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The Onkwehon:we Midwives Collective

Episode hosts

Langley Sieve
Abigail Lateer

    Anastasia George, Interim Executive Director of the Onkwehón:we Midwives Collective (OMC) joins Nature Up North’s student interns Abigail Lateer and Langley Sieve to discuss the role of the OMC in “bringing birth back to our (Mohawk) community.” Anastasia discusses why cultural birthing practices are so important, how the OMC is working to raise awareness of their work in and outside of the community, and the challenges the Akwesasne community are facing from decades of pollution.

    Episode transcript

    Anastasia George (00:00):

    The mission really is to bring birth back to our community. That's kind of really important for us. It's hard to be part of a community and then be taken away from it and then have to come back and really connect. So that's really important too.

    Langley (00:20):

    Hi, my name's Langley and

    Abby (00:22):

    I'm Abby.

    Langley (00:23):

    And we are interns with Nature Up North, and we produced a podcast for our Naturally Speaking podcast playlist about the OMC.

    Abby (00:35):

    So in this episode, we interviewed Anastasia from the OMC, which is a midwife collective at a reservation about 20 miles north of St. Lawrence University. I am in a class that does a community based learning project with them. So in this episode we talk a little about that. We talk about the collective as a whole. And if you're interested, you should check out their Instagram and their website. They do some pretty cool stuff. We hope you learn a lot. Thank you for listening.

    Langley (01:05):

    Yeah. Huge shout out to Anastasia for allowing us to interview her. Thanks for tuning in.

    Langley (01:30):

    So I guess we were just wondering, like if you could give us a little bit of a background on the OMC and, um, all that you do for the community.

    Anastasia George (01:41):

    Yeah. So we started in 2017. Jasmine has been practicing midwifery since 2006, I believe. So since then we, she was kind of working throughout the North Country doing that. And then in 2017 we got funding from the Ministry of Health in Ontario to open the practice up and then, been running with that ever since. So as for projects and stuff like that, you know, there's the standard midwifery care. Um, and then there's also the more traditional and cultural used, you know, care. We provide prenatal services, postpartum rehabilitation, our postpartum meals program. It's just all integrative of different services to help just promote, you know, the wellbeing of like the mother and the baby.

    Abby (02:37):

    Yeah. Can you talk a little bit more about practice of midwifery just for people who aren't as familiar and also the more traditional aspects of what it is you guys do?

    Anastasia George (02:48):

    Yeah. In terms of you know, midwifery care is basic standard, you know prenatal kind of appointments, making sure the baby's healthy and stuff like that. That, and making sure that the mother is healthy enough to give birth. Ours is more typically home birth. I know a lot of midwives work within like hospitals as well, but ours are typically, you know, home births. So then we also provide labor and delivery services. So then the whole process behind that. And then the postpartum program. So you kind of like check on the wellbeing of the baby and the mother as well. And then also provide, you know, lactation support, the postpartum meals program so that, you know, both the mother and the child have like good nutrition going forward. And yeah, it's pretty much, oh, and the postpartum rehabilitation. So that is also just rehabilitation of the diastasis recti. It's kind of like a opening in the abdominal muscles that kind of needs to be rectified. So yeah.

    Langley (03:53):

    That's cool. So you do, it's pre and post delivery work with the mom and baby, is that right?

    Anastasia George (04:01):

    Yeah, and also depending on what happens during the prenatal. Cause sometimes our high risk clients have to be referred out tohave birth in a hospital, but if they're having a home birth, that would be all part of the care that Jasmine provides.

    Abby (04:17):

    And I know you guys give a presentation in my class that, for me it was really striking. You talked about the hospital - first of all, the difference between hospital birthing and the midwife practice that you guys do. Do you think you can like expand upon that a little bit?

    Anastasia George (04:36):

    Yeah, so it's kind of all about having culturally competent care. And a lot of the time, like people don't wanna have hospital births. A lot of people around here like have issues with hospitals. That is kind of what we're noticing. And with that level of care you kind of think like, oh, it's a hospital it should be able to provide the best care, but not necessarily always. And it's also not culturally integrated. So sometimes people kind of get offended at the way that like hospitals or the doctors have treated them in that instance. So a lot of the time they wanna go and have birth at home in a more comfortable environment. And it's also, what more, if you're going to be home, the rest of your life and everything. It's kind of important to be born where you're living and where you're connected to, so,

    Abby (05:25):

    Yeah. Yeah. Totally.

