Ondaadiziike. The Ojibwe phrase for giving birth. When I was writing this article, I was hoping to combine ondaadiziike with the Ojibwe words for safety and comfort. I was surprised that the dictionaries I consulted didn’t include these words. So I was left with just ondaadiziike. No safety, no comfort to accompany it. This is reflective of modern birth culture in Native American communities, I think. Women (and girls) are giving birth without the accompaniment of safety and comfort. Modern day pre, ante, and post natal care for brown women in the United States is at times unsafe, and usually uncomfortable. Racism, sexism, poverty, and isolation have left women and their babies in desperate need for support, love, and compassion.
It wasn’t always this way. Native women were long respected as life givers. Our ancestors had mysterious, spirited reproductive powers. Women were forbidden to enter the dance arena during their moon time (a practice still respected in modern Powwow culture); not because they were viewed as dirty or hysterical, but because these women were so powerful during this time in the life cycle that they could take away power from anyone in the circle. So they stayed out in respect to their community members. Women took care of each other, Aunties, Grannies, Mothers, and Sisters. But women were also independent, knowledgeable, and assertive in their bodily rights. Reproductive culture varied from tribe to tribe but one thing was constant: women’s powers were sacred.
Enter Western patriarchy. Native women were subjected to horrors manifested in all aspects of bodily harm. Our ancestors were kidnapped, gang raped, and fed to war dogs. Eaten for entertainment in circus like manner. Forced to marry white men and birth babies alone, without the help of their beloved Sisters. Traditional knowledge of menstruation, pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding were lost, and Native women today still pay the price. Of all the ethnicities in the US, Native women suffer the most when it comes to birth. We have some of the highest teenage pregnancy rates, pre-term birth rates, maternal and neonatal morbidity rates, and some of the lowest breastfeeding rates. Reproduction in our community has become dangerous and unpredictable at worst, and casual at best as women forget just how powerful their bodies can be. Studies have proved that these racial disparities exist because of poverty and racism.
I’ve been inflicted with the pain of my sisters. I have dreamt about it and received pleas for help from the ancestors who visit me in my sleep. Doula care is going to be incredibly important in mending the disparities in pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding. I realize this. I need my sisters to realize this, too, and step up to fill that space along with me. We need Native women to become doulas, certified or not. We need a group of women to get together and create a resource for Native doulas and their families; a resource describing and honoring the traditions of our ancestors that includes a dictionary dedicated to Native birthing practices and care.We need women to learn how to navigate and negotiate modern and traditional medicine and birthing ways with confidence, sensitivity, and power. We need women to come back to the communities they came from and offer their support to their Sisters. No woman should be without the knowledge of how to take care of her body in her life. No woman should suffer traumatic pregnancies and births.
Indigenous women’s group revives teachings about ‘moon time’ to heal from past traumas
By Cherise Seucharan, Eva Uguen-Csenge, for CBC News Posted: Apr 21, 2016 8:00 AM ETLast Updated: Apr 21, 2016 4:55 PM ET
Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside can be a grim place for women, with high rates of trafficking and street violence. But every other Wednesday, a group of women are learning to honour their bodies –– by reviving Indigneous teachings about periods or “moon time”, women’s lodges and the medicine wheel.
“We’re in tune with our bodies and what’s going on,” says Nora Hanuse, founder of the Women’s Healing Circle, which meets at the Aboriginal Front Door Society, a culturally-based wellness centre in the heart of the DTES.
By reviving Indigneous ceremonies in an urban setting, Hanuse hopes she’s helping to undo some of the stigma women hold about their bodies — and creating a safe space to talk about the traumas many have faced as Indigneous women.
To this end, Hanuse incorporates into her weekly meetings what elders have taught her about the powerful role of women.
Hanuse, originally from the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nation near Cape Mudge, says menstrual cycles are considered to be sacred and the time of the month when a woman is at her purest. In some Indigneous communities, women on their monthly cycle will gather in moon lodges where they are revered and served by other members of the community.
Among the groups’ participants are survivors of residential schooling, former foster children, and women who have suffered from substance abuse.
“A lot of them carry a lot of sadness and hurt and anger,” Hanuse says.
