On today’s podcast, we’re talking with EBB’s research assistant (and now EBB’s newest research editor) and co-founder of the Minnesota Healing Justice Network, Ihotu Ali, about cultural appropriation and racial healing in birth work.
Ihotu Ali (she/her) is a doula, Maya abdominal massage therapist, a doctoral student in chiropractic medicine, and now EBB’s newest research editor. Ihotu, meaning “love” in the Idoma language, is the granddaughter of a traditional Nigerian chief, of Polish-Irish farmers, and a graduate of Columbia University. Ihotu has conducted maternal health research with the United Nations before becoming a doula in 2011. Fascinated by the connections between Western and traditional medicine, Ihotu spent a decade study in Afro-Indigenous and global cultural practices for childbirth, ancestral, and wound healing. Ihotu is now alongside medical training in chiropractic care in the neuroscience of spirituality and meditation. Ihotu is a co-founder of the Minnesota Healing Justice Network, which was featured in Rolling Stone magazine for their focus on rest for residents and healers through the 2020 Uprising, and is now the director of the Oshun Center for Intercultural Healing.
We talk about what is cultural appropriation, the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation, and how it can show up in various birth working spaces. We also talk about the importance of racial healing and how it can apply in birth work, especially for birth workers of color.
Content warning: We mention cultural appropriation, trauma, racism, and anti-Blackness.
Learn more about Ihotu Ali and The Oshun Center here.
Learn more about Layla B. here.
Learn more about Raeanne Madison here.
Learn more about Heng Ou here.
Learn more about Karen Rose here.
Learn more about Iya Funlayo here.
Learn more about Malidoma here.
Learn more about Sobonfu Somé here.
Learn more about Panquetzani of Indigemama here.
Learn more about Robin Wall Kimmerer here.
Learn more about Mayte and Montse here.
Learn more about cultural appropriation in wellness spaces here.
Learn more about exploring yoga and cultural appropriation here.
Learn more about how culture can be appropriated here.
Learn more about culture appropriation in yoga here.
Iya Mystique Faodugun: Hi, everyone. On today’s podcast. We’re going to talk with EBB’s research assistant and co-founder of the Minnesota Healing Justice Network, Ihotu Ali, about cultural appropriation in birth work.
Rebecca Dekker: Welcome to the Evidence Based Birth podcast. My name is Rebecca Dekker and I’m a nurse with my PhD and the founder of Evidence Based Birth. Join me each week as we work together to get evidence-based information into the hands of families and professionals around the world. As a reminder, this information is not medical advice. See ebbirth.com/disclaimer, for more details.
Iya Mystique Faodugun: Hi, everyone. My name is Iya Mystique Faodugun. Pronouns: they/she. Today, we are excited to welcome EBB’s research assistant and co-founder of the Minnesota Healing Justice Network, Ihotu Ali, about cultural appropriation in birth work. Before we interview Ihotu, I want to let you know that if there are any detailed content or trigger warnings, we will post them in the description or show notes that go along with this episode.
Now I would like to introduce you to our honored guest. Ihotu Ali, pronouns she/her, is a doula and Maya abdominal massage therapist, doctoral student in chiropractic medicine, and part of the research team here at EBB. Ihotu, meaning “love” in the Idoma language, is the granddaughter of a traditional Nigerian chief, of Polish-Irish farmers, and a graduate of Columbia University. Ihotu has conducted maternal health research with the United Nations before becoming a doula in 2011. Fascinated by the connections between Western and traditional medicine, Ihotu spent a decade study in Afro-Indigenous and global cultural practices for childbirth, ancestral, and wound healing.
Ihotu is now alongside medical training in chiropractic care in the neuroscience of spirituality and meditation. Ihotu is a co-founder of the Minnesota Healing Justice Network, which was featured in Rolling Stone magazine for their focus on rest for residents and healers through the 2020 Uprising. Now as the director of the Oshun Center for Intercultural Healing, Ihotu offers advanced learning and mentorship for healthcare workers, healers, and birth workers on cultural healing, appropriation, reproductive justice, racism in healthcare, allyship, and economic justice tools.