    Anastasia George (05:26):


    Abby (05:29):

    Do you think that you can speak a bit more about how midwifery is important and the context of where you are?

    Anastasia George (05:41):

    Yeah, so it is kind of important in the sense that just kind of location wise, we do have separations between prenatal care, clinical prenatal care with a doctor or an OB and care in a hospital. So you would go, you would start your initial appointments at a clinic and then you would follow up with a family doctor and then they would transfer you to an OBGYN within the last four to five weeks of pregnancy. So there's kind of a disconnect there. And then, you know, you would have the baby in the hospital with an OB, which might not be the same OB as the one you've been speaking with. It's all about who's there at the time. And then you would follow up with another doctor who would be the original doctor you spoke with, which is different than the one that was there for your birth.

    Anastasia George (06:31):

    And then after six weeks you would go to either your family doctor or you would get a, um, pediatrician, hopefully. But like the way our community works, we don't really necessarily have pediatricians. It would be more like family care and like urgent care and, you know, appointments to like a walk in clinic type level of care. So there's a very big disconnect with that. But with midwifery care it's about like the whole process. She's usually with you depending on, you know, like your choice of the hospital birth, but yeah, the midwife would follow you through the whole course of care.

    Abby (07:12):

    Yeah, it sounds a lot more, like connection based, human based than like other forms of hospitals.

    Abby (07:23):

    Yeah. For the CBL, so part of what, just like for context, part of what my class is doing is we're working with the OMC, we're working on three separate projects within the group or within the project. For one, we're planting a medicinal herb garden. Because as Jasmine put it it's harder to grow herbs on your territory because of the contamination and the pollution in your territory. And so that's part of it. Another part is doing social media and more of like outreach work. And then the third is grant writing for your organization. I'm in the group that's planning and planting the medicinal garden. I guess I was just wondering, cause I don't really know how this project came to be, how did you like come to collaborate with this class and with Adam Harr, the professor?

    Anastasia George (08:32):

    Yeah, so Brenda Papineau, she's the coordinator of the CBL. She reached out a couple years ago and we were kind of busy doing a bunch of other things. And then it would've been last spring that we initially agreed to take the CBL class and we did have a class with Adam. I'm not exactly sure what the name of the course was. And then we went through and worked with those students and it was really, you know, we really liked it. So then we coordinated with two classes last fall and then this one again this spring.

    Abby (09:03):

    Yeah. What were the other projects that you guys did?

    Anastasia George (09:07):

    So we did a lot of grant writing for that other semester, we did an herb booklet and my gosh, I think that was it. Yeah. An herb booklet and oh, we actually had another project on finding midwives and photos of elder midwives in our community if people had them. It wasn't as successful as the other projects just because a lot of people don't have a lot of pictures of elder people prior to like 1950. So, we didn't really have that much photos for that, but we did get a lot of good stories out of it from community members. So

    Abby (09:50):

    Yeah. That's pretty cool.

    Anastasia George (09:52):


    Langley (09:53):

    I was just wondering, because I'm not working with the CBL, but just for more background, if you don't mind me asking, what kind of herbs and Abby might know as well, you guys are planting or like what the use case is for, and how it's gonna, basically how the CBLs gonna help you guys out?

    Anastasia George (10:14):

    Yeah. So I think there was a list of over 20 different herbs that we ended up using. And they're used for, you know, a lot of different things. So some of them were dandelion root, elderberry, burdock, chickory, red raspberry leaves, slippery elm, things like that. Which some of them help in pregnancy or some of them help get the body ready for birth and the whole postpartum period. So we do use a lot of those traditionally for medicines and stuff, some of them are used for like colds or heartburn, indigestion things and they have to be like, sometimes the medicines that are given by doctors are not necessarily easily ingestible in that way or easily taken by pregnant women. So sometimes it's just topical treatments as opposed to healing from the inside. So these herbs would go and heal from the inside where traditional pharmaceuticals wouldn't, would be like kind of like a cover up after the fact and then these would try to help fix the issue internally. So it seems like that. Sorry, what was the second part of your question?

