Summer 2021

Families first

A U of M doctoral student focuses on the role of Indigenous birth workers in keeping families together

Caroline Fidan Tyler Doenmez at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation
Elan Pochedley

Caroline Fidan Tyler Doenmez came to the University of Minnesota in 2016 planning to study the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people in Canada for her doctorate in sociocultural anthropology—work she began while earning her master’s degree at Columbia University in New York City.

But her focus expanded after she traveled to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, where community organizers were forming water protector camps to protest construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. There, she met several Indigenous birth workers who taught her about the ways in which colonial policies targeted Indigenous women’s experiences of pregnancy, birth, and parenthood.

“Their stories underscored the urgency of having safe, culturally appropriate options, care, and support for Indigenous parents throughout their journeys of birthing and raising children,” she says.

Women, birth, and water

“Indigenous women in Winnipeg are often referred to as ‘water carriers,’ because they carry water in their bodies when they’re pregnant,” Doenmez says. “Because of this connection, they’re understood to hold a special responsibility to care for lakes and rivers.”

Soon after, a friend introduced Doenmez to a professor at the University of Winnipeg, who had been doing work on the resurgence of Indigenous doulas, nonmedically trained birth workers who provide continuous support and advocacy. “I became involved with some projects with that research team and got to meet doulas, who connected me to other doulas,” she says.

She was moved by their stories about how women were treated by health care workers and how their babies were sometimes taken away because the families were believed to be unfit by social workers. Those meetings led Doenmez to focus her research on the role of Indigenous birth workers in keeping families together.

“We used to all be doulas”

Doulas, often referred to simply as “birth helpers,” “sisters” or “aunties,” have long been part of the cultures of Indigenous communities across Canada. “I heard people say ‘We used to all be doulas,’” Doenmez says. “Everyone knew how to support the birthing person and their family, helping with food, medicines, ceremonies, assisting during birth, and celebrating the baby’s arrival.”

That changed when deliveries moved to hospitals. Today, in some of the more remote parts of Manitoba, women are “evacuated” to cities to give birth. Often, they come alone. They don’t know the doctors, and some of them don’t speak English or French. “You can imagine how this can make birth a very terrifying, vulnerable experience,” she says.

A recent uptick in training has brought more Indigenous doulas into hospitals. Doenmez wanted to find out what’s driving this.

She heard repeated stories from doulas about Indigenous newborns being “apprehended” or taken from their families at vastly disproportionate rates and placed in government care. Currently, Manitoba has more than 10,000 children in foster care. Ninety percent of those children are Indigenous, despite Indigenous people making up only 18 percent of the province’s population.

History of apprehension

Doenmez says Indigenous child apprehensions are a continuation of the Canadian state’s systemic removal of Indigenous children from their families. Earlier forms of child apprehension include the residential school system and the “Sixties Scoop,” when Indigenous children were taken from their homes and adopted by primarily white families. 

Some of their stories focused on babies being taken from their mothers because the mothers had been in foster care themselves or had sought help for domestic violence. They also shared more specific examples: a nurse recommending that a child be taken away because she believed the mother, who had just had a Cesarean section, didn’t hold her baby enough; a woman being labeled angry and a threat to her baby because she yelled at a doctor for not helping her child; and a social worker who didn’t see baby supplies in the home of expectant parents assuming they were negligent.

Doenmez says the doulas she spoke with are adamant that non-Indigenous people are not subjected to the same levels of scrutiny, judgment, and apprehensions as Indigenous parents.

“Hospital nurses, social workers, and staff may think they’re doing what they need to be doing to protect the child,” she says. “But the stories I heard of how parents are being flagged as ‘high risk’ or ‘negligent’ contain some very racist, colonial assumptions. I’ve heard it described as being a silent genocide, how Indigenous babies and children are still being stolen.”

Doenmez has been documenting the doulas’ stories in hope of sharing them with policymakers, perhaps garnering more funding for training Indigenous doulas and midwives. Despite the growing number of Indigenous doulas, she says there are few Indigenous midwives in Manitoba because training programs are far away.

“What I’m hearing repeatedly is that the doulas are having a lot of success in keeping families together, being able to support parents, negotiate with social workers and prevent some apprehensions,” she says.

Pandemic’s interruption

Before COVID-19 closed the border between the United States and Canada, Doenmez had made several trips to Winnipeg to interview doulas. In April 2020, she learned she had received a Canadian Fulbright award, which she ultimately had to decline because of the ongoing pandemic.

She was able to continue her research and remote interviews during the pandemic thanks in part to support from the College of Liberal Arts (CLA), from which she received a donor-funded CLA graduate fellowship. She also received research funding as CLA’s inaugural RIGS (Race, Indigeneity, Gender, and Sexuality Studies) Interdisciplinary Doctoral Fellow. 

“I hope that whatever comes of my dissertation, my voice can amplify the doulas’ heart work, their brilliance, their expertise,” she says.

Kim Kiser is editor of Legacy magazine.