‘Because they’re lost’
Despite the high proportion of Indigneous people living on the Downtown Eastside, Indigneous women still have a hard time finding places to learn or practice traditional ceremonies. Hanuse says many need the women’s group “because they are lost.”
The Women’s Healing Circle is one of the only places in the city that provides a safe and welcoming space for all women, whatever their circumstances.
“I never judge them, no matter what their background is,” says Hanuse. “And that’s how I treat everybody on the Downtown Eastside. I love them as if they were my own children or they were my own family … If they come to me and say ‘I need a hug,’ I give them a hug because there’s not enough humanity down there.”
Living in the Downtown Eastside can require tough skin, something that often translates into hostility between women.
“Women, our claws come out and we get vicious. We become the aggressors because we self-doubt ourselves. We don’t have enough pride in who we are. I’m guilty of it too.”
Hanuse has come a long way herself. She survived childhood abuse only to fall into alcoholism and later an abusive marriage. She found her way back to teachings at the age of 23 after seeking counselling which encouraged her to reconnect with her culture.
Hanuse sought the knowledge of an elder to help lead the group in teachings, so she brought in Elder Lorelei Hawkins, who has lived and worked with women on the DTES for decades.
Hawkins began her journey to becoming a traditional healer when she returned to her Cherokee lands as a young woman. She brings her traditional knowledge of menstrual cycles or moon time to the women and teaches them about their connection to the earth.
“Women have a blood flow from moon time that connects to Mother Earth,” says Hawkins during one of the circles. “Because our blood flow goes to Mother Earth and because we carry life, all of the knowledge and the footprints that come before us, we carry that within us as women.”
Hawkins roots all her conversations about sex and positive body image in Indigneous culture and spirituality, with an underlying message that women have a special, powerful connection with the world.
“It was the women who are the keepers of the ancient knowledge … they’re the keepers of the culture because they actually teach it and show it and enact it,” says Hawkins
Hawkins uses the medicine wheel — a circle made of yellow, red, black and white quadrants with each quadrant representing one aspect of a person’s well-being — to explain how to keep all parts of the body in balance.
Hanuse encourages the women to apply these teachings to everyday experiences — and challenge feelings of shame about their bodies and sexuality. She feels women should enjoy their sexuality without judgment.
“If it feels good and it isn’t hurting anyone, you should do it and there’s no shame in it,” Hanuse says.
Funding it herself
Hanuse first came to the Aboriginal Front Door Society as a six-month practicum student through her master’s program at UBC. Three years later, she remains with the women’s group, funding the group’s meals and programs — even after the money ran out last year.
‘I do what they need, not what I need, not what some funder tells me they need.’ – Nora Hanuse, founder of Women’s Healing Circle
“I fund it myself and would keep funding it,” she says. “It’s my baby.”
Hanuse values the independence she has to respond to the individual needs of the women when they arise. She uses a variety of methods to help them cope with negative emotions, incorporating everything from smudging ceremonies to crafting and journaling.
“I do what they need, not what I need, not what some funder tells me they need. I do what the women need,” says Hanuse.
In many Native American cultures, breastfeeding is viewed as more than nourishing babies the way nature intended; it’s viewed as a way to nourish a baby’s mind, body and spirit.
“We believe that breast milk doesn’t just nurture babies, it conveys a mother’s life story, including her knowledge and culture,” explains Amanda Singer, president of the Navajo Nation Breastfeeding Coalition. “Breast milk makes babies strong and healthy, so that they’re ready to face the challenges of their tomorrows,” Singer adds, validating the importance of breastfeeding in Native American communities.
For many Native Americans, however, this belief and the tradition of breastfeeding has lapsed over generations of historical trauma. The U.S. government’s assimilation policies divided families and discouraged or disallowed cultural teachings. The boarding school era, when Native children were separated from their families in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was especially devastating.
Today, Native mothers and babies have one of the lowest exclusive breastfeeding rates at six months (as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics) of any race or ethnicity in the nation. At the same time, they face serious health challenges, including skyrocketing rates of obesity and diabetes, which lead to other health problems.
For Native communities, breastfeeding is a public health issue. Because of the enduring health benefits breastfeeding provides, community leaders and medical professionals are making a concerted effort to reconnect Native women to the cultural tradition of breastfeeding.
