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  • Writer's pictureDan Robinson

"We're growing in water" - a conversation with Indigenous Nurse-Midwife Beth Earl

Updated: Oct 9, 2022

“The first thing that comes forward from life, the new life coming forward, is that water,“ according to certified nurse-midwife Beth Earl. “95% of the time, the water comes first, and then the baby comes out. So we're growing in the water,” she said during our recent interview.

One of the first things most people think about when they hear the words “Great Lakes” is water. We’re surrounded by it in the big Lakes, the rivers and streams, the lakes and wetlands. But I thought that was a beautiful image, the reality that for the first part of our lives, we’re not just around water but we’re IN it.

Our life with water, of course, doesn’t stop with our birth. “We're connected to the water and then we need good clean water,” Earl added. “The elephant in the room is that we don't have a lot of that anymore.”

Paw Paw River, Van Buren County, MI; Sat., Jan. 21, 2006 (photo by Donaar)

For children and women

To begin our conversation, Earl introduced herself with a traditional greeting (I encourage you to watch the video, linked below), saying she is “Potawatomi, or Bodéwadmi is the traditional way of saying that. My clan is Eagle clan, and I am from Paw Paw (MI). I also told you that I'm Shawnee from the Ohio River Basin. We identify waterways (with) my Shawnee lineage on my mom's side. Our river basin there is the Little Miami River.”

Earl started life in the Toledo, OH area then moved to Michigan when she entered fifth grade. With three children of her own now, Earl also has six grandchildren, whom she calls her “heart and soul.”

Children and moms form a theme running throughout Earl’s life and work. “I'm a nurse but then I went on to get my master's degree in nurse midwifery and have caught 1,327 babies. The last one was my last grandson. And I'm also an indigenous midwife, meaning I do a lot of our traditional birthing practices and birthing ways, whether they're in the hospital or at home. I do all home births now, when I do them, I don't do them as often. The older you get, the more you just try to prod others into that world. And it's happening. And it's a beautiful thing to see.”

In another of her many roles, Earl serves as an Indigenous breastfeeding lactation consultant. “What we want is for that baby to get to the breast, which is water. We have to have water every day, lots of water to produce breast milk. And so there's that interconnectedness,” she said. “I always say there's all this interconnectedness to all, the plants and the medicines and the waters, and the baby getting to the breast right away with just water. So my whole life revolves around water.”

In addition to all that, Earl serves as a cultural consultant for the Intertribal Council of Michigan, an Indigenous doula, and a board member for the Changing Women Initiative in New Mexico. All those roles, she said, emphasize why “this is important to discuss now, because it all relates to water.”

Learning and memory

According to Earl, water provides a place for the baby to start learning even before birth. “We start in here (in the womb). We grow in that body of water. And we learn so much from that body of water. Inside, the baby can hear us. It hears planes overhead. It hears pans drop. It can hear really well. But it's floating in this body of water that has memory and language and all types of things that we've never really scientifically proven in black and white. However, we know traditionally, science will catch up with us someday. But we know that that baby's learning its cultural ways from day one because of the memory of water.”

That memory of water is something we carry with us the rest of our lives. “We all have memories from yesterday, or many years ago. But we also have blood memory, which means generational. And so we know that because we're made up of water,” Earl added.

The Paw Paw River “is right outside my door,” she said. “ When I go down to that river, I know that river hears me. It has memories. It shares those. We talk back and forth. It may sound unusual to some people but I offer tobacco to that water in prayer in the mornings, in special times. Whether it's in grief or celebration, or just everyday prayer, like I said. And that water hears me. It knows me. It understands me. However, that river is different every single day.”

Earl’s home on the Paw Paw River provides the setting for her to carry out the traditional role of women in Indigenous Nations in the Great Lakes region, that of caring for the water. “I'm a water protector, and that means that I do water ceremonies, do water work with women. I haven't done a lot of that in the last year and a half or two, just because of the way that our world is right now. I've kind of done most of my work with just a small group of women on my property,” she said.

“We do that every full moon, because there's the direction with the moon. We do moon ceremony, water ceremony, because of the connection, the interconnection there. As we know, the moon is a female entity to us, and that also has this pull and the tides and the waters. It also has a pull on our body because we're water. So we have all these spiritual beliefs that we know, and we honor. and we do ceremony for.” Earl added, “our ancestral knowledge is that we come from water, and then we will return back up into the sky realm, which actually has a lot of water in it.”

Listening to water

Water, then, lives with us as an intimate partner for our entire lives, a relationship we need to tend to always. “We need to listen to the water, we need to know that the water is alive. And that's why we say water is life,“ Earl added. “To me, it's very powerful to listen to the things around us when we're doing this type of work, whether it's scientific, if you can do both brains and have the scientific side of it, but also to have that spiritual side of it. They blend together. There's parts where they do come together. And it's important to hear and listen with both and and things will come to you or be gifted to you from that water. (That) is how I see it.”

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