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