Monday, July 2, 2012

Where are all the Native Midwives?

        Zia Pueblo Traditional Midwife

As more individuals become aware of Native American health issues, they somehow end up exploring our  indigenous roots.  At which point they will find little historical evidence as to our pre-colonal existence.    At least in the scholarly literature sense.  I think this is a good question to ask, because it is one that I wonder about as well. Yes, our ancestors did roam the earth before columbus "discovered" the new world.  I have to laugh a little at the word "discovered" because unfortunately, this time marks the beginning of our end.  This historical event is actually not just a whisper of talk, there is empirical evidence that after the "new world" was discovered, our numbers as indigenous peoples of the Americas took a very steep downward spiral.  The cause of this event can be blamed on disease.  New visitors, brought new disease's.  I think the interesting piece in this is that before "contact" as we like to call it, indigenous peoples did in fact have our own healers.  Unfortunately, since colonial domination our healers have gone away.  Well, not entirely....our indigenous practices within the realm of healing has just gone underground.  The reason for this is "religion."  Not only did columbus bring foreign diseases, they brought their faith.  At which in their eyes I'm sure they felt that the hand of God needed to be extended into our villages so that we could be converted to their faith, however this very act is what also contributed to our demise.
          Fast forwarding to today, I had an interesting conversation with my father-in-law.  We were celebrating "All Souls Day"..which as a Navajo, this is a conflict of interest for me, but as that I live in Pueblo territory, I've had to adapt to a different set of traditional models of living.  For those of you who  have never set foot on Pueblo reservations, there is a Catholic church and a very strong inter-twinning of catholic faith and tradition in every Pueblo.  As to why these steeples of faith are even standing in  the pueblo is a whole other topic, and I will have to save that for another blog.  However, we got to talking, All souls day is a catholic event, usually the day after Oct 1.  It is also celebrated in a traditional way.  It may have been a catholic event, but the indigenous communities here were able to somehow use it as an umbrella to celebrate it in their own way.  I think this is a good example of how some indigenous communities have adapted to this new form of faith and belief.  It is also how some tribes have been able to survive.  Adapt and move forward right...

            Getting back to traditional healers, midwives included.  I mentioned earlier that they didn't necessarily all die out, but rather went underground.  Each community generally had a person who came from a long line of healers who knew which herbs to use to heal someone, but also sometimes were the very same person who helped with birth.  From what I've read from several different sources,  as our world has transitioned to newer better ways of healing (chuckle), the simple event of a hospital being resurrected on or near indigenous communities has changed our way of healing and also who we go to for healing.  I know on the Navajo reservation there was a very large campaign strongly encouraging them to go to the hospital for all their care.  This was done in light of the wave of tuberculoses and small pox that was killing everyone.  It is the same situation when it comes to birth, women were strongly encouraged to go to the hospital for prenatal care and to have their babies, rather then be attended by a traditional midwife....and deliver at home.  This was also do to the very high numbers of neonatal death and maternal death in childbirth.  However, to us..the Navajo, going to the hospital was like going to your grave.  People went there to die, why would I want to go there to be healed, when everyone just dies there.  You can see why this was a hard transition.  Also, for Navajo women, pregnancy and birth is a time of life, we are not suppose to be around anything that is to do with death.  Basically these people were telling them to go to a haunted house full of death to have there babies....ah..I don't know about you, but that makes sense!  So for many, we have Blessing Way ceremonies before going to the hospital to have our babies.  Basically to ensure a safe delivery.  No this is not what many women today would think of as a Blessing way baby shower that seems to go on these days.  No string to be tied around your wrist or made up chanting.  A real medicine man  in a hogan, cedar, prayer..the real deal...Again adapt and move forward.
                Unfortunately with all this adapting and moving forward, we are also at a point where this traditional knowledge is being lost, basically our ability to heal ourselves is being lost.  This to me is scary.  This post colonel domination has really done a number on us. You see it in our health statistics "Health Disparities" is what the more scholarly articles like to call it.  We as indigenous people know what it is that is killing us and it is not just one thing. It is many centuries of being forced to adapt to a different way of life.
                When I talk with people and they find out that there are only 10 Native American Nurse Midwives in the United States, they are shocked. And because there are so few of us.....we don't know each other personally, we know "of" each other.  Which I think is sad too.  Well, I've been lucky enough to have met 2 other Navajo Certified Nurse Midwives here in NM.  I'm pointing this out because, traditional mainstream education for Native American's is not easy to attain.  Most Native American or indigenous women have chosen direct entry midwifery or Certified Practicing Midwifery as a means of attending births in their communities.  I'm sure this choice is based on the negative relationship Native's have with education and the extreme value "professionals" place on what is considered qualified and not qualified.  However, I would guess there are more CPM's of indigenous background for this reason.  Not that mainstream education is hard to attain, but rather they refuse to bow down to the idea that what their ancestors have done for centuries has to now be stamped qualified by "qualified professionals"..this is a crazy idea!

