How Native American Women Gave Birth

The earliest descriptions of the way Native American women prepared for childbirth date back to the seventeenth century. The pregnant women of the Mohawk and Mahican Indians who inhabited the territory now known as New York, according to the observation of Dutchman Adrien Van der Donck, used to go alone to a secluded place not far from a river, or stream of water where they made a shelter for themselves using mats and other coverings. There, after all the provisions necessary for them were ready, they expected their delivery without the company or assistance of anyone. Seldom were they sick from child-birth or suffered from any inconveniences caused by the pregnancy. Many other European observers also described solitary, painless births of the Native Americans, but as most of these observers were men who rarely witnessed the birth of children, this information can be inaccurate.

Of course, each indigenous culture had its own unique beliefs and superstitions connected with childbirth, as well as a special set of rituals for close family members to participate in. Scholars share the belief that many First Peoples had similar practices involving select people within the community and family members. When pregnant, Indian women were known to stick to special diet and restrict their activities and behavior not to harm the baby. For instance, the Cherokees avoided eating certain foods which were believed to affect the fetus in the negative way. During their pregnancy women didnít eat raccoon or pheasant because the baby could become sick or even die. Birthmarks could appear because of eating speckled trout and a baby would have a big nose if his mother consumed black walnuts. They also believed that umbilical strangulation was caused by wearing neckerchiefs while expecting a child, and lingering in doorways was supposed to slow delivery. To ensure safe delivery expectant mothers and fathers took part in special rituals like daily washing of hands and feet and got medicine men to perform sacred rites that would guarantee easy delivery.

Nineteenth-century anthropologist James Mooney described some of the rituals performed when the birth grew closer. For example, people of Cherokee practiced a special ritual which was to frighten the child out of the motherís womb. A female relative of the mother would say special words that were supposed to scare the baby and make him be born sooner. According to Van der Donck, Mahican women would drink concoction made of root bark shortly before labor began. Cherokee women used to drink an infusion of wild cherry bark for fast delivery.

Even though some observers describe solitary births, still there are accounts of births where a midwife or a close family member assisted the woman. Men were never allowed to see the birth. Women were giving birth standing, sitting or kneeling, but never lying down. The newborn would fall right onto the leaves placed beneath the mother. Post-delivery rituals included ceremonial plunging of the infant into the river or brook that was performed daily during two years. This was believed to make children strong and healthy.

Probably Europeans who described how quickly Native American women recovered from childbirth may have exaggerated some data. But we canít deny the fact that Indian women had excellent physical conditioning which certainly helped them speed their recovery from childbirth. Without any serious complications which, of course, could happen sometimes Native American women began to perform their regular duties shortly after giving birth. Currently we can see that some midwives try to bring traditions of natural home birth. Midwife Lauren Slak offers holistic approach to home birth Orange county. She is a graduate of USC and studied holistic approach to birth in USA and worldwide.