‘We Can Help Ourselves:’ Native Women Come Together To Confront High Rates Of Maternal Mortality

Participants gather at the end of the day at an indigenous doula workshop in Window Rock, Arizona, on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019. One by one, the women shared a word to reflect how they felt: Happy. Safe. Joyful. Supported. Sovereign. Brave. (Photo by Delia Johnson/Cronkite News)

By Kyley Warren

WINDOW ROCK – As the sun begins to set on a blustery fall day, the rugged buttes of Navajoland glow red in the soft light and swift gusts spiral dust through the air.

About 40 women, most draped in traditional dress, stand in a circle as Melissa Brown, an indigenous midwife, asks the group to reflect on the day just ending – and the mission still ahead.

“We have talked about being safe here. That is our goal,” she tells them. “We’re going to cry, and we’re going to laugh. And that’s OK.”

Buttes and grasslands outside the Navajo Nation capital of Window Rock, photographed on Friday, Oct. 25, 2019. (Photo by Delia Johnson/Cronkite News)

One by one, the women share a word that best captures how they feel: Happy. Safe. Joyful. Supported. Sovereign. Brave. Then one sings a hymn in her native tongue.

These women have come to the Navajo reservation to be trained as doulas, aides who have no formal medical background but provide guidance for pregnant women up to and through labor, and sometimes beyond.

Related story: Q&A: Facts and figures on maternal mortality in the U.S.

They’re here in Window Rock, capital of the Navajo Nation, to learn how to help their own, but also to help confront a tragedy plaguing women in Indian Country and across the United States.

Too many women are dying due to complications from pregnancy and childbirth – deaths that should be preventable with the right intervention and care.

“My first birth that I had when I was a teenage mother was very traumatic,” said Brown, who trains indigenous women as midwives and doulas across the United States and Canada. “I didn’t understand how my body worked … how labor and delivery worked. I was very scared, and I didn’t have much support.”

Now, she said, “people are recognizing that we are our own experts in our community. We can help ourselves. We can empower ourselves. We can educate ourselves.”

Midwife and doula trainer Melissa Brown poses for a photo in Window Rock on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019. Brown, part Navajo and Anishinaabe, had a traumatic experience when she first gave birth as a teen. “I didn’t understand how my body worked … how labor and delivery worked. I was very scared, and I didn’t have much support.” An indigenous midwife helped with her second birth. “It made all the difference. … I felt like I was able to be the mother that I wanted to be.” She now trains doulas to help indigenous women in the United States and Canada. (Photo by Delia Johnson/Cronkite News)

An American crisis

It’s a grim statistic, and one that’s often recounted: American women are more likely to die of childbirth or pregnancy-related causes than other women in the developed world.

And although recent investigations have drawn the attention of Congress and put a national spotlight on the issue – especially among black women – Native Americans often are left out of the conversation.
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