Nicolle Gonzales envisions a birthing center where Indigenous women in the U.S. can receive holistic, culturally-centered care.
The birth of a child is a sacred time for any family. While cultural influences impact many birthing moms, the medicalization of pregnancy and birth has changed the way some women birth. Honoring cultural traditions is an integral part of the birthing process for many women.
If anyone can speak to the health of Native American women, it’s Nicolle Gonzales. Gonzales, 37, is Navajo, or Diné, as Navajo people refer to themselves. As one of only 14 Native American certified nurse midwives in this country, she has seen first-hand the marginalization of America’s indigenous people.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in nursing from the University of Mexico, Gonzales worked as a labor and delivery nurse at the Indian Health Services hospital in Santa Fe. It was here where she witnessed Native women birthing in less than ideal conditions with practitioners who treated only the physiological aspects of birth. “They looked at pregnancy as something you have to manage, like a disease, “ Gonzales said in an interview with Indian Country Today. “That’s not how we as indigenous people view birth.”
Inspired to make a difference, Gonzales returned to school and got her master’s degree in nurse-midwifery. She has since made it her mission to change the way Native American women birth.
In a recent interview with Sarah van Gelder, Gonzales said, “When I talk to non-Native health care providers, they say, ‘All my Native ladies are great. They don’t talk. They come in and do what I tell them,’” she explained. “I want that to end,” she said. “Our women are important. Where we birth and how we birth is important.”
Gonzales is working towards opening the first Native American birth center, which will be located in her home state of New Mexico. With this goal in mind, she began the Changing Woman Initiative, a non-profit organization whose mission it is to reclaim traditional birth knowledge through holistic approaches and community empowerment. Currently, there is no place providing this type of reproductive health care for indigenous women in the United States. Gonzales’ goal is to open a culturally centered clinic and birth center that would fill this gap in care for the Native American community.
Gonzales’ vision for her birthing center is very clear. “I’d like to see a nice building with pictures of our grandmothers, cedar welcoming you into the door, and moccasins for babies instead of blankets,” Gonzales told ColorLines. “I want a place where women and families feel welcome.”
Understanding the task at hand, Gonzales did her due diligence. First, she began talking to her elders about the rich history of birth in her Native culture. In a conversation with Every Mother Counts, Gonzales explained, “Ours is a matrilineal society, traditions and ceremonies passed down from grandmothers and great grandmothers. These women were the ones we could go to for information about how to care for ourselves, what songs do we sing as the baby is born, what herbs to use, how to be healthy in spirit, body, and mind. We understand the birth place is sacred and we behave differently here. We burn cedar and sweet grass, scents we associate with the ceremony of life.”
Gonzales also visited two similar birthing centers, Six Nations and Toronto Birth Center, both located in aboriginal communities in Canada. In a video featured on the Changing Women Imitative website, Gonzales interviews other midwives who have paved the way. She aims to return birth back to the community by offering compassionate, culturally-centered care that focuses on both the physiological and the emotional needs of the mom.
The Changing Women Initiative has been in place since 2010, but Gonzales believes that the birthing center will open sometime next year. In an interview with Cosmopolitan, Gonzales said, “I feel like this birth center is a really good example of tribal sovereignty, that we as a people can take care of ourselves, that we can rise above, and that we can develop a wellness framework and a birth center to take care of our women.”
Photo Credit: Kat Croft