Western Culture & Colonization of Birth

Western Culture


The West encourages reading and the attendance of Childbirth Education classes, along with other strategies for birthing.  In traditional cultures women “…prepare more symbolically.  They avoid all actions and thoughts that have anything to do with ‘getting stuck’ or ‘closing up’ and work on ‘letting go’. In traditional societies, women often go to midwives to confirm the pregnancy and then again only if there are special problems… (Nichols & Humenick,145)” prior to childbirth.

Another aspect is that most women within many traditional cultures used to be more directly involved in the childbearing and child birthing aspects from a young age. Her mother or aunts and grandmother would have taught her about the processes of childbearing and childbirth during childhood and/or adolescent years.  The concepts used to have “…been integrated into her maturity into adulthood (Ibid.)”. It would have come from her experiential life and stories told to her instead of a class or books.

Unfortunately, much of this kind of experience and tradition has been lost or is no longer practiced today by women. Some of the other women will talk about this or that grandma who was a midwife, and who may have been allowed at IHS for a birth. When I have asked women, they mostly talk about a more negative experience of their childbirth, if they speak up.

Traditionally, the birth of a baby was in the home, not a hospital.  Some cultures used “a special hut [that] is constructed for that purpose ;…(Ibid)”. But today, birthing mostly takes place in a hospital setting.

Close to the reservation are border towns, where bias and prejudice color the atmosphere of birth. Due to past experiences with IHS, many women may opt to not have their babies at these hospitals. Without midwives to deliver locally, this is what women on the Rosebud (Sicangu Oyate) Reservation face today.

In border towns, the hospitals have their own regulations as to who may attend the birth. They may also decide on whether a woman can have assisted births (Nurse-midwives/doulas/or family supporters).

De-Colonization of Birth

In the 90s, several women, including myself, were having weekly meetings regarding birth in Indian country. Each week we would have speakers come to share their stories and ideas.

I found it interesting that the biggest objections came via a native woman who was working at IHS. She bluntly stated that no midwife would work through the IHS hospital in Rosebud, if she had a say.

IHS or PHS is a government funded health organization in the United States intended specifically for native health care.  Unfortunately it has its own regulations based upon the government in which native people have been the object of clinical abuse and government sanctioned studies [such as the Eugenics Program; See: ]. The intent of these studies was to lower native populations.

Such historical actions color the way in which indigenous women see childbirth in the dominant society. It creates an atmosphere of distrust in native women, that they too would be subject to similar treatment.

And lest we forget, there have been studies that demonstrated genetic memories. So whether the Eugenics Program was known to them or not, the emotional trauma would still be triggered.

Native women feel marginalized by non-native providers of health care, due to attitudes of the providers. If native health care providers are not available, cultural competence of the health care provider that is on hand is an essential for the indigenous person giving birth. In a study conducted with first-nations women, specially the Mi’kmaq, Lothian stated that “Women need to be assured they can have trust in the birth process (Lavell-Harvard & Lavelle, 50)”.

There are native women who have become Doulas, and who are nurse-midwives. In Vancouver, BC there is a group of women from the Squamish people working to assist women [Ekw’i7tl Doula Collective]. In Minnesota there is a group of native people from the Anishinabe that is training women in Doula work, Childbirth Education, and Breastfeeding [Mewinzha Ondaadiziike Wiigaming /Bemidji, MN]. In New Mexico the first native birthing center [The Changing Woman Initiative] is being developed for  indigenous women.





A Good Question

What needs to happen, in order to fix a broken system? Your probably wondering what I mean by a broken system. I am talking about the care of women, and especially birthing.

In a nation that has been considered “advanced” we are so far behind the eight-ball that it becomes shameful. Our c-Section rates were seriously through-the-roof, and although some improvement has been made still higher than most “civilized” countries! The average being around 31%.

Along  with that outrageous number of c-Sections are the ever-climbing mortality rates of women in birth, predominately women of color. This is shameful in a country that is supposed to be “advanced”!

On top of both high c-Section rates, and high mortality rates for birthing, is the across-the-racial-board birth trauma. It should NEVER happen! But, we have nurses and doctors who force women into procedures, who intimidate and threaten.

