We have just said good bye to December, a month in which some religions celebrate the birth of a new God or a God’s child. Using this opportunity, I would like to tell you a different story, for there is a miracle in every single birth. But the miracle has to start somewhere, and this one starts with the first birth. To tell you this story I will have to ask you to make a journey with me. We are going to journey to a place that stole my heart a very long time ago. We are going to travel by big and small plane, snowmobile, and then by sledge. What is more we are going to travel back in time. So take with you all your warmest clothes and brace yourselves, as we are going to the Canadian Arctic.
Inuit Elders gave us this story of the first pregnancy in a beautiful book “Interviewing Inuit Elders: Childrearing Practices”. Here’s how it goes.
“Akkolookjo and his wife Omerneeto established the laws which the Eskimo have to obey now. Omerneeto used to wear her husband’s boots. She did not fasten the upper strings properly, but allowed the boot-leg to sag down and the boot-strings to drag over the ground. One day the soul of an infant that was on the ground crept up the boot-string and up into the womb. Up to that time, children had been found in the snow. The child grew in the womb, and finally was born. It began to cry, and gradually became old enough to speak. One day it told its parents how it had crawled into Omerneeto’s womb. It continued, “There I was as in a small house. Every night when you cohabited, a dog would come in and vomit food for me to make me grow. Finally I longed to get outside; and when I got out, I wanted to speak, but all I could do was to cry. When I wanted other food than milk, I could only say ‘papa’; and when I wanted to say ‘I’m thirsty’, I could only say ‘oo, oo’.”
This is how the first child was born. Since then there were a lot of rituals that pregnant women had to follow. They couldn’t tie up the laces of their boots (kamiik). They had to leave them undone, so the umbilical cord wouldn’t wrap around the baby’s neck. In general, when you were pregnant, you couldn’t deal with strings that required wrapping or tying. What was more, pregnant ladies had to always be swift. They couldn’t walk slowly, and always had to be first out of the house, otherwise the delivery would be a long and difficult process. The laces of the pregnant lady and her husband’s couldn’t be too long, because it could influence the umbilical cord of the baby. Even the birth assistants had to undo their laces, and be very careful with their length. They had to be quick in their movements and undo all the ties, even the hair ties, they always had the labouring woman in mind and this could assure swift and easy birth.
Everybody played a part in the process of pregnancy. People had to be careful with a pregnant mother, because abusing her would affect the child. The children with problems were affected by them when they were still foetuses, because their mothers had a hard time during pregnancy. The child in the womb was thought to be aware of its surroundings. “Even when babies are in the womb they can feel if the parents are unhappy with each other. A baby who has felt this in the womb is different than a child who hasn’t felt this”.
What is more, some people had prenatal recollections. Uqsuralik (one of the interviewed elders) related that her uncle Peter Pitseolak remembered when he was still in the womb:
“He remembered coming out of his mother. He remembered this dog trying to come in. He used to watch it. He remembered this very clearly. It was his father’s penis that he was looking at. He said when he started coming out he came through two mountains. I think they were his mother’s legs. My uncle Peter Pitseolak used to talk about that”.
A lot of things have changed since then all over the Arctic. People started to catch up with modernity with all goodness and evils of that term. Old traditions started to disappear and women started to forget about the wisdom of their bodies and moved the birth into a sterile environment of the hospital bed. It happened all over the world. But there are still those who know, those who remember the old ways, and we should take time to listen to them. They still want to tell us all those stories. If we won’t let them, if we will close our hearts, all this wisdom will disappear and will go with the elders into the afterlife – for us lost for ever. I’m not saying that we should untie our shoes and live only by the customs of the past – I can see the blessings of today. I’m just saying that we should open our hearts to the wisdom of past generations, learn from them and respect them. Our culture today wouldn’t ‘Be’ without them and their struggle. And sometimes, when it is appropriate for us, let us live like they used to – closer to nature, closer to ourselves, knowing and understanding our bodies in a way that modern medicine forgot about. And of course let us listen, because they are truly amazing stories!
Interviewing Inuit Elders. Vol. 3 Childrearing practices, Naqi Ekho and Uqsuralik Ottokie, ed. by Jean Briggs, Nunavut Arctic College, Nunavut c2000.