We are thrilled that Ihotu is here. Welcome Ihotu to the Evidence Based Birth podcast. Woo.
Ihotu Ali: Thank you. Good to be here.
Iya Mystique Faodugun: All right. So for those who are listening, can you give us an explanation or just explain to us what is cultural appropriation and the difference between cultural appropriation versus cultural appreciation?
Ihotu Ali: Ultimately, it’s an ethical choice about how we choose to use our money. If we use our money to buy or sell a product, or we use our money to expand our relationships and our worldview. So I’ll say that, and then I’ll back up a little bit. So if that comes across as a little philosophical, there’s a caveat here that. I’m on the EBB research team, but I am the member of the research team who has, as you said in my bio, masters in Public Health from Columbia, I’m the UN United Nations maternal mortality worker that turned into a doula that turned into a womb massage therapist, and a traditional medicine practitioner.
I was raised as a baby in a small Nigerian village where my grandfather was a chief. My dad, that was his village where he grew up. My mom was there as well as a white woman, Polish-Irish, from Minnesota, hanging out in a village. From that early experience I had in a very intercultural space, when I was with the UN and traveling, I’ve always been so fascinated by midwives, by traditional birth attendants, by spiritual healers, and so really my work has really been to take all these different trainings and different directions and different cultural traditions to try to piece together what I saw in a traditional village setting, that type of healing, and what I see that my clients here in the US, doula clients, massage therapists clients, they’re craving something that I’m not seeing existing in the medical system. So that’s why I am trying to put at that all together.
That means that I look at studies and I look at statistics, but I also look at history as a researcher. I look at what is the science and the knowledge that’s been lost over time that needs to be resurrected and advocated for. As many of us birth workers, we know that midwifery was almost eliminated, if not for researchers proved with science, with evidence, that we need some of these old traditions to continue. So when I dive into this philosophical, ethical conversation of culture, and how we relate to it, and what products we buy, and how we approach the traditions and different ancestral birthing practices, it’s also a call to resurrect some things about an Indigenous worldview that are essential to our birthing, to our healing, to the next generation, and it’s going to help us move through traumas, and how to do that in a way that is in relationship with each other, too. So we get back to the definition.
Ultimately, it’s an ethical choice between using our money to buy or sell a product versus using that money to expand our worldview. So some might say it’s materialism or it’s capitalism versus ecosystem or spirituality. I think it’s a great deal about the ethics of how we use our money and how we use money to convey respect to doctors versus midwives versus doulas or other birth workers and healers and the practices and products that we use.
I teach an online course called The Everyday Sacred on this topic. Since 2020, I’ve taught probably in the range of 150 different healthcare workers, doulas, midwives, chiropractors, acupuncturists, bodyworkers, activists, and we use these two definitions for appropriation and appreciation. So cultural appropriation we call practicing or profiting from cultural as if it were a one-sided extraction of information. Cultural appreciation is two-sided. It’s mutual. It’s a doorway into this mutual exchange and building new relationships of care, respect, and curiosity. I’ll of finish up that definition.
I like analogies and I like stories. That’s actually on both sides of my family, the Polish and the Nigerian. We’re all storytellers. So I did a talk on a bit of this topic with a group of white birth workers in Minnesota. I had them write down front door versus back door and they looked at me like, “All right. Where are you going with this?” If you think about cultural appropriation, this analogy of making an elaborate meal that you saw somebody else making. So, Mystique, do you have a favorite elaborate meal?
