Excited to share our first blog post today. We are sharing an article that Founder Nicolle L. Gonzales, CNM wrote for the SQUAT Birth Journal, Issue 22. We hope to share our journey and progress with you through this blog, as well as feature writing from Indigenous women around the world about the issue their communities are facing.
Changing Woman Initiative
Despite growing up in a “modern” Navajo family, participation in ceremonies and community gatherings like pow-wows have always been a part of my life. From the time that I was born the teachings of my Dine’ ancestors have always surrounded me, so it makes sense that midwifery called to me. However, reconnecting with my ancestral teachings through midwifery took its own path.
Growing up, there was a common thread of advice passed on through my female relatives: “Don’t go to Indian Health Services to have your baby.” In the community I grew up in, Waterflow, NM, Navajo women had the option to birth at the local Indian Health Service hospital or at a neighboring private hospital. Although I had heard some stories about my female relatives’ birth experiences and the racial inequalities they experienced, the thought of birthing in a humane and culturally centered way never occurred to me until I entered midwifery school. It was during this time that I began to talk to my elders about our traditional midwives and our cultural birth practices. I would ask, “where were you born?”
Our rich history as Dine’ women began to reveal itself to me and I began to see how our current healthcare delivery system had woven itself into the fabric of our birth experiences. Since the establishment of Indian Health Services, and long before, Native American women have experienced purposeful mainstream integration and separation from traditional “life way” teachings. During the early 20th century the Bureau of Indian Affairs sought to intervene in the care of preschool age children through the implementation of “scientific motherhood.” This was lead by white female field matrons who were sent to Native American communities in the Southwest to show mothers a more civilized way to care for their children. The goal of this campaign was to reduce infant mortality.
Like our African American sisters, Native American women suffered unconsented sterilization at the hands of a health-care delivery system that was supposed to, as put forth by the Snyder Act of 1921, “relieve distress and conserve the health of Indians.”1 A 1976 report from the US General Accounting office found that over 3,000 Native American women were sterilized without their consent in the early 1970s alone; it wasn’t until the late 1970’s that legal requirement for informed consent for federally funded hysterectomies and tubal ligations was required.
Today, as an act of reproductive justice, Native American women across the country are reclaiming their reproductive rights through the restoration of ancestral teachings and ceremonies of womanhood. For those of us who have been awakened through birth, through motherhood, through midwifery, history has taught us to recognize and question the motives of post-colonial patriarchal thinking. Recognizing that healing ourselves begins with returning to our cultural life way teachings is the pathway to wellness and is the work of Changing Woman.
To understand the depth of Dine’ wisdom, it’s important to know it has many levels of understanding. Everything has meaning and intention. There is a natural order which includes attention to the trajectory of growth in all things. There is also this understanding of duality in relationships and an innate understanding that the world has it’s own sacred geography. In addition to respecting the four basic elements, there is an additional element that is recognized and respected, it is vibration.
Changing Woman, in our Dine’ teachings, is the ultimate woman and mother. She grew from infancy into puberty in four days and birthed the first set of twins. She is also a central figure in our healing ceremonies, like the Kinaalda coming-of-age ceremony. Like many Dine’ adolescents, my coming-of-age ceremony marked my transformation into womanhood. I remember sitting on a Pendleton blanket in our family Hogan with my feet tucked under my pleated blue velvet skirt, while having my hair brushed with dried grass. This ceremony is held to mark the end of adolescence and the beginning of womanhood for young Navajo women after their first menstruation. Over a four day period, wisdom through stories of womanhood is shared while grinding corn and preparing ceremonial food to be shared with the community. The true purpose of this ceremony is for the restoration of feminine energy and fertility on earth.
As a Dine’ midwife, our life way teachings are what inform the way I work with families. I recognized early on in my career that the ceremonial aspect of birth and motherhood were missing from women’s experiences in the hospitals. It also felt unnatural to me to work with Native American families in hospitals and clinics where the aspects of indigenous wellness and healing were not present during their care. Through my own introspective observations, the only way that I felt that Native American women were going to reclaim their birth rights was to develop an initiative to do so.
Changing Woman Initiative, a developing non-profit, that took its first breath in the fall of 2014. It was developed in the likeness of Changing Woman, to renew indigenous birth knowledge through holistic approaches and community empowerment. Through the creation of a freestanding birth center that reflects Native American healing and wellness frameworks we hope to restore feminine power through birth to Native American women.
Healing ourselves and our communities from centuries of colonization and discourse doesn’t happen quickly, which is why one of our first steps was to create an opportunity for Native American women to tell their birth stories. We hosted a four day digital storytelling workshop in early June, 2015. Seven Native American women from the surrounding tribal communities in Northern New Mexico participated. They each developed their own digital story about their birth experiences and what their experiences were with the current healthcare system. We also understand the vital and important role indigenous midwives play in their communities and are actively working to support our community healers through creating a space to share knowledge. Along with Native Youth Sexual Health Network, Tewa Women United, Midwives Alliance of North America, and Young Women United, we hosted a two-day Native American midwives gathering in October of 2015.
We are presently starting to work with our Native American communities in Northern New Mexico to participate in strategic planning to develop a traditional Native American birth center. From what we know, this will be the first in the United States. We value the participation of the communities this birth center will serve, so we are taking the time to respectfully gather community stakeholders to discuss the needs of their communities. One of the challenges we face as a developing organization is working within a financial paradigm where managed care facilities and insurance companies drive costs and access to certain services. All the more reason we are taking our time to develop a sustainable plan. To financially support our efforts, we are fundraising as well as applying for grants continue to our important work. Like many developing grassroots organizations appropriate funding is challenging. Philanthropy in Indian Country is not fully supported, as that financial investment is viewed as “risky.” This is been one of our major challenges. We hope that as our organization grows, we will help pave the way for more Native American organizations and investment in Indian Country will no longer viewed as “risky.”
It’s important to remember our reproductive history and know we have come a long way. We need to continue to develop collective revolutionary paradigms that nurture cultural preservation of womanhood in our Native communities. I look forward to the day that the healing smells of cedar and the sounds of family fill the space of a birth room and birth is treated like a ceremony again. By ushering in a new era of women and babies who have access to the natural healing herbs and indigenous wisdom, we begin to achieve wellness. The Changing Woman Initiative is a symbol of the innate feminine energy that Native women carry within their wombs and to the ceremonies they are a part of. We aim to restore indigenous birth rites within Native American communities where women have been separated from their ceremonial teachings of womanhood. We look forward to leading this revolution for change with our Indigenous sisters across the country.
By Nicolle L. Gonzales, CNM
1Rhoades, E. R. (2000). American Indian health: Innovations in health care, promotion, and policy. Baltimore & London: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Nicolle L. Gonzales is a Certi ed Nurse Midwife (CNM) from the Navajo Nation. She graduated from the University of New Mexico, Nurse-Midwifery program in 2011 and now resides in San Ildefonso Pueblo with her husband and three children. She is the founder of the developing non-pro t Changing Woman Initiative. Throughout the years she has done numerous speaking engagements on cultural safety, integration of traditional wisdom in women’s health, and she is currently working with Mid- wives Alliance of North America to develop a Native American Midwifery organization.