First Lady Michelle Obama’s launch of Let’s Move! in Indian Country in 2011 and the call for every Indian Health Service (IHS) birthing hospital in the United States to become Baby-Friendly has spurred the transformation of hospitals in Native communities. As of December 2014, IHS announced all 13 of its birthing hospitals are designated Baby-Friendly, meaning they provide optimal maternity care and breastfeeding support. Now, more than 4,500 Native American babies each year will benefit.
To help make Baby-Friendly a reality in Indian Country, IHS hired Anne Merewood, associate professor of pediatrics and director of Boston Medical Center’s Breastfeeding Center, as a consultant. “We know that breastfeeding can significantly improve the health and well-being of Native American mothers and babies,” explains Merewood. “That’s why we’re partnering with IHS, tribal hospitals and Native communities to increase breastfeeding rates in Indian Country.”
Merewood and her team worked with hospital administrators, doctors and nurses to help them understand the Baby-Friendly Initiative and train them on the 10 Steps to Successful Breastfeeding, required for the designation. A key to her success was collaborating with Native doctors and nurses to serve as advocates and conduct trainings, ensuring cultural relevancy with the content. She also credits IHS for their leadership and commitment to realizing this vision.
“Indian Health Service’s achievement sets a new standard in breastfeeding support to which every birthing hospital in the U.S. ought to aspire,” says Merewood. “If IHS hospitals, which have limited resources and serve high-risk populations, can achieve Baby-Friendly designation, then any hospital can do this.”
“The Breastfeeding Center’s efforts have been instrumental in accelerating a cultural shift to make breastfeeding the norm again in Indian Country,” says Carla Thompson, vice president for program strategy at the Kellogg Foundation. “This shift is critical for the health of American Indian babies and their moms, and for our communities as a whole.”
With funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Breastfeeding Center is helping create a network of breastfeeding support in tribal communities and with others who want to improve breastfeeding rates in Indian Country. They launched the Indian Country Breastfeeds website to share resources and connect the people and groups working to support breastfeeding in Indian Country.
In May 2014, the Breastfeeding Center hosted the first-of-its-kind Maternity Care and Infant Feeding in Indian Country conference, bringing together 150 health professionals, hospital administrators and community leaders from 20 tribes to learn about the past, present and future of breastfeeding in Indian Country. In addition to increasing understanding and support for the Bringing Baby-Friendly to Indian Country Initiative, the conference instilled a sense of camaraderie and connection between IHS hospitals who had gained – or were on the pathway to gaining – Baby-Friendly designation.
The Breastfeeding Center’s next focus is on helping tribal birthing hospitals achieve Baby-Friendly designation, which will benefit more than 5,500 Native American and Alaska Native babies and their moms each year.
By Nikki Wiart, CBC News Posted: Jul 27, 2015 7:00 AM ET
It’s not often a job description includes monitoring fetal heart rates and taking blood samples in the back of a car or in the bathroom of a fast food joint.
But that’s exactly what employees of an inner city prenatal program in Edmonton do.
At-risk pregnant women on the street are “incredibly scared of the system,” says Marliss Taylor, a nurse who helped found HER Pregnancy — which stands for Healthy, Empowered and Resilient — in 2008.
HER is an aggressive outreach program for pregnant women living on the streets. It’s based out of Boyle Street Community Services’ Streetworks program in downtown Edmonton and it’s seeing a lot of success.
In an independent review of the agency, Children’s Services predicted that 95 to 100 per cent of HER’s clients would have lost their children to apprehension. Instead, 52 per cent of those women were actually successfully parenting — photographic proof of which lines the walls of the program’s pregnancy room.
Falon Quinn is eight months pregnant, and says HER Pregnancy is giving her the help she needs to keep her baby.
“I would probably still be homeless — pregnant and homeless — not knowing what to do,” Quinn said. “Probably doing drugs and alcohol if I didn’t have the supports I do today.”
That success hasn’t been lost on the provincial government either. As of early July, Alberta’s new NDP government promised the program an additional $200,000, on top of the $1.4 million over three years promised in 2014 by the Progressive Conservatives.
