From the earliest points of contact, processes of colonization attempted to destroy Indigenous midwifery and birth knowledge. In the first half of the twentieth century, the disruption of traditional birth practices escalated through the deliberate dispossession of land; the fragmentation of families and communities through the residential school system; and the medicalization of birth as part of the overall imposition of Western beliefs, values, and ideological frameworks upon our nations.
By the mid-twentieth century, the cumulative effects of colonization had devastated the highly developed birth cultures of Turtle Island.Turtle Island refers to the land that makes North America. It is referred to in parts of the Creation stories of both the Iroquois and the Anishinaabe nations. After a great flood, various animals tried to swim to the bottom of the ocean to bring back dirt to create land for Skywoman to rest on. Turtle had offered Skywoman his back; however, Skywoman was pregnant and needed land to care for her family. After all of the strongest swimmers—such as beaver, the loon, and the hellraiser—had attempted and failed, the humble Muskrat offered to try. Everyone laughed, assuming he was too small and weak for the mammoth task. After days of waiting for Muskrat, his tiny lifeless body floated to the water’s surface. Saddened by the death and failed attempt of Muskrat, Skywoman and the animals noticed his tiny paw was clenched in a fist. She opened it up and found in it a small grain of dirt. Muskrat had succeeded in gathering dirt, which Skywoman placed on Turtle’s back, and while she danced, it grew into the land known today as North America. Muskrat Magazine. Indigenous oral traditions, which had been used to ensure the passage of community birth knowledge from one generation to the next, were greatly diminished. Thankfully, many of our grandmothers and great-grandmothers worked to protect our birth knowledge, stories, and practices by taking them underground, holding and sharing knowledge through private ceremonies. These extraordinary acts of resistance and resilience have enabled a resurgence of Indigenous midwifery traditions, which has been largely driven by demand from a new generation of families (mine included) seeking access to our traditional practices.
Since becoming a mother, my thirst to find meaning and knowledge about what it means to be a “life-giver” has grown. As a mixed-blood, urban Anishinabek/Dutch woman, I grew up disconnected from the land and culture of my Indigenous ancestry. My mother was born and caught by the hands of a midwife in Holland before immigrating to British Columbia with her parents at the age of one. Today I hold strong ties to my father’s community, Wasauksing First Nation, located three hours north of Toronto. But it took years of deliberate action on my part to acknowledge and challenge the Eurocentric lens in which I once viewed myself—and the world. There were times in my youth that I’d lie to someone I had just met and say I was Spanish or Hawaiian rather than “admit” to my Native ancestry, because being Native meant being judged, despised, and degraded by practically every sector of Canadian society.
Along my journey to unearth the roots of my Indigenous ancestry, my biggest discovery was the power of stories. Stories both withhold and let in an assortment of truths that paint the world we see. The stories that dominated my youth were told through the media and the public school system within a narrow Eurocentric lens, which valued Western belief systems and history over all others. Imagine a Canadian history class without including a word about the residential school system or the nation-to-nation treaty relationship on which this country was founded? The omission of truth about the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island has resulted in the perpetuation of racism and negative stereotyping that has worked to separate Indigenous peoples from non-Indigenous peoples in Canada, and maintain the current status quo power imbalances.
With a desire to unearth Indigenous stories silenced by colonization, I became a documentary film and media producer hell-bent on creating space for traditional knowledge and smashing static, mythical representations of Indigenous peoples for the benefit of everyone. I publish MUSKRAT Magazine, an online Indigenous arts and culture magazine that tells Indigenous stories from our perspectives in an effort to share knowledge and culture. I continue to engage in a project of decolonization personally, politically, and academically, and I am motivated by my desire to give back to my community by dedicating media publishing, writing, filmmaking, and research skills towards projects that promote positive cultural identity and nation building.
When I was pregnant with my son, in 2005, I was living in Toronto and specifically sought the care of Indigenous midwives and traditional knowledge to inform my pregnancy. At that time, there had been next to no culturally grounded research or services offered to Indigenous women in the city. I began to seek out traditional teachings about the life-changing journey I intuitively knew I was on, and I looked to my midwives for knowledge. However, it soon became apparent that the midwives were on the same journey as I was. All of us were urban Indigenous women, dislocated from our traditional territories, seeking out traditional stories and birth knowledge that has been silenced by processes of colonization.
The year my son, Zeegwon, was born, I began a ten-year research and filmmaking odyssey to unearth and revitalize traditional birth knowledge as a community-based researcher, working alongside Indigenous midwives, knowledge keepers, storytellers, and health practitioners. I began to research and document traditional birth knowledge. I began with my thesis research in my home community of Wasauksing First Nation, and then by invitation from the Indigenous midwife who had provided my care, Sara Wolfe, alongside Dr. Janet Smylie, a Métis physician and founder of the the Well Living House, an Indigenous action research centre based at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. During this time, I directed three short films documenting and exploring the journey to revitalize traditional birth knowledge. Wasauksing Women Sharing Strength, 2008; For Seven Generations: Visioning an Aboriginal Birth Centre in Toronto, 2012; and Spirit of Birth, 2015.
