The Potluck

Minnesotan wins national fellowship to teach Indigenous birthing practices

By: - January 22, 2020 3:44 pm

Dorene Day teaches Indigenous birthing practices across North America. photo courtesy of Dorene Day

Dorene Day, an Ojibwe midwife, was one of 10 Indigenous people from across the country selected for a $50,000 fellowship, which she’ll use to continue her work teaching Indigenous birthing practices.

The fellowship is funded by the First Nations Development Institute and the Henry Luce Foundation to “honor and support intellectual leaders in Native communities who are actively working to generate, perpetuate and disseminate indigenous knowledge.” Other fellows will work on efforts as varied as early childhood education, developing a traditional tribal justice system and language revitalization.

“I want to be able to provide more training to more Indigenous women in more areas,” said Day, who was selected from more than 550 applicants.

Day is a member of the Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe and is a fourth-degree Midewiwin, which is like having a theology degree in the traditional religion of the Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatomi.

Having spent years learning ceremonies and birthing practices, Day now shares her knowledge with communities across Anishinaabe country in the upper Midwest and Canada.

Day will spend as long as five years traveling back and forth between her home in St. Paul and tribal communities until there are members who are able to pass on the knowledge themselves. It’s an intensive process, which means Day cannot work with all the communities who ask her to. With this fellowship funding, Day plans to create a webinar and blog to make her knowledge more accessible.

“If they’ll watch a webinar, then I’m all for that,” Day said. “Then I can go over there and have ceremony, do an introduction, lay the spiritual groundwork and then they can start working and work through a webinar with me.”

Day’s knowledge is in high demand now because the U.S. and Canadian governments spent generations trying to extinguish it.

Day was one of the main subjects of a radio documentary I produced about the federal government’s campaign in the 1950s and 60s to assimilate Native people by moving them to cities and eliminating tribal governments and reservations. It was called relocation and termination

During that same time period, the federal government separated Native children from their parents and placed them in boarding schools to disconnect them from their language, culture and spiritual practices. Boarding schools persisted in the U.S. well into the 1970s (and were just as common in Canada).

Another important historical fact to note is that at least one in four Native women were forcibly sterilized throughout the 1960s and 70s, according to some estimates. This was rampant in Canadian hospitals as well. Day points to an on-going class-action lawsuit of Native women in Canada who allege they were sterilized without their informed consent, some as recently as 2018.

Native women are still likely to face barriers in carrying out their birthing wishes. For example, hospitals may refuse to give women their placentas to take home and bury according to tradition. Burning sage, or smudging, is another practice likely to face resistance in a hospital.

Part of Day’s work is teaching women how to ensure they can follow their own traditional birthing plan while still delivering their babies in hospitals, if they choose. You can hear Day talk more about her work (with her daughter and apprentice Alana) on this episode of Native America Calling. 

Day wrote a poem for her application for this fellowship, which she gave Minnesota Reformer permission to share:

Returning to the Sacred, Indigenous Birthing Practices

We are Reclaiming the Evident Truth of Our Creation Story
We are reclaiming our bodies and healing practices, and birthing ways
When we look outward, destruction has always been around
We see our very lives slipping away….MMIW
The thought of going missing ringing out over us
We are resilient, our steps, movement, our nations on our backs….still
Our reproductive rights (Sovereignty) and every environmental Justice issue, continue to be compromised; our health, the health of our unborn children, and the health of our natural environments
It all hangs in the balance
The balance of restoring this balance
Moves toward restoring natural harmony
When I learned about the sacred traditional birth
I was uncovering Sacred Seeds and these seeds told of stories of long ago. Stories of DNA, and blood memory, and sacred water
Our Birth Stories unfolded as Grandmothers and Elders spoke they spoke about being born, at wild rice camp, or in the cold night of maple sugar camps
Stories emerged about how our Traditional Ways to Healthy Birthing were common place.
Birth was a normal natural event, even more normalized by our ways of knowing, the life cycle, the birth cycle, our bodies and medicines.
Indigenous Prenatal Care was embedded in our grandmother’s songs and practices.
We were healers, and sang songs of balance and harmony and strength to our birthing mothers.
We valued our teachings of Grandmother Moon, her wisdom of caring for our earth and our cycles.
Our grandmothers knew that birth ceremony
They knew that our children came from the spirit world to live in the physical life and world.
We also know that it is possible again…

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Previously, he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.