Alberta Health has also provided funding for two similar programs in Red Deer and Calgary.
Aboriginal focus, shared experience
Morgan Chalifoux, a pregnancy support worker with the program, is Métis; she’s been through the system, lived on the streets and was a teen mom.
“Honestly, if I wasn’t aboriginal, if I didn’t have the experience, if I didn’t use when I was on the street, if I didn’t understand what it was like to have my son threatened to be taken away from me … I wouldn’t be able to have the success that I have now with the clients,” Chalifoux said.
According to Erin Konsmo, from the Native Youth Sexual Health Network, these shared experiences “make a world of difference.”
“When you see somebody that looks like you, that can speak about communities that are similar to yours, experiences that are similar to yours, you’re going to have a much safer experience as a young mom.”
Ninety per cent of HER clients are aboriginal, including Quinn, who is from Saddle Lake First Nation. That’s a large reason why 50 per cent of Streetworks’ staff is also aboriginal.
“Indigenous-to-indigenous relationships are super important,” said Konsmo, who has a Métis and Nehiyaw background.
The program’s manager, Marliss Taylor, said the high number of indigenous clients is a reflection of bigger issues within the community.
“I think that a lot of mainstream folks still don’t appreciate the incredible effects of the residential school system,” she said.
“[HER] has a really critical viewpoint on some of the larger historical legacies that make people homeless,” Konsmo said
More flexibility than mainstream health care system
HER is a modest operation, with three pregnancy support workers, two registered nurses, and a social worker. It is made up of a small, dimly-lit room filled with secondhand furniture that they call their pregnancy room, as well as another room for nursing.
“It’s close to them. It’s a little gritty; doesn’t feel like a formal doctor’s office,” she said.
‘That fetal heartbeat is much more than just a diagnostic ‘how’s the baby doing?’ It represents hope.’ – Marliss Taylor, nurse with HER Pregnancy
HER employees help clients make key decisions early on in the pregnancy and support whatever decision is made. HER will put clients in touch with a Children’s Services agent, so that when the baby is born, the agent knows who the mother is and what work they’ve done to keep their child. In many cases, it means they are less likely to immediately apprehend the child.
The program also approaches prenatal care from a harm-reduction standpoint rather than an abstinence-based one, which can include encouraging women who use drugs and alcohol to use less.
“We have women come in and say ‘I need to hear that baby’s heartbeat because I feel like using right now.’ And that’s a control for them,” Taylor said.
“That fetal heartbeat is much more than just a diagnostic ‘how’s the baby doing?’ It represents hope.”
HER keeps supporting mothers up to six months after delivery to ensure they’re on the right track to being a successful parent.
This dedication is what makes the program different from others offered through Alberta Health Services.
“You can just come and talk to them and they’re not like, ‘OK, you gotta go. I have another appointment,'” Quinn said.
“They make you feel comfortable and make you feel like they’re family.”
A feeling Taylor said can make a huge impact on a soon-to-be mom.
Aboriginal Maternal Health in British Columbia
The Pregnant Frog Woman
Artist Jamie Nole- Injanes Art LIfe
“Our grandmas tell us we’re the first environment, that our babies inside of our bodies see through the mother’s eyes and hear through the mother’s ears. Our bodies as women are the first environment of the baby coming, and the responsibility of that is such that we need to reawaken our women to the power that is inherent in that transformative process that birth should be.
(Katsi Cook as quoted in an interview with Wessman & Harvey, 2000)”
“Empowerment | The inner beauty of Indigenous Mothers who come together and do more than just raise a child, they raise each other and empower one another. In this piece I wanted to depict all the beautiful kind hearted women that encourage and empower other mothers.” Artwork by Wakeah Ihane
Jude Services, along with Cold Lake First Nations, is excited to present the first annual “Indigenous Women’s Traditional Conference” to take place on May 27 – 29, 2016 at the traditional territory of Cold Lake First Nations called English Bay located a short distance from the beautiful city of Cold Lake, Alberta. The theme is, “Healing from the Past, Moving Forward.” The purpose of this event is to bring Indigenous women together to begin the process of reconciliation and help each other heal from the past wrong doings such as residential school syndrome, the loss of our livelihood, how it has impacted our children and grandchildren, bringing back traditional parenting skills, self care, dealing with grief and loss, moving forward and creating healthy communities. Women are the givers of life and we hope to inspire them by providing the tools that will enable them to move forward and take their place in society as leaders and caregivers. Workshops would focus on building respectful relationships, traditional parenting, grieving and forms of grieving, coping with loss and discussions about why we are losing our youth to violence, drugs, alcohol and suicide. We will also build a platform to begin the strategy of taking action within our communities and rebuilding ourselves so we can help each other to grow. Participants will leave this event feeling motivated, inspired, and holistic which would help them begin the process of healing within. We will create a working group to target various issues that impact our communities and provide solutions by taking a unified approach.
