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Breaking through Barriers with Belonging and Reconnection to the Land: Misipawistik Cree Nation (MCN)

August 18, 2023

By Siena Rose Cook, 2023 Social Connectedness Fellow

Since the signing of Treaty 5 in 1875 between First Nations in Northern Manitoba and the Government of Canada, Misipawistik Cree Nation (MCN) has lost much of their identity, language, and nationhood due to the denial of their culture, land, language, and way of life. With the help of their Elders, Knowledge Keepers, alongside their elected Chief and council, Misipawistik Cree Nation is working tirelessly to restore its jurisdiction in its territory and reclaim what was taken from them. This is being accomplished through MCN Lands’ Misipawistik Pimatismēskanaw program and MCN Health Authority’s Prenatal Doula program by reconnecting generations of  non-binary and two spirited people, parents, mothers, babies and children to the land, to spirit and to one another. Ininiw kiskinomakēwin (Cree education) is a lifelong holistic journey which focuses on the spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical aspects of growth and learning. The Prenatal Doula program employs trained Indigenous birth helpers to advocate for, empower and support Indigenous mothers/parents as part of their crucial role.  The Doulas teach and share the community’s original teachings around child development from conception through the first year of life. Ceremonies and teachings include, but are not limited to, discussions around cradleboard teachings, child rearing, breastfeeding support, belly button and placenta burial ceremonies, introductions to Sundance ceremonies, traditional parenting, culture, language, and identity. These ceremonies are passed down from Elders to the doula coordinators during events held by the Prenatal Doula program and through events held by the community.  During my time at Misipawsitik Cree Nation, my home nation, I got to see how reconnecting with the land helps women engage with the land in a spiritual, physical, and social sense.

By being more involved in the community and connected to ceremonies, new and expectant mothers feel more supported and cared for. This enables and empowers these mothers and their families  to develop positive relationships, and cherish their identities. Having a community-based doula provides Indigenous mothers and families with a safe, nurturing support system during pregnancy,into postpartum and early parenthood.   Often called Indigenous Helpers, Doulas  support mothers seeking traditional teachings related to each stage of life from oskawasis (the first year of life) to oskapew-oskayiskwew (early adulthood). Cree Elders and Knowledge Keepers help define and implement oskawasis teachings to the new and expectant mothers in the Prenatal Doula program. This is achieved by attending and supporting camps, prenatal days, cultural events, and traditional ceremonies. Traditional knowledge is passed on by oral storytelling during ceremony or sharing circles. The belly button and placenta ceremony is a valued traditional ceremony held by mothers and families, during the first year of life. Elders lead families in a ceremony of prayer, offerings, and burial of the placenta or belly button back into Mother Earth. By participating in this ceremony, children are planted in their community. In turn giving them a rooted connection to Mother Earth and their home communities.  As many children are no longer born on their traditional lands, ceremonies such as placenta and belly button burial are crucial in reconnecting our children to their home. Sharing circles are held by Elders to provide a safe place for mothers and families to feel supported. Many cultural traditions are closed practices, meaning their details are shared only amongst community members, however a core element of all traditions is the presence of Elders, and Knowledge Keepers.  

Doulas extend their role of emotional support companion to advocacy that connects women to various social supports following the birth. Doulas maintain boundaries within the medical birthing experience and empower Indigenous women to create a positive experience for themselves. The formalized Doula role, as we know it today “is result of women living away from their families, and in the case of First Nations women, being forced to give birth away from their home communities and family. As written by Cidro, Doenmez, Sinclair, S et al in their paper Putting them on a strong spiritual path: Indigenous doulas responding to the needs of Indigenous mothers and communities:

“A doula provides continuous physical, emotional, and advocacy support during labour and birth, but does not provide medical, midwifery, or nursing care. Indigenous doulas differ from these mainstream doula care providers because the care is grounded in culture and spirituality and recognizes the sacredness of women as life-givers and water carriers. Indigenous doulas have become increasingly prevalent across Canadian Indigenous communities, both urban and rural/remote. They are partially a resurgence of Indigenous cultural knowledge, but also a reflection of the resistance of long held medical practices that have served to disenfranchise traditional approaches to pregnancy and childbirth.” 

