Helena leads the Alaska Native Birthworkers Community, a grassroots group organizing to reclaim Indigenous birth practices and support families from preconception through postpartum with culturally-matched care.
A newborn’s first breath is sacred. It’s a rite of passage, a moment of connection across generations and a time to welcome a new spirit into the heart of the community. But for many women from rural Alaska – and their newborn babies – that first moment of welcome occurs in Alaska’s urban communities, far from the families and communities that are their homes.
For Helena (“Lena”) Jacobs, Ruby, Alaska was her first home outside of the womb. But Ruby wasn’t where she took her first breath. Lena’s mom left her home community to wait in Fairbanks for about a month at the end of her pregnancy. She gave birth to Lena at the hospital and flew back to Ruby less than 24 hours later. This policy of relocating expectant mothers so they are closer to hospitals and specialist care facilities typically takes place around 36 weeks gestation. For many mothers-to-be this means being separated from their loved ones and support systems at a time of tremendous transition for themselves, their children, and their families.
Her family’s experience is common for rural women, Lena says, even today. But to bring a new life into the world, separated from ancestral lands, waters, community and family support systems is contrary to the way Native peoples have birthed for millennia. Even for those who are fortunate enough not to be ‘evacuated’ from their communities for perinatal care, the dominance of western medicine means that many Alaska Native people do not have easy access to culturally matched care and traditional ceremonial knowledge during their childbearing year.
Lena is working with other Alaska Native women to change that.
Although Lena was not raised learning about the traditional birthkeeping practices of her community, she connected with and was welcomed into an international network of Indigenous birthworkers through her older sister who is a midwife. She has learned much through this network of people who have created a safe space for mutual support, resource and information sharing, skillbuilding, reclamation of ceremonies and knowledge, and relationship building.
“Our people knew how to birth and support birthing people, from time immemorial. It was a healthy life event and there was a lot of knowledge and ceremony surrounding that really sacred child bearing year.”
In 2017, Lena, her sister Margaret, and four other local women first came together to participate in and help host an Indigenous Midwifery Ancestral Knowledge Keeper Gathering. More than 20 Indigenous birthworkers from across the United States and Canada came to Alaska to take part in the gathering. The connections made through this event led to the formation of the Alaska Native Birthworkers Community (ANBC) – a grassroots effort to provide support to families seeking culturally matched care and community during pregnancy, childbirth and the early days of parenting a newborn.
“We support the families and the unborn babies – help them come into the world in the most peaceful, beautiful way we can offer,” she said.
The support Native families receive through ANBC is guided by the values of community, culturally matched care, connection to lands and waters, and upholding traditional ceremony and cultural teachings. ANBC birthworkers attend births to provide in-person care, as well as connect families with resources to support healthy pregnancies and wellness from preconception through the first year of parenting. They also offer fellowship through talking circles, one-on-one support and multi-generational classes.
Alongside providing direct support to families, ANBC founders are also vocal advocates for structural and systemic change to better support rural and Native birthing families. Their motto is ‘sovereignty from first breath’, a carefully chosen assertion of the significance of their work to the broader community.
“A lot of what we do is about reclaiming our traditional knowledge, reclaiming our power, reclaiming our practices, our ways of being and knowing,” she said. “That’s what we’re trying to wake up again in our work – reclaiming our sovereignty.”
In just a few years, despite the challenges of the pandemic, ANBC has grown from the six founders to an expansive network of birthworkers spread across Alaska – many of whom received their training as full spectrum Indigenous doulas or Indigenous breastfeeding counselors through trainings hosted by ANBC.
“We want every community that wants it to have a local birthworker,” she said. “We’re not trying to replace Western medicine. We’re trying to offer more non-medical, non-clinical support to people in the entire childbearing year.”
Today, when Lena is not busy caring for her own five living children, growing the birthworkers community or serving a birthing family herself (she has attended over 20 births), she is working on inspiring systemic policy change to better support Alaska Native families’ wellness. This work includes helping to guide the strategic direction of Alaska Venture Fund as a Partner and member of our co-leadership team, and supporting other Indigenous sovereignty and wellness initiatives, such as our Alaska Native Women Land and Water Protectors project.
Equipped with a masters in Public Policy and years of experience supporting Native-led initiatives as a volunteer and through her own consulting business, Lena channels her energy into how best to grow ANBC and reach as many Alaska families as possible. In the future, ANBC dreams of building a birth space of their own that can support this goal – a center where birthworkers could meet Indigenous families, offer classes and create opportunities for health and healing in talking circles. They hope someday Alaska Native women could give birth in this setting, fully supported by the ANBC community.
With those big aspirations in mind, Lena continues to be heavily involved in the day-to-day running of ANBC and enjoys that side of her job because it allows her to share the story of culturally matched care. However, for Lena, one part of her job is her favorite, and motivates her to continue her advocacy for healthy Indigenous families:
“Nothing can replace that moment of watching a baby being born and hearing that baby’s first cry and the mother’s cry of meeting her baby for the first time. It’s such a powerful experience. So miraculous. It happens every second of every day but I cry every single time. I feel so honored to be welcomed into that sacred space to witness that first breath. I really, really love supporting them in that moment,” she said.
The Alaska Native Birthworkers Community works to improve maternal, birth, and breastfeeding outcomes by reclaiming Indigenous birth practices, and increasing the capacity and reach of Indigenous birth workers. You can reach Lena at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more, or visit the Alaska Native Birthworkers website. A mother’s first-hand account of being supported by Alaska Native Birthworkers Community can be accessed here.