Text of a paper I originally submitted November 9, 2013 for HIST 184 at Midwives College of Utah
As I read Birth Chairs, Midwives and Medicine (Banks, 1999), I often found myself thinking about my own foremothers and wondering what they must have experienced during their own births. Many of my ancestors were women of color: royal Hawaiian ali’i and queens. Though I have always been raised to be proud of that fact, I really don’t know much about most of them other than their names and any connected historical facts I have researched for myself (Moore, 2013). My mother chose not to marry within her race or live on the islands because she wanted her posterity acculturated into mainstream white society. I first heard about an ancient Hawaiian birthing place called Kukaniloko, only seven months ago when I accidentally stumbled upon Uyehara and Joshua’s YouTube video (n.d.). I didn’t then have the time to learn more beyond that little four-and-a-half minute clip, but it has seemed to call to me since then, to come back and learn more. Kukaniloko was actually the motivating factor for selecting this time period, and Bank’s work seemed a perfect fit. For me, studying ancient midwifery has tied both sides of my ethnic heritage a little tighter together. It has made me feel closer to and more appreciative of those pre-obstetric women, Western and Polynesian, who took birth in their stride and forged the links that bind me back to them.
Banks made it clear in the introduction of her book that she chose to focus on studying birth chairs dating from the 1700’s through the late 20th century which were produced by white, European people (p.xxi-xxii) because it was a time of great change in the perceptions and practices of birth. Her book traces the evolution of the original concept of birth as a safe, natural, community event presided over by women for women in their own homes, into a deathly illness requiring skilled male medical attendants in an institutionalized setting. Banks felt that studying artifacts might help her discern the social meaning and motivations behind the great cultural shift that occurred in attitudes toward birth and which still dominate our philosophy of parturition today. Frankly, at first I also felt that for Banks, or any scholar, studying Western furniture might be a whole lot easier than trying to locate and authenticate stands of trees, rocks, bushes, or a particular plot of ground as a birth chair. It was an academic dead end to attempt to study where ancient, some might call primitive women brought forth life, since there is nothing historically evolutionary about nature beyond what men do to it.
In this cultural perception, I discovered it was I who was mistaken. Though I had already learned that the ancient histories of many First Peoples were deliberately, systematically erased and discounted, I did not think to include myself or my own losses in this purge (Stout, Smoot & McClerran, 2009). However, it suddenly dawned on me that I was unconsciously viewing part of my own identity through the only prism I have ever known or been taught to use: the eyes of what McIntosh calls white privilege (1989). This first came to my attention when I sought and was surprised to actually find some scholarly sources on Kukaniloko, especially Ali’s treatise on a Google image search which showed all astronomers as white (2010). Though I knew Hawaiians had been ocean navigators, that article was the well-deserved slap on the right check that preceded the jaw-dropping slap on the left check that happened when I watched Tom Lenchanko reverently explain how brilliant my Hawaiian ancestors were (Koani Foundation, n.d.). Oahu’s Kukaniloko, the place of sacred rocks, was Hawaii’s Holy of Holies. It was literally the center of their world: in Hawaiian, the piko, or navel. In this place it has been discovered that the carvings in just one of the rocks function as a sundial, earth compass and star compass. The entire location is a sort of outdoor observatory and navigational university (Ali, Koani). Here, in this sacred place, not shoved away in a corner but held aloft over another nearby rock, my ancestors were born and gave birth. Queens squatted upright at the center of the center, with the emerging royal child positioned to symbolically descend from the heavens in a gravity-controlled birth, as the apex event and person of them all (Koani).
In contrasting this scene with the Western description of birth and birth chairs, I realized that in antiquity, though settings differed, the stories are really the same. Whether she was lowly or exalted, the mother and her baby – not the birth chair and its attendant – were the foci of birth. Hawaiian queens and European commoners squatted (Koani, Banks p.18). While wealthy Europeans used birth chairs, their royal island counterparts labored upon a chair made of men (Koani). Whether or not the artifact does, the concept of woman, birth and baby as central remains.
As a needed but utilitarian object, the birth chair simply served the purpose of its creation. Taken from nature and shaped for its task by human hands; whether of rock, wood or even flesh, the birth chair was part of the great circle of life, just as women and birth were. I found it touching that midwives were so closely associated with their tool, the birth stool (Banks, p.4), just like we have normalized the concept of doctors and stethoscopes or lumberjacks and axes today. However, I think this concept was also richer in the past. Somehow, like the string, scissors, and stool, the midwife herself was seen as an essential tool of birth. I wish midwives were still perceived this way.
