On the shore of Lake Kehiwin, four mothers cradle their babies’ placentas in a ceremony along a newly cleared trail in the bush of the Kehewin Cree Nation in northeastern Alberta.
Each baby is swaddled in a different color of fabric and tied with ribbon as part of an inaugural birth camp, a week-long event to share lessons about traditional births and family customs.
In a thicket next to the mothers, a group of men dig a hole for placentas to be placed on top of sage and buried with an offering of tobacco.
“When we do that, the child will be grounded and with Mother Earth,” Elder Doreen Moosepayo said.
The babies were delivered to the hospital in the town of Bonnyville, Alta, 12 miles northeast. But the goal is that future generations can enter the world on the Cree Nation.
The initiative is part of a federal pilot project to increase the number of Indigenous midwives in reservation communities, including Kehewin, Opaskwayak Cree Nation in Manitoba and Sturgeon Lake First Nation in Saskatchewan.
Interns study the practices of previous generations of Indigenous midwives along with medical training.
Four women are training to become midwives in Kehewin, and the First Nation recently received $500,000 in capital funding to build a birth center for midwives to advance future opportunities.
It will take up to four years for trainees at Kehewin to complete their studies, but the hope is that this birth camp will be one of many.
Jodi Gadwa-Cardinal, a doula and midwife in training, participated in the program to keep traditions alive within her family.
When Maelan Tsatoke, Gadwa-Cardinal’s niece, had a baby, the family kept Tsatoke at home for as long as possible. When the baby was born at the hospital, they sang the family’s welcome song to him in Cree.
“This is why I’m in this Indigenous midwife program, because I want the whole experience,” she said, adding that the ultimate goal is for the women to have their babies born in their community.
“For them to get (the) baby home to Kehewin where they come from… It’s such a sacred experience for mother and baby,” Gadwa-Cardinal said.
“Baby immediately hears the language of the kokums (grandmothers) so he knows this is where he belongs, this is your family and this is who you are.”
Inaugural Birth Camp
The week began with a women-only bagpipe ceremony and ended with an actor and midwives recreating a live birth, as it would have been done before colonialism.
“This is an opportunity for people to reconnect with those teachings,” said Anthony Johnson, an obstetric revitalization project coordinator who organized the camp.
Connecting to cultural practices is also an opportunity for people to heal, he said.
Johnson has heard of families who have experienced poor treatment from medical professionals, the inability to wipe out and not recover placentas after giving birth in hospitals.
The National Council of Indigenous Midwives, which supports autonomy regarding birth practices, highlights the continued oppression when birth practices were suppressed over the past century.
“The silencing of Indigenous midwives is a result of colonization and the ongoing medicalization and systemic racism in the Canadian healthcare system,” the website says.
Moosapayo performed her first placenta ceremony two years ago when her granddaughter was born, based on what Moosapayo’s parents taught her decades ago.
“I always remember grandma saying, ‘One day you’ve got to do it,'” she said. “‘You cannot run to someone. If you believe, connect yourself with the Creator.'”
Indigenous obstetrician pilot
Kehewin Cree Nation was approved for the midwifery pilot in 2018 and received a portion of the federal grant in 2019. But the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the initiative, with interns starting online midwifery courses this year.
Johnson said it was challenging to source resources given the systemic barriers in health care. This situation is also the case for other participating First Nations who try to recruit practicing midwives.
Despite this effort, Johnson said Opaskwayak Cree Nation’s vacancy has been unfilled for four years.
He noted that Kehewin also advertised a job two years ago but saw no applicants. The closest midwives to Kehewin are in the hamlet of Plamondon, 108 miles northwest.
In Opaskwayak Cree Nation in northern Manitoba, people with high-risk pregnancies are airlifted to hospitals in communities like Winnipeg and Brandon.
“It’s hard to have them fly off the plane… and have to go to the hospital on their own without their family,” says Helene Sinclair of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation Maternal Child Health program.
First Nations also need more communication and clarity from regulatory agencies to negotiate bureaucratic red tape and address funding gray areas between the state and federal governments.
“It’s a battle between Indigenous Services Canada, which is responsible for federal jurisdiction, and then there’s the provincial health care system,” Johnson said.
Due to bureaucratic challenges, First Nations may struggle to access resources.
Founded in 2008, the National Council of Indigenous Midwives was recently called in to help Kehewin Cree Nation with its program. Despite receiving state grants, Johnson said additional work was needed to connect with the council due to a lack of information.
Reconnect with roots
The birth camp placenta ceremony was one of the first times Deanna Smith, a doula and one of the midwives in training at Kehewin, saw the afterbirth in person.
Smith said the branched segments of the placenta are important because they resemble the roots of a tree.
When Smith gave birth to both of her children by cesarean section, she no longer saw the placenta after her deliveries. Smith said she didn’t learn more about cultural teachings until eight years ago, when she started working for Kehewin Health Services.
During the ceremony, Smith felt a connection as she walked along the lakeshore as elders spoke and lit a tobacco pipe.
She and others in attendance sang Grandma’s Song while the families wrapped their placentas like newborn babies. They sang ‘Âsaweyminan nimâmâ’, which means ‘Bless us my mother’ in Cree.
“I could feel that positive and powerful energy and the sanctity of the area,” Smith said.