Indigenous doula training brings birth knowledge back to families and communities

Indigenous doula training is in high demand, according to one Winnipeg-based organization offering the training.

Virtual training received over 300 applicants within 12 hours

Participants in a doula training at Eel Ground First Nation in New Brunswick. Doula training has created a network of women who carry on the work, says trainer Melissa Brown. (Submitted by Melissa Brown)

Indigenous doula training is in high demand, according to one Winnipeg-based organization offering the training.

"This is our first virtual training that we've done it in quite a bit, and we got 300 applications in 12 hours," said Melissa Brown, one of the facilitators.

Brown is Anishinaabe from Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba and delivers programming at Zaagi'idiwin Indigenous Doula Training with co-founder Candace Neumann, who is Red River Métis.

She said some people have tried to get into the program two and three times. To meet the demand, they'll be offering virtual programming again.

As a result of colonization, Brown said, "we have been systematically disconnected from those teachings around pregnancy, birth and postpartum."

"Birth has been removed from our communities."

The program currently prioritizes Indigenous students. 

"This program was developed by Indigenous people for Indigenous people — this knowledge should be returned to them first," Brown said.

Zaagi'idiwin translates to "love" in Anishinaabemowin, and is one of the seven grandfather teachings.

"That's really what guides the work that we do. We know that love for our children and the children yet to come is a totally different level of love," Brown said.

The role of a doula is different from that of a midwife. A midwife is a health-care provider mainly focused on clinical care where a doula's role can be compared to a peer mentor or a support worker. There are no clinical skills involved, so the training is more accessible, said Brown.

A placenta art piece by Candace Neumann.
An art piece created by Candace Neumann of a placenta. (Submitted by Melissa Brown)

Brown said hospital births have become so normalized, many Indigenous families are surprised to hear that they have options.

Allison Badger-John and her sister Cheryl Badger-Gadwa, from Kehewin Cree Nation in Alberta, said they took Indigenous doula training to bring the knowledge of birth work back to their families and their community.

Badger-Gadwa, who is a mother of six and a grandmother, said she wishes she had taken training a long time ago for her own deliveries.

"It was so positive and relevant to me as a mother," she said.

"It's helping me go forward and being that much more supportive to my daughters who are now having babies."

Badger-John has raised eight children, four of whom she gave birth to. She said the training included a lot of Indigenous history.

"It helps us to understand better our emotions and the blood memory and things like that, so we're able to better understand how we function," she said.

Support through grief

Brown said her practice is informed by her own experience of giving birth. She has two daughters, and one son who was stillborn. She said the training talks about grief and loss and how pregnancy can lead to both — and how people can be supported through those experiences.

Brown added Indigenous doulas rely on traditional teachings and ceremony for support in trying times.

The training also discusses the impacts of trauma, Brown said. 

"If we are able to spend the time with families to explain to them what's happening in their bodies, the process of labour, and kind of demystify what's creating those intense feelings in their body and give them to the space to process those things, it really does help," she said.

Brown spoke of her time listening to a 107-year-old midwife from Treaty 3 territory, Evelyn Morrison.

"She spoke such an old dialect of Anishinaabemowin that we needed to have two different translators," she said.

"It was just such an emotional experience."

Pamela Johnson with her late grandmother, Anishinaabe midwife Evelyn Morrison. (Submitted by Melissa Brown)

Morrison had been taught by her mother and grandmother and helped deliver thousands of babies in her career as a midwife. She said she brought only scissors and water and that all she did was catch the baby; during labour, it was the families who supported the mother.

"[The families] learned about the medicines, they harvested the medicines, and they used those medicines," Brown said.

"So for me that was really such a beautiful affirmation of the way that we're approaching this work and we are trying to bring this knowledge back to family members and relatives to help one another."


Candace Maracle is Wolf Clan from Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Toronto Metropolitan University. She is a laureate of The Hnatyshyn Foundation REVEAL Indigenous Art Award. Her latest film, a micro short, Lyed Corn with Ash (Wa’kenenhstóhare’) is completely in the Kanien’kéha language.