(Left) Workshop and training space of the Yiya Vi Kagingdi Doula Project. (Right) Aspen Mirabal, 22, at the Yiya Vi Kagingdi Doula Project training session. Espa?ola, New Mexico.
“In our communities, native Indigenous communities, nobody owns property, and that is the place [where] wealth was built. . .so to own our building, to know that if funding ends or things happen, we still have a home. . .for our community it shows we are committed to being here for a while. We are here because we believe in this community,” Corrine Sanchez said. “We are located in one of the poorest counties in New Mexico, which has one of the worst reputations of high drug abuse, high overdose,” she continued. “But it is also a community that is so rich in caring for each other, love of land, all of these things we want to uplift and grow and strengthen.”
Aspen Mirabal, 22, said she has known since adolescence she wanted to be a midwife. “The last midwife died in the early 2000s and stopped practicing in the late 1990s. No one took on that education, so it kind of went with her. To establish the connection to natural birth and labor and eventually birthing in the pueblo again. . .it is this romantic perception of bringing the custom back to my people of having access to midwifery care.” Since graduating high school, she has studied with midwives in Bolivia and Guatemala and taken doula training in Georgia. But, she said the TWU program, focusing on Indigenous women in Northern New Mexico, is "geared [toward] the land that I grew up in. I was beyond myself. It was life-changing. I felt at home. I felt secure.”
On a crisp Saturday in January, 17 women met at the Tewa house on Fairview Lane in Espa?ola for their fifth month of training. The doulas-to-be sat together in a room decorated with paintings of pregnant women, the scent of herbal smoke mixed with coffee and buttered toast. Jars of corn silk, thyme, white peony, calendula flowers, lavender, and rosemary—grown in the community garden outside—were stacked on shelves, waiting to be turned into traditional remedies.
“What are the ways we can hold people, [how can we] care for the physical, spiritual world?” asked Jessica Lujan, the Indigenous Women’s Health and Reproductive Justice program manager.
On a whiteboard, Stephanie McCreary, a doula project coordinator, wrote symptoms postpartum mothers might experience: bleeding, shaking, hunger, vaginal tearing, engorgement, a broken tailbone, a prolapsed uterus. Together, the group brainstormed cures, from fuzzy socks to frozen herb- or honey-infused pads. They practiced gentle stretches and shared stories of their own births.
“I want you to think of the emotional world of the parent,” Lujan continued.
“Loss,” said Sascha Anderson, 35, whose new baby, Hildegard, cooed happily on the carpet in front of her. “Whatever you were before is now different.”
Niquita LeValdo, 31, became interested in becoming a doula after witnessing the dire lack of birth services available in South Dakota. When she was pregnant with her son, now 2 years old, and living on the Oglala LaKota Pine Ridge Reservation, LeValdo couldn’t find a midwife who would agree to assist her in a home birth. Indian Health Services, an hour from her home, had poor maternal care and a high rate of infant mortality. There was a Western hospital two hours from the reservation, but there, there would be no one from the LaKota to help guide her.
“There wasn’t anywhere to take a Lamaze class or a first-time parenting class. There wasn’t anywhere to really meet a doula or have the means to sit down with a midwife and create a birth plan,” LeValdo said. “It really hurt my heart to be there and see what other community members go through in trying to access things that should be free to everybody, but aren’t.”
LaVado is now living in New Mexico to attend the doula training and ultimately become an Indigenous midwife. Across the nation, she said, there is not only a lack of services, but an ingrained mistrust of Western care based on decades of mistreatment. For generations prior to the Indian Tribal Welfare Act of 1978, Indigenous children were taken from their families. And Native women are still reluctant to seek help around mental health care or postpartum depression, LaVado said, out of fear social services will interfere. Through TWU, however, LaVado said she feels “able to join a safe space of strong Indigenous people who are openly able to talk about these things.”