Indigenous doulas bringing back knowledge

Duane Hicks

Indigenous knowledge of pre-natal, delivery, and post-natal care is being shared with a new generation in order to reconnect women and families with the ways once practised before colonization.
Some two dozen area women now are certified indigenous doulas after attending two separate sessions of workshops last week and the week before at La Place Rendez-Vous here.
The training was made possible through the Gizhewaadiziwin Health Access Centre (GHAC).
“We had been looking for funding for a while to do this and we were able to secure funding through the Ministry of Community and Social Services’ Aboriginal Healing and Wellness Strategy branch,” GHAC executive director Shanna Weir noted Thursday.
GHAC has been looking at incorporating indigenous midwifery services for some time, with the intent to build capacity within the 10 area First Nation communities and First Nation partner organizations, she explained.
“The hope is to be able to work better between our communities, the health access centre, and our partner organizations–the United Native Friendship Centre and the Sunset Country Métis Council–to be able to support our clients in the pre-natal, delivery, and post-natal care with a cultural and traditional component involved,” said Weir.
“So we want to ensure their spiritual and cultural needs are reflected in that stage of their life,” she added.
Weir said having trained indigenous doulas practising close to home means physicians and nurse practitioners involved in the care of an expectant mother now are able to collaborate and co-ordinate with the doulas to provide the best outcome for the mother and child–and, by extension, the community.
“I just think it’s something really exciting,” she enthused. “To be able to build capacity for the support from an indigenous perspective is so important.
“It’s taken a while for us to get to access the funding but it’s really exciting to be able to have those additional 24 people trained to support the work that we’re doing already,” she added.
Reconnecting with
traditional knowledge
The indigenous doula training here was conducted by Melissa Brown and Candace Neumann, both from the Manitoba-based organization Zaagi’idiwin (which means “love” in Anishinaabe).
“We are trying to empower indigenous women with knowledge about their bodies, about pregnancy, birth, postpartum, and breastfeeding,” explained Brown, who is a registered, non-practising indigenous midwife.
“We’ve developed a curriculum that is informed with indigenous knowledge,” she noted. “But when we come to the communities, we try to utilize the gifts in the communities.
“So we have a couple birth workers here–Lana [Smith] and Elaine [Ross]–and then we have the elders here that share the knowledge that’s in the area.”
Brown said she and Neumann are trying to reconnect women and families with the knowledge that indigenous communities used to have prior to colonization.
“That’s probably the biggest difference between indigenous doulas and regular doulas,” Brown stressed.
“A doula is a specially-trained birth companion, but also somebody that provides basic education just about women’s bodies, pregnancy, and the other topics I talked about.
“But the training is also trauma-informed–so talking about how we used to live prior to colonization and what happened to those family bonds as a result of colonization,” added Brown.
“Unfortunately, there’s a high number of indigenous children in CFS [Child and Family Services],” she noted. “There’s residential schools, [the] ’60s Scoop, and then the apprehensions that are happening now.
“All of those things are separating families and breaking those bonds, so basically the work that we do as indigenous doulas is to try to reconnect families with that knowledge and those ceremonies that we had that kept those bonds really strong,” Brown explained, adding elders say that bond happens even before birth.
Indigenous doulas also focus on building a circle of support around women and families because that’s something has been lost, as well, she added.
After becoming certified, many doulas have gone on to more specialized roles such as breastfeeding counsellors and child-birth educators, Brown noted.
“We have someone who works for the Harm Reduction Network,” she said. “So she was interested in supporting women with addictions in pregnancy because that’s also a concern in our communities.
“We’re really trying to take away that stigma and trying to find ways to connect women with resources, and provide compassionate support and care to them, because if you don’t provide that kind of support, they’re not going to access services,” she reasoned.
Brown said other women have gone into midwifery, which is different from being a doula. A doula is a specially-trained birth companion that provides emotional and spiritual support.
A midwife, on the other hand, is a primary health-care provider who has clinical skills and concerned with the physical side of pregnancy.
“This is a grassroots answer to [the] lack of education we have in our communities,” Brown remarked. “This is just a start and an introduction.
“There’s no clinical skills involved,” she stressed. “It’s indigenous women taking care of other indigenous women, and it’s empowering people in the community.”
The women who took the training here now are going to go back to their organizations and their communities, and talk about how important it is to continue their work.
