Rebeka Tabobundung discusses her exploration of traditional birth and parenting knowledge.
I had two experiences that I would describe as spiritual in the very early stages of my pregnancy in 2005. They occurred before I took a pregnancy test, about a week after conception. It was winter and I was about to leave the house. While I was putting on my hat, I noticed the faint sound of a drum, which seemed to be beating in my own ears! Of course, I knew there was a chance I was pregnant, and in that moment I wondered if I was hearing my baby’s heart beating. That evening as I slept I dreamed I was bleeding from my belly button. It was a vivid dream and when I awoke I interpreted that the blood in my dream represented the life-force, which flows through our bodies with the belly button being the essential opening to new life because this is where the umbilical cord attaches and how a mother sustains life to her unborn child. Before I bought the pregnancy test, I knew at the level of my spiritual self that the results would be positive.
These small but spiritual acts initiated my exploration into traditional birth and parenting knowledge because mainstream/Eurocentric views on pregnancy fail to recognize or validate such experiences. The mainstream knowledge that was offered to me while I was pregnant was void of the deep transformative journey, which I intuitively knew I was on. This void resulted in personal feelings of isolation because I had no avenue to acknowledge, explore, or learn from my new experiences. Thus, I began to look to my own culture for an explanation of my experiences.
When I was pregnant with my son and living in Toronto, I sought out Aboriginal midwives to attend the home-birth I chose to have. I began to seek out traditional teachings about the life-changing journey I was embarking on and I looked to my midwives for guidance. It became apparent that my midwives and I were on the same journey. We were urban Aboriginal women, dislocated from our traditional territories seeking out traditional birth knowledge that had been silenced by processes of colonization. I was grateful for simply having the access I did, to the Aboriginal midwives that were providing my care.
The first summer after my son, Zeegwon, was born my partner and I lived in a small trailer while building our cabin on my home reserve of Wasauksing First Nation. My father and many friends camped out with us to help. During that summer, I spent time talking with my father and my great-aunt Aileen Rice, otherwise known as Aunty-Soda, while my eight month old son learned to climb over rocks and gummed on fallen acorns (yikes!). Both my father and Aunty-Soda shared stories with me about my great-grandmother Lucy Tabobondung (Gran), who raised my father and who was also a midwife in our community. My Aunty-Soda told me that her generation was the first to leave the community to birth their babies in the hospital in the nearest town of Parry Sound. Before that, midwives like Lucy attended births, which usually took place at home. It was the first time I heard about Gran being a midwife and the more they spoke of Gran, the more I realized how little I knew of her and our traditional birth knowledge. The passion to learn more grew.
My desire to learn about my family was not new as I did not grow up on my reserve or have the opportunity to get to know them and learn about our Anishinabek culture until I began searching as a young adult. However, since I became a mother my desire to gain more knowledge and build a stronger connection with my cultural roots in Wasauksing deepened. It expanded to include new questions such as: What does it mean to be a ‘life-giver’? As a mother, I now held an invested interest in learning about and ensuring that our traditional knowledge was preserved and passed down to future generations; this was another fundamental driving force urging me to reclaim this knowledge. It remains my hope to be able to pass these teachings on to my son and family giving them the strong sense of identity and community that I grew up without.
After my son was born, I decided to focus my Master’s thesis research on traditional birth knowledge from Wasauksing First Nation and subsequently spent two years researching and documenting. I spent time with three Wasauksing community members, who collectively hold three generations of experience as mothers, and asked them to share their understanding of traditional birth knowledge and experiences. The women shared long-silenced personal and traditional stories with me that paint a highly communal and spiritual society in which pregnancy, childbirth, and the newborn are honoured as central to communication with the spirit world and finding purpose and meaning in life. They described ceremonies and traditional remedies, which prepared and celebrated new life in the community that in the past two generations have ceased to be practiced. The combined knowledge and experiences of these women tell the story of a community that was forced to take its teachings underground and is now harnessing the strength to unearth and rejuvenate the beauty and power that was silenced.
In stark contrast to Eurocentric views on spirituality and pregnancy, my exploration of traditional birth knowledge revealed that in the Anishinabek worldview, the states surrounding women and pregnancy are considered to be highly sacred and spiritual. Our traditional knowledge demonstrates to us the importance of paying close attention to our spiritual experiences. This is especially true during pregnancy because these experiences have the capacity to hold vital teachings, which can affect ourselves, our unborn children, and the community on individual, medicinal, political, and spiritual levels.
Each of the women discussed how pregnancy was and continues to be highly valued in the community. Marie Anderson explained that “a pregnant woman was a very medicinal woman because she’s carrying a new life inside her”. As well as bringing the gift of new life to the community, a pregnant woman also brings political and spiritual insight that she might not otherwise be tuned into which can benefit her community.
Marie remarked, “If there was a difficult decision coming on the reserve they’d approach this young pregnant woman and they’d ask her for her advice…they’d offer her tobacco. It’s not that she ever encountered anything like that, but you know the advice that comes out of her, really helped those people.”
All of the women interviewed expressed the value of providing a baby with its Anishnaabe name. For Faith Pegahmagabow, the most important thing is to ensure that that child is welcomed and that it has received its Anishnaabe name.
“Our belief is that before conception, that child’s spirit sits with the Creator and it’s given instructions on what its life is going to be like when it comes here. And it’s also told what it will do in its life here on earth and what it’s name is going to be,” Faith said.
Faith explained that since a baby at birth cannot talk that it is then the responsibility of the mother and father to find out what that child’s name is; what name the Creator gave it.
My journey to learn and reclaim traditional birth knowledge has led me down a path of community building and self-discovery. Along the way I have unearthed my roles and responsibilities as a life-giver and I have just recently begun to initiate a naming ceremony for my son and I. However, the process of asking for and receiving a name hasn’t been simple. While it is often grandparents and Elders that provide names, I feel that due to my own dislocation and the lifestyle issues in my family, it has never seemed like a natural thing to do. In a way, reclaiming traditional knowledge is deeply personal, at times scary and humbling. Because of the impacts of colonization, for many of us, it is quite a conscious, premeditated act, which necessitates honesty and vulnerability. Truth be told, I’m ready. Although I still do not know who I will ask I have courage, a good hunch, and I am embracing the journey, and the celebration.
Imagine O P E N
R I D E the crest of water
commands my body to slip
deeper into water
The wave grows
throws me just beyond the spirit world
I hover there
A spirit traveling water vessel
Belly muscles rage me back
hands cupping layers
that tonight are opening
has flooded me
a wet tangle of hair
charges through pelvic bone
First breath about to form
from every woman and grandmother
refuse to rest
without you in my arms