Traditional Medicine

Pregnancy and Birth

The cycle of birth begins with a woman’s own natural cycle. Algae (aqayaq) was often used as a sanitary napkin, and heated sand is applied to the lower abdomen in order to help a delayed period. Heated sand or stone is also used, in the second or third month of pregnancy, to stop a miscarriage, but this procedure can be dangerous later in the pregnancy.

It is said that in order to have a safe and fast delivery, a pregnant woman should always get up and go outside as soon as she wakes, and that she should never sleep in the daytime. Also, she should avoid stopping in and looking out through doorways, and should not urinate or defecate indoors. To help the woman through the actual birth, a midwife is called in. Most midwives are women, and we were told that, “The woman who delivers the baby is trained. She starts at a very young age to see the whole operation taking place and is taught carefully.” In prolonged labour, the woman is held from behind and supported on each side, with her hands holding ropes. If this continues for a few days, an adult would be chosen to run as fast as possible out of the tent, around it twice, and back in – to encourage the baby to follow. If this doesn’t work, people would think of someone to name the baby after, and call them. This would continue until the baby answered, and came out.

When about to deliver, the woman kneels, leaning forward and grasping two poles stuck in the ground. A flat piece of wood, wrapped in cloth, is placed at the base of her spine. The midwife stands behind her, a knee on the board and her arms stretching around under the woman’s breasts, lifting her a little. Someone else places their fingers into the mother’s mouth to make her cough — this helps push the baby out. So as not to embarrass the woman, the vagina is covered up, and if the baby has difficulty coming out, a specialist (other than the midwife) washes their hands in seal oil and helps the baby emerge from the womb. As one woman said: “ When you give birth, sometimes there is so much pain you don’t know you are giving life. But as soon as the baby comes out, the love spreads all over.”

An animal skin is placed for the baby to drop down on. The umbilical cord is tied near the baby’s navel and cut with a bone, but if the sac has trouble coming out, the cord is first tied around the mother’s knee and is very gently and slowly pulled. The baby’s navel is soon covered with burnt moss or a mixture of Arctic cottongrass (suputik) and charcoal to heal the cut.

“Always pick the baby up the first time by the right hand,” we were told, “so the baby won’t be left-handed and will always work well with its right hand.” If the baby doesn’t cry right away, it is spanked, and if it doesn’t breathe well, someone sucks at the baby’s nose and mouth. Mother’s milk can also be used to rinse out the baby’s blocked nostrils. The child is soon washed (in water) and if possible, fed a tiny bit of meat to make it strong. Twins are tied together at the waist in the belief that this will make them live a long time. The placenta is buried deep in the ground where the dogs can’t get at it and acquire a taste for human flesh.

If the new mother continued to bleed, shredded grass (ivigak) is placed partly inside the vagina and she is given warm water or tea to strengthen her.