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Into Our Hands

New stories are often rooted in old stories that were swept aside by more powerful cultures. Now, some indigenous groups are reclaiming their stories and traditions, integrating modern science on their own terms
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I was born to a Mohawk woman from a reservation across the St. Lawrence River from Montreal, Kahawague, by the rapids. When she was young, my mother fell into those rapids and damaged her mitral valve. She was told by her uncle, who was the first Mohawk physician at Kahawague, that she should never bear children because it would be a threat to her life. But she chose to have four of us, and I was her fourth one, born at home.

I was born into the hands of my grandmother, Kunatdiles, whose name, “She Leads the Village,” continues to be handed down through the families. When I was born, my grandmother was concerned about my mother's condition, and she bundled me and placed me in a basket. About an hour later, she circled back to me and found I was bleeding from my cord stump. Today we know that a baby in that condition needs a Vitamin K shot, but back then, my grandmother did the best she could through her common sense. She took a needle and thread and sewed up my cord stump. I grew up in her care in her home at Akwasasne.

My cousins and siblings would tease me: “You'd better not make Grandma mad or she'll take her thread back.” I used to sit in the little bed next to the big white iron bed she slept in, the bed where I was born, searching for that thread.

When I became pregnant myself at the age of 23, I found that thread in the awakening that a new mother experiences and in the medicines that had been given to me in the 22 years that I've followed the path of the Yawiloswas.

Among those medicines is a shared medicine from the Mayan people of the south, the ways of the days of the Mayan calendar. Each one of us has a spirit of the day that we were born, the day we put our feet on the road of our lives. My particular day is the Day Ak, which leads into the women's cycle. Ak, Ix, Inoc, Mak, Noc, Tihox, and Cauac. And so the purpose of my being here on this Earth is to awaken women to their power and to the meaning and purpose of life itself.

I became a midwife, and I was delivering babies to a family who lived within a mile of a Superfund site when I was confronted with a mother's question: “Is it safe to breast feed?” I found I had no answers to this question, so I began to look for answers.

I found out that our community at Akwasasne is a veritable sink to the Great Lakes Basin. If you look at a map, you'll see that 25 percent of the fresh water on this Earth is located in the Great Lakes Basin, the sweetwater seas that flow out to the great ocean. We're the largest dump of PCBs in the country at Akwasasne. Everything flows through us. We're a sink; we're where all of those by-products of industry settle and bioaccumulate, biomagnify, move through the food chain, that sacred web of life that we're all a part of.

Our research began with the mother's question in the '80s and has now emerged into the first human health study at a Superfund site that brings together the combined capacity of health research scientists, community members, and health care providers. Mohawk women themselves are co-investigators in the scientific research; we all share power and authorship of scientific papers. That interaction has yielded great fruit in the improvement of our community's understanding and has become a model of community empowerment and health realization.

Breast milk

Doing environmental health research is very discouraging work – to know that the breast milk of every woman on this planet is contaminated with what our people call the Wahecmah, the bad stuff, the polychlorinated Wahecmah.

My sisters to the north, the Inuits of Kavungnatuk, have the highest documented levels of PCBs in their breast milk in the world. They're living in bush villages; they don't benefit from industrialized society, but they bear most of the risks because they eat sea mammals and these chemicals accumulate in their food chain. Without knowing that, they continue to breast feed as they have always done.

We work with the Inuits of northern Quebec who in the ‘80s, at a circumpolar conference, decided that they were going to restore the power of birth to their communities. Previously, they had a 20 percent caesarian rate; under the government evacuation policy, these women were flown out to cities in the south to have their babies alone. They would come home with their new baby to families that may not be intact anymore because of their absences. Since 1985, they have had four practicing Inuit midwives, one of whom doesn't even have a high school diploma. And yet they reduced the caesarian rate in the village down to 6 percent, with 95 percent of the births now conducted in their own language.

In Ontario last year, 37 Mohawk and Seneca, Oneida, Onondaga, Tuscarora and Cayuga babies were born into the hands of their own people, on their own land, using our traditions and culture, and taking back the responsibility of life. The door of life and the door of death are the same door, and when you lose the knowledge of how to be born, you lose the knowledge of how to die.

The stories of how we're born are so important and give so much guidance to a child's life. I still live down the road from where I was born, delivering babies to women who were children of babies delivered by my grandmother. Recently, I was at a ceremony with my cousin, who has helped me at many births over the years, and a young man 18 years old came in to the ceremony and sat right in front of us and stayed all night. What would a young 18-year old handsome man have to do with two relatively older women? He knew that we were the ones who had delivered him 18 years ago. Our children need that kind of continuity. It's the essence of their identity.