This event is open to all Indigenous Women that want to make positive changes and create an atmosphere of working together to improve the quality of life at their communities, organizations or regions. The gathering is designed to build participant’s personal resilience and expand their support networks among them.
For more information: call Judy Nest at 780.207.5044 or Cheryl Maurice at 306.202.7685
Authors: Kayla Serrato & Nicole Gibbons
Partners from the communities of Skidegate and Old Massett, First Nations Health Authority, Northern Health, the local Medical Advisory Committee, the Midwives Association of BC and midwives Celina Laursen and Shannon Greenwood celebrated the launch of a two midwife model to practice and support pregnancies and birth for all women on Haida Gwaii in February 2016.
The journey of bringing birth closer to home and into the hands of women has resulted in a two midwife model of care supporting perinatal services in Haida Gwaii. On February 18, 2016 at Haida House in Tlell, partners celebrated the ceremonial signing of two alternative payment plan contracts allowing two midwives to practice and support pregnancies and birth in a rural and remote environment, enhancing maternal and child health programs and services for all women on Haida Gwaii. These midwives are linked to local physicians, nurses, doulas and community program staff and have the ability to support labor and delivery at the homes of women or at the Queen Charlotte Island General Hospital. The realization of this model was a result of collaboration between the communities of Skidegate and Old Massett, First Nations Health Authority, Northern Health, the local Medical Advisory Committee, the Midwives Association of BC and midwives Celina Laursen and Shannon Greenwood.
The vision and perseverance of Skidegate and Old Massett made this Community-Driven, Nation-Based model a reality. In this model, both midwives offer regular midwifery care to all women on Haida Gwaii who choose this service, while also supporting maternal child health programming offered in community, on-reserve. One midwife primarily supports the north island and works with Old Massett and one midwife primarily supports the south island and works with Skidegate. Having a midwife present and available in community to connect with women thinking about having a baby, pregnant women, new parents and infants is intended to improve access to care and enhance services received.
During the ceremonial signing, the group was grateful to have Elders present from both Skidegate and Old Massett, who shared kind words to open and close the day. The history of giving birth on Haida Gwaii was talked about and the work of previous midwives and physicians over the years was honoured. All partners involved had an opportunity to share their reflections about the importance of this work. Many acknowledged the discussions and negotiations involved in finalizing this model were emotional and challenging but emphasized the common passion and personal and professional growth that resulted. Personal birth stories, traditional birth practices and a Haida song were shared. Celina and Shannon both shared their journeys in deciding to become a registered midwife. The strength and meaning of being able to have family present to play an active part of a baby’s welcoming, on traditional territory was celebrated. Following local protocol, after the ceremonial signing of certificates gifts were shared with witnesses.
Midwifery care and maternal child health are areas of work that link closely with FNHA’s vision of Healthy, Self-Determining and Vibrant BC First Nations Children, Families and Communities. A big congratulations goes out to the communities and all partners involved in making this two midwife model on Haida Gwaii possible. It is hoped that this work will inspire other First Nations communities, regional health authority partners and primary care providers to consider new ways to provide maternal child health care that better meets the needs of communities and continues to move forward the priority of bringing birth closer to home.
For more information about midwives:
For more information about considerations in developing a collaborative maternity care model:
Read more on FNHA Maternal, Child and Family Health here: http://www.fnha.ca/what-we-do/maternal-child-and-family-health
Lack of midwifery funding from Alberta Health Services has placed the Lakeland region’s only midwife centre at risk of closure.
