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  • Writer's pictureMitchell Sasser

Alaska Native Women Help Mothers In Need of Care

HARRISONBURG, Va. — Midwives, healers, mothers, doulas, social justice activists and community organizers are just some of the titles and roles found in the Alaska Native Birthworkers Community.

AKNBC is a small group of Alaska Native women organizing from different parts of Alaska who have come together over the last three years to reclaim their indigenous birth practices. They offer culturally matched peer support for parents from preconception through postnatal care.

Helena Jacobs is one of the co-founders of AKNBC, and has been a doula for over a decade. Jacobs said most of their members have been working in wellness and health-promotion for years, but AKNBC is an opportunity to expand their care to mothers in the community.

“I think one of the most impactful ways to support the long term health and wellness of somebody is to start in utero,” Jacobs said. “By supporting that parent who's pregnant, we are also supporting a healthy start for that baby. And there has been all kinds of research that shows the long-term health and wellness impacts of having really positive pregnancy and birth experiences, and a lot of those positive pregnancy and birth experiences are reported because those people had peer support, they had labor companions, they had culturally matched care.”

Jacobs, the youngest of three sisters, “really got into this work” when her middle sister was pregnant with her first child. All of the births that Jacobs had seen previously were with doctors in the hospitals. Jacobs said that the media paints a traumatizing idea of what birth is with women screaming in agony and nurses chaotically running in and out of the room.

“That is what I knew birth to be before I had ever witnessed it,” Jacobs said. “By being really close with my sister during her journey as a first-time pregnant parent, it was so calm and gentle and beautiful, and she had the most amazing home birth experience.”

Two years later, Jacobs became pregnant. Jacobs said that from the moment she discovered her pregnancy, she immediately had loving and caring support from her husband and sister. Within the hour, there were several emails in her inbox with different vitamins to consider and books she was told to read in order to be well-informed about her pregnancy journey.

Jacobs realized not everyone was lucky enough to be in the same situation as herself.

“The more that I shared about my birth story and learned about the birth stories and journeys of other pregnant people in my community, I realized that what I had was really a privilege, and it was something that not everybody experienced,” Jacobs said. “What felt like a right to feel supported, and loved, and cared for, and informed to make your own choices - that wasn’t a right, it was really a privilege, and so many people that I connected with had traumatic birth stories, or felt really alone, or felt scared, and it just feels like an injustice in our system in Alaska.”

AKNBC exists to help support people in one of the most life-changing times of their life. Jacobs said that oftentimes, rural pregnant women leave their home communities and come alone to regional or urban hospitals because their partner needs to stay home, work or care for their other children.

“Part of our work really was responsive to trying to ensure that anybody who wants loving, caring support and information and empowerment in their journey can have it, and that people who are in these situations where they have to leave their home communities and their support systems will have a sister beside them if they want it without barriers,” Jacobs said.

One of Jacob's main priorities is adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’ve really boosted the distribution of tangible things that we can put in people’s hands to help support them too,” Jacobs said. “As we hear stories of food insecurity, or people not being able to go to the store or being afraid to go to the store, we distribute a lot of essential food bags.”

AKNBC is also distributing supplies to help with breastfeeding and supplies for newborns such as blankets, diapers, wipes, and baby carriers. They’ve also been working on prenatal care packages with aromatherapy and positive affirmations to help with stress reduction and bring a feeling of calm amidst stressful times.

Jacobs said the care AKNBC offers is really the result of the expression of the community’s needs.

AKNBC has interacted with just over 2,000 people in the last year according to Jacobs. That number includes participants in programs and distinct visitors to their website and Facebook page. Jacobs said the number is larger if you truly calculate the impact their care has on the community.

“If I’m offering doula support to one parent, and then that parent goes home and they have five other kids at home, all of them will be impacted by that care because {it} is so impactful in somebody's experience,” Jacobs said.

Some of the events AKNBC hosts include Prenatal craft circles and bi-monthly talking circles.

“My hope is that every Indigenous birthing person will have access to the care that they want and need during their pregnancy journey. My hope is that that care will be available locally if they choose to receive that care in their home community, and that as Indigenous peoples, we will assume these roles and offer this care to each other in the same way that it was done for so many generations,” Jacobs said.


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