Giving birth can be a traumatic experience, especially for first-time Indigenous mothers. But a group of women in Brandon hope to ease that trauma and bring culture back into the experience. 

About a dozen Indigenous doulas completed training in the Wheat City last month and are now assisting births across western Manitoba. Their main objective is to provide spiritual and cultural support and to be advocates for new and expecting mothers. 

Danielle Carter, Deidre Gregory and Angela Griffith all completed their training in Brandon through the Manitoba Indigenous Doula Initiative and helped form the Brandon Indigenous Doulas group. 

"There's a huge lack of support," said Griffith. "We are trying to decolonize birth and connect back to our ancestors and our teachings and to just support the women." 

Birth in Indigenous communities is traditionally viewed as a ceremony, which varies from community to community. There are different practices on caring for the woman's placenta, teachings around breastfeeding and naming of the baby. Some traditions also call for the first words the baby hears to be in the community's Indigenous language.

They are traditions that have been lost as births have moved from communities into urban hospitals, in some cases hundreds of kilometres away from the mother's home. 

"We see the lack of support that there is," said Carter, who added that many young women feel some of their questions aren't being answered by traditional medical teams and in turn, they aren't fully sure what to expect. 

"Having that support person in the room can make all the difference about how you feel, how you bond with your baby," she said. Carter recently travelled from her home in Rivers, Man., to Dauphin to assist a birth. 

While ceremonies such as smudging might not be allowed in a hospital, Gregory said they've found a way to work around that. 

"We were given some cedar water," she said. "Cedar is a medicine we use ... it's in a spray bottle and one of the doulas shared her teachings ... we're now able to use that as a medicine in the hospital." 

Research underway in Manitoba 

Indigenous doulas are the focus of a research project underway at the University of Winnipeg by Dr. Jaime Cidro, in conjunction with a number of organizations, including the Manitoba Indigenous Doula Initiative. 

"We all had concerns around some of the impacts [on] First Nations women who are leaving their communities to come to the city to birth," said Cidro.

Her project will look at the experiences women in northern Manitoba have had when coming to Winnipeg and the feasibility of providing some care in their home communities.

Cross Lake, Man., is the first community that will take part in the pilot project.  

"We want to provide evidence that women who are travelling for birth who are culturally supported by doulas will have better pregnancy, birth and postpartum outcomes," she said. 

She hopes Indigenous doulas become more commonplace in Manitoba hospitals. 

So does Melissa Brown, who started the Manitoba Indigenous Doula initiative. 

"This is just the first step in returning birth [to] the communities," she said, of training Indigenous doulas. Brown trained the doulas currently working in Brandon. 

"It's indigenous women taking care of other indigenous women when they're most vulnerable," Brown said. "Sometimes there isn't time to kind of understand what is going on." 

Brown said work is underway on how to adapt training programs for different communities. 

Desire for doulas 

In Brandon, Carter said all of the doulas have noticed a desire for Indigenous doulas from the community already. 

"It's obviously something that's needed and I think that it's going to be a big thing here in Brandon," said Carter, adding that they've already received a number of calls from around the region. 

"It's so amazing," said Griffith. "Traditionally, birth is a ceremony and to be a part of that and to support the women ... it's just really life-changing." 

Gregory hopes it's the first step in taking Indigenous births back to the community. 

"A lot of communities don't see births happening in the community ... all we see are the deaths and the funerals," she said. "We need to find that balance and bring the births back to the communities and back to the people."

All three of Brandon's new doulas hope to see more doulas trained in western Manitoba because they believe there's a need.