It is often stated that little is known and recorded on midwifery activity pre colonisation, although there is a rich oral history tradition among First Nations people, and some written accounts from colonists. The lack of knowledge myth stems mostly from western academia being so slow to recognise Aboriginal ways of knowing, and the gendered world view of the coloniser: birth is, was, and always will be women’s business.

As birthing and ‘women’s business’ were a female domain, it is likely this was not studied to any degree or recorded in post-colonial scripts due to (perhaps) those writing the papers being overwhelmingly male. This may have been due to them not having access or being privy to the private business of birthing and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women’s business, or having a western male attitude of it not being important.

working with colonial archives requires engagement with the epistemic violence of colonisation and a search for the perspectives of women who may ultimately exist in the archives as little more than traces, unnamed and used as a foil for masculine colonial intentions

Adams, Faulkhead, Standfield & Atkinson, 2018, p.83

Framed by a western world view, healthcare was deemed to be given by traditional healers, with an emphasis on spiritual as well as the physiological state. Early accounts describe lean, fit Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Records describe the use of plants for medicinal purposes, and a predominantly male healthcare practitioner/healer.

Traditional birthing practices

In traditional practices and rituals, birthing involved more than the physical health of the mother and baby. Giving birth was a process of initiation and belonging to the culture that created spiritual links to the land and the ancestral Dreaming.

Best & Fredericks, 2021, p.102

Birth law and ceremony have been kept by Aboriginal women for thousands of years. With over 500 Nations existing pre-colonisation there is no single custom, way, or tradition; but rather a rich and diverse cultural heritage of birth practice. While traditional birthing practices vary between language groups or Nations, and each may have their own unique customary laws, they are united in common themes of cultural and kinship obligations, ritual and taboo, and abiding by ‘Grandmothers law’. Grandmothers law is the traditional knowledge, skills, and experience of experienced senior women in an Aboriginal community. Pregnancy was regarded as a normal part of life though there were many taboos. The knowledge and experience of the traditional midwives in bush medicine and women’s business was respected, and their presence was thought to make for easy births and healthy babies. Although some rituals survive to this day, much of the traditional birthing knowledge is now lost.

One way of traditional birthing is described here, reflecting the experience of women in a remote community in the north of Australia. The birth site was a place for women, and sometimes a separate camp may be set up where the women and traditional midwives might stay a few weeks. Cultural birthing areas often included significant markers in the landscape such as birthing trees or caves, and trees or rocks to act as props for active labour support. Grandmothers and aunts would care for the labouring woman, providing warmth, comfort and privacy, and the labouring woman moved freely. The traditional midwives would use massage or manipulations for malpresentation, or might call on family or a healer to perform certain rituals nearby to assist with complications. The labouring woman’s mother and sisters might assist her, but women from the husband’s side of the family (or the husband himself) could only attend the birth site if Grandmother invited them. The traditional midwives would rub the woman’s back and belly and wipe her face and body to facilitate birth. For some, Grandma or others might call the baby in with sacred welcoming songs.

The mother would squat as the baby was birthed into a hollow depression on the ground, spiritually connecting the child and Country, while the spilt blood of birth made a direct connection. The depression might be lined with sand, soft leaves, grass, or animal skins. When it cried, baby was lifted to its mothers breast. Grandmother and the aunts would encourage the new mother to squat over smoking embers to promote healing and prevent blood loss: fire, smoke, steam, and plant medicines assisted with healing, and smoking ceremonies made mother and baby healthy and strong. The placenta and afterbirth were ritually buried near where they were delivered, again forming a spiritual link between the child and Country. Ceremony deepened social connections as Grandmother separated the umbilical cord, and the person who buried it took on a special role as protector to the newborn. The child would be named following ceremony determined by Grandmother’s law, which would also dictate when the baby would meet their father.

Adams, Faulkhead, Standfield & Atkinson, 2018

Best & Fredericks, 2021

We welcome the descendants of any of our profiled midwives to contact us to collaborate on how their ancestor is described or depicted, and how to best tell their unique midwifery story. We also welcome new stories.

A pre-contact history of the Yolngu people of Northern Australia, also known as Arnhem Land. This informative video explores the creation stores, societal structures, and pre-contact relationships of the Yolngu people. 

Adams, K., Faulkhead, S., Standfield, R, and Atkinson, P. (2018). Challenging the colonisation of birth: Koori women’s birthing knowledge and practice. Women and Birth, 31, 81-88.

