Midwife Jasmine Benedict, known as Kahentineshen in her Akwesasne Mohawk community, spends her days zigzagging across a community that falls across Quebec, Ontario, and New York state. A typical day might involve giving a pregnant mother herbs to raise her iron levels, overseeing a traditional birth, or following up on a brand-new mother and baby.
An aboriginal midwife, Benedict cares for the mothers and babies in the community of Akwesasne, where her family has lived since time immemorial. About 23,000 Mohawk people live in the area she serves, and she’s held accountable not to a licensing board but her community.
“We’re our own nation. Our accountability lies with our nation,” she said. “When you’re a part of a community, raised by it, shaped by it, you carry yourself differently. You practice safely and at the highest level because you owe that back to the community that has raised you.”
Benedict is the lead midwife of the Onkwehon:we Midwives Collective, a group of Mohawk women who care for Indigenous clients in their community, providing everything from contraceptive care for adolescents to Pap smears and breast exams for their older clients. (Like many midwives, they prefer the term “clients” to “patients.”)
The collective operates a clinic for women and babies, but much of the care they offer is also provided in clients’ homes. The object is to help each person have the birth outcome that feels right for them.
“They know my parents, or they know my grandparents”
Onkwehon:we is a Mohawk word meaning “original people” – a term for the Indigenous people who lived in the Americas long before Western colonists arrived and drew up modern boundaries. “We don’t see ourselves as American or Canadian. We see ourselves as people who were there before those countries existed,” explained Anastasia George, the collective’s executive director.
The collective combines conventional health care with traditional practices, such as herbal treatments and firekeeping during birth. To augment the care they provide, members of the collective often work with firekeepers or traditional medicine people. “It’s a lot of thought and support every step of the way,” Benedict said.
The object is to provide culturally appropriate, high-quality care to a community whose needs are not always considered by the medical system, George said. Misunderstanding of cultural differences can leave a significant gap in the care they receive, she explained.
She gave the example of medical mannequins, the coloring of which unlikely reflects Indigenous skin tones. “Not understanding a person’s coloring” can make a significant difference to the care they receive, she explained.
In addition, dissatisfaction with Canada’s public medical system often leads clients to seek them out – and word of mouth plays a significant role. “Because our community is so small, people refer their family members and stuff like that,” George said.
“Everyone knows everyone. If anyone doesn’t know me, they know my parents, or they know my grandparents,” Benedict said.
As part of her practice, Benedict might treat low iron in a pregnant woman with dried stinging nettle. To prevent hemorrhage, she might give shepherd’s purse as tea or tincture. But she explained that conventional medicine still plays an important role: “I will grab for Pitocin if I see the need,” she said, referring to a hormone that causes the uterus to contract.
Still, she said, her highest priority is keeping her clients healthy to prevent complications from occurring in the first place. Encouraging a healthy diet and exercise is part of the care, as is referring women who need additional care to a traditional healer.
George and Benedict both stress that the care the Onkwehon:we Midwives Collective provides is designed to cover a wide area: Practitioners offer fertility counseling, offer fitness classes for kids as part of their outreach to the community, and even provide herb walks to teach community members about these traditional resources. Lactation support, car seat installation, and cultural workshops are all provided.
“That’s just the nature of being in a small community,” Benedict said. For many clients, “I found that they never really left my practice.” A parent with a young child might have a question about a rash, for example, and reach out to Benedict – who has seven children of her own – for guidance.
“It should reflect our community”
A few years ago, Benedict heard about the baby baskets offered to every family in Finland. The baskets, which double as a bassinet for sleeping babies, contain clothes, diapers, and other essential items for a newborn.
“It was meant to give all babies an equal start at life,” Benedict explained.
When a local organization began supplying baby baskets, she was thrilled and signed up to distribute the baskets among Indigenous community members. But within a year, the organization had stopped supplying them.
“We had this thought about, ‘How wonderful would it be to have our own traditional and cultural items incorporated [into baby baskets]?’” Benedict said. “If it’s coming from our community, it should reflect our community.”
So the members of the Onkwehon:we Midwives Collective set out to design their own box – or, in this case, a traditional black ash basket, woven by a member of the Mohawk people, that can be used as a bassinet. “It’s something that’s actually crafted by our people with our traditional basket-making techniques,” Benedict said.
Baskets will contain a breast pump, prenatal vitamins, diapers, and cloth diapers, moccasins, a traditional baby quilt, a wooden rattle, and much more. The aim is to provide for a baby’s needs while also helping families connect with their Mohawk roots.
Direct Relief is supporting the Onkwehon:we Midwives Collective with a $50,000 grant designated for the baby baskets.
“For a new mother, thinking about the cost that goes into [having a baby], it can be overwhelming,” Benedict said. “The reality is, babies don’t need all that much.”