'Birthing a nation' during a pandemic: Indigenous doulas try to maintain practices and protocols from afar

Birth is a sacred ceremony in Indigenous cultures, but the COVID-19 pandemic has made following some protocols challenging.

Birth workers getting creative to continue providing support to new Indigenous mothers despite COVID-19

Jolene Creeley is an Indigenous doula in Saskatchewan. She graduated from Birth Ways International and the Zaagi'idiwin full-spectrum Indigenous doulas program out of Winnipeg. (Sweetgrass Photography)

Birth is a sacred ceremony in Indigenous cultures, but the COVID-19 pandemic has made following some protocols challenging.

"As an Indigenous doula, I really turned a lot to prayer. I really, really focus my mind and my spirit to being prayerful, especially when the mother is labouring, really recognizing and acknowledging that birth is a ceremony and to be in that space," said Jolene Creely, a Cree/Dakota doula based out of Regina.

But with physical distancing restrictions in place, Indigenous doulas like Creely are finding their prenatal classes nixed, their clients' doctor appointments cancelled, and their other methods of connecting in person severed. In Saskatchewan, women giving birth are currently restricted to one support person in the hospital due to COVID-19.

So, doulas are having to rely on online communication just like everybody else.

For Creely, the shift in her job affected her personally. She was working with two women prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. She had to make modifications to her work plan when it came to helping her sister-in-law, due in June, and another woman due in July.

"I was preparing myself all these months, like, keeping up and refreshing my memory with all my birth books ... and then the pandemic hit," said Creely.

"I was really, really sad. I had to take some time to really grieve that."

'When i started this work, it was a passion; it was like a fire within me that would burn brighter the more I would support birthing families and around pregnancy,' says Jolene Creely, pictured here with her partner and their son. (Submitted by Jolene Creely)

She said her sister-in-law has been facing anxiety as a result.

"When the pandemic hit, my sister-in-law was really fearful around the hospitals with the new policies and restrictions, especially with the whole quarantining," said Creely. 

The calling to be a doula

Creely hails from Okanese First Nation, 100 kilometres northeast of Regina. She graduated from Birth Ways International and the Zaagi'idiwin full-spectrum Indigenous doulas program out of Winnipeg. She believes she was meant to be a birth worker. 

"I feel like my whole being, like my whole purpose for being on Earth is to help support labouring and birthing families," she said.

Creely's chapan (great-great-grandmother) was a Dakota midwife in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. 

"She would work for these farm families, and she would live with the family that was expecting the baby, and she would stay there until the baby was born, and then she'd move onto the next farm, or community that was expecting a baby," said Creely.

"That's where that passion comes from. I know that her work's living on through me."

Creeley says her role is 'to think really good thoughts and just to have all my energy be so positive and to surround the mother with love and light so she can be protected from birth and to labour. I really focus my energy around that.' (Jolene Creeley/Facebook)

She was told by those around her that if she was serious about becoming a midwife in the future, she should become a doula first, get her training, be certified and see if the work was really meant for her. 

Infusing Indigenous culture into birthing

Glenda Abbott, a fellow Indigenous birth worker based out of Saskatoon, said that her role is much deeper than teaching mothers how to breathe, how to stay calm, and how to be mindful of what their body is telling them.

"My work in general is helping families to remember, to reconnect, to reclaim cultural practices, ceremonial practices, kinship practices in birthing our babies, and reminding them how this process builds the future," said Abbott. 

"I feel like what I offer to families is a little bit different, especially since a lot of families have lost or have had them taken ... these are very specific ceremonial practices that have been taken from us, intentionally taken through residential schools and in our entire colonial history."

'Traditionally, historically, culturally, we would not birth where we take our sick and dying — that is not our system ... I hope that you know whether you're Indigenous or non-Indigenous that this was a wake-up call,' says Glenda Abbott, an Indigenous birth worker in Saskatchewan. (Facebook: Glenda Abbott)

Creely said she infuses culture into every birth she helps with. She learns different customs and protocols and helps tailor them to the expecting mother. She said that it is a powerful feeling to be in the room, reclaiming and revitalizing their cultural practices. She is constantly in prayer; sometimes singing songs to soothe the mother. Some songs have a special meaning, so she sings them during a specific time. 

She recalls humming the water song as doctors had to break a woman's water.

"It was beautiful. It's hard to explain," said Creely, smiling as she talked about the experience. 

Imparting auntie's advice

Like Creely, Abbott's determination to remain a resource to mothers during the pandemic stemmed from a personal situation. Her son had his first baby in April of this year. 

She has since developed a COVID-19 strategy for expecting Indigenous mothers, with one section titled "Auntie's Advice." It is a toolkit for new Indigenous mothers. It was created with input from other local Indigenous birth workers. It has a list of Saskatchewan resources, information on what to do before, during and after your hospital stay. It also has many links to Indigenous birthing resources, complete with a list of Indigenous birth workers and doulas in Saskatchewan. 

"Auntie's Advice was a response to acknowledging that these are unprecedented times and if people needed an online space, that they could connect, to talk, and know that they're not alone," said Abbott. 


Ntawnis Piapot is Nehiyaw Iskwew from Piapot Cree Nation. She has a journalism degree from the University of Regina, and is a graduate from the INCA Media and Intercultural Leadership Program from the First Nations University. Ntawnis has been a reporter for CBC Saskatchewan, APTN National News, CTV Regina, VICE News, J-Source and Eagle Feather News. Email: