It was a whopping 102 degrees during the day with plummeting temperatures at night in Shiprock, New Mexico on the sacred land of Navajo Nation. The soon-to-be new parents’ camp was set up completely off grid with no running water or electricity.
Indigenous Doula, student homebirth midwife, and New Mexico Doula Association birth equity co-chair Natasha Bowman and her colleague Indigenous Doula and the Executive Director for The Navajo Breastfeeding Coalition Amanda Singer, CLC got to chatting about how they could best serve their client who desired a traditional Navajo birth under these conditions.
Considering their own well-being and the safety of their clients, Bowman and Singer initially joked about hauling Bowman and her fiancé LaDarrell Skeet’s fifth wheel out onto the land. But Skeet helped make it a reality.
The team was able to set up a mobile birthing suite for the new family and their care team complete with air conditioning, clean water and a bathroom. What’s more, the certified professional midwife attending the birth brought along her small trailer too.
“When we do births on the Navajo reservation, we have to think outside of the box,” Bowman explains.
Bowman, who has always been interested in labor and delivery, realized while working with the University of New Mexico’s Birth Companion Program, the lack of Indigenous birth workers. During one training, in a roomful of 40 participants, three were Indigenous.
“I was shocked,” Bowman says. “There has to be a change. There has to be more Indigenous birth workers.”
Later, Bowman attended another training with the Changing Woman Initiative, where she first met Singer. Since then, they’ve been realizing their vision of more Indigenous doulas and birth workers.
Bowman and her partners are continually learning the traditional Navajo ways of birthing and bringing those rituals to their clients.
“Some [clients] are for it, and some are against it because they have always been told they should be birthing in a hospital,” Bowman begins.
She goes on to explain that some of her clients have been scolded and ridiculed by pediatricians, other health care providers and even family and friends for planning a home birth despite the evidence confirming that among low-risk women, planned home births result in low rates of interventions without an increase in adverse outcomes for mothers and babies.
Bowman describes some of the elements of traditional birth which include integrating song, herbal remedies, teas and tinctures, and traditional dress in sash belts and moccasins.
“We believe in the exchange of energy and thoughts,” Bowman continues. “Good intentions, pure thoughts, and lots of prayers.”
It is customary for birth workers to tie a bandana over their heads as well as a Sani scarf, sash belt, or rebozo with an arrowhead tucked inside around the waist to protect the reproductive system.
“It is to protect us from the powerful energy the laboring parent is releasing,” Bowman explains. “It is like armor for us.”
Bowman and Singer and their partners are confronting the health realities in their community through other collaborations too. Their funding partners are The Kellogg Foundation, The Brindle Foundation and United HealthCare. Partnering organizations include Indigenous Women Rising, New Mexico Doula Association, Bidii Baby Foods and Saad K’idilyé, a grassroots organization dedicated to providing traditional teachings to the urban Diné communities around Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Last summer, the Saad K’idilyé Diné Language Nest (SKDLN) opened as a central urban hub where Saad K’idilyé meets with families, babies, caretakers, and its community.
“A language nest is a community site-based language program for children from birth to three years old where they are immersed in their Native (heritage) language,” as described on their website. “SKDLN is a safe, home-like environment for young children to interact with Diné Bizaad speakers, often elders, through meaningful activities.”
Bowman was able to witness the interactions.
“It was amazing!” she exclaims.
Eventually, Bowman says that she and her colleagues would like to create their own Indigenous Doula training with teachings specific to Navajo birth culture.
In the meantime, they’re celebrating National Breastfeeding Month with Indigenous Milk Medicine Week: From the Stars to a Sustainable Future during the week of August 8 to 14. The breastfeeding coalition will reveal a Navajo translation breastfeeding art piece during this celebration.
And while the fifth wheel doula mobile has stirred up great interest within the community on social media, for the time being, there won’t be an expansion of this service. Bowman and Skeet’s fifth wheel remains on the move though, helping keep the birth team comfortable. Follow its tracks by following the Navajo Breastfeeding Coalition on Facebook.