In 2006, Wolfe co-founded Seventh Generation Midwives Toronto (SGMT), a midwifery practice with a focus on providing culturally grounded care for the Indigenous community in Toronto. The midwives viewed their roles as health-care providers who also considered themselves “kin” to their clients. They recognized their traditional role in the community as being both nation builders and “aunties” who took the time to provide quality culturally grounded care, which includes relationship building and knowledge sharing. They co-developed a birth template with the Well Living House as a tool to help the remembering (documenting) of birth stories of the children they helped bring into the world. Remembering birth stories is an Indigenous tradition that brings forth important information that contributes to informing and building positive cultural identity for both the baby and the community. Information from spiritual cosmology—such as the positioning of the stars, connections and familial involvement of the baby, and naming ceremonies—are all remembered. In the Anishinabek tradition, before contact, stories were relayed at naming ceremonies and documented onto birchbark scrolls.Marie Anderson (traditional knowledge keeper), interview with author, 2007. Today naming ceremonies are making a big comeback, and clients at SGMT are encouraged to document their experiences. Like aunties, the midwives can also recall birth stories when requested to.
Since opening, SGMT has been bursting with growth and interest from members of the Indigenous community who are looking to heal from the intergenerational trauma of colonization. Parents and their families are looking to re-engage their traditional ceremonies, practices, and knowledge and build positive cultural identities (for their families) within an urban context. In 2010, the midwives expanded their vision to include a culturally grounded, safe Indigenous birthing centre in the city that would embrace our Indigenous stories—especially our birth stories—and build on the strengths of our traditional knowledge while nurturing cultural pride, belonging, and nation building. This space would be a much-needed safe and sacred birthing place that would welcome Indigenous newborns and families, culturally (re)grounding them within the Indigenous territories that make up the city of Toronto. Working closely with the Well Living House, SGMT conducted community-based visioning and research and developed a proposal to secure funding to establish a Toronto-based Aboriginal birth centre.For more information, see the short doc For Seven Generations (Tabobondung), following community report For Seven Generations: Visioning for a Toronto Aboriginal Birth Centre. J. Smylie, S. Wolfe, and L. Senese (Toronto, ON: Seventh Generation Midwives Toronto and The Well Living House, 2016).
In 2012, the provincial government announced that it would fund a single birth centre in Toronto. Following the announcement, the SGMT midwives called on non-Indigenous midwives to join in their efforts and support their proposal that the new birth centre be Indigenous led. They called on non-Indigenous midwives to recognize the groundwork already laid by SGMT and their wish to create a desperately needed, culturally grounded, safe birthing space in the city. After several profound conversations acknowledging Indigenous history in Canada, midwives across Toronto agreed to put their energies together and support SGMT’s proposal. They submitted a single application for an Indigenous-grounded birth centre that would be open to all women in the city. The application, philosophy of care, and design of the physical space would be led by Indigenous midwives and guided by an Indigenous framework that focused on a holistic approach to health care. This included emphasis on the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects of birth.
At the time, for me, there was a strong connection between the round dance revolution of the Idle No More movement and the birth centre proposal put forth by SGMT. Both called on Indigenous people to reclaim and share their knowledge with each other and with non-Indigenous communities in an effort to nurture a shift in consciousness. I viewed the midwives as leaders in this call and the societal shift it represented. The birth centre's integration of programming from an Indigenous framework is symbolic as well as tangible. Indigenous worldview includes guardianship and meaningful relationships between diverse communities and with the natural world, which applies to the medical system as much as it does to systems of governance and resource management. The unified and allied application for the birth centre, grounded in Indigenous leadership and approaches, is evidence that non-Indigenous people are beginning to recognize the enormous contributions that Indigenous people have to offer. It gives hope to future generations that transformation from colonial frameworks is possible. It is proof that we—as a society—have the power to shape our future, if we accept the invitation for change.
Today, Indigenous midwives, media producers, and researchers are actively producing, documenting, and applying our midwifery and birth knowledge in order to restore what was thought to have been silenced. We can and must birth ourselves into a new way of interacting with, and relating to, the world in a healthy, inclusive, and culturally respectful way. As a mom, I feel a vested interest in ensuring that our traditional knowledge be preserved and available to future generations. It is my hope to be able to share these teachings with my son, family, and community to contribute to a positive sense of identity and community that I missed when I was growing up.
Shortly after SGMT submitted the proposal it was announced that the application was successful, and the Toronto Birth Centre opened in the winter of 2013. Since then, it has welcomed over 500 new babies into the world. Together we are helping to birth a new nation and society.
Spirit of Birth Synopsis
In Canada, there is a movement within Indigenous communities to reclaim traditional birth knowledge and restore sacred understandings that surround women as life-givers. Spirit of Birth follows young Anishinaabe mother Allysha Wassegijig as she prepares for the birth of her first child, seeking knowledge and care from Indigenous midwives and Elders. The short documentary explores a vision of self-determination to build an Indigenous-led and -designed birth centre in Toronto and regain control over our own bodies to nurture and maintain the most vital story of all.