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Akwesasne Women Lead Discussion at Indigenous Health Meeting

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A group of Akwesasne women recently promoted innovative, female-led health programs that are succeeding with Indigenous communities at the Second International Meeting on Indigenous Women’s Health in Albuquerque, New Mexico from September 14-16, according to a Sky Woman Media press release.

The three-day program attracted obstetrician-gynecologists, midwives, family physicians, nurses, advanced practice nurses, community providers and others from across North America.

Speakers and participants discussed the many forces affecting Indigenous women's health and well-being. Panel discussions and breakout sessions were geared at improving the health status of Indigenous women and their families, raising awareness of the emerging health needs and unique solutions in Indigenous populations, and increasing the ability to provide culturally competent care that recognizes traditional knowledge and approaches.

Among the leaders this year was a group of Akwesasne women who work in various circles of community health: Katsi Cook, renowned traditional midwife and director of First Environment Collaborative, a reproductive health and justice program through Running Strong for American Indian Youth; Beverly Cook, family nurse practitioner at St. Regis Mohawk Health Services; Louise McDonald, Mohawk Nation Bear Clan Mother and intervention/prevention specialist with the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne’s (MCA) Holistic Health and Wellness Program; and Randi Barreiro, consultant for First Environment Collaborative. Tyendinaga Mohawk Cherylann Brant, a White Bison Wellbriety instructor joined them.

“It is absolutely critical for Akwesasne's community health leaders to be directly involved in this kind of international effort to advance collaborative work in indigenous women's health at all levels of practice,” said Katsi Cook.

Katsi's panel talk centered on the role of cultural identity in health promotion and the adolescent rites of passage ceremonies led by McDonald.

That evening, McDonald's multi-media presentation on Oherokon proved very popular among the attendees. Nearly 100 people visited with her to inquire about the annual 5-month-long program, which includes elements such as self-esteem builders, meditation, and workshops on sexual wellbeing and reproductive health.

Katsi's organization First Environment Collaborative helps support the community-based and women-led projects Centering Pregnancy and Oherokon that intertwine culture, identity and health promotion.

"All the Mohawk women from the Akwesasne group at the Second International Meeting on Indigenous Women's Health are 'constructive knowers,' which is to say that they are community leaders who draw from the superlatives of cultural memory and contemporary realities to transform our communities," said Katsi Cook.

"The Centering Pregnancy model of group care and Oherokon rites of passage provide skill building and resilience for community youth and women of reproductive age. These critical windows of development are vitally important to the future of Indian Country because industrial chemicals and heavy metals in the environment, including our food supply, affect human reproductive health and well-being.

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The windows of susceptibility are in fetal life, adolescence and early reproductive life, especially before the first full-term pregnancy," she continued. "These exposures impact sexual development, impair hormonal function and neurological development of our unborn, and lead to disease and alterations in gene expression across the generations, even following brief exposures."

As a Reach fellow at the University of California at San Francisco’s Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment, Katsi considers the prevalence of pesticides and their impact on Indigenous youth absolutely critical The Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment is designed to help grassroots organizations like First Environment Collaborative directly inform the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on important issues.

Beverly Cook, a 2010 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Leader nominee, led a breakout session on the empowerment model of group care, specifically citing the success of the Centering Pregnancy program at the St. Regis Mohawk Health Services. Beginning in February 2010, the clinic revised its pre-natal care program to encourage group interaction, while also integrating Native teachings.

"We group women with other women at about the same gestational stage ," Beverly explained. "Topics are raised by the moms themselves, and there is a curriculum," to guide the mothers in conversations about the "discomforts of pregnancy, relaxation techniques, birth control methods, gestational diabetes, labor and delivery, birth planning" and more.

One of the goals of the Centering Pregnancy program at SRMHS is to incorporate Mohawk culture into pre-natal discussions.

"Our Creation story, the story of how our world came to be, relates to the reproductive cycle of the woman," Beverly said.

Beverly said attendees at the Second International Meeting on Indigenous Women's Health asked questions related to dynamics, such as how the Centering Pregnancy staff helped facilitate discussion among the women. Beverly explained that they created an environment to enhance the "natural relationship women have with one another. If you take away all barriers, women do what comes natural, and that’s helping each other," she said.

Overall, Beverly found the conference addressed key issues such as, "bringing about change in your workplace and bringing innovative ideas to the forefront," she said. "Change is hard; people may meet it with resistance along the way. But we are doing what we feel is better medicine for the community. The conference was really empowering. It made me feel like we’re on the right track."

One of the highlights of the Second International Meeting was a brief performance and presentation by Cree singer/songwriter and educator Buffy Sainte-Marie. She gave an inspiring talk on traditional approaches to women’s health care. Her work is especially relevant to Akwesasne; her Cradleboard Teaching Project in the late 1990’s included community members and local schools in an early web-based curriculum endeavor.

The biennial meeting is presented by the Indian Health Service, The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the National Aboriginal Health Organization, the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada, and the University of New Mexico School of Medicine.