A Midwife Who Gives Birth to a Nation

The indigenous people of Australia have the highest mortality rate in the world. Recognising their women’s heritage of skilled ante- and post-natal care is an important step towards healing.  

I want to begin by giving recognition to the fact that I live on Bundjalung land. That is essential protocol. It is also protocol to tell you a little about myself.

I am a descendant of the three Is: Indigenous, Invader and Immigrant. My great-grandmother was a Jiman woman whose land boundaries are in the hill countries of the Upper Dawson of central west Queensland. My great-grandfather was Bundjalung/Gumbainggiir of the north central coastal area of New South Wales. My father’s father has a mixture of English Irish Scottish heritage, and his ascendants were convicts, soldiers, timber-getters, miners, and farm labourers. My mother’s parents are German. Her mother was orphaned at three, was raised in an orphanage and sent to Australia at fourteen to be married to a ‘good German man’. My mother’s father was a refugee from the German army who ended up in Australia after fleeing Germany.

These details are important because the entirety of my ancestors contributes to my multiple and conflicting identities. Who I am, and am becoming, has been shaped by who they were and are. My mother taught me pride in my Aboriginality, and by her beliefs and behaviours, to reject my Germanness. My father taught me how to outsmart cops, scorn ‘poms’, be cynical about, and antagonistic towards all government and similar institutions. He also taught me that alcohol misuse often covers the deep pain of dispossession—‘I’m nothing hey—just a bit of a darky, that’s all. Nothing’.

It has taken me many years to understand that who I became was a product of how they felt about themselves, what they believed themselves to be. I acknowledge today that in so many instances my own children have inherited some of these legacies, and have become as well, reflective of my own struggles to move beyond the pain of my collective past.

Midwife of a nation

In 1967, I gave birth to my first child, a boy. For some reason my father decided that some months after the birth, he would take us back to his ‘growing up’ country. We travelled out to the Carnarvon Gorge country, spent time camping and then tracked out from the Upper Dawson, across what I call trauma trails, across the country to various places where he lived as a young boy.

We went in our cars and camped along the way. During that time I heard for the first time many of the stories of my father’s childhood. As we camped my father would take us for walks, teaching us ways of living that had not been part of my lived experience to that time. I have clear memories of this year as being one of great significance in my life, and not just because of the birth of my first child.

My father had been raised by his grandmother. During our journey, as we walked around a small central Queensland country town an old man stopped my father and asked, ‘Hey, are you Billie Williams?’ When Dad said ‘yes’ the old man told  Dad that Dad’s grandmother, my great-grandmother had birthed him. This opened another dimension for me. Something I had not heard before. Had never understood. My great-grandmother birthed all the white people, as well as her own people, within this region. She was therefore, what we call, a midwife. At a very real sense therefore Aboriginal women have been the midwives, the birthing attendants of this nation we now call Australia.

Bundjalung women

Let me now talk about Bundjalung women. Bundjalung women maintained their wellbeing for millennia as they walked and talked together, journeying the water courses, the mountains, the plains, the beaches that make up part of what is now called the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales [This is the land known to Indigenous Australians as Bundjalung land]. They were able to provide for themselves those basic needs that Maslow says are essential for good health: clean water, good food, safe shelter, emotional support and relevant knowledge for life.

Bundjalung women were self-actualising in giving meaning to their lives, and in the power they held over life and death, through their affirmative ceremonial life actions. In ceremony, Aboriginal women gave most attention to, and had primary responsibility for the birthing and the grieving (death) ceremonies, life cycles.

They had an abundant supply of fresh clean water. Today in this region, we have water shortages but abundant supplies of Coke, Fanta, beer and other manufactured beverages.
Bundjalung women spent perhaps four to five hours a day in group food gathering activities. They provided between fifty to eighty percent of their family’s food needs. Such gathering excursions were absorbing joyful events where women and their children walked and talked and laughed together, eating, resting, teaching, learning, recreating in replenishing of spirit, as they gathered the day’s food. Back then Bundjalung women ate indigenous meats, vegetables and fruits.

Today these foods are generally unavailable to most people but are now being sold in the more exclusive restaurants in this country. Bundjalung women now eat store bought foods manufactured by multi-national companies, purchased with welfare money or 40 hour a week wages for work performed while their children are in childcare. They have diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, cancer, stress and depression, which (the medical researchers now tell us) can be remedied by gathering and eating the more nutritional and healthy indigenous foods.

The women built their own shelters, on their own land, shelters that were safe havens for family groups under the laws and customs of the Bundjalung Nation. Those who violated a woman’s, or child’s right to a safe place under the laws and customs of the Bundjalung Nation, were judged and disciplined according to the decrees of the senior law women, in the ring or circle place, where women’s business for individual and group wellbeing, was conducted. Today Bundjalung women live in government houses on government land, with four walls and many rooms. In these houses and on the streets where the houses now stand, they and their children are often unsafe.

Today the business of white men’s law is conducted in courts presided over, generally, by white men in black robes. Bundjalung women lived in a society where relationships to kin, with their attendant rights and responsibilities for physical and emotional wellbeing were considered to be as sacred as relationship to land. Women’s emotional nurturing was known to be as important as women’s mental and physical nourishment. When all were in balance, women’s spiritual nourishment was assured.

Bundjalung women as midwives

Older Bundjalung women, the grandmothers and aunties, were responsible for teaching younger women the knowledge they needed for life. This was university level knowledge. They were health authorities and midwives. They knew and used all the herbs and procedures for good health. They delivered Bundjalung babies, using their women’s knowledge of what was best for the mother and the child.  

Now Bundjalung women are forced to have their babies in sterile hospital environments with attendant white men in white coats, often men they have never seen before. Frequently they are given little multi-coloured tranquillising pills by doctors who diagnose they are depressed or stressed. In fact they are pushing down anger and grief from loss of a self-actualising lifestyle where women had potency and skills to meet all their own needs, where women were dependent on no one but their own resources.

Within Bundjalung country are women’s places, used in times BC (before Cook, the English ‘discoverer’ of Australia) water places, teatree lakes, were women went when a baby was ready for birthing. The older women, who were the recognised birthing attendants, had already been watching and caring for the young women in their early stages of pregnancy in what is now called ante-natal health care. After attending the birth, older woman would continue their care of mother and child in what is now called post-natal health service delivery.  

The tragedy is that today most of our young girls who are pregnant do not access the formal or informal post- and ante-natal health services provided by NSW Health or the Northern Rivers Area Health Services, nor even Aboriginal Medical Centres. This is due to the lack of information about the services and the health professional’s inability to understand the cultural differences.

As Aboriginal women we need now to reclaim the powers that have been taken from us. Non-Indigenous women, health educators and health service personnel with any real commitment to the health needs of Indigenous Australians, must begin to think outside the boxed constructs of health services.  One valuable way forward would be to give back power to older Aboriginal women, by providing educational approaches for them to be re-skilled and recognized as providers of post and ante-natal care and birthing attendant services to our younger women. This I believe would begin the longterm healing needs of our communities and address the very real health problems that are reflected in us having the worst   morbidity and mortality rate in the world.

Published in byronchild/Kindred, Issue 3

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