Warisose Gabriel was born at home in Akwesasne in 1943, delivered by the local midwife – her own grandmother, Josephine Tiawentinon Thompson.
“She was called for by everybody in Akwesasne,” remembers Gabriel.
She would not only deliver the community’s babies, she’d even move in for a week or two to give the mother a chance to rest.
“My grandma, she helped the family with the cooking and the other kids, and usually the husband, if he worked. She made his lunch, cake, all that.”
Gabriel, the second oldest of her many siblings, remembers her mother sending them half a mile to stay with their auntie whenever it was time to give birth because she didn’t want the kids running around the house. But for one of her pregnancies, Gabriel’s mother needed more medical supervision, so she gave birth at the hospital. When it came time to have her next child, she went to the hospital again.
In the 1950s, this became commonplace in Akwesasne, a big change. “It used to always be done at home,” said Gabriel.
When she moved to Kanesatake in 1960, having her first baby the same year, she wasn’t aware of anyone around to help women give birth at home, so she gave birth at a hospital – all six of her children were born this way.
Recently she heard from Patricia Gabriel, community birth worker and doula at the Kanesatake Health Center (KHC), asking if she knew anything about a time when home births were the norm. It was part of KHC’s effort to gather information to revitalize the tradition.
There are about 10-14 babies born each year in Kanesatake, and as it stands, none are home births, according to Patricia.
“Birth, it’s a natural occurrence. It’s a natural experience. We need to stop treating it as this event that needs to take place in the hospital because we’re taking the natural part away from it,” said Patricia, whose belief in the spiritual aspects of birth inspired her to become a doula – a person who supports and advocates for a mother before, during, and after childbirth.
She hopes to see the community once again embrace the cultural tradition of home birth. “It was the way of life,” she said.
The health centre has strengthened its relationship with the Blainville Birthing Centre, which can connect KHC clients with midwives. Patricia said the goal is to one day have a midwife in Kanesatake to support other Kanehsata’kehró:non.
Patricia has been busy trying to collect birthing stories from women in the community, especially elders who might remember a time when home birth was more common.
“We all hear it was our great-grandmothers, it was our tótas, it was our aunties all there helping a mother give birth and bring life into the world, so that’s where we’re starting,” she said.
“Even after decades have passed, women vividly remember the emotions and experience of birth, and that’s why birth stories just hold such powerful energies.”
It’s not only home birth that KHC is focused on, however – the effort is part of a revamp of the Maternal Child Health Department, which has grown out of discussions over the summer about how to deliver sex-ed to local students in a culturally relevant way, such as incorporating moontime teachings.
“I took that same approach on how we can make birth, prenatal care, and postpartum care culturally founded,” she said, noting this reflects KHC’s drive to ensure services align with a goal to centre culture in its services.
“In terms of stages of human development, birth is a transition phase, and our first transition when you look at it – from the spiritual realm to life in the natural world. Such an important milestone, and one that has long-lasting, lifelong impacts on a human being,” said KHC executive director Teiawenhniseráhte Tomlinson.
“Within our ways, our teachings, tsi nonkwarihó:ten, our people had this knowledge. Our stories and practices indicate this.”
He said it makes sense, in this regard, to reimagine the Maternal Child Health Department’s services to reflect these teachings.
Patricia acknowledges there are times when a hospital birth is more appropriate, such as when someone needs to be followed more closely, but she wants women to know that hospital birth is not the only path when it comes to labour.
“Generally speaking, I think almost every woman I’ve spoken to has had a negative experience with birthing in a hospital,” said Patricia.
She said the Hospital of St. Eustache now has a form that allows women to retrieve the placenta, which is traditionally buried around the home.
However, many women go to Blainville or Hawkesbury to more easily obtain services in English. “They might not be aware that it is a practice for our women to bring back the placenta,” Patricia said.
Other cultural barriers can include limits on how many people can be present to offer support to somebody in labour.
“The goal is just to have women be informed of what is available to them,” said Patricia.
According to Warisose, communities such as Akwesasne and Tyendinaga have had success bringing back the practice of home birth. She said this could be especially valuable in this day and age, when the hospital has a revolving door for those who have given birth.
“When I had my kids, I stayed in a hospital for four or five days,” she said.
However, that doesn’t mean she wouldn’t have preferred to give birth at home.
“I didn’t know much about it back then. It wasn’t really talked about. Maybe if I’d known then what I know now, I would have.”
Marcus Bankuti, Local Journalism Initiative reporter
Marcus is managing editor of The Eastern Door, where he has been reporting since 2021 on issues that matter to Kahnawake and Kanesatake. He was previously editor-in-chief of The Link and a contributing editor at Our Canada magazine.