiences and perspectives. Diversity is not easy. It requires more than saying 'we are one'. It requires making space for the distinct experiences and stories of different people who often have conflicting values. By focusing on equality, belonging, and a willingness to accept our differences, what is universal between us is strengthened and real diversity is possible. 

Connect with author through Instagram- @genevieve.family