Native Resistance: Decolonizing My Birth Experience

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.

Waiting for baby.
Waiting for baby.

Hospital versus Home Births

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.
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?

Copyright © IAIA CHRONICLE 2013

 

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18 Responses
  1. Hello! I deeply appreciate reading this. I’m exploring & opening up the topic of decolonizing birth among all people willing to converse. Would you be open to connecting to share more by phone or email? I’m a birth & postpartum doula as well as activist. Thank you again for sharing & following your heart.

  2. I am so proud of you. This is what will REactivate the DNA of our Feminine Power. You and your baby created a NEW legacy beyond colonization’s victim consciousness. We all have been colonized therefore we must REMEMBER our customs WITHOUT FEAR in order to be free. Your sharing is so rich & I honor you for telling your story and giving us courage to proceed.

  3. Lois

    Brava for persevering! I am so glad you found a way to have the birth you wanted. I hope many others will follow you in that.
    I am non-Native, but I had a similar desire for an out-of-hospital experience, after my sterile and unsatisfying first hospital birth. I found it with midwives (bless them!) in 1977 and 1987. My mother was born at home in the 1920s, and had managed a low-intervention hospital birth for my sister in the 1950s, but was still nervous about my choice. She was brave and supportive, though, and attended two of my births: the experiences deepened the bond between us.

  4. Lynn

    What do you mean by ‘Hippie”? They are just human beings trying to do their best to live authentic lives. I’m sure they draw on many cultural examples about how to live holistically in harmony with the planet. Even to use the term “hippie” is dismissive in today’s world.

    Using the phraseology “”upper-class, middle-aged liberals who espouse and can afford an organic, holistic, “alternative” life experience”” dismisses all the lower & middle class, young and eldery folks in Santa Fe who try to honor the planet by eating organic and finding cultural examples from all sources.

  5. Matthew J. Martinez

    “bringing a new life into the world is about as sacred as it gets!” Well said.

    I wonder what occurred during 1927-1973 that lead to this rapid shift from home births to a focus on hospitals? I think we can point to the obvious relocation movements and assimilation efforts but I’d perhaps think about men who served in WWII, Vietnam and other arenas where many times women and families were left alone, confronted with a choice and perhaps convinced non-Indians ways were best (I.e. HUD housing as splitting up extended family networks).

    Patrisia Gonzales recently published “Red Medicine: Traditional Indigenous Rites of Birthing and Healing” that is in line with these cultural and spiritual shifts you talk about. Although not specifically Pueblo, her writing addresses the practice of women healers and reclaiming indigenous knowledges. The blessing is that we are all positioned to learn and reclaim traditional practices. Thanks for your conscious raising article! Maize is gorgeous!

  6. Grace

    I am a certified nurse midwife and I am white. I tried getting a job with the Indian Health Service in both NM and AZ. I had several interviews and did not get hired. Nearly all the CNMs with IHS are white. But I am extremely interested in native culture, native midwives, and native birthing practices. I could not find any native midwives, and there was very little information about native birthing practices. I had worked as an RN for awhile at one of the hospitals. Many tribal women would return to the rez from whereever they were living, to have their children on their ancestral homelands. I thought it would be wonderful to have a birth hogan for out of hospital births, using traditional practices and rituals as much as possible. I hope more native women go into this profession.

  7. Guinnevere

    I apprenticed with a midwife in my father’s small village in Aguascalientes, Mexico, but ended up in traditional nursing instead. I hope to have my children with midwives, in my home.

    I loved your story- perhaps your calling is to be a midwife for indeginous women?

  8. Sylvia Romero Ramirez

    I am the mother of Malin Alegria Ramirez, an amazing daughter connected to her native roots. When I had my first two children in the 70’s there was a movement amongst Chicanas to reconnect with our traditional birthing ways. Like you, we found allies in the white women’s groups who were also attempting to recover their lost heritage. I am grateful for their help that empowered me to mother my daughters into this world in a loving way. I was a weakling that cried at the site of blood, but when my ancestral women stood by me on my birthing day, I felt like the most powerful woman ever created. Imagine if all native women felt that power?

  9. What a wonderful article.Thank you. It’s good to see woman realizing her strength and wants and the traditions that have been lost. The practice of midwifery is having a resurgence and even though I am past the age of childbirth, I hope when my children have children, they explore the benefits of home birth.