The media makes it seem that birth is both dangerous and extremely painful. When that consciousness is embedded in the psyche of women, and you have a medical field that relies on mechanical means to monitor births… the stage is set. We have normalized bad birthing practices, and outdated concepts about birth.

That is without discussing the current political scenarios.

The next few blogs will address the history behind, and the current information about birthing in the United States. The outdated concepts surrounding birth practices need debunking. The normalization of bad birthing practices needs to have a light shown upon it, in order to make it STOP.

It is time to become educated,

get angry,

and create a change!

My sister site will also be publishing this information, although later, at joyousbirth

Issues Part 4

The issues that affect Lakota Native women during pregnancy and childbirth in regards to: Racism, Sexism, and Oppression?

Infant mortality is higher in teen births, birth weights of their babies lower, the possibility of premature birth and the birth defects more common in premature births. Premature birth is higher in this sector of the population, often due to violence during the prenatal period.
The rise in teen birth Indian country is alarming. “46% of Native American mothers are under 20 when they have their first child, compared with 25% of mothers of all other races . The average age for becoming pregnant has become lowered from mid to upper teenage years down to pre-teen groups of 9-12 year old girls!

“Boys and girls who experience sexual dating violence are more likely to initiate sex before age 11 ”. These issues would not have incurred had the elder women counseled and instructed their younger relatives on traditional women’s roles and young men counseled and instructed by elder males, as was traditionally done.

There were two ceremonies that were traditionally done for young girls, that are now rarely found in today’s Lakota Society. The pivotal ceremony for girls was the Isnati ceremony. This ceremony was done at a female’s first menses. The young girl would have had the instruction given by elder women regarding her role in society, especially as to virtuous behaviors, her place within society, pregnancy, and childbearing. women regarding her role in society, especially as to virtuous behaviors, her place within society, pregnancy, and childbearing.

Sexual Objectification of Native Women

Rape and domestic violence in Native populations have been on the rise, but within the teen population is another aspect to be considered: gangs. Gang rapes and gang violence is high among native youth, and the female population is especially vulnerable. Although there is a high risk, in one study it was reported that those who perpetrated dating violence did not use a condom deliberately despite “high risk activity such as sexual infidelity, involving “trains” and multiple sex partners ”.

As well as gang related violence and rape, young girls are also vulnerable to date rape. In 1994, “92% who had sexual intercourse reported as having been forced against their will ”. Women ages 16-24 experience the highest rates of rape and sexual assault. The violence that is inherent in this age group limits the ability of teenage girls to manage their reproductive health and also causes them to be vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases.

1996, the rate of reported rape among Native women was 3.5 times higher than other races. This is just the reported rapes! Add to this population, those who have been subjected to another type of criminal activity: Sex Trafficking. It has occurred since the colonial era. It is only recently that the United States Government has classified Human Trafficking as a form of slavery.

Most of the Sex Trafficking occurs in areas near First Nation Reserves (Canada), Native American Reservations, and Alaskan Native communities. To understand the particular vulnerability of Native women to Sex Traffickers, you only need to look at the historical perspective. In the United States, the military that oversaw westward expansion ‘targeted native women for sexual assault, sexual mutilation, and slaughter’, as seen in numerous accounts of that time.

Compounding all the aforementioned issues is the accumulated impact of the historical experiences creating a “generational trauma” with increased levels of trauma response and stress that passed from one generation to the next, over several consecutive generations. The generational trauma is thought to be the ‘major contributor’ to the level of ‘poverty, violent victimization, depression, suicide, substance abuse, and child abuse’ in Indian country today. It is also thought to be the reason for generational prostitution and child trafficking in the Native families.

Traffickers exploit the areas in which this population has vulnerability. One method is to portray the sex trade as a quick way to become personally empowered and have financial independence. Another is to target those who are homeless or have been impacted by poverty.

Exploitation is done of those with mental illness, have substance abuse issues, FASD (Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder), and those with who are Two-Spirit (transgender) are deliberately sought due to their vulnerability on the streets from violence, and are offered protection (Pierce and Koepplinger,3).

Next:  Part 5 – Conclusion (and references).