“It doesn’t stop here with the training,” Brown said. “We’re talking about doing a ‘train the trainer’ so that people in this community can step into that role and train people in the community, too.”
She noted online mentorship also is available to support the newly-trained doulas going forward.
Lana Smith, a certified doula who works for GHAC, emphasized community elders wanted GHAC to support local families in a good way, and the indigenous doula training was done in answer to that request.
In fact, elders Doug Sinclair, Kathy Jack, and Darcy Whitecrow took part in the recent training here, with Sinclair and Jack receiving certification. Sinclair was the only male doula among the 24.
The indigenous doula training has been developed by indigenous women for indigenous women. This means it includes traditional language, medicines, and songs, noted Smith.
In addition to the benefits cited by Brown, Smith said having doula training also helps with emergency preparedness.
“If there was a crisis to happen, if the power went and we couldn’t get to the hospital, we would have support in the communities so that a baby would be able to be born safely, or that there’s knowledge there to do that,” she reasoned.
Elaine Ross, a certified doula who has been a community helper with GHAC’s midwifery program, said she’s grateful for the opportunity to create “a culturally-responsible birth support option” here.
“I think that’s what our communities need going into the future–to build on that and hopefully be able to provide the services of midwives and the gathering of more doulas and midwives in our area,” she remarked.
Smith, Ross, and Neumann all were asked what it is like to use their knowledge and help other women through pregnancy.
“One of my teachings is to ‘honour spirit first’; we let that lead the way with our tobacco, our medicine,” Smith replied. “And it just comes naturally.
“I don’t have to work for it,” she added. “There’s things I have to take care of in regards to the birthing stages and all that, but it comes naturally.
“I have been surrounded by people who think like I do about building a stronger foundation for our families with our culture and our language so that we have network for the future generations that are coming,” Smith noted.
Ross said the opportunity to support a family, and be a part of the birth of a young spirit coming into this world, is “an amazing, rewarding opportunity.”
“I think being able to pass down the information I have learned from Melissa and other birth-informed people has given me a lot of strength, courage, and wisdom to be able to share with whoever I am supporting,” she noted.
“It’s been a passion, a calling to my own soul, to be able to share and bring that joy into this world,” added Ross.
“That’s what I find so exciting in doing this kind of work.”
Ross feels once more capacity is built for future birth-providing services in our area, it will reap rewards–not only in the birth of healthy children but in healthier families.
“We’ll see the elimination of different services that have to provide in our social service realms because we are taking care of the beginning stage of a child,” she reasoned.
“We’re giving them the opportunity of that spirituality that Lana talks about, the opportunity of community wellness, when we celebrate the birth of a child in a spiritual way,” Ross added.
For her part, Neumann said being a doula has made her a better woman and improved her working relationship with women even when it’s not related to birth.
“There are times that practical stuff comes out in even non-birth relationships, and people are like, ‘How do you know all of this?'” she noted.
“But this is what we knew. This is how we were as woman,” added Neumann. “This was a part of who we were, growing up from little girls into womanhood into elderhood.
“All of this information is something that we had,” she stressed. “It’s coming back now.”
The value of indigenous doula programs is being realized elsewhere, as well.
Brown noted that in British Columbia, there is partnership between friendship centres, the province, and federal government which sees every indigenous family get $1,000 to hire a doula.
“I know we’re working towards that in Manitoba but also for Ontario, too,” she added.
Smith noted the local program has collaborated with Minnesota in regards to indigenous doula support, and Minnesota is looking at what is being done here to take it back to their lawmakers because Ontario has a special clause in the legislation for aboriginal midwifery practices.
“So we have a network that includes Minnesota, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Ontario,” said Smith.
She credited Ross, the elders, and the surrounding First Nation communities for being involved in the workshops, as well as the Northwestern Health Unit for pre-natal support and resources, and Betty’s for providing supplies, materials, and gifts for the workshops.
Looking ahead, the next step is to continue with support of the certified and trained doulas, including creating a network among partners.
“With the networking, the doulas will be making their own biographies and then it will be dispersed as a doula directory,” noted Smith.
“There will be a lot more information going out now that the service is available,” echoed Weir.
“We’ve built the capacity and now we have to promote it.
“We want it to be a recognized program that’s available for people to access close to home,” added Weir. “It’s client-centered, it’s about what their needs are and helping to support them.
“And it’s about having better outcomes for people, minimizing complications, and improving health overall.”