Western Culture & Colonization of Birth

Western Culture

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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
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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.

 

 

 

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Cultural Perspectives on Childbirth

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Every aspect of who we are from our behaviors to our learning processes is framed by our culture. The whole idea of a “melting pot” in America where many cultures blend to become one culture, is a fallacy.  People of like cultural and ethnic background tend to gravitate towards what is similar and familiar.  It shapes their identity.

This is particularly true of treaty nations (indigenous peoples) who struggle to keep their own tribal identity. Even in the cities, away from reservations, native people gravitate toward what is familiar and comfortable (besides where else would they get some Indian Tacos?).

Every indigenous group has their own cultural beliefs, rituals and traditions. Even for pregnancy and childbirth.  How childbirth took place was shaped by cultural values, ways of knowing, and framed within ritual and belief.

Unfortunately the cultural aspects were not all preserved and kept in all tribal groups, due encroachment from white society.  This encroachment has created a rift in fabric of cultural life. “The culture in which people grow up is one of the key influences on the way they see and react to the world and the way they behave (Nichols & Humenick, 139).”

For many cultures, including the Lakota, pregnancy and childbirth is much more than just a physical act.  It is believed that a spiritual force is at work.  Concepts, customs, and traditions develop around these spiritual beliefs.

Here are some of the sites I found, for other cultures:

http://www.midwiferytoday.com/articles/immexico_healing.asp

http://www.louisianafolklife.org/LT/Articles_Essays/main_misc_wait_babies.html

http://ihst.midwife.org/ihst/files/ccLibraryFiles/Filename/000000000004/IHS%20Midwives.pdf

Multi-cultural Beliefs

Within each indigenous culture are the ideas and concepts that surround the actions of the pregnant woman, her diet, how others should act when around her.  Some ideas and traditions actually carry across into multiple cultures around the world.

One concept has to do with knots and ties. That if these were within view of a pregnant woman, or she stepped across them, it would cause the umbilical cord to be tangled at birth. Another has to do with actions of others. If you fight around a pregnant woman or with one, it causes problems with her pregnancy.

For most indigenous cultures there are concepts taught regarding the spiritual aspects of birth and early childhood. There is a belief that a female spirit that assists in childbirth, for the Lakota people, and also assists the soul of the child in “picking” the family in which they will be born.  In western society, what they call the “Mongolian Marks” is what this female makes when a spirit is born in our world.

Infants and young children (until age 5) are considered “sacred beings” and our actions with them must be tempered by this belief.  They are closer to the spirit world, in Lakota belief.

Because of the spiritual forces in play, many indigenous cultures had and still practice rituals at the birth of a child.  This is due to the understanding that childbearing and childbirth are a sacred act.

This may not necessarily be understood by present-day women within the culture, but in their soul and spirit the women do recognize that modern medicine’s “managed care” works against the traditions and ageless wisdom of their tribe.  This is true whether they have a traditional spiritual base and upbringing in their lives or they have adopted non-traditional religious practice. Their sense of “knowing” from their soul, speaks out against what is not natural and a part of the spiritual birthing process.

Next: the Western Culture & De-Colonization of Birthing

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 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?