Iya Mystique Faodugun: I do. I have several. I’m trying to narrow it down. I will say, other than pollo guisado, which is pretty much chicken soup in Spanish. We have a lot of chicken soups in Caribbean culture, pretty much. But either pollo guisado or oxtails with rice and peas on the side and I’m getting hungry thinking of it. I will definitely spend…Both of them are very elaborate, because it takes a lot of work to put into cooking them, and I’ve seen my mother do it. I’ve seen my abuelita do it. I have yet to do it because they got it. I’ll eventually learn how to do it. Well, I’ll know how to do it. But yeah, those two, either oxtails with rice and peas or pollo guisado, those would be the two elaborate meals that I have.
Ihotu Ali: All right. All right. So if you just saw them do it one time, would you get it? Or would you not to see-
Iya Mystique Faodugun: Absolutely not. I’ve watched them do it for years. Since I was little I’ve watched them do it and I mastered the pollo guisado.
Ihotu Ali: Okay. Yes.
Iya Mystique Faodugun: I’ve mastered that, I know, because our child, he is a very critical person when it comes to food and he tore it up. He’s like, “You’re the best chef in the whole wide world,” so I know I got that. The oxtails, I’m working on it; I’m almost there.
But no, if I saw them do that like one time, absolutely not. I’ll probably get a gist of it, like, “Oh, you did that. You did that,” but I know I would not know all the steps at all.
Ihotu Ali: Right. I think about on my mom’s side we make spaghetti or a sandwich and it actually is a really simple process. You probably would get it one time, but on my dad’s side, red stew, or Jollof rice, or Egusi soup, or pollo guisado very elaborate.
Iya Mystique Faodugun: Egusi soup is very-. I cannot get Egusi soup. I can’t. I just ask the ancestors, “You know what? I’m going to buy this. It’s from the heart,” because that is hard to make.
Ihotu Ali: It is.
Iya Mystique Faodugun: Is so hard. If y’all don’t know what Egusi soup is … For those who do you get it. For those who don’t know Egusi soup is, you can look up.
Ihotu Ali: You can look up. There are actually … Bless the internet. In the last five years, I’ve really been able to learn my traditional food because people have put them online, and so you can look it up, E-G-U-S-I, egusi soup, the American, the egusi and you can probably find it and you might need to make it four or five times, and even then you might need…
Iya Mystique Faodugun: Yes.
Ihotu Ali: That’s very elaborate, even just finding the ingredients is elaborate. Exactly my point here, the analogy is well played out here because, in a capitalist world, it’s made to seem like you can just point and click and things are easy, but in traditional cultures, things are elaborate. There’s details. There’s “Oh, no. You didn’t wash the rice. You didn’t wash this before you … Oh, you’re supposed to parboil it.” There’s all these details. And so I think about cultural appropriation and this idea of front door versus back door, it’s kind of like back door learning, as in you smell Egusi soup or you smell what was one of your dishes again? Pollo …
Iya Mystique Faodugun: Pollo guisado.
Ihotu Ali: Pollo guisado. So you smell the wafting smells and you walk by someone’s house and you’re like, “Hmm, I need to figure out how to make that at home.”
Iya Mystique Faodugun: Exactly.
Ihotu Ali: So you peer in the window or you come around the back door or peer through the fence and you’re like, “Okay. There’s chicken. Okay. I got onions. How did they cut the onions out? They moved. Can’t see.” You know?
Iya Mystique Faodugun: Right.
Ihotu Ali: So you’re getting bits of it, but you’re not getting the whole package, and the whole experience, and so I think of cultural appreciation as saying, “That smells so good. I want to know more. There’s nothing wrong with wanting or more.”
Iya Mystique Faodugun: Right.
Ihotu Ali: But how do you approach it?
Iya Mystique Faodugun: Mm.
Ihotu Ali: Go knock on the front door of that person being like, “Is this a good time? Can I come back next week? Can I pay you? Can I watch your kids so that you can teach me properly how to make the dish without too much salt?”, how to make the dish in the way that is of their ancestry, and you’re really sitting humbly at the foot of a master.
