Native Resistance: Decolonizing My Birth Experience

Christina and Baby360

by CHRISTINA CASTRO

Back story: My mom was born on the pueblo here in New Mexico with the assistance of a traditional midwife. The plan was for my grandmother to birth at the Indian hospital in Albuquerque, but as she could tell the baby was coming, they knew they weren’t going to make the hour drive. Thankfully at the time, there were still midwives in the village.  One was summoned to the adobe house where my grandma soon delivered my mother just fine.

By the time I came around, however, my family had migrated to Los Angeles for better opportunities during the Federal Indian Relocation era. My mom, still a teenager and fresh out of high school, birthed me at a local hospital and that was that.

Knowing how my mom came into this world made me curious about the tradition of midwifery in the pueblos. Once I learned I was expecting in the summer of 2012, even more so. Was there any Native midwives still practicing? I set about investigating home birthing locally, in books and on the web.

I was surprised to learn that in 1927, eighty-five percent of all births in the U.S. took place at home. Even in the 1940’s, fifty-five percent of births still occurred in the home. However, by 1973, ninety-one percent of babies were born in hospitals.

Has the move toward clinical birthing been good for women? Fast forward to a 2007 report by the National Institute for Health and Clincial Excellence (NICE).  The study concluded that women who give birth at home are more likely to deliver vaginally and to have greater satisfaction from the experience when compared with women who give birth in a hospital.

It also determined that the hospital setting increased the likelihood that the woman would receive analgesia, obstetrical intervention and a delivery using instruments, and decreased the woman’s satisfaction with the experience.

Finally, it reported that women who give birth at home may experience an equal or lower risk of perinatal mortality than when they receive care in a hospital. Things that make you go hmm….

I also learned that midwifery, the practice supporting a natural approach to birth, enjoyed a revival in the United States during the 1970s; clearly an offshoot of the hippie movement. Now who were the hippies modeling their counter culture lifestyles after? Think about it!

Pueblo Midwives, A Thing of the Past?

Living in Santa Fe, a city seemingly filled with upper-class, middle-aged liberals who espouse and can afford an organic, holistic, “alternative” life experience, it wasn’t hard to find some useful, local mama-to-be resources.

However, what I wasn’t able to find was the Native connection I was looking for, nor was I able to locate a practicing midwife in either of my pueblos. When I asked the Pueblo women I knew, I mostly got a deer in the headlights look. What had happened to the tradition of midwifery? Had it all but disappeared in only two generations? Sadly, that seemed to be the case.

Yet, it wasn’t completely a lost cause. I finally connected with another Pueblo woman, roughly my age, who had birthed her son at home. She said it was the single most incredible experience of her life.

She led me to the wonderful Native woman-centric organization based out of Espanola, N.M.,Tewa Women United, where I was able to connect with a highly competent, cool as a cucumber, licensed midwife; not Native but totally knowledgeable and culturally aware, nonetheless.

Incidentally, New Mexico is one of 10 states that accept Medicaid for home birth which makes it a truly viable alternative to the conventional hospital birth for low-income women.

Decolonization Begins at Home

Being an overall healthy, low-risk Native woman attempting to live an authentic indigenous experience, I knew I wanted to “decolonize” my labor.

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve hated hospitals and the sickness and smell associated with them. I knew instinctively that I did not want a medically-centered, medicated labor experience; rather, I wanted to be in a comfortable setting with the people, objects and ambience of my own creation.

Besides, if my grandma and countless Native women before her had birthed in the comfort of their own adobe homes, tipis, wigwams, wikiups, longhouses, igloos, why couldn’t I?

Once I found my midwife, I was ready to tell the women in my family about my decision, bringing new meaning to the phrase Native resistance!

Both my mom and grandma, the same one who birthed on a dirt floor in the pueblo, tried to talk me out of it. You’re too old! What if something happens?! Blah, blah, blah.

I chose then to ignore any fear-based thought processes and move those kinds of conversations on, recognizing some women weren’t capable of understanding the experience I was seeking.

Maize Jade Castro Harris made her way into this world on April 8, 2013, at 8:54 a.m. in the comfort of our home, my bedroom to be exact. It was a long and arduous labor. There’s nothing romantic about it; it’s hard, painful work. But I am happy to have experienced it in all its blood, sweat and tears, of sound mind and not doped up on painkillers.

And One More Thing

If people weren’t shocked enough by my choice to have a home birth, what freaks them out more is when I tell them I ate my placenta.

Of all people, it was Kim Kardashian who recently brought this topic to the mainstream on her reality show, “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.”

While still pregnant, Kim considered eating her placenta. I know, trust me, it sounds crazy at first, but the reality is that pretty much all female animals eat their placenta after birth.

In my copious research, I learned the benefits for us human females are that eating it in some capacity, of which there are several, is said to regulate hormones, replenish nutrients lost after birth, restore mama’s energy and help to alleviate post partum depression.

Henrietta Toledo holds her newborn granddaughter, Maize.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And noo…I already know what you’re thinking! I didn’t eat it raw, Apocalypto- style, though I most certainly could have. Through the “earthy” mama network, I found a great lady here in Santa Fe who does placenta encapsulation.

She came to my house shortly after the baby was born and conducted the entire process with complete transparency so that the placenta never left my home. The result was a freeze-dried placenta powder, gently sifted into glycerine pills.  She offered me a broth to drink as well but…I wasn’t that hardcore.

Present in the room were my two amazing midwives and my awesome husband. My mom was close by in the house, and was able to cook and care for all of us as her granddaughter’s arrival approached. I cannot express how lovely it was to have her there, as she had been so nervous about it at first.

After it was all said and done, her beautiful, healthy grandbaby in her arms, she totally understood why I wanted to do it the way I did.

In retrospect, I would like to have shown more excitement about it all but I have learned to quell my enthusiasm. Some women just aren’t ready and have had a shocked, sometimes truly fearful reaction. Most can’t envision a labor without drug intervention.

The Challenge

Of course, not all women can or want to have a homebirth for a myriad of reasons that I won’t get into, but my burning question is this: Why have we as Native people in general, become so dependent on Western medicine and ideologies?

As indigenous women, what happened to our inherent womanly circles of support, in the time of birth and otherwise? Where are our traditional midwives and feminine knowledge

keepers?

We must recognize that when we talk about self-determination and sovereignty, this includes taking back our holistic health, especially in regard to the most sacred aspects of our lives!

Granted, I understand as a people we are still facing the effects of colonization and all that comes with it, but we need to start somewhere and what better way than with taking ownership of our bodies? If you ask me, bringing a new life into the world is about as sacred as it gets!

Are there practicing midwives in your community? If not, can we collectively reclaim these traditions and start to mend this broken hoop?

In my humble opinion, we can say as Native people we aspire to live a “traditional” life, but how do we integrate our indigenous beliefs into our daily lives in a way that shows the world who we really are?

These are challenging times to be a Native person, I know.  But if not now, when?

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