In a matrilineal society, ancestral descent is traced through maternal lines. Indigenous Full-Spectrum Doula Skaniehtiiohstha Kasokeo of A’nowa:ra Owira Doulas— serving those on the borderlands of Canada and the U.S.– points out that of the hundreds of Native American tribes across North America, many of them are matrilineal and this framework contributes to the interconnectedness of life.
But because of the devastation of colonization and forced assimilation, many of the birth and infant feeding traditions passed down through clans by mothers have been disturbed. Kasokeo and her colleagues are working to empower Indigenous families through birth, restoring these traditions.
“A lot of things were taken,” Kasokeo says of the effects of colonization. “We all have bits and pieces of that big picture; we’re healing from historical trauma. We can use this time of birth to bring healing to [families].”
She shares that an elder once told her that through the messages we tell our children, we send messages to our future.
“I personally relate that back to the birth experience,”Kasokeo begins. “The messages we send about our bodies, our connection to each other and the strength of women, in my mind happens through breastfeeding. Especially in the first hours after birth, the first messages we relate are about our bodies and the connection to babies’ matrilineal line through breastfeeding.”
Kasokeo emphasizes that this path will look different for every person.
“It doesn’t have to look a certain way,” she says.
Another doula featured in Reclaiming Birthing Traditions: Indigenous Advocates Talk Maternal Health by Daisy Sprenger echoes this distinction.
“There is a problematic tendency… to generalize within dialogues about Indigenous communities,” Sprenger writes. “It’s critical to remember that ‘Indigenous’ is a very broad term, and that each community has different practices and traditions. Within these communities … each mother and family will have different outlooks, personal histories, and levels of comfort and desires.”
Kasokeo and her colleagues embrace this approach with the overarching theme to give power to women, instilling in them the confidence that their bodies will help their babies to thrive.
The doulas in their group lean on one another, strengthening their collective as support people. Kasokeo talks about how she, in part, pursued doula work in order to become what she needed.
When Kasokeo became pregnant at 19, she immediately sought out the very limited midwifery care where she was living in Saskatchewan (Treaty 6 Territory). With only 12 midwives in her entire province, she sent in her application as early as possible, but was denied due to the sheer number of parents seeking out midwifery care.
Author Amanda Short details that “Jessica Bailey, President of the Midwives Association of Saskatchewan, said that her team of six at Saskatoon City Hospital turns away anywhere from 40 to 50 percent of people asking for care monthly. Across the province, it’s somewhere from 20 to 50 percent.”
During this time though, she learned about doulas, connected with one in her area and says she “fell in love with everything about it.”
As a survivor of sexual abuse, Kasokeo says it was important to her to know what procedures were going to be done to her perinatally and to be equipped with as much knowledge as possible. Having a doula by her side helped her achieve that.
Despite laboring for over 20 hours and ultimately deciding on pain medication not originally planned, Kasokeo reports having had an orgasmic birth. She says she thought, “Everybody should have this!”
During her second birth, Kasokeo hemorrhaged and was later forced to navigate an unjust healthcare system with retained placental fragments eight weeks postpartum.
Having endured the challenges she found herself in, Kasokeo says she sees herself as well-situated to meet other women where they’re at.
In 2017, she and her colleagues formed A’nowa:ra Owira (Baby Turtle) Doulas serving those in Akwesasne, Canada and surrounding areas.
Akwesasne is a uniquely situated point on the map. Joshua Keating writes in The Nation That Sits Astride the U.S.-Canada Border: “This Mohawk community is home to around 13,000 people and sits astride the world’s longest border (three hours’ drive northeast of Syracuse or two hours’ travel southwest from Montreal), not quite a part of either country, but not quite independent either…The town has three different governments: one elected council recognized by Canada, one by the United States and a traditional government affiliated with the Iroquois Confederacy, of which the Mohawk are one of the six constituent nations, or tribes. All told, including the United States, Canada, the state of New York and the provinces of Quebec and Ontario, there are eight governments with some level of jurisdiction over a territory with an area of less than 40 square miles…”
Kasokeo explains that this means not everyone has access to the same health care systems, so she and her colleagues work to fill in the voids that many families face when in need of maternal child health care.
As the world learns to manage life amidst a pandemic, she and her group are beginning to open up more meetings and social gatherings in hopes of reaching more birthing and lactating individuals.
Recently, Kasokeo completed the online Lactation Counselor Training Course (LCTC).
“I loved the training!” she exclaims. The myth busting and the counseling skills were notable, and she says she appreciated the convenience of being able to simultaneously learn and stay at home with her children.
Kasokeo admits that covering the counseling skills stalled her at times throughout the course; she says she felt guilty reflecting back on past clients and how she might have interacted with them differently and better served them.
“I needed to find the confidence in myself,” she adds. “It was really scary for me, but the course has given me the tools to be confident in my ability to become a lactation care provider. Moving forward, the number one thing will be not making assumptions and asking people to clarify things.”
Kasokeo’s fascination with and passion for maternal child health persist, and she says she would love to network with others. She is particularly interested in learning about how to nurture a homegrown organization with limited funds. You can reach Kasokeo directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or connect with A’nowa:ra Owira Doulas here and here.