                 So where are they?  These Native, Indigenous, Aboriginal women who attend birth, that history has done a poor job of explaining there existence and practice. They are like a myth..I've heard of them, I've seen one.  Well, I am one!  There are 2 I've met in NM.  After talking with a wonderful couple from Santa Domingo Pueblo, they said they have 3 traditional midwives still in their community.  They are not all gone.  But, like I said they have gone underground.  Not because they will be prosecuted for the work they do, but rather more Native American women are going to the hospital to have their babies and the basic understanding and importance of tradition has gone out the window.  There is also a new trend where non-native individuals are calling themselves "healers" and trying to steal our knowledge to sell for there own.  This is why we are so secretive when it comes to sharing information.
                 As an effort to meet more Native American midwives, please leave a comment, I no longer want there to be a gap in our historical place in midwifery, it is time we begin to write our own history.


  1. I wish I could point you to some Native American midwives! Unfortunately I don't know any and am in a part of the country where I'm unlikely to meet any. When I was trained as a doula in Colorado, I did work with a DEM who had been married to a Native American man and worked a lot on a reservation, but she herself was not. She did talk to us about indigenous midwives she had met and what she had learned from them.

    I wonder if you or other members of the community you have spoken with feel that the use of the term "blessing way" by non-native people is not appropriate? You're very accurate that it has become a catch-all term for various kinds of ceremonies for a pregnant woman. I've used the term without even being aware that it was specifically drawn from Native American culture, which is embarrassing to me now. It makes me wonder if this is something I should find another term for that wouldn't be appropriating someone else's religious ceremonies.

    1. When I was checking the web for the term Blessing Way, I did see a lot of birth centers and doulas who mentioned this as part of the services they provided. Some make reference to the Native American culture as to where it originated, but not all. I think it is a good thing, which is why it a lot of people probably feel that it should be available to all women. However, the problem I have with this is calling it a traditional ceremony, which it is not, unless you are a medicine man/woman from the Navajo reservation. And honestly, if you are questioning a medicine persons credentials, the community they serve usually knows them well. They don't advertise nor do they have official "papers".. There is talk among Natives of possible making medicine men/women carry some sort of certification showing who they are and what they do. But I don't agree with this. Indian Country is small, if you are really a medicine man/ women, everyone knows who you are....there is no guess.

  2. I am an Aboriginal midwife! !! I am a recent graduate from the Aboriginal Midwifery Training Program at Tsi Nonwe Ionnakeratstha Onagrahsta' on the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory in Ohsweken, Ontario, Canada.
    We are a small group of Aboriginal Midwives who provide culturally appropriate care to the woman of our own and surrounding territories. We focus on providing prenatal and postpartum care to Aboriginal families. We strive to bring birth back to our women in the community either at home or at the birthing centre. We are recognized by our council as valuable and resourceful members of our health care team. We have established excellent working relationships with OBs in hospital settings where we practise only as doulas. There is recognition from these OBs for our contribution to prenatal care of our Aboriginal women.
    I welcome correspondence with anyone that has questions or is just looking to connect.

  3. Thanks for you comment Melodie. I had the pleasure of visiting that birth center in Ontario 2 years ago. It was amazing. A dream come true for a fellow native midwife. I hope to attend this years upcoming conference in Nov. I hope to connect with you there!