In Anishinaabe culture, it is believed that newly born infants and community Elders are the closest to the spirit world. The process of giving birth carries spiritual teachings, ceremonies, and the power to transform parents, families, and communities. However, oftentimes Indigenous parents face barriers and are unable to access culturally-based health care during their pregnancy journeys. To help tackle this issue MUSKRAT Magazine founder, editor, filmmaker, and mom, Rebeka Tabobondung is helming the development of The Spirit of Birth Pregnancy and Parenting App, which just received The Grand Challenges Grant from Advancing Indigenous Gender Equality through Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship Program.
“MUSKRAT Magazine is deeply honoured and excited to bring Indigenous birth wisdom and health knowledge into the hands of Indigenous families and their health care providers,” said Tabobondung. “Our vision is to make traditional knowledge that was silenced by colonization accessible to a new generation of parents across Turtle Island and beyond who are rekindling culture-based knowledge and parenting practices to rebuild and assert positive cultural identities for their children and communities.” In 2016, Rebeka co-produced and directed the short documentary with the same name, Spirit of Birth which looks into how the Toronto Birth Centre was first established and offers an intimate portrait of a positive, Indigenous-led birth experience for Anishinabe mother Allysha Wassegijig. Since then Rebeka has been pitching the creation and dissemination of digital media stories that centre Indigenous maternal health and parenting wisdom and has also secured partnerships with the Association of Ontario Midwives’ Indigenous Midwifery arm, the Indigenous Screen Office and Netflix, and with the award-winning Rezolution Pictures and APTN to create a web series that follows Indigenous families and their midwives along their pregnancy journeys.
With a quickly expanding population, Indigenous people have the highest birth rate in Canada but experience infant perinatal mortality rates that are 2.1 – 2.3 higher than non-Indigenous parents. Preterm birth rates are also higher in some Indigenous communities, even going as high as 40% – 70% in provinces like British Columbia. There is also the disconnect of culture for some Indigenous mothers during pregnancy when they seek medical care outside of the community. This is when Indigenous mothers are more likely to experience systemic racism as well as the dismissal of traditional teachings and culture in a healthcare setting.
After a 12-month development cycle and 24-month pilot program, the goal is to see more positive impact rates of preterm birth in Indigenous communities, an improvement on stress and postpartum depression, and positive parental satisfaction with childbirth and infant parenting experiences. The app will be an educational tool to help Indigenous women reclaim and revitalize Indigenous health and birth wisdom. It can be personalized through the users’ own cultural and familial knowledge; help connect pregnant couples with their families if they need to seek medical assistance outside of their community; share selected information with health care providers.
The Spirit of Birth Pregnancy and Parenting App joins the first inaugural group of ten recipients of the grant who will create innovative projects that will impact matters such as pre and postnatal health, sustainable beauty packaging, Indigenous media production, prevention of human sex trafficking and exploitation, and food sovereignty and sustainability amongst other initiatives.
“Innovation, as we all know, can help solve some of the most complex and intractable challenges in society. It can drive change. It can transform lives, especially within an Indigenous context,” explained Sara Wolfe, Director of the Indigenous Innovation Initiative at the Grand Challenges virtual press conference in early May 2021. “However, the existing models to support Indigenous innovation are frequently too complex. They’re culturally irrelevant, or they’re hindered by various systemic barriers and discrimination for Indigenous women, two-spirit, and gender-diverse individuals. Therefore, investments in Indigenous innovation are needed more than ever.”