Issues Part 3

What are the issues that affect Lakota Native women during pregnancy and childbirth in regards to: Racism, Sexism, and Oppression – Part 3

After years of encroachment upon traditional healing practices, the stage was set for an Eugenics movement. This movement “… in the 20th century began as a means of controlling the perceived increase in ‘degenerate’ population and maintaining or protecting hereditarily ‘fit’ members in society from being overrun by the genetically ‘unfit.’ (Forbes, 2)” or groups that were marginalized, such as Native Americans.

Initially, the population targeted was those with low intelligence and those with physical disabilities. But, soon it expanded to “ a program to implement ‘racial hygiene’ in the United States, eugenics essentially entailed taking the principle of natural selection and enforcing it by employing allegedly ‘scientific’ means (Forbes, 2)” The concern was that the white populace were being degraded by the influx of people with racial differences. The classifications included socio-economic, class, status and race.

…policies founded on eugenic theories (sic) started to emerge, forcing procedural sterilizations and other means of population control upon people believed to be unfit (Forbes, 2-3)”. In the late 60s and through the 70s the target was Native American people. Indian Health Services began a systematic sterilization policy.

Women would go to the I.H.S. hospital, told they needed a cesarean section (for a variety of reasons), anesthetized; and when they awoke, these women found they had been given a hysterectomy, which is what happened to my friend. She stated that she was not informed of the need for a hysterectomy. She had gone to deliver her baby, the doctors examined her and stated that she needed an emergency cesarean section. She awoke, finding that she had her uterus removed. My friend’s experience was not uncommon, “…in 1975 alone, some 25,000 Native American women were permanently sterilized – many after being coerced, misinformed, or threatened .

In 1990, a former nurse at I.H.S. reported that tubal ligations were used on women who did not want the surgical procedure. Birth control also was forced upon unsuspecting females such as Depo-Provera, without informed consent, and prior to the FDA having given its approval (this would include the mentally retarded ).

Health risks of the drug Depo-Provera are high in native populations due to Diabetes, obesity, and cigarette smoking. Many who were forced to have it or Norplant administered were not informed of the risk. A secondary aspect is the cultural issues. Irregular bleeding that is caused by these drugs can prevented participation in traditional spiritual practices.

In my own research of the issues of native women in the child-bearing years I was shocked by the high numbers of cesarean sections done on this sector of women. The rate of C-Sections nation-wide is 32.8%; whereas South Dakota is around 25.3%. But, I.H.S. rates are higher than the state average, last internet search showed it at 34%.

Why is this of concern? The health risks of women in the child-bearing years due to unnecessary surgery being conducted. Childbirth is treated by the modern medical doctors as though the baby a ‘disease’ that needs to be cut-out, rather than a natural biological reproductive process. Had the traditional practices of midwifery had been continued within the native culture, allowed to flourish, there would have been very few cesarean sections necessary in our modern times.

Other Factors Regarding Childbirth in Indian Country

Next below the black woman, the native woman is recorded as 2nd to the highest in infant mortality rates . This is due to living in rural areas with poor access to proper care during pregnancy. “Poverty is an important risk factor for poor health outcomes ”.

Compounding the issues mentioned above are those of teen and pre-teen births. A female who is younger than 18 or 19 years of age are not fully developed, in other words are still growing themselves. Teenagers tend to eat poorly, are more prone to drink alcohol, smoke, and take drugs during pregnancy.

Next: What are the issues that affect Lakota Native women during pregnancy and childbirth in regards to: Racism, Sexism, and Oppression – Part 4

Issues Part 2

The issues that affect Lakota Native women during pregnancy and childbirth in regards to: Racism, Sexism, and Oppression – Part 2

With new contact with the European settlers, many natives also had died due to the diseases that came with the settlers. Millions of indigenous people died by disease they had no immunity in which to fight. Disease, along with the losses of lives through conflicts or being starved out, diminished the populous and allowed for further settlement.

Over time, some philosophical concepts arose that was thought to garner the concept of a congealed wholeness of this new settler society, such as the melting pot concept. It would never become fully congealed due to its not dealing with non-whites within the American culture, i.e. how do non-whites fit the ideal? Such as, black slaves or native people.

A second concept, cultural pluralism, was a belief where many cultures and communities “should be tolerated” and somehow would all fit under the umbrella of a somewhat fused society and therefore be protected. Cultural pluralism also did not work.

Instead, the concept of assimilation grew, that would cause all groups to conform to one single group, the now dominant white/Anglo-protestant group. “Gordon (1964) has called Anglo-conformity. The idea was that the various cultural groups were to completely shed the individual unique qualities they possessed with expedience and take on the dominant cultural ways”.

So when tribes began conforming to cultural / religious ideology of the settlers, they believed this could preserve their people. The south-eastern tribes learned this philosophy of assimilating to the dominant culture had no lasting value. They became victim to American policies of removal (the American Indian Removal Act of 1830 ), in order that the American people could take the lands upon which they lived.

Policies of American government continued to diminish the lands and societies of the native populous as the immigrants continued to pour into the new “United states”. In time, the political policy was to remove children from their family and culture, carting them off to boarding schools to forcibly assimilate the populace of the younger generation of native people to “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man ”.

Traditional Childbirth Practices

In Lakota native societies (as was true of many tribal groups), the extended family groups (Tiospayes, as it is called in Lakota society) each had their own midwives that lived within the family group, and healers that worked with women. This was attested by two interviewees whose grandmothers were practicing midwives.

The teachings of the elder women within the culture (regarding traditional childbirth practices) would have been transferred from elder female to a younger generation of females. But, over time, the use of midwives within the communities had dwindled as the older females died. In interviewing people the trail of lost information seems to have run out in the generation just previous to my own, in most communities.

The shift from the traditional mode to what we now see is due to the dominant culture forcibly removing any access to information about traditional practices through assimilation policies (i.e. Boarding Schools) and over time, access to midwives and healers through government funded hospitals (I.H.S.) policies. The final act of forced assimilation was to remove the right to spiritual practices and native medicine from the arena of health care, forcing tribal members to rely on doctors from the dominant white society.

See next week’s Part 3 – The issues that affect Lakota Native women during pregnancy and childbirth in regards to: Racism, Sexism, and Oppression?

Issues part 1

The issues that affect Lakota Native women during pregnancy and childbirth in regards to:
Racism, Sexism, and Oppression

In this report, I will discuss the diminishment of access to information for native female populations of traditional cultural / spiritual values regarding reproduction, healthy pregnancies, and child-birth. As well as cutting the ties to cultural education for young native females (and males/but not discussed herein) directly addressing gender-related socio-cultural information.
Today young native females in Lakota country find they are alienated from the cultural concepts of reproduction and childbirth practices that once were available from the elder women within their family groups.

The path of traditional information is fractured, if not completely broken in Lakota country. Also access to traditional midwifery is not available in many areas.

Young women find themselves (by necessity) having to deal with doctors and hospitals that are a part of the system of oppression that conquered their people and that had forced assimilation practices upon their elders. They have also heard about Eugenics Policies to eradicate native populations, by means of the sterilization policies enacted in the 70s through Indian Health Services.

Due to historical trauma, these young women find themselves re-living much of post-traumatic effects during the pregnancy time-period and at birth. The trauma affects the decision-making process as well.

Historical Background

Initial contact with European colonists was tenuous at best. The European white settlers had asserted its dominance from the onset of settlement. Through the lens of the European settlers, these indigenous people were inferior, only due to the differences in cultural systems of governance. Almost immediately the settlers asserted dominance and control over tribes in which they had initially contacted. The tribes were left with two choices: to conform or to resist.

The colonists viewed the encountered indigenous people as an inferior / savage group. This view was based upon the fact the tribes were not Christian (hence “savages”) and technologically not as advanced as their own (incoming) settler populations. The lens of the white populace was Eurocentric/ethnocentric due differences in ideological concepts such as the differences in view, regarding ownership of land.

The indigenous people did not cultivate the land in the same manner as the Europeans settlers. The settlers could not understand the concept of joint stewardship of lands by the native populous. In their ethnocentric mental lens white settlers conceived this ideology as a waste of good farming land, and of course their ideals were superior in that the land would produce food. Land to the settler, was a resource a non-movable commodity.

From this mental idea of superiority, the desire for lands in which to cultivate both their crops and cattle, the European settlers began to broker deals with nearby tribes through treaties . If they could not gain the land through a treaty, they forcibly took what they desired.

Next week: Part 2 – The issues that affect Lakota Native women during pregnancy and childbirth in regards to: Racism, Sexism, and Oppression.