The lack of social support that Indigenous women receive before and after giving birth is a systematic failing, since neither the public nor healthcare professionals are fully prepared, aware or able to support culturally informed birthing practices. Canadians overall, experience exceptional maternal health services with a  “maternal mortality rate of 7.8 per 100,000  live births between 2008 and 2010”. Unfortunately, Indigenous women and non-Indigenous women do not experience the same standard of care, or share the same glowing maternal health markers. For example ”Indigenous women in Canada have a two times higher risk of maternal mortality in comparison to the general Canadian population. Indigenous women also experience higher rates of adverse outcomes including stillbirth and perinatal death, and, in some cases, low-birth-weight infants, prematurity and infant death.” Unfortunately, this is due to systemic violence and inequity including anti-Indigenous racism, and the dominance of Western medical standards.  Indigenous women experience a lack of support from medical staff. Many Indigenous women feel that during labour, medical personnel are not sympathetic. For instance in 2020, an Indigenous women in Edmonton “alleges that mistreatment, racism and neglect at a community hospital led to her baby dying alone after, the woman says, she was forced into labour with no assistance from doctors or nurses”.The misunderstandings are rooted partly in cultural differences in communication styles, medical beliefs, and values and partly in systemic racism and negative stereotypes of Indigenous peoples. This is where initiatives and programs such as Misipawistik Cree Nation Health Authority Doula program begin to make change. Advocacy is an essential element in being an Indigenous birth companion.

The Prenatal Doula program assists mothers who would otherwise have no connection to their medical professionals, and  in many cases, little to no resources or family support. In some cases, Indigenous doulas help with such tasks such as travelling from remote areas into the city for appointments and check-ups, meeting with nurses, doctors, or midwives, as well as shopping for necessities such as diapers, formula, and clothing. Most importantly, they provide  mental, emotional, and spiritual support for Indigenous mothers, parents, and families throughout their new journeys. 

Photo from personal collection/archives.

Misipawistik Cree Nation (MCN). June 21, 2023 – Indigenous Peoples Day Celebration.

Recently, after being provided the opportunity by Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness and Misipawistik Cree Nation, I was able to participate in the 2nd Annual Summer Solstice Camp. The camp was put on by Misipawistik Cree Nation’s Health Authority Doula Program for expectant mothers, parents, families in the community aiming to reconnect with their culture and identity. The camp was held on traditional land 15 kilometers from the community, very close to the waters of Lake Winnipeg. 

Upon arrival my first thought was “this camp is stunning”! There were cabins set up for each participating family and employee.  I am a proud community member of Misipawistik Cree Nation who was raised in an urban city out of the community. During camp, all participating families, including my own, were treated with such grace, respect, care, and hospitality.  The doulas and their helpers provided three home cooked meals a day, as well as snacks. Through any event during camp I felt safe, heard, supported, and involved. Connecting to families in my home community, building relationships, friendships, and participating in traditional ceremonies was healing and transformative. Relationships were built while participating in ceremonies and events together throughout our stay. Watching our children play and connect with one another was another way our bonds grew. Before my participation in the Prenatal Doula camp, I once felt heavily disconnected from my home community and my culture. Due to my urban upbringing, my children also lacked a deep connection to our community. During the camp, I had the opportunity to be reconnected to the land through water ceremony (closed practice), by participating in the belly button burial ceremony, sharing circles, reiki sessions, cedar baths, and medicine making. In sharing circles,  we were able to open up and be vulnerable with one another allowing friendships to blossom. A cedar bath is held by Elders. It is a way to cleanse your mind, body, and spirit. Leaves from cedar trees are collected, then boiled to activate the medicinal properties. When it is ready, an Elder cleanses you with the medicine. I was able to participate and felt very rejuvenated afterwards. Both of my children and I are now reconnected to our community through relationships, and ceremony. By the time camp was finished I felt a new sense of belonging. I felt rooted, and transformed.

Many parents and mothers who have turned to Indigenous doulas and birth helpers for support are gaining lifelong relationships.  Programs and initiatives  like the MCN Prenatal Doula Program are changing the trajectory of families lives by ensuring new expectant mothers, parents, and families are not alone, nor isolated in their communities. Through their time, commitment, and genuine care, they help build belonging and a sense of connection to mothers and parents.  In turn mothers are able to break through barriers  and continue their journey of raising healthy children and becoming positive role models in their homes and community.


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