Name: Nicolle Gonzales
Born: 1980, Farmington, New Mexico
Lives: Santa Fe, New Mexico
Quote: “Women are a powerful measure of the health of a community.”
New Mexico has one of the highest rates of midwife-assisted births in the country: about thirty percent of all babies born are caught by midwives. Nicolle Gonzales, who is Navajo, trained to become a nurse-midwife at the University of New Mexico. She was the only Native American nurse-midwife student in the program and, at that time, the entire country. During our conversation on a crisp October afternoon, Gonzales provided many statistics that illustrated the need for providing access to home-birthing services in Native communities and increasing the number of Indigenous midwives. Gonzales informed me that “Native women have higher rates of diabetes, obesity, and domestic violence,” and “Native women have the second-highest rate of maternal mortality in the country.” Gonzales believes that healthy mothers and birthing experiences can change these statistics.
The Changing Woman Initiative, founded in 2015 by Gonzales, offers home-birth services to Native women in northern New Mexico, as well as prenatal care, homegrown produce, the assistance of doulas, and bodywork, all rooted in a framework of ancestral knowledge. She hopes that the care these women receive will take them beyond the physiological and help them access a spiritual connection to the transformational experience of childbirth and motherhood. Gonzales explained, “Indigenous midwifery encompasses history and connecting with ancestors through the use of plant medicine and traditional knowledge from the community, just as their ancestors would. When Native women have that kind of support, they have a deeper connection to their bodies, to their babies, to the land, and to their communities. That deeper connection encourages healthier decisions that result in better relationships and stronger ties to their communities.”
The role of a midwife is a powerful one. She is a guide through one of the most life-changing events a person can have, welcoming a new child into the world. How one enters the world matters.
In the mid-twentieth century, birthing became a medical experience, playing out in a hospital rather than a ritual in the home. The transition meant that most midwives stopped practicing and training the next generation. Although New Mexico is one of the most supportive states in the nation for midwives, there is still a critical lack of Indigenous midwifery in our state today. In addition to providing much-needed birthing services, Changing Woman Initiative funds the education of Indigenous midwives so that they can bring their skills back to their respective communities. The role of a midwife is a powerful one. She is a guide through one of the most life-changing events a person can have, welcoming a new child into the world. How one enters the world matters. Birth experiences can have effects that ripple throughout a person’s life, impacting their family and community. Gonzales believes that childbirth is a pivotal moment, not just for the family but for the community. She holds the conviction that it has the ability to inspire change.
When I asked Gonzales what would happen if her organization succeeded in its mission, she replied, “There would be an Indigenous midwife in every Native community. There would be food to eat, clean water to drink, free-standing birth centers, places to train as a midwife, and men who understand the value of their partner—because they brought this new baby forward with the knowledge that they both have a role in the pregnancy. It’s not just the woman’s transformation happening; the whole family and community transform when a woman births in a healthy way.” Gonzales offered another statistic in contrast, that the third most-common cause of death among Native women is intimate partner violence. Changing Women Initiative works with both the expecting mother and father when preparing for childbirth. Throughout the process, the couples often grow stronger. It seems that Gonzales and the Changing Woman Initiative have the potential to not only change lives but save them.
Gonzales believes that healthy women are a sign of a healthy community. By cultivating a woman’s innate power, the whole community benefits. In a time and country where women’s rights are in constant jeopardy, Gonzales offers hope. It makes sense that Gonzales has chosen midwifery as a path to create change, since mothers are so often the keepers of the past and the future.