A birth and a dream

I think of a young woman I worked with who was going to have her first child. She dreamt that she was inside a tent and there were snakes all around her. Across a veil, in another room of the tent, was a woman. She wasn't so much frightened as aware that she needed to get away from these snakes that were black and white and red and blue. So she unzipped the tent, went out, and she ran along the path, jumping over many snakes. Then she woke up.

When I heard her dream, it was after asking her in my office at Akwasasne, “What's happened in the week since I last saw you?”

She said, “Oh, nothing.”

Then we sat and visited and had tea with her mother. Pretty soon this dream emerged.

I asked her again, “Has anything unusual happened to you in this week?”

Then she remembered that she was in a car accident. She was at a stoplight in a car full of friends, and a car hit them from behind, enough to make her head whiplash. She knew to put her hands forward so that she didn't have an impact in the front.

When you go to an obstetrician, they'll tell you unless there's been spotting or bleeding or leaking of amniotic fluid, everything's fine. But in our ways, there's a condition they call susto, a fright. When the fright happens in a pregnant woman, it happens to two people. And the fright to the baby is a double fright; not only does the baby have its fright, it also has its mother's fright. Once she was able to talk about the accident, she realized that it was a trauma and was able to cry and be comforted by me and her mother.

But what troubled me was the image of unzipping that tent, which to me meant she was going to have a caesarean section. So I told her she should have a ceremony with her family. So they did that for her.

Though she struggled through a long labor, she did end up having a caesarian, but she was able to draw on the cultural power available to her to accept the outcome of the caesarian and to be grateful for her child.


A doorway from the spirit world

It became clear to me in the process of empowering women through the birth process – one woman at a time, one family at a time, one community at a time – that we needed to develop our own models of birth and care. You women know that life itself speaks to us, that our bodies are the doorways through which human beings come from the spirit world to this one, and that the capacity and power in that moment of birth is available to us as women, as families, as relatives, to find our strength and wisdom and the stories of the people.

The creation story of my people begins with a pregnant woman, Yogeegeesum. A chief, who was living in the world in the sky, had a dream about the withering and dying of the tree of life at the floor of this world and the withering and dying of the sacred fruits. Yogeegeesum came into relationship to this chief and conceived a life. In her curiosity and hunger she went to that tree and dug from the roots, and in doing so, she uprooted the tree. There she found a hole in the floor of the sky world, and as she looked down, she fell through that hole. As she fell, her fingernails grasped seeds and bits of sacred things. We still use those things today in our ceremonies – our tobacco, corn, beans, squash – all of those things that we still hold as sacred.

As that pregnant woman fell through the sky, she saw below her a great ocean. She landed on the back of a turtle with those seeds under her fingernails. A muskrat dove to the bottom of the ocean and brought up a clump of earth and placed it on the back of the turtle.

The Sky Woman danced in the direction the sun goes around the Earth, planting the seeds. And as she danced, her daughter was born. Her daughter, too, continued to keep the world growing by that dance – that women's dance that we still do today in our longhouses to recognize the responsibility of women to the Earth and to life itself. As her daughter grew into a young woman, she became pregnant by a male being – some say it was the West Wind – and she bore twins. It was in the work of those twins that the world as we know it was created.

That is the world we acknowledge in our continuing cycle of ceremonies, beginning with the thanksgiving to the maple syrup in the spring when we drink the maple sap for 30 days to prepare out bodies for the new cycle. Then we give thanks to the strawberry, the leader of all the berries, to the green corn, the thunder beings, the harvest, and on through the seasons.

And so we have a responsibility, generation to generation, to continue the recognition of the great cycle of life that was put in place by our original mother and to uphold these ceremonies even in the midst of many oppressions. And it is from that tradition that I declare the right of Mohawk women to discern for ourselves those things that come from the original mother, that we continue to hold as our own.


Blessings

I want to close with a prayer that we use in our medicine circle for healing and for blessing births. Relax where you are and try to get comfortable, feeling your weight supported by Mother Earth. Take in a deep breath, breathing in the oxygen that is part of the sky and part of each of us, too.

Now remember, next time you look at the morning star, that morning star is you glittering bright.

I give thanks, for peacefully you are born. I pray that peacefully your life will be ongoing because as I think of you clearly, I know you will always be loved.



Katsi Cook is a Mohawk healer, midwife, and environmental health researcher.
She has documented effects of toxic pollutant on the Iroquois Six Nations
and founded the first school of indigenous midwifery. Adapted from a talk
given by Katsi Cook at the Bioneers Conference, October 1999

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