Re: native american childbirth customs -- during Colonial times

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Posted by Goody Sandy on November 06, 2001 at 12:22:49:

In Reply to: native american childbirth customs posted by Carolyn Starnes, RN on November 03, 2001 at 15:14:23:

: I am a midwife student working on a culture paper. Due to my native american heritage and the area I am doing clinical-I have chosen native american as my chosen culture. I am interested in information concerning pregnancy, delivery and other related practices of the native american culture.
: Thank you,
: Carolyn

Here is some information from a book that I’m currently reading (“Women’s Voices, Women’s Lives. Documents in Early American History” edited by Carol Berkin and Leslie Horowitz) re: Native American childbirth during Colonial times (as observed and reported by white men):


While 18th century medical reformer William Cadogan considered it folly to leave pregnancy, childbirth, and infant care in the hands of uneducated women, the 17th-century Dutch commentator Adrien Van de Donck considered Indian women to be expert in all matters relating to birth. According to Van der Donck, Indian women knew which medicines to administer and when to do so, their prenatal care was exemplary, and death in childbirth was unknown. Along with this near-perfect picture of reproduction among the Indians of the region, Van der Donck also accepted the view popularly held among white settlers that Indian women suffered no pain in childbirth. In searching for an explanation of this phenomenon, the Dutchman did not consider examining Indian cultural values.

The Expertise of Indian Women

Adrien Van der Donck, “A Description of the New Netherlands, 2d ed. (Amsterdam, 1656), trans. Jeremiah
Johnson, excerpted in “Collections of the New-York Historical Society, 2d ser., 1 (1841).

“Whenever a native female is pregnant, in wedlock or otherwise, they take care that they do no act that would injure the offspring. During pregnancy they are generally healthy, and they experience little or no sickness or painful days, and when the time of their delivery is near, (which they calculate closely), and they fear a severe accouchement [delivery], or if it be their first time, then they prepare a drink made of a decoction of roots that grow in the woods, which are known by them, and they depart alone to a secluded place near a brook, or stream of water, where they can be protected from the winds, and prepare a shelter for themselves with mats and coverings, where, provided with provisions necessary for them, they await their delivery without the company or aid of any person.

After their children are born, and if they are males, although the weather be ever so cold and freezing, they immerse them some time in the water, which, they say, makes them strong brave men, and hardy hunters. After the immersion they wrap their children in warm clothing and pay them great attention from fear of accidents, and after they have remained several days in their secluded places, again return to their homes and friends.

They rarely are sick from child-birth, suffer no inconveniences from the same, nor do any of them die on such occasion. Upon this subject some persons assign, as a reason and cause for their extraordinary deliveries, that the knowledge of good and evil is not given to them, as unto us; that therefore they do not suffer the pains of sin in bringing forth their children; that such pains are really not natural, but the punishment which follows the knowledge of sin, as committed by our first mother [Eve], and is attached to those only; others ascribe the cause of the difference to the salubrity of the climate, their well-formed bodies, and their manner of living.”


Roger Williams’s intellectual curiosity led him to attempt the first dictionary of the Narraganset language. In the excerpt below, Williams provides phrases relating to childbirth and infant care. In his commentary, he remarks on the ease with which Indian women bore their children. Unlike Van der Donck, however, Williams recognized that cultural factors, including the gendered division of labor and gender expectations, explained the ease and speed of an Indian woman’s “eechaw.”

Kato enceechaw: She is falling into Travell.
Neechaw: She is in Travell.
Paugcotche nechauwaw: She is already delivering.
Kitummayi-mes-nechaw: She was just now delivered.
Noosawwaw: A Nurse.
Noonsu Nonannis: A sucking Child.
Wunnunogan: A breast.
Wunnunnoganash: Breasts.
Munnunnug: Milke.
Aumaunemun: To take the breast, or Weane.

A Speedy Travail

Roger Williams, “A Key into the Language of America (London, 1643)

“Obs. It hath pleased God in wonderfull manner to moderate that curse of the sorrowes of Child-bearing to these poore Indian Women: So that ordinarily they have a wonderfull more speedy and easie Travell, and delivery than the Women of Europe: not that I thinke God is more gracious to them above other Women, but that followes, First from the hardness of their constitution, in which respect they brave their sorrowes the easier.

Secondly from their extraordinary great labour (even above the labour of men) as in the Field, they sustaine the labour of it, in carrying of mighty Burthens, in digging clammes and getting other Shelfish from the Sea, in beating all their corne in Morters: &c. Most of them count it a shame for a Woman in Travell to make complaint, and many of them are scarcely heard in groane. I have often knowne in one Quarter of an houre a Woman merry in the House, and delivered and merry again; and within two dayes abroad and after foure or five dayes at work, &c.”

Best wishes,
Goody Sandy

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