Human Rights in Childbirth & Personhood
Human Rights in Childbirth & Personhood
Sa’ah Naagháí and Bik’eh Hózhóón
By: Nicolle L. Gonzales, Navajo Midwife
The evolution of personhood has evolved over time as we have bumped up against modern ways of being, even integrated this way of living to the point of it stomping out our own cultural beliefs around our bodies. This becomes even clearer for those who are bringing forth their medicine children and are learning to engage with the world in a manner that does not put the spirit of their child in harm’s way. Mae Bekis, a Navajo medicine woman explains that, “because of this lifelong connection individuals must demonstrate personal responsibilities over parts of their own bodies and bodily fluids.” Navajo Midwife, Ursula Knoki-Wilson also points out that “ adults must demonstrate responsibility over those of children.”
Special care and protection is taken once families and parents acknowledge they are bringing a life forward. Modern day language would call these traditional teachings “taboo” and renderings of simple thinking that might seem unrelated to the spiritual interplay of growth and development happening in the body. It is our work in the spirit of mothering to untangle ourselves from this thinking, but rather connect with that knowledge again and make those connections.
The challenge of modern times is maneuvering cultural systems of the past, present and future, while bringing forth our medicine children rooted in our ancestral teachings. Further, with the majority of families birthing in medical settings, where the value of our cultural teachings hold little value are merely a fraction of the violations Dine’ mothers have experienced today.
Our placenta’s have been taken away for so long, we have now stopped asking to take them home to be planted in the earth, which was a common practice for all women. Placenta’s used to be buried deep in the ash pile north of a families Hogan. However, there are many teachings about where and how it should be taken care of, this is just one rendering of how to take care of it.
Babies first bath occurring in the hospital now with no ceremony attached to handling the water after, which acknowledges the blood of birth in that water, requires care and gentle pouring back into the earth once done. That connection is not well understood today, but babies first bath water should be treated with respect and returned to the earth gently because the mix of blood and living tissue between the baby and the blood is still connected.
The cultural teachings around the care of our bodies during times of transition and transformation, like puberty, pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood have always been celebrated and treated with respect, assuming those teachings still hold true in the hearts of communities. In my travels, I have heard many versions of the care families take to protect the blessing way of their developing children. Through ceremony and respect for ways of life that connect us to our land and the cosmos, do we have the opportunity to live in harmony and balance the energies that sustain us as children of the universe.
In a just world, these cultural teachings would be available for all to know and supported in the settings where we access care, but that is not the world we live in. Establishing our human rights around some of these things is still being fought for by Indigenous midwives, whose core teachings are rooted in the culture of the communities they serve.
In many way’s Indigenous midwives not only support the cultural dynamics at play during pregnancy and childbirth, but they advocate for it to be supported in all settings. With the majority of births occurring in hospitals these days, Dine’ mothers are having to navigate a medical system that has separated the ceremony from medicine and have purposely displaced families from their natural roles, as defined by the Holy People.
Human Rights in Childbirth
The rights of Indigenous mothers and families in all settings is not being seen as reconciliation work by tribes and communities, but needs to be. As that Indigenous midwives are actively working towards rebalancing the reciprocity between the matrilineal and patrilineal sides, through supporting the cultural authority and human rights of Indigenous families to choose the circumstances of giving birth.
The human rights in childbirth for Indigenous families has been violated for the last 100 years and continues to be violated to this day. One might say that the efforts to assimilate us to western ways of living, have been so successful, that now our own Indigenous mothers don’t see the harm being done, but our maternal health statistics tell a different story. One of inequality and disrespect, as well as disregard for our own cultural systems of knowing and being, as people of the earth, water, sky and stars.
The vail of technology has weakened our own senses of connection and authority in cultural teachings that have sustained us for centuries. Often times the threat and blame of bad outcomes, used as method to disempower our voices and deep knowing, as part of the assimilation process. It is in this place where Indigenous midwives take their stance. Through relearning birth traditions and ceremony, establishing relationships with plant medicines, and rebuilding a sisterhood of healers. Coming from the four directions, some heavy with western medicine skills, others heavy with ceremony and plant medicine skills, we come together to learn from each other, all for the health of our communities.
Many of our ceremonies work to rebalance and remove obstacles in our path, so that our bodies and spirits may do the work to heal. Indigenous midwives navigate and work in between the western medicine world and the ceremonial world to support families on their terms. All the while, weaving together the necessary skills and resources to serve multi-cultural beliefs and ways of understanding the world.
Shedding light on this intricate and delicate balance between the worlds we live in as Indigenous midwives is not always well understood, but brought to the surface when we are together sharing our stories and pathways. Like the female rain, rebalancing the feminine energies is always at work, because the efforts to eliminate our way of life as indigenous women is also always at work.