Birth, we wouldn’t be here without parturition, the act or process of bearing young. And what better time to celebrate that phenomenon than on Mother’s Day weekend? The Heard Museum is doing just that on May 13 in a multimedia art and oral history project that focuses on the most formative of human experiences. Called “The Changing History, Culture, and Traditions of Birth,” the informative gathering centers around women telling their individual birth stories, women like 87-year-old Rena Posey Begay (Navajo) and 78-year-old Marie Lucero (Zia Pueblo).
“Traditionally, pregnancy and birth are considered sacred times,” said Dr. Patrisia Gonzales (Kickapoo/Comanche/Macehual), author of Red Medicine: Traditional Indigenous Rites of Birthing and Healing. “Being pregnant and giving birth is a vital and sacred time in which women are the link to this incredible connection involving the creation of life… it’s not only physical, but spiritual and strengthening.”
Gonzales, with a daughter of her own, said she is really “the mother of 70” because that’s the number of babies she has helped bring into the world via pre- and post-natal care. “I’m a baby-catcher just like my mother and my grandmothers who relied on each other during the time of birthing. In earlier times, women sometimes gave birth by themselves and there’s a lot of strength and confidence in that experience.”
Forrest Solis, professor at the Arizona State University School of Art, and video technician Ashley Czajkowski partnered on the Creative Push project gathering the intimate storytelling of birth stories. A mother herself, Solis was driven to the subject because of opposing ideologies surrounding the birth process. “It’s actually pretty contentious, like breast feeding,” she said.
“Although labor and delivery are necessary to our continuation as a species, we rarely give the deserved attention to what women go through in the process of having children. The experience of having a baby reflects the depth of what it means to be human because birth stories are full of conflict, politics, complexity, passion, drama, horror, and heartbreak. Shared experiences between mothers transcend societal niceties. They are emotionally-honest expressions of raw corporeality and through the retelling and interpreting of our birth stories, we find meaning in our experiences.”
Solis and Czajkowski traveled around the state of Arizona meeting women in senior centers, grocery stores, church sewing circles, anywhere that strangers were willing to talk about birth experiences. Not only did they cover the state’s urban areas, they included reservation communities and about a quarter of their recorded archives include Native American storytellers.
Artist Renee Dennison, Diné, volunteered to be part of a moderated panel of creation stories, sharing the delightful photo of her sister’s twins with their great-grandmother, Bertha Tom, who lived to be 106 before walking on last fall. Dennison videotaped scenes while visiting her grandmother on the Navajo reservation, scenes that were crafted into the visual backup of the storyteller narratives.
“As a Native woman, I am moved by each of these stories and feel a strong connection with the storytellers. Like in the case of my grandmother who lived to see five generations of her family, I also felt a great responsibility to tell a compelling visual narrative to accompany the personal stories they entrusted us with,” Dennison said.
Also on the Heard Museum panel will be Nicolle Gonzales (Navajo), executive director of Changing Woman Initiative and one of only 17 Native American nurse-midwives in the country. “It’s important for Native American women to share their birth stories as a way of remembering our ancestors. As women begin to recognize their power of creation through pregnancy and birth, they begin to align themselves to the teachings of their ancestors.
“Current-day culture surrounding pregnancy and birth is medicalized and fear-based, which further separates Native women from cultural teachings around their bodies and roles as mothers. It focuses so much on the physiological changes that occur rather than the mental, spiritual, and emotional changes that take place. Creation stories give voice to those unseen changes.”
The May 13 event is free and takes place at the Heard Museum Steele Auditorium, 2301 N. Central Avenue, in Phoenix, Arizona. For a preview, see an Our Creation Stories video presentation below: