"if you lay down, the baby will never come out." -Native American saying
As we come upon the Western holiday, Thanksgiving, I can't help but remember the immense culture, heritage, and people that we have mostly lost by the European people establishing colonies here. As such, and as this is a pregnancy and birth blog, I would like to highlight one of the lesser-celebrated aspects of the Native American people: their pregnancy and birth practices.
Ancient peoples, not understanding women's menstrual cycles, looked for answers in the natural world. They were astute enough to see the correlation between the lunar cycles and the cycles of a woman’s life: waxing (young and nubile); full (middle-aged and reproducing); and waning (old and wise). The bleeding time, like the lunar cycles, came cyclically and to fullness when the moon was most ripe, in many instances. Many saw menstrual blood as the origins of life and a deep source of wisdom.
Women were given special menses/birth huts in many Native American cultures. In today's society, we would see this as a shunning or disgraceful thing... Yet, in their culture, they saw this as a time to have rest from their daily chores, to bond with the women around them, and to talk about womanly things (marriage, sex, birth, childrearing, etc...).
The land was seen as feminine: the mountains as breasts, the rivers and streams as the life flow, caves as the innermost secret (womb), and the plains as the body. Unlike much of what Hollywood would have us believe, women were regarded and revered with respect and dignity, seen as the life-giving and tribe nurturing citizens.
Now I know that most of you are familiar with the Blessing Way, a Navajo ritual meant to pamper the pregnant woman, bestowing blessings and well wishes on her for her upcoming birthing time. This was accomplished by ritualistic ceremonial cleansing, grooming, gifting, and nourishing that lasts 9 days and culminates in the 'No Sleep' all night ritual where the expectant woman greets the sun the morning after.
The women of the tribe would surround the mother, rubbing her body, feeding her foods of strength and health, give her relics and talismans of strength and remembrance, and they would sing over her. The women would sing their creation song, the story of the Changing Woman.
Likewise, a woman was encouraged to walk a lot in order to keep baby small enough to pass through the pelvis and to keep her hips wide and open. Women also were encouraged to wash their hands and feet daily and to stay out of too harsh of weather.
The Navajo extend these prescriptions to the father of the unborn baby as well, disallowing him to tie up animals (which was thought to tie up a baby in the womb, making labor difficult) and required that he wash his hands and feet daily.
Some women employed the use of herbs and tinctures to hasten birth, such as the Mahican concoction made of root bark or the Cherokee infusion of wild cherry bark, both of which a woman would drink to bring about contractions. Other tribes used less medicinal means such as 'scaring' baby out by threatening an elder on them.
Some tribe's required that a woman have a solitary birth (such as the Hopi), although many more accounts were that of woman-assisted births. Often, the laboring woman's mother, grandmother, or elder tribal women would assist her during her birthing, and, some tribes allowed men to witness the labor and even assist (such as the Kickapoo people).
Some gave birth within the sanctuary of the village, either in the home or in special ceremonial birth/menses buildings (such as the Inuit and Algonquian), while others (like the Mi’kmaq and Bella Koola) left the village to give birth in the woods or at the edge of a body of water.
The Navajo called their midwives 'the one who holds', the Inuit called their midwives 'the cord mother', and all, specifically the Anishinaabeg and Apache, used the term Midewiwin (our culture uses the terms 'medicine wo/man') to some degree or another.
Women walked, strutted, crawled, swayed, and leaned. They remained mobile, moving their baby down, facilitating a faster birth. The laboring woman would stand, kneel, sit, squat, hang, dance, or otherwise move her baby down; the one position that a woman never birthed in was lying down. Some Native American cultures used smoke bathes to help relax the perineum during birth. The smoke was usually created from laurel leaves burned in a small clay pot, which the mother would squat or kneel over. Some other times a secondary birth attendant would blow the smoke onto the mother's perineum.
All had different birthing devices to help women to labor down. These included ropes (to be hung by rafters or tree branches) wooden blocks to squat on or stakes pounded into the ground to press against, low birth stools to sit upon, and others. Many would require a birth fire be lit, warm water be available for poultices or medicinal teas, and oils be available for body or perineal massage. Some Native American tribes used musical gourds, songs, or chanting to help the mother during labor, while some women would make sympathy sounds to help the woman cope.