  10. I am home birth Mom of 3 beautiful boys, ages 10 yrs, 6 yrs and 3 mos. I am also a Pueblo woman living in Albuquerque, NM and work as a clinical social worker, specializing in infant mental health. I do agree that birthing at home has been a powerful experience for me and my family. One of the most damaging effects of colonization on our People is the ongoing ripple effect of historical/intergenerational trauma on the parent-child relationship and within our most intimate family relationships. When I was in social work school I took a workshop by an African American male social worker in Oakland, CA who referred to a phenomenon he called “slave parenting”. “Slave parenting” was the approach he often saw where by some Black parents raise their children to survive a dangerous social and environmental realities by being unsympathetic, demanding total obedience, and utilizing very harsh discipline (ex: “whippins”). In the past during the era of slavery, raising one’s child like this made sense. It could mean life or death for your child to be obedient to the slave master or be able to withstand physical suffering. But what this social worker was seeing was parents today, practicing the same type of parenting even though they and their children were not living in the realty or context of slavery. “Slave parenting” is parenting in the context of genocide, of rape, of murder, of FEAR…there is no room for empathy, or weakness or vulnerability. Sadly, our People can parent in this way too. How have these dynamics impacted our choices prenatally? during childbirth? and even parenting our littlest babies (ex: “let them cry it out, it makes them stronger”; “If I pick up my baby too much it will be too dependent on me”, etc).

    The parent-child relationship (both mother and father and child) is arguable the most fundamental relationships that exist in the human experience, for babies to depend on their caregiver(s) IS a matter of life and death. Home birth directly supports healthy bonding and attachment by creating a safe, nurturing space for both the parents and the baby in which the relationship can unfold uninterrupted. It builds a relationship between the parents and the midwife over 9 months so that there is trust and safety. How many people can say they feel safe and trust their doctors? a nurse who just came on shift?

    To truly shed the bonds of colonization for ourselves, our babies and our families we have to not only challenge the dominant paradigms of the medical birth industry (and it is BIG BUSINESS! please watch “The Business of Being Born” http://www.thebusinessofbeingborn.com/ ) but also challenge our assumptions about parenting even before our babies are born.

    When my first son was born at home there were 2 midwives, my son’s father and my mother present at the birth. My mother, a nurse for over 40 years, had never been present at any births other than those of her 4 children and most of those were highly medicated experiences which she “doesn’t really remember”. My mother was raised in a boarding school from age 5 and although she was present during my childhood, I don’t think we actually had a “bonded” relationship until I became and adult.

    When my son emerged I remember my mother crying with tears of joy and pride and as I write this I too am welling up with emotion as it was a healing moment for our relationship and for our family. To feel the caring and support and hope that only a new baby can bring into our lives… our family, was just magical…even 10 years later. I don’t think our experience would have been the same in a hospital environment.

    It wasn’t hard having a baby. My body was made to have babies (plus I do think my labor was shorter and easier (12 hrs, 6 hrs, 5 hrs respectively) with all 3 births because I was relaxed at home). It was hard to be present with all of myself, to be myself and to truly “be with” my family in a conscious and intentional way as my babies were born. The midwives with their quiet confident presence allowed each birth the happen in its own time rather than hospital/clinical rules and regulations dictating the process.

    Thank you for writing this article! I hope some of our young women will consider studying midwifery and become those capable hands catching our future with love and strength.
    In service to children and families,
    Maria Brock, LISW
    Director, Tribal Home Visiting
    Native American Professional Parent Resources, Inc.
    http://www.nappr.org

  11. Sam Hogue

    I don’t believe these traditional way are still practice. My people, the Navajos have beautiful stories starting from first conception to birth. Parents to be were told the “dos” and “don’t dos” during pregnancy. It was sacred Ceremonies were given before and after. Women folks took care of the actually laboring. Medicine man came in and did the baptism and spiritual name was given. Placenta was offered back to nature with prayers. Your story is very informative. Thank you for sharing. May creator bless you and family.

  12. Pamela Iron

    Wonderful article! Thank you for sharing! I just had that same conversation about governance on Saturday with some native college students. I wholeheartedly agree and plan to take your story with me as I have those same beliefs. I have been wanting to restore puberty rites in our native communities that have lost these teachings and ceremonies. I think this is imperative that we do this for the generations behind us.

  13. Angela Miller

    Hi Christina Castro,

    Thank you for your writing! I agree, we need to reclaim our bodies. Where are our native midwives? Where, as a new midwife, do I turn for knowledge of our medicines concerning birthing? I am with you sis. We need our grandmothers to teach us again. And if they are not around, like you did, bring it up in ourselves to teach our young ones even though the resistance can be from our own families. I’m glad your family got to learn from your strength in your birthing process.

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