    Langley (11:33):

    I guess just how the, you kind of answered it, but how the CBLs going to help out in the future I guess, and how it's gonna continue on maybe.

    Anastasia George (11:47):

    Yeah. So I know that they're planning on planting the herb garden and that'll help us in general because a lot of the time, we don't, all these things have to be, you know, kind of harvested wildly. And it's not necessarily the easiest thing to do around the way our community's set up. It'd be like, I guess it's equivalent to having a garden in suburbia kind of thing. That's kind of how it's laid out. Our reservation, it's not necessarily as close as suburban houses would be, but the way our land base works, there's quite a bit of the land base that's swamp or unusable kind of land for growing. So it kind of limits the amount of harvesting and planting gardening that we would be doing. So a lot of it has to be wild harvested. So this would actually help us in getting those and having it easily and more readily accessible than having to go and wild harvest these, which might not necessarily all grow in the same areas.

    Abby (12:48):

    I know I've talked a bit with Sam, the director of the Sustainability Program, which is involved with the CBL and he's quite excited to make this a generational thing to have the garden be continually maintained and to train students from each generation that lives on the farm to take care of it. And working at the logistics of how to get it delivered and how to get it harvested and stuff. So with project I think is really cool and I'm quite looking forward to. I don't know how much connection you have to either the social media or the grant writing groups. Do you have any relationship with them?

    Anastasia George (13:32):

    I'm actually trying to just get them to, I think that we're meeting tomorrow, so that's good. I think it's like our first meeting that we're gonna be doing.

    Abby (13:41):

    Logistically it's been hectic. But what do you kind of envision for those two groups and the larger impact you can have on the organization?

    Anastasia George (13:56):

    Yeah. Well as for the grants, a lot of the stuff that we, the grants is kind of an open-ended thing. I had a conversation with them about that. There's a lot of different areas and programs that we can kind of fund that we don't necessarily have funding for right now, or projects that we could carry on. I know we want to carry on our baby basket project. We did that and we think it was pretty successful. So we do wanna carry that on. We also wanna build a birth center, expand the postpartum rehabilitation and prenatal fitness classes. Kind of like, we do wanna focus on getting funding so we can bring in other contracted practitioners in nutrition, naturopath, a physiotherapist, massage therapy, stuff like that. So I think a lot of the grants would be expanding on those kind of programs.

    Anastasia George (14:51):

    And as for social media. We kinda wanna focus on communicating how sustainability is important in, you know, birth and in the community and healthy active lifestyles and promoting that and doing it in a way that's kind of, kind of appealing to people. I feel like a lot of time we're like losing people as soon as they see it, they'll skip like all the posts that are health related and like a lot. People like our memes, but when it comes to like actual like health posts and informational stuff, they kind of just like gloss over it. So

    Abby (15:27):

    I feel like that's the case a lot of the time in social media.

    Anastasia George (15:30):

    <laugh>. Yeah. Yeah.

    Abby (15:31):

    I know we met as a class the other day and some people in the social media group, um, talked about how, I'm not sure if it was you or someone else in the OMC how they mentioned an intention of theirs was to connect more with Akwesasne youth and people in your community and like get them involved in the organization. I wondered if you could speak to that at all.

    Anastasia George (15:56):

    Yeah, that is really important to us too because, kind of as it stands, I know we had a conversation explaining how contamination is a big issue for us and we don't, there's a few people, there's a group of people that live longer life spans and live well into their nineties and hundreds, but then there's a lot of a group, there's a big gap between that and people that are living to their fifties and their sixties. So we're kind of moving out of that age range and then we are growing as a community, but more in terms of younger people. So I think kind of focusing on that too because whenever our population is dying in younger ages, it kind of shifts, you know, it shifts the, I can't even think of the word today.