More often than naught, babies were not 'caught' by human hands, but welcomed by the earth. The short drop would act as a stimulus akin to our rough handling in today's Western cultures. Women would lay leaves under the mother's bottom and allow the baby to fall out onto the ground there. Babies were generally rubbed vigorously with either ashes or animal fats, and were bound tightly relatively soon after birth. Women were encouraged to 'discover' their babies and nurse them soon after birth.
Native American women were learned in the use of herbals and natural means of helping with labor. Black or Blue Cohosh, Red Raspberry Leaf, Partridgeberry, American Licorice, Broom Snakeweed, Buckwheat, Black Chokeberry, Smooth Sumac, Balsam Root Bark, Birth Root, Corn Smut, Wild Yam, Black Haw, Hottentot Fig, Pennyroyal, Bayberry, and Cotton Root were all employed for common childbirth issues (long labor, postpartum hemorrhage, retained placenta, etc..). The most publicized account of a birth-related Native American medicine is that of Sacagawea. As noted by Captain Lewis:
"About five O clock this evening one of the wives of Charbono was delivered of a fine boy. It is worthy of remark that this was the first child which this woman had born, and as is common in such cases her labor was tedious and the pain violent. Mr. ]essome (a Mandan interpreter) informed me that he had frequently administered a small portion of the rattle of a snake, which he assured me had never failed to produce the desired effect, that of hastening the birth of the child; having the rattle of a snake by me I gave it to him and he administered two rings of it to the woman broken in small pieces with the fingers and added to a small quantity of water. Whether this medicine was truly the cause or not I shall not undertake to determine, but I was informed that she had not taken it more then ten minutes before she brought forth, perhaps this remedy may be worthy of future experiments, but I must confess that I want faith as to it’s efficacy."
Sometimes, a birth attendant helped by providing counterpressure on the perineum, or they provided fundal pressure for prolonged labor. Other times, the mother would provide her own counterpressure to her fundus to help bring down a baby through the wrapping of a cloth or leather belt and pulling on the ends during a contraction.
The Hopi people used the labyrinth to teach the principle of Mother/Child (Tapu'at)- the Mother Earth and her relationship with her mortal child, the mortal mother and her relationship/journey to bringing forth her mortal child, and the creation story. The outer walls are the womb, while the lines of the labyrinth represent the twists and turns of life's journey and the umbilical cord, always connected either physically or spiritually with the Mother. The center symbolizes the amniotic sac, the center of life, or the beginning of all knowledge and wisdom.
It is not certain that women walked labyrinths, but we do know that some drew them in the sands as meditative rites during labor.
The Native American women were robust, in excellent physical health, and ate a diet rich in fresh produce, seasonal foods, and devoid of outside diseases and influences (by and large). This allowed for a quick and relatively uneventful recovery from childbirth. They were often quick to return to regular duties, usually after a short respite and lying in period, although there were certain welcoming and new parent rituals that were observed. Many women would take an after-birth tonic of ergot to expel the placenta and help reduce blood loss or would use another tonic indigenous to their area.
Many Native American cultures would swaddle the mother in a warm bed over heated stones, while others require steaming in special steam huts.
Many tribe's customs required a lying-in time where women attended to the new mother and baby, banding together to take care of her house's needs, while also pampering the mother with grooming, binding, special nourishing, washing, steaming, and massaging.
The Shawnee required 10 days of lying in where the father could not see either mom or baby. The Picuris Pueblo required a 30 day lying-in, after which the baby was named. Many tribes required that the father and a helper keep with the mother for this entire time of lying-in.