Iya Mystique Faodugun: Yes. Yes.
Ihotu Ali: As opposed to peeking in the window. So that’s how I really like to think about it, as front door, back door; there’s different ways to learn about each other and be courageous enough to knock on the front door. Maybe you do have to come back next week, but you build a real relationship so that it’s a relational thing. It’s not just a transactional thing.
Iya Mystique Faodugun: Right. You have to build that relationship because, even in my culture, even in most cultures of color, the elders are the teachers and they’re not going to teach you everything right there at their feet.
Ihotu Ali: Right.
Iya Mystique Faodugun: You’ve got to earn all the knowledge and wisdom that they’ve earned and lived over the years. So like you said, you’re going to knock on the door a couple of times. Sometimes the door might not open and you have to be respectful of it. I like that analogy that’s set up. I like those things to kind of … You know I’m all about food. I love a good food analogy. Listen.
Ihotu Ali: Me too.
Iya Mystique Faodugun: I’m a big foodie. So now that we kind of touched on cultural appropriation, in general, how does cultural appropriation show up in birth work? How does that show up in birth work in spaces?
Ihotu Ali: So the beauty I love about being a birth worker all these years is that there is so much culture in the space. We are looking at the transition from one generation to the next and guiding that, and so there’s ancestry in the room. There’s pictures of grandmas and aunties and uncles and all the parents and all the cousins and family, for some folks. There’s traditions; there’s passing down a family heirloom. So culture is already in the room. So we, I think, have to be extra careful that we don’t end up doing that back door instead of the front door thing.
I’ll name several areas where I have seen it come up and there may be many others. Mystique, feel free to chime in if there are others, too, but I think of rife areas is the very classic example of the Rebozo. I loved listening to the reclaiming that Rebozo podcast that Myate and Montse put out. I learned a lot from listening to that. That is not part of my lineage. It’s something I use very sparingly in birth work, especially through all of the conversations lately. So that’s a big ticket one, but there’s many others.
I’ve seen it potentially show up around closing the bones ceremonies postpartum.
Iya Mystique Faodugun: Yes.
Ihotu Ali: Right. Bodywork. It’s a ceremony; it’s bodywork for a sense of being too open and this position of the pelvic bones after a vaginal birth in particular. I’ve got a lot of questions around belly binding, around postpartum traditional foods, warming practices postpartum, and then, tangential to birth, in the healing and wellness space, sage. Smudging, the burning of sage, is a big one. There is a lot of native activists that speak very beautifully about this, especially on social media. Ayurveda cupping: the interesting thing about cupping, it has roots far beyond Chinese and East Asian medicine. Cupping was used in Indigenous traditions around the world, and so that’s something that a lot of people don’t know.
Gua Sha and Graston technique: Gua Sha is taught in traditional Chinese medicine. Graston technique is in the chiropractic field. I will tell you they are one and the same. Graston is a marketed, branded form of Gua Sha.
Iya Mystique Faodugun: I did not know that. You are teaching me something today. Thank you. I’ve heard of both, and I thought they were different, but now I know.
Ihotu Ali: They are the same in the sense that I have been trained in Gua Sha and as a chiropractic student, I’ve received Graston; I haven’t gotten to the point of training yet, and they are. If you look up the two tools, Google, this: Gua Sha is spelled G-u-a S-h-a and it uses usually a spoon, and Graston technique is a fancier, maybe a flat tool. But the technique … The worldview around them is going to be different. Graston technique is much more Western thought and Gua Sha is about lifting the Sha, which is a sign of stagnation in the body. I don’t have mastery. I don’t have like … Oh, what was your food again?
Iya Mystique Faodugun: Pollo guisado.
Ihotu Ali: Pollo guisado. I’m not at pollo guisado level mastery of either of those, so I’m still honoring where I’m at with that. But that’s my understanding. And then also there’s craniosacral therapy and osteopathy, which are both adapted from Native American bodywork. Shows up in a lot different places, potentially, but also potentially these are beautiful medicines and tools that if we did it properly, we could really learn from each other.
