I found Nainoa Thompson’s speech after the Hokulea’s arrival very interesting and deeply moving. It resonated with his journey and perspective.

As he spoke of the journey that he and his comrades have been on to the rebirth and revitalization of Polynesian voyaging, celestial navigation and way-finding I was struck at what a parallel it draws to the struggle we midwives in Hawaii now face.

He spoke of not being able to find any living Hawaiian who knew the ancient techniques of blue water voyaging and of how they eventually turned to Mau Piailug, a Micronesian, to show them the way. This speaks beautifully to the pilina (relationship) between all of us on this planet, regardless of race.

Today in Hawaii many of us have been searching for the last living Hawaiian midwife. No one has found one yet. Now Hawaiian women and the future Hawaiian midwives of these islands have no choice but to look to the midwives of foreign origin to build their bridge of knowledge. I am aware that this is part of my kuleana.

Hokulea sails offshore Waikiki on her way to Magic Island.
Hokulea sails offshore Waikiki on its way to Magic Island in June. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

I am a white woman who was born on the mainland. I moved to Hawaii when I was 23 years old to marry a Hawaiian man. Eventually I gave birth to two children on the island of Oahu.

Being born at home myself, I naturally sought out a midwife and gave birth at home. My midwife, Medrakanoeonapua, is also a white woman who moved to Hawaii 40 years ago. She has studied hula, laau lapaau, and lomilomi with some of our most revered teachers, which may be why she has such an unusual hybrid name. In fact, she was part of Auntie Lani Kalama’s hula halau which chanted out the Hokulea on one of her early departures.

Although clinically trained in midwifery in one of the country’s most established schools in the 1970’s, Medra declined to become a certified midwife when the certified professional midwife position was invented in the 1990s. She believes that childbirth is a sacred spiritual experience and should not be regulated. She has attended the births of thousands of babies of all ethnicities in Hawaii.

After giving birth to my two children, one in Waimanalo and the other in Pupukea, I found myself called to the path of midwifery. I spent 10 years working under, with and alongside Medra. I also spent a year in an online correspondence course getting the didactic parts of my education.  Two years ago we moved to Kau, a district of Big Island where there are no other birth services available to families, because I know I am needed here.

Birth is also a voyage. And just like voyagers are willing to face that danger in order to experience the journey, we women who attend birth at home are willing to do the same thing.

In his speech Nainoa Thompson talked about how much resistance there was to what they were doing back in 1976. People said it was dangerous. And of course it was. This filled my heart with so much courage because this is exactly what we face as midwives.

There has been an immense push to regulate home birth in Hawaii in the last few years, led by Sen. Roz Baker of Maui. It is easy to sway public opinion or legislative opinion in the direction of regulation because of the pervasive belief that birth is dangerous. And it is. In the same way that voyaging is dangerous.

In fact, a birth is also a voyage. And just like voyagers are willing to face that danger in order to experience the journey, we women who attend birth at home are willing to do the same thing.

It’s not reckless. It’s because we have the skills and the tools to deal with the dangers if they arise. We have the insight and patience to avoid the perils in the first place. It’s the confidence of studying and practicing and dedicating yourself to knowing the way. The dangers become less frightening.

Nainoa Thompson speaks to hundreds gathered to greet Hokulea at the North Cove Pier. 5 june 2016
Hokulea navigator Nainoa Thompson, here speaking in Manhattan in 2016, has inspired a local midwife who cherishes her work. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Polynesian voyagers are brave because they are equipped. And so are we midwives. They navigate the seas, we navigate birth.

But many say that we should not. That we are being selfish and putting our babies at risk. Why do we need to make everything so complicated?

Just be grateful that there are clean hospitals to take care of us. Hospitals are fine for many people. We wouldn’t tell everyone to have their baby at home. But they aren’t right for us. Telling a home birth mother to have her baby in the hospital is like saying to a way-finder such as Nainoa Thompson, “Why do you have to sail your waa to Tahiti? You should just fly.  Airplanes are much safer.”

Navigating Birth

First of all, airplanes are not guaranteed to be safe. Neither are hospital births. Can you imagine giving up all that voyaging has given to all of us in Hawaii? All that its practitioners have evolved into from its practice? Who would Nainoa be if he had just taken a flight to Tahiti?

Neither can I imagine who I would be or what life would be like if I had not navigated the births of my two children at home as the captain of my own ship. Indeed, who would I be if I had not navigated my own birth, upside down, from my mothers womb, onto this island Earth?

Now they are trying to pass laws which tell us that we can be midwives but we can only get licensed if we learn midwifery their way. If we go to the schools they accredit. Schools which are inaccessible from Hawaii and cost tens of thousands of dollars to attend.

This is like telling the Polynesian voyagers that it’s OK to sail to Tahiti but only if they are in a schooner or a yacht or a catamaran. If they don’t use Navstar they are downright reckless and dangerous and should be put in jail.

In other words, “Sailing is great if you do it our way.  But we’ll take you down if you dare to do it your way, the way of your people and the way that empowers you and lifts up all that you believe in.”

This is the ultimatum they are giving midwives in Hawaii. This is colonization.

I know Nainoa Thompson has felt the difficulty of this situation. I saw it all over him at the ceremony on the Saturday Hokulea arrive on Oahu last month. I saw how heavy the loss of Eddie Aikau must have been, especially when it happened. Proof, that they were all wrong. That it shouldn’t be allowed to continue. It must have been immense to push through.

Has The Time For Midwives Come?

How can it be that in the beginning there was so much resistance, and now he’s got the key to the city? I watched all of that beautiful bravado and I wondered, how they can be so supportive of Polynesian Voyaging, while simultaneously crushing the beautiful path of home-birth midwifery? They don’t know. They didn’t know when the Polynesian Voyaging Society first started and they don’t know about us now.

I can’t help but wonder, is it because this is women’s work? Is that why we’re unseen? Or is it just that our time is yet to come?

If it hasn’t come, it’s going to very soon. Seeing the waa come to shore, watching all the cultural practitioners go through their ceremonies and hearing Thompson’s true words, gives me hope that our time is upon us.

Otherwise, the only other outcome is that we will be overcome, criminalized. Either resigning to practice their way or, more likely, simply because of lack of resources, to go underground, watching helplessly as women are denied their rights to practice their own birth traditions, and risking our own freedom and safety to carry out the work we were put here to do.

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