An example of the extent of naming and postpartum rituals is the Hopi purification ritual. The Hopi people require a 20 day lying-in, when she must not have the sun shine on her. On the night of the 19th day, a great feast is prepared in her honor, and both she and the newborn are bathed carefully and ritualistically. The baby is rubbed with ash and the family anoints the babe while suggesting names to the father. The father, in turn, announces the sun's arrival and the grandmother of the tribe chooses the child's name and announces it as the babies face is shown the light of day for the first time. Then, everyone returns to the home to feast, except for the mother, who must go to the sweat house to complete her purification.
Many of the Native American tribes cherish the placenta and/or umbilical cord as sacred or mystical. Navajo tribes require that a baby's placenta be buried within the Sacred Four Corners of the tribe’s land, essentially binding infant to land and the tribes ancestors. Likewise, the Midewiwin traditionally performed the rites of cord cutting (Nitaawigiwin in Anishinaabeg) and naming (Waawiindaasowin in Anishinaabeg).
In many of the Plain's Tribes, the newborn was presented with a small beaded pouch that contained the remnants of their umbilical cord stump. The child would wear this throughout their lifetime and many were buried with it in their old age. This talisman was thought to bring connectedness to the tribe, the individual family unit, and serve as protection.
The Pueblo people would either bury the umbilical cord in the floor of the home (if it was a girl) or the corn field (if it was a boy). On the forth day after birth, the infant was presented to the sun, the shaman would name the child, and present the child with either an ear of corn (if it was a girl) or a flint arrow head (if it was a boy).
The Wichita people had their own customs postpartum. On the morning after the babies birth, the elder women of the tribe would take the newborn down to a stream or river, would pray for protection, strength, and health, and them bathe the babe in the stream. Other Native American tribes were said to have done similar river-immersion rituals for the first year of life for the baby.
The father had his own responsibility for ensuring babies health in Wichita culture. His first job as a new father was to make a cradling board. It was very ceremonial, with many specifics to adhere to while choosing the willow tree that would become his child's carrying place. Likewise, he had certain supplications and prayers to offer while laboring over the hewn wood to ensure his child's health.
Most tribes required that the father participate in the restrictions postpartum, or he was prescribed his own set of rituals to perform. The Tillamook people, for example, required the mother to have a 15 day lying-in time, during which the father forfeited sleep for 10 days. Likewise, many swore to abstain from intercourse for a time or went on dietary restrictions with the mother of his child.
Some Women of the Plains would use dried buffalo manure to be ground up and used as an absorbent powder in the blankets of their babies swaddling. Then, if a baby were to wet themselves, the damp powder was shaken out and new powder was added. Other tribes practiced elimination communication (EC) and were able to move the infant into a position to relieve themselves without soiling the blankets or wrappings.
All women of all tribes carried their babies nearly exclusively for the first year. This allowed for ease of transportation, warmth, immediate and extended nursing, and as assurance that the newborn/baby would have as little chance of falling into natural harm (scrapes, nicks, falls, infection, puncture wounds, drownings, or animal attacks) as possible. Likewise, babies slept with their mothers for the same reasons.
I hope that you enjoyed learning a little about the beautiful rites of passage that our Native land's people have practices since time immortal. Would that we, in the midst of our technology, our busy lifestyles, and our impersonal communication practices, take a step back and consider a lesson from this group of people. Life is sacred, life should be honored, and life should be cherished through holistic care, ritual, and health care. In conclusion, there is a wonderful powerpoint/pdf presentation prepared by Ursula Knoki-Wilson, a Navajo CNM advocating for understanding and cultural tolerance in our Western-dominated culture of fear. Please take the time to watch Keeping the Sacred In Childbirth Practices.
Resources and Reading:
- Rings L. Ancient symbols and ideas. New York: Plentium Press. 1999.
- Ashley M. The book of myths and legends. Bristol: Paragon. 2000.
- Deleary, Nicholas. "The Midewiwin, an aboriginal spiritual institution. Symbols of continuity: a native studies culture-based perspective." Carleton University MA Thesis, M.A. 1990.
- A Native American encyclopedia: history, culture, and peoples - By Barry Pritzker, Oxford University Press
- Mothers and daughters of invention: notes for a revised history of technology - By Autumn Stanley, Rutger's University Press, 1995
- Engelmann, Georg Julius.