If You Lay Down, The Baby Will Never Come Out
An Overview of Traditional Native American Birth Practices
As I celebrated Thanksgiving this year, I couldn’t help but remember the culture and heritage of America’s indigenous people, a culture mostly lost because of the establishment of European colonies. For Pathways, I would like to highlight one of the lesser-celebrated aspects of the Native American people: their pregnancy and birth practices.
Ancient peoples, not understanding women’s menstrual cycles, looked for answers in the natural world. They were astute enough to see the correlation between the lunar cycles and the cycles of a woman’s life: waxing (young and nubile); full (middle-age and reproducing); and waning (old and wise). The bleeding time, like the lunar cycles, came cyclically and to fullness often when the moon was most ripe. Many saw menstrual blood as the origins of life and a deep source of wisdom.
Women were given special menses and birth huts in many Native American cultures. In today’s society, we would see this as a disgraceful shunning. Yet, the tribes’ women saw this as a time to rest from their daily chores, to bond with women around them, and to talk about womanly things, such as marriage, sex, birth and childrearing.
The land was seen as feminine: the mountains as breasts, the rivers and streams as the life flow, caves as the womb, and the plains as the body. Women were revered and regarded with respect and dignity, seen as the life-giving and tribe-nurturing citizens.
The Blessing Way was a Navajo ritual meant to pamper the pregnant woman, bestowing blessings and wellwishes on her for her upcoming birth. Its ritualistic ceremonial cleansing, grooming, gifting, and nourishing lasted nine days, culminating in an all-night “no sleep” ritual, after which the expectant woman would greet the morning sun. The women of the tribe would surround the mother, rubbing her body, feeding her healthy foods, and giving her talismans of strength and remembrance. They would sing their creation song over her, the story of the Changing Woman.
Some tribes believed that pregnant women should not cross their legs, wear tied neckerchiefs, or have sex, and most taught that pregnant women should visualize only good things and should eat pregnancy-specific foods for a healthy baby. For example, the Cherokee recommended abstaining from eating raccoon, speckled trout and black walnuts.
Likewise, a woman was encouraged to walk a lot in order to keep her hips wide and open and to keep their baby small enough to pass through her pelvis. Women were encouraged to wash their hands and feet daily, and to avoid harsh weather.
The Navajo extended these proscriptions to the father as well, forbidding him to tie up animals (which was thought to tie up a baby in the womb, making labor difficult) and requiring that he wash his hands and feet daily.
Some women employed the use of herbs and tinctures to hasten birth, such as a Mahican concoction made of root bark or a Cherokee infusion of wild cherry bark, both of which were drank to bring about contractions. Other tribes used less medicinal means, such as having an elder “scare” the baby out.
Some tribes, such as the Hopi, required that a woman have a solitary birth, but many more tribes had woman-assisted births. Often, the laboring woman’s mother or grandmother, or an elder tribal woman, would assist during the birth. Some tribes, such as the Kickapoo, allowed men to witness the labor and even assist.
Some gave birth within the sanctuary of the village, either in their homes or in ceremonial birth buildings (the Inuit and Algonquian tribes did this), while others (like the Mi’kmaq and Bella Koola) left the village to give birth in the woods or at the edge of a body of water.
The Navajo called a midwife “the one who holds.” The Inuits called their midwives “cord mothers.” The term midewiwin (“medicine man/medicine woman”) was used universally to some degree or another, and particularly by the Anishinaabeg and Apache peoples.
Women walked, strutted, crawled, swayed and leaned. They remained mobile, moving their baby down, facilitating a faster birth. Laboring women would stand, kneel, sit, squat, hang, dance or otherwise move their babies down; the one position that a woman never birthed in was lying down. Some Native American cultures used smoke baths during birth to help relax the perineum. The smoke was usually created from laurel leaves burned in a small clay pot, which the mother would squat or kneel over. Other times a secondary birth attendant would blow the smoke onto the mother’s perineum.
Sometimes, a birth attendant helped by providing counterpressure on the perineum, or providing fundal pressure for prolonged labor. Other times, the mother would provide her own counterpressure to her fundus to help bring down a baby by wrapping a cloth or leather belt around her and pulling on the ends during a contraction.
Tribes had different birthing devices to help women to labor down. These included ropes (hung from rafters or tree branches), wooden blocks to squat on, stakes pounded into the ground to press against, low birth stools to sit upon, and others. Many tribes lit birth fires, warmed water for poultices or medicinal teas, and used oils for body or perineal massage. Some tribes used musical gourds, songs and chanting to help the mother during labor; other women would make sympathy sounds to help the woman cope.
More often than not, babies were not “caught” by human hands, but welcomed by the earth. Women would lay leaves under the mother’s bottom and allow the baby to fall out onto the ground. The short drop would act as a stimulus, akin to our rough handling in today’s Western cultures. Babies were generally rubbed vigorously with ashes or animal fats, and were bound tightly soon after birth. Women were encouraged to “discover” their babies and nurse them soon after birth.
Native American women were educated in the use of herbs and other natural means of helping with labor. Black or blue cohosh, red raspberry leaf, partridgeberry, American licorice, broom snakeweed, buckwheat, black chokeberry, smooth sumac, balsam root bark, birth root, corn smut, wild yam, black haw, hottentot fig, pennyroyal, bayberry, and cotton root were all employed for common childbirth issues, including long labor, postpartum hemorrhage and retained placenta.
The most publicized account of a birth-related Native American medicine is that of Sacagawea. As noted by Captain Meriwether Lewis in The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition:
About five O clock this evening one of the wives of Charbono was delivered of a fine boy. It is worthy of remark that this was the first child which this woman had born, and as is common in such cases her labor was tedious and the pain violent. Mr. Jessome [a Mandan interpreter] informed me that he had frequently administered a small portion of the rattle of a snake, which he assured me had never failed to produce the desired effect, that of hastening the birth of the child; having the rattle of a snake by me I gave it to him and he administered two rings of it to the woman broken in small pieces with the fingers and added to a small quantity of water. Whether this medicine was truly the cause or not I shall not undertake to determine, but I was informed that she had not taken it more than ten minutes before she brought forth, perhaps this remedy may be worthy of future experiments, but I must confess that I want faith as to its efficacy.