In September, the Alberta government increased funding for midwifery services by $1.8 million to enable 400 more midwife-supported births for the fiscal year. Currently, there are already more than 1,800 women on waiting lists for midwife care in the province. While further funding is needed to support the rising waitlist, AHS recently announced that they will be maintaining the same amount of funding for the 2016/2017.
Alberta Association of Midwives (AAM) has been passionately rallying for the cause by pushing the Alberta government to increase funding in order to support the staggering number of women hoping to receive midwife care.
“The increase in the number of courses of care by 17- 18 per cent last year is not an increase in pay for midwives, it is an increase in the number of Albertans who can receive midwifery care. Even with this increase our midwives are not utilized to their full capacity,” wrote AAM in a statement on their website.
“We also continue to ask that the number of courses of care be immediately increased to allow midwives to work at their full capacity to accommodate as many of the 1,800 pregnant Albertans who are currently waiting for care as possible. Many of Alberta’s midwives are only working part-time, or even less, With the dozen students graduating this spring, our midwives can serve 3,800 pregnant Albertans who are having babies and want access to midwifery care in this fiscal year.”
The lack of funding is also putting many of the province’s midwives at risk of having to close their practices as they may not receive enough funding to support their services for the entire year. The clinics that are most at-risk are ones located in rural areas whose waitlists are not as long as the clinics located in the metropolitan cities like Edmonton and Calgary.
The St. Albert Community midwives clinic had to recently close their doors and now Lac La Biche’s Tree de la Vie clinic fears they may eventually face the same fate.
Tree de la Vie opened their doors four months ago, in Nov. 2015. The clinic is located in Plamondon and they have hospital privileges in Lac La Biche.
As the first midwives’ clinic to serve communities north-east of Edmonton, their clientele has been rapidly increasing with women coming from 10 different communities.
The clinic is run by two registered midwives, Marianne King and Chantal Gauthier-Vaillancourt.
“We get clients from Lloydminster, Vermillion, Fort McMurray, Athabasca, Cold lake, Bonnyville, St. Paul and all over the area. About 20 per cent of our clientele right now are from the Cold Lake and Bonnyville area,” said Gauthier-Vaillancourt.
Along with being passionate about their profession, King and Gauthier-Vaillancourt opened up their midwives clinic to make the service accessible and available to women in the aforementioned communities.
“Both of us know there’s definitely a need and we both are just passionate about offering that care to women in rural areas and in our home communities,” said Gauthier-Vaillancourt.
“To us it’s about making women feel most comfortable and safe during their pregnancy. Some women feel comfortable with doctors but other women would rather take a different route – that’s why we feel so passionate about being able to offer that alternative.”
Marla Haring is a Tree de la Vie client from Cold Lake who was originally going to see a doctor but eventually opted for a midwife-assisted birth. Haring was pleased by the services she received from King and Gauthier-Vaillancourt and expressed her hope that the clinic remain open to continue to serve women in the area.
“Women should have options with how they want to have their babies and seeing a typical doctor doesn’t necessarily work for everybody. I just find you get a lot more support from a midwife – with them, if I had any questions during my pregnancy I could just send them a text or call them and I would have an answer right away,” said Haring.
Prior to Tree de la Vie’s opening, many women would be traveling as far as Edmonton or Calgary to receive midwifery services.
“A lot of our out-of-town clients would be traveling regardless. If you look at Athabasca and Boyle which are about 40 minutes from us, neither of those communities has obstetrical care at all.
“Even if they wanted to have their baby at the hospital in their community, they don’t have that choice. They’d have to go to Edmonton or come to us,” said Gauthier-Vaillancourt.
Despite having just opened four months ago and experiencing notable success, Gauthier-Vaillancourt fears that the government’s lack of funding will put them at risk of closing their doors by the end of the year.
“It’s been quite stressful and overwhelming because we’ve only been around for four months and we’re just getting going. But now we’re not sure if we have funding past October,” said Gauthier-Vaillancourt.
“So even the women that are calling us with due dates that are beginning of November, we’ve kind of put those on hold because we don’t want to be in this predicament where we’re taking them into our care and then telling them I’m sorry but we can’t.
“We definitely don’t want to be committing to care if we’re not going to be in a position to do so.”