Wherever they lived, ancient midwives measured up to their task, serving as trusted, valued and intrinsic members of the community. In Europe, they were females and most likely commoners, serving rich and poor alike (Banks, p.68). Among Hawaii’s ali’i , male midwives and attendants, at least six of them, served birthing females at Kukaniloko (Koani). Unlike the obstetric practitioners who from the mid 1700’s on have so aggressively usurped midwives’ position of trust in the community (Banks, p.24), ancient midwives did not seem to use their power and influence to get gain from those they served, but seemed satisfied to be equal and not above them (Rogers & Kahn-Leavitt, 1998).
There were many accounts throughout Birth Chairs about the effects of status and social climbing among practitioners and their patients. In being reminded of the story of the tragic death of Princess Charlotte (Banks, p.41) I also thought of Queen Victoria, and her popularization of the use of chloroform in childbirth (Frerichs, n.d) and how birth events surrounding these royal women deeply affected the views of their subjects. Although numerous social and political issues based on current events and upward mobility seem to magnetically attach themselves to birth, I don’t think they belong there! Pride only seems to complicate birth! This is exemplified by the highly intricate and ritualized practices that entwined themselves around parturition in Hawaii. For me, it was disturbing to imagine, what it must have been like to be an ancient Hawaiian queen, my ancestress! Words like “womb pod” (Becky, 2007) came to mind when I learned how royal women were pampered through pregnancy, carried around on litters and fed special diets. They were then held aloft by male birth attendants who sat upon or against the birthing rock, sometimes manipulating her thighs apart, while an audience of 36 male chiefs looked on, and 48 more of them waited to take her child away for someone else to raise to adulthood (Koani). To my contemporary eyes, this suddenly did not seem so ancient, or pure. Aren’t modern females also hiked up on a gadget-ified, uberplatform of patriarchal power? For Hawaiians, August was the best month for royals to be born (Koani). Are we not also sometimes ordered to labor at the time our medical chieftains prescribe or demand? Like these poor queens, aren’t modern women also expected to “perform” birth before a crowd of strangers at the scene, like some seal in a circus act? Hasn’t it also become normal to expect that someone other than the mother – daycares, schools, grandma, whoever – will care for her baby until it is grown? Perhaps there are savages in every age.
I realized that when we try to make birth and midwifery more than what they are, we make them what they are not. The lyrics of the old Shaker dancing song, Simple Gifts, come to mind, and I wish for myself that when I am a midwife, I will not forget this lesson. Strip away all the trappings and wrappings, and imagine, if you will, that the hospitals all came tumbling down in an earthquake, dragging their chair beds and allopaths along with them. Would birth stop? Would women stop laboring? No. Kukaniloko means “to anchor the cry from within”(Koani). I think women today need this, to be taught about and re-anchored to their birth roots. Just as generations of their mothers and grandmothers knew, just as the midwives who attended them knew, birth is the gift of our sex. Like a chair, we and our children were designed to be anchored by birth, so that after the pain, we could “rejoice and be glad in it”.
Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain’d
To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,
To turn, turn will be our delight
Till by turning, turning we come ‘round right.
Ali, N. (2010). Making astronomy culturally relevant. CAPjournal, 9, 18-20.
Banks, A. (1999). Birth chairs, midwives and medicine. Jackson: University Press of Mississsippi.
Becky (2007, Dec 7). I am not a womb pod! [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.refusetobeawombpod.blogspot.com/2007/12/i-am-not-womb-pod.html
Forander, A., Stokes, J. (1880). An account of the Polynesian race: Its origins and migrations and the ancient history of the Hawaiian people to the times of Kamehameha I, vol II. London: Trubner & Co. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=tcQNAAAAQAAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PR5&dq=kukaniloko&ots=U4NEmWZxxZ&sig=-ANwF81rMxFv7_1ao5YpE0IAwQU#v=onepage&q=kukaniloko&f=false
Frerichs, R. (n.d.). Anesthesia and Queen Victoria. Retrieved from http://www.ph.ucla.edu/epi/snow/victoria.html
Koani Foundation (n.d.). Kukaniloko – birth of a nation – a visit with Tom Lenchanko [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=saIYC5Dzyyg
McIntosh, P. (1989). White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack. Peace and
Freedom, July/August, 1-4
Moore, K. (2013). Look unto the rock from whence ye are hewn [Public Family Tree]. Retrieved from http://trees.ancestry.com/tree/739321/family?cfpid=-2049896664&selnode=1
Rogers, R. (Director) & Kahn-Leavitt, L. (Producer). (1998). A Midwife’s Tale. Available from PBS American Experience.
Shaker song, traditional (18th century). Tis the gift to be simple. Retrieved from
Stout, R. (Director/Co-Producer), Smoot, S. (Co-Producer/Executive Producer), & McLerran, B. (Co-Producer). (2009). The lost civilizations of North America. [DVD]. Retrieved from http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xlykwi_lost-civilizations-of-north-america_news
Uyehara, C,. & Joshua, P. (n.d.) Kukaniloko, sacred Hawiian birthing stones. [Video file]. Retrived from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n9rQjlwqx7o