Nicolle Gonzales has the stamina of a long-distance runner, which she is, and the authority that comes from guiding nervous mothers-to-be through difficult labor. Her confidence was hard-won: She is a survivor of sexual abuse who gave birth to her first child at age 20 in a noisy hospital room, crowded with relatives and attended by a doctor who wouldn't answer her questions. She lost so much blood that she nearly lost consciousness.
"That birth was traumatic and loud," she said. The feeling of being out of control carried over into her early mothering. "I just didn't feel connected to being a mom for the first couple years."
Today Gonzales, who is Navajo, lives with her Tewa husband and three children in the San Ildefonso Pueblo, north of Santa Fe, New Mexico. In the years after that difficult birth, she trained to become a midwife and developed a deeper understanding of what had happened to her.
"When I talk to non-Native health care providers, they say, 'All my Native ladies are great. They don't talk. They come in and do what I tell them,'" Gonzales explained. "I want that to end," she said. "Our women are important. Where we birth and how we birth is important."
She believes that a birthing center that supports the young mothers' practice of their traditions could help make the difference between more trauma and healing. That's why the Changing Woman Initiative, which Gonzales founded, has worked for years to build a Native-run birthing center where women and their families will find empowerment and healing when they are most vulnerable. Gonzales and her collaborators intend to open the birthing and wellness center in the Tewa community of Pojoaque Pueblo in the summer of 2018.
Trauma is widespread throughout the United States, where six in ten people have experienced some form of early childhood trauma, according to a report by the National Center for Mental Health Promotion and Youth Violence Prevention. Native American populations also live with the effects of centuries of displacement, massacres, starvation, and the forced removal of children from families. Native women are also more likely to be victims of domestic violence; they are more likely to be trafficked, and experience rape and sexual assault at more than twice the national rate.
Gonzales knows these facts all too well. But after speaking at conferences about Native American issues for years, she wants to see action. "There is little discussion about solutions, and there is little notice given to the Native voices about our own communities," she said.
For Gonzales, addressing these issues requires reincorporating culture, traditional belief systems, and language to bring life back to Native communities. Her birthing center is a place where that can happen.
She imagines a welcoming place with photos of grandmothers on the wall, cedar burning, drumming, and a space for ceremonies. She envisions the family and community gathering at the center to welcome the newborn baby, who would hear the words of his or her native language before any others.
"Birth is a lot like a ceremony," Gonzales said. "There's sacrifice, there's pain, and there's healing." During traditional dances, women learn how strong they can be.
"The Corn Dance is in August. You dance nonstop, without shoes, and it's hot, and you're exhausted," she said. "I tell the mothers in labor, this is like the Corn Dance. You're tired, but you're listening to that drum, and the baby's gonna be here!"
Gonzales has found that pregnancy is a time when many women who are in abusive relationships, who smoke, or abuse drugs or alcohol are open to change. "In our Navajo culture, teaching our mind is very powerful. We talk about hozho, which is walking in beauty, or being positive, and we understand that what we say can manifest into reality," she said.
"I had one woman who was so traumatized, she came into the office shaking," she continued. "There was sweat on her lip, and she was like, 'What are you going to do to me?'" The birthing process can trigger abuse trauma, Gonzales said, because the women feel out of control.
Giving birth on their own terms feels like a victory, Gonzales said. "They feel in control. You see the shift through the whole pregnancy as that confidence sets in." A mother who feels her own strength and the support and love of others can in turn offer her children the love and support that will put them on a solid footing for life.