Saturday, May 26, 2012

Western Canadian First Nations Midwives

The role of the plains Native midwife is an interesting aspect of aboriginal life, which offers insight into spiritualism, medicine, and early native-newcomer contact. Maureen Lux’s Medicine that Walks: Disease, Medicine, and Canadian Plains Native People, 1880-1940 (2001) is largely a social history of medicine which plots the devastating demographic effects of disease and malnutrition. Lux notes that aboriginal birth has been largely unstudied, due the morbid focus inherent in the tragedy of the early-reserve era.
Glenbow Museum File number: NA-1241-296
Title: Mrs. Thomas Lefthand, Stoney.
Date: [ca. 1940]

Lux notes that many aboriginal midwives were also considered healers with connections to the spirit world. The details of the birthing process show that birth was a group effort.

The mother kneeled with her back against a chest-high support and was attended by three other women. The primary midwife stood behind the mother and supported her; another received the newborn and cut the umbilical cord; the third assisted the other two. To speed the birth of the placenta, hot water was placed under the woman as she knelt. The umbilical cord was cut ‘at a point one hand grip and one thumb’s breadth’ from the abdomen. A light dressing made from the powdery centre of the prairie puffball (Lycoperdon gemmatum batsch) was applied to the navel; this acted as a styptic (Lux, p.92)

The umbilical cord itself was considered a special part of the process. As Blackfoot elder Russell Wright noted,

When a child was born, it was traditional for the midwife to cut the umbilical cord and the child’s aunt or older sister would clean and dry it. Then she made a hide pouch in the form of a turtle or some other animal, beaded it, and sewed the cord inside. The child wore it for the first five years of life at special occasions when people gathered together. The pouch reminded people the child had many parents and everybody was responsible to help the child grow to become worthy to the tribe.

Image No: NA-1271-2
Title: Mrs. Adam Callihou, Metis at Hazelmere, Alberta.
Date: 1955
Remarks: Mrs. Callihou, nee Veronique Gladu, was born at Lac St. Anne in 1856
. First married to Francis Hambler and after his death to Adam Callihou.
 They farmed at Flying Shot Lake, southwest of Grande Prairie, Alberta and
 Mrs. Callihou acted as midwife and nurse for the first settlers in the area.

An interesting cultural facet of the childbirth itself was the expectation that a mother would show no pain. Women were expected not to announce that they were in labour until the last moment. Independence was emphasized and women were to prepare for the moment by themselves. They were to maintain their composure and remain quiet during the birth. (Lux, p.94) Europeans often mistook such control for a painless or effortless childbirth.

File number: NA-1030-4
Title: Mrs. David McDougall.
Newcomers also benefited from the experience of plains Native midwives. In Manitoba, Annie McKenzie McDougall married the trader David McDougall in 1871 and shortly thereafter birthed their first child. She remembered her native friend Mary Cecil acting as her midwife. In the Rocanville district of Saskatchewan, a Cree woman by the name of Bastien acted as midwife to new immigrants. One woman recalled she was the “nearest thing to an angel on earth”. (Lux, 98) Later, in the 1930s, women reportedly used Native midwives when they couldn’t afford going to the hospital.

Midwifery is still an important factor of First Nations life.  The National Aboriginal Health Organization released a series of pamphlets on the subject in 2009.

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