Tewa Women United, a multicultural and multiracial organization founded and led by Native women in the Tewa homelands of northern New Mexico, is committed to building Beloved families and communities to end violence against women, girls and Mother Earth. Alongside programs that address environmental justice, support for survivors of sexual violence, and others, Tewa Women United works toward reproductive justice as a fundamental part of its mission.
Tewa Women United believes that all mothers deserve respect, encouragement and support on their birth journey.
In practice, that means working to increase choices in the birthing experience for low income women of color in Northern New Mexico, a demographic that frequently lacks access to resources that can support maternal-child health and improve birth outcomes. A central element of this work involves expanding the numbers, capacity, and professional standing of doulas in the region, so that more families can experience the advantage of knowledgeable and compassionate advocacy during pregnancy, birth and beyond.
This presentation explores what we know about birth justice, about the value of doula care within an Indigenous framework, and about the need that exists in northern New Mexico and in similar areas. Centered in a rural Indigenous region where the memory and effects of historical trauma are a part of everyday life, Tewa Women United's Yiya Vi Kagingdi is a model for communities seeking to honor traditional practices around childbirth alongside contemporary medical safeguards. By launching the new doula training program, TWU aims to afford local residents the opportunity to learn to serve their community as birth workers and contribute to a more equitable future for New Mexico's families.
Birth was a sacred and natural process for Tewa people. "Women's intuition, bodies and lives were valued and trusted," the TWU staff shares. "Sacred songs, ceremonies & teachings on parenting were a normal part of life. We drank special teas, ate special soups, we were fed by our communities before and after birth. The new mother was never left alone, & had emotional support all around her."
“In birthing, a family and community are reminded of the everlasting cycle of the natural world: genesis, transformation, and return," writes Patrisia Gonzales. "The concept of regeneration, so crucial to life, birth, and the social reality of communities, is expressed not only in birthing practices, but also in ceremonies, dreaming ways, and purification ways.”
Even when families choose not to incorporate traditional practices into their birth plan, an awareness of the presence and role of trauma in Native communities--historical and intergenerational, as well as immediately experienced--is essential for all who work in health care and related fields. The high rate of violence against indigenous women makes it essential that birth workers adopt a trauma-informed perspective and cultivate approaches that foster healing, not further harm.
Tewa Women United deeply understands the need to acknowledge and address the impact of trauma. At the same time, TWU and its many allies recognize, honor and build on the fundamental strength and resiliency that Indigenous people, both individually and culturally, possess. These qualities form the foundation for the Yiya Vi Kagingdi Doula Project, and are invested from the start in the Doula Training and Certification Program curriculum.
The vital and unwavering vision of this effort is based on a return to a tradition that draws women from within communities to become doulas, training them in the knowledge, skills and resources they'll need to support their peers, and mentoring them toward independence and collective advocacy for the good of families in the region.
Doulas who work with Tewa Women United see themselves as "pollinators," advocating and sharing information, not exerting force of opinion or imposed judgement.
WHAT DO DOULAS DO?
"My doula was respectful of my cultural beliefs and I felt really good. It helped a lot that we were able to connect and be friends. I was able to share more things with her that way. Coming from a pueblo, it’s all like a family. When you feel a bond with somebody, it brings that closeness. We are interdependent. We take into consideration how our actions will affect everyone. I was happy because my doula was open to being a part of our family."
A doula is someone who supports a woman physically, emotionally, and spiritually through her journey to becoming a mother.
To be a doula is to bear witness to the special moment of birth. Having helped the mother prepare in the way that feels right to her, the doula holds space, prayer and intention as a new life comes forward. Doulas advocate for the family to make sure that they understand their options and that their wishes are heard. They honor and support the bonds being formed through pregnancy, birth and postpartum.
The meetings of the committee provided a useful real-world perspective on the impact doulas can have and the issues they are likely to encounter while serving in northern New Mexico. By relating personal experiences, sharing information about resources, discussing cultural traditions, offering practical advice, making fruitful connections, and conveying strong support for the program, their input made a meaningful contribution to the Yiya Vi Kagingdi Doula Training Project curricular content.
"The support we provide isn’t just related to pregnancy and childbirth – it’s so much more. Doulas need the training and skills to work with issues of substance abuse, neglect, safety and mental illness. We've had to adapt the way we look at and address these issues. We couldn’t spend time just focused on breathing once we found that women aren’t safe."
Building on the extensive knowledge base of the TWU YVK staff and national expert Peggy O'Mara, the team developed a comprehensive curriculum to be delivered to a pilot cohort in 2018. The Tewa Women United Yiya Vi Kagingdi Doula Training and Certification Program guides doulas to be passionate about birth justice and prepared to provide services within Northern New Mexico context. The Indigenous foundation of YVK Doula Project, with its vision of reclaiming birth wisdom and its emphasis on birth justice, forms the bedrock for the curriculum, and community input is apparent in every session.
Tewa values and community needs are fundamentally entwined in the program's philosophy. YVK trained doulas will respect birth as a ceremony; circle around the whole family; honor the sacredness in all things; attune to the qualities of relationships; support a culture of consent; protect the right of parents to birth in the way of their choosing; and acknowledge Women as the First Environment.
YVK doulas will learn to bring compassion to every stage of creating a family, from conception to the transformation of parenthood. They will learn about the use of local foods and herbs to support health and wellbeing. They will learn to develop enhanced listening skills, and practice skills that allow them to dive into difficulty and complexity. YVK trained doulas will understand and be sensitive to the diverse experiences of families including: young parenthood, LGBTQ identities, poverty, trauma, substance dependency, domestic/sexual violence and stigma. Their role will be to share knowledge and encourage the client in self-advocacy and empowerment, serving indirectly as a change-agent with respect to reproductive justice.