    Anastasia George (16:48):

    Oh my gosh. The childbearing ages, those and that kind of reproductive age, it kind of shifts that. And then, you know, if a majority of our clients are not living past 60, that's kind of the tail end of menopause era. And so then, people kind of having, it shows that a lot of our care would be in that kind of age range. So, you know, focusing on that and then focusing on youth because a lot of youth are in the reproductive age and having them understand things that are more geared towards adults. So I think that's kind of really important for us. You know, people are having children younger, so a lot of our clients are in the 18 to 30 range, so having social media broadcast to them would be really important. Especially since a vast majority of those people are using Instagram, Snapchat more than Facebook. Thenn the older people are using Facebook.

    Abby (17:51):

    Yeah, definitely a media gap there, the tools that people use.

    Anastasia George (17:56):


    Abby (17:57):

    You mentioned the pollution in your area and when we met with you guys for the first time, you had this jaw dropping presentation about basically just environmental racism and the relationship between reservations and Superfund sites. That blew my mind. It was crazy. If you could talk about that because I think it's really important, um, to like, to contextualize this sort of thing.

    Anastasia George (18:30):

    Yeah, so right now I think there is 573 federally recognized tribes and there's almost the same amount of Superfund sites on reservation land. So that kind of averages out to roughly about one per reservation. We actually have three, so that's kind of concerning for us. And that's just on the American side of our reservation because our reservation is kind of divided between the US and Canada. We have a bunch of pollution on the Canadian side as well, that's not exactly documented. The Canadian, government doesn't have an EPA, so.

    Langley (19:03):

    I didn't know that either.

    Anastasia George (19:05):

    Yeah, they have other programs, but they don't really focus on that. So, it's kind of a problem for us. And you know, for native communities throughout all of America really. I actually just saw a map the other day and it showed both the US and Canada and it showed like reservation land is less than like 10% of all of those. And then that being said, most of the Superfund sites are on that already limited land base. So it's kind of concerning for us, just in terms of a lot of things. I know other reservations have other issues, with pesticides and stuff and, you know, those certain pesticides affect children and so then they're having a lot of issues with that. Or other reservations have different types of poisoning from mercury and cyanide poisoning. So it doesn't necessarily affect adults in limited amounts, but it's affecting the fetuses and stuff like that. So it's really important for us, understanding things like that, and how we can adapt to mitigating those issues.

    Abby (20:16):

    Yeah. As a class, we just finished reading The River Is In Us by Elizabeth Hoover which is about the Akwesasne community and the the Superfund sites there and the contamination that happened. The book focused a lot about how that affected midwifery in particular because the PCBs would go into the breast milk of the mothers and that would be transferred into the infants. And so I feel like there's like a very strong correlation between the work that you do and between the contamination happening and the pollution.

    Anastasia George (20:54):

    Yeah. No, so that really is kind of like a big problem for us. So now we're noticing, so in the eighties and the seventies we're seeing that two generations down, so those people that were alive in the nineties and then the early two thousands, those people are now having children, or are in their reproductive age and we're seeing a lot of problems that are hormone and estrogen affects kind of problems. So endometriosis is huge here, thyroid issues, PCOS is kind of a huge problem too. And so now we're seeing it, you know, two generations down from something that happened, and started in the seventies.

    Abby (21:38):

    Yeah, and I feel like especially since, as a student at St. Lawrence University, your reservation is a 30 minute drive and I feel like a lot of the students here don't even know <laugh> that the reservation exists or is that close or that any of this is happening. Which I just feel like is such a weird disparity, a disconnect. I guess that one of my hopes for the project is that it spreads more awareness of just the existence of this community and of this organization and I I just feel like that's important as a student.

    Anastasia George (22:25):

    Yeah, definitely. It does kind of, it kind of affects us in weird ways. I know whenever I attended college and stuff, people had no idea where I was talking about and I was like, "Oh, well I'm from here" and they're like, "where is that?" And I'm like, "Well, we have a casino." And they're like, "Oh, I've been there." And it's like, oh, okay, yeah, if you travel off, that main road, you know, there's a big community there. But yeah, so it's kind of getting the awareness of the issues is important for us and it's kind of interesting, you know. People know about the casino, but then they don't know that literally maybe like a quarter mile to the north of that there's a back road behind the casino and then there's the river that we're talking about that is being contaminated.