The aim of this research was to collate archival material on South East Australian Aboriginal women’s birthing knowledge and practice… Artefacts found included materials written by non-Aboriginal men and women, materials written by Aboriginal women, oral histories, media reports and culturally significant sites. Material described practices that connected birth to country and the community of the women and their babies. Practices included active labour techniques, pain management, labour supports, songs for labour, ceremony and the role of Aboriginal midwives. Case studies of continuing cultural practice and revival were identified… Inclusion of Aboriginal women’s birthing practices and knowledge is crucial for reconciliation and self-determination. Challenging the colonisation of birthing, through the inclusion of Aboriginal knowledge and practice is imperative, as health practices inclusive of cultural knowledge are known to be more effective.

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Ireland, S., Belton, S. McGrath, A., Saggers, S., Wulili Narjic, C. (2015). Paperbark and pinard: A historical account of maternity care in one remote Australian Aboriginal town. Women and Birth, 28, 293-302.

ABSTRACT Background and aim: Maternity care in remote areas of the Australian Northern Territory is restricted to antenatal and postnatal care only, with women routinely evacuated to give birth in hospital. Using one remote Aboriginal community as a case study, our aim with this research was to document and explore the major changes to the provision of remote maternity care over the period spanning pre-European colonisation to 1996.

Methods: Our research methods included historical ethnographic fieldwork (2007–2013); interviews with Aboriginal women, Aboriginal health workers, religious and non-religious non-Aboriginal health workers and past residents; and archival review of historical documents.

Findings: We identified four distinct eras of maternity care. Maternity care staffed by nuns who were trained in nursing and midwifery serviced childbirth in the local community. Support for community childbirth was incrementally withdrawn over a period, until the government eventually assumed responsibility for all health care.

Conclusions: The introduction of Western maternity care colonised Aboriginal birth practices and midwifery practice. Historical population statistics suggest that access to local Western maternity care may have contributed to a significant population increase. Despite population growth and higher demand for maternity services, local maternity services declined significantly. The rationale for removing childbirth services from the community was never explicitly addressed in any known written policy directive. Declining maternity services led to the de-skilling of many Aboriginal health workers and the significant community loss of future career pathways for Aboriginal midwives. This has contributed to the current status quo, with very few female Aboriginal health workers actively providing remote maternity care. 

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Before colonisation, culturally safe birthing was an uninterrupted practice for First Nations women and families for over 120,000 years. Women gave birth on the same land as their mothers, grandmothers and great grandmothers. Birthing was seen as a collective responsibility of the community with grandmothers and aunties playing significant midwifery roles.

Mainstream care, women’s business, traditional birthing, The Congress Alukura by the Grandmothers law, borning, birth on country… read more here on Common Ground,  a First Nations-led not-for-profit working to shape a society that centres First Nations people by amplifying knowledge, cultures and stories.

Jones, Jilpia Napparjari. (2012). Birthing: Aboriginal women.  Journal of Indigenous Policy, 13, pp. 103-109

You been born here in this country and this land owns you and you come back any time.

Walmadjari woman Jilpia Napparjari Jones writes about traditional birthing, and the impact of losing birth on country

Callaghan, Helen. (2001). Traditional Aboriginal birthing practices in Australia: Past and present. Birth Issues. 10:3, 92-99.

“…This discussion is a brief literature review of traditional birthing practices used by the indigenous people of Australia. Due to the complexities of Aboriginal culture, this literature review can only be considered  an overview… The literature is drawn from a variety of sources including Aboriginal people, historians, social scientists, health professionals, and scientists. The review demonstrates the wide variety of traditional birthing practices within Australia, yet emphasises the commonality of many of the rituals, even when compared with the Western medical system: care in childbirth is about keeping the woman and her baby safe…”

The particular ceremonies associated with the birth of a child create the tapestry for how a child will live and interact within the world. Ceremonies and birth rights cannot be seen in isolation as they are intrinsically linked to totems, kinship lores, marriage rules, social cohesion and environmental sustainability.

Birth ceremonies, totems, rites in Aboriginal society, and Gamilaraay birth ceremonies… read more here in this info sheet from the Queensland Government

As we begin our celebration of the International Confederation of Midwives’ 100th anniversary, we’re looking back on centuries past. From the Stone Ages to modern day, midwives have shown up to stand with women. But where did it all begin?

A quick glimpse into some diverse world history of midwifery from the International Confederation of Midwives (ICM)