    Langley (23:21):

    I think that what Abby and I are kind of hoping to do with Nature Up North's platform is be able to highlight the community but also the OMC specifically. And just so that we have a little bit more background in that we can speak to it, if you don't mind talking about your initial mission and what that means for the community. And I was looking at your website earlier and how you can qualify to work with the OMC, if that's applicable for people.

    Anastasia George (24:01):

    Yeah. So the mission really is to bring birth back to our community. That's really important for us. You know, it's hard to be part of a community and then be kind of like taken away from it and then have to come back and like really connect. So that's really important too one other person. So if you wanted a doula there to support, you had to choose between your doula or your partner. Yeah. So it's kind of hard for people to choose that right now. So then with homebirth at least, you know, they can actually have people around, surrounding them that are their family. The first people you get to see are your family the first place you ever experience is your home. And that's really important for us.

    Anastasia George (24:43):

    And then it's also really important, we have a welcome welcoming speech that somebody in the family gives to the baby and then welcomes them to the community. And so that's really important for us. So part of that, and then also as time kind of went on, we realized bringing birth back to the community also means advocating for our clients and other situations and just advocating for healthcare for native people's in our community too. So it's kind of spiraled into that. So, as for like qualifications, we hire aboriginal midwives. We do have a registered midwife as well who is also an aboriginal person. The difference between that being an aboriginal midwife can practice in Ontario as long as they're recognized by their community as an aboriginal midwife, they don't have to go through the same registration process as a registered midwife would. But they also only practice to the community, which is in a way better for us, you know, it's people who are community aware and like understand how everything works within the community and understand like the culture of the people. So it really ties in the whole cultural competency kind of thing. And it also ensures that person knows traditional medicines and traditional things as well.

    Abby (26:12):

    Yeah. You said that part of your goal and one of like the difficulties in the organization is bringing birth back to the community. Was this practice ever like discontinued or did it ever leave?

    Anastasia George (26:27):

    Well, yeah, so roughly in the 19, about like the 1930s and forties and areas like that forward, a lot of birth had to happen in hospitals. Midwifery care wasn't necessarily an option for people. So people would go and have to go to outside area hospitals, which could be anywhere from a 20 minute drive away to like an hour away depending on the level of care needed. So it's just disconnecting people from where they're normally from and bringing them into outside places. So then with the work that Jasmine's doing, it's bringing birth back to the community so that people can be born within the community.

    Langley (27:11):

    Yeah. That's amazing. Yeah, it's really cool. And just to understand a little bit more about the medical system in the US, there's no recognition of native women within the hospital. They don't provide any resources, is that correct?

    Anastasia George (27:37):

    So on the state side, you would need to be a certified nurse midwife or a certified midwife through, there's a couple actually different governing bodies, but no, they don't have a statute the same way that Ontario does or the same way Quebec does. We are kind of working on that right now. We're in the process of getting that done. We had a bill that was written and we had Indigenous midwifery attached to that bill, I think it was the New York State legislation. But so what ended up happening to make sure that it actually went through and was approved for everybody else, they had to take off the Indigenous people component of it. So then they told us to write a separate bill. It was kind of disheartening, we understand why they did it, but yeah, it's kind of restarting that process and it's not really.

    Langley (28:34):

    It doesn't make it right,

    Anastasia George (28:35):

    None of us are really legislators or assembly people, so we're just saying you're like, okay.

    Abby (28:39):

    Do you have any more questions Langley?

    Langley (28:42):

    I don't think so. This was really great for me especially because I had never connected with you before or the group at all. So I feel like I was able to learn a lot and was just really grateful for you to take the time to talk to us today.

    Anastasia George (28:58):

    Yeah, no problem at all.

    Abby (28:59):

    Yeah, no, I was really appreciative of you taking out time. Thank you so much!

    Kayla (29:09):

    Thank you again to Anastasia for taking the time to talk about the OMC and share your knowledge. Thank you everyone who tuned in. We hope you learned a lot, we sure did. Be sure to follow the Onkwehon:we Midwives Collective on Facebook and Instagram to support their mission. While you're over there, give Nature Up North a follow too, if you haven't already. Get up and get outdoors with Nature Up North.