So that’s what I want to dispel, the fear that we can’t talk about these things, that we can’t learn from each other, unless we’re a master. Right? We also can’t find the healing. The reason, I feel like … Our problem is not the desire to reclaim these traditions or to use these traditions or share them. The problem is how we use our money around them. Are we buying and selling a product rather than reclaiming this worldview and being in relationship with each other? Are we actually buying and selling products in ways that harm each other, make the polarization deeper, and the hesitation to be in a relationship with each other deeper, because we did it in a really transactional, not really thoughtful way.
I’ll give an example because for a long time, I just see when people hear talk about cultural appropriation, they’re like, “Oh. Well, shoot. I’m not going to ever use the Rebozo. I’m not ever going to use that’s not from exactly my culture, and it becomes like you stick to your own people kind of thing, and that’s not where we’re trying to go. There is beauty and there is a possibility of growing in solidarity with each other through this process.
For example, you might, if you say, “I need some help. I am pregnant. I’m going to give birth, and I am tight. My hips are tight and everything hurts. My back hurts and I’ve got to figure out what I’m going to do,” and someone told me that the Rebozo could help. Okay. So what I could do is buy the Rebozo on Etsy or some quick and dirty website for really cheap, and I’m really undercutting the artist who made this. And then, I could use the Rebozo based on YouTube videos that I look up, and I’m not a body worker, and I’m not a midwife, and I don’t know to apply the amount of pressure, and I don’t know the technique and I could actually harm myself, or if I’m working with a pregnant person, if I’m the birth worker, if this person especially has an interior placenta, Mayte and Montse in their podcast talk about this could be a contributing cause of placental abruption.
Whoa. Our initial goal was to have a smoother birthing process, not to cause harm. So I want to name that, that people don’t get into this work wanting to cause harm; people are looking for healing. But we could encourage each other by having more discussions like this one we’re having right now. We could say if you want to buy it a Rebozo, at least buy it from a direct source. Put a note on some social media chats, find out who travels back to Mexico, who has some direct connection with some artists. We’re all over the place, right? Pay the full price, and then hire someone who has extensive Rebozo training to work with you on that. Who knows what your own limitations might be, your own body scenarios might be, and then you pay them really well because they’re consulting on an advanced body work technique with you. Think about if you were paying a chiropractor or a physical therapist.
I would also add that probably my best option, personally, would be what if you could on your own, or if you hired someone, and I’ll say this because actually someone came to Oshun Center for Intercultural Healing and asked us to do this, do research through your family, read some books, find some healers and talk to them, to piece together what your ancestors used to support birth for your culture, for your body, based on the herbs that grew in the climate that you all were from. Maybe you’re from two different climates like me, and so you mix tropical and cold climate things, but you’re using all of that and incorporating the body shapes of your people, the personalities of your people, the stories of your people, and that’s what you’re using to create a healing tool and practice for your birth.
That’s hard, and people are like, “Whoa. How do I even begin?” And let me tell you, I’ve spent years trying to do that myself, but I am getting somewhere. There really are more healers coming out and talking about these things, there’s more information online, and I think there’s more of this consciousness of we all have an Indigenous history. We can find it, and if we cannot find it in a book, we can dream it. We can do alter work around it. We can talk about it. We can look at what our lives are like now, incorporate pieces of the past, and also say, “This is what we’re dealing with now in Western culture and what do we need for us today,” rather than just backdoor grabbing some chicken and some onion to make a soup, we decide how to make our own soup.
Iya Mystique Faodugun: Yes. I’m dealing with that as well in my work, because my father’s side are Black and Indigenous, but mostly Indigenous, and then my mother’s side, they’re Caribbean Indigenous, and the native United States or native lands, as I’ll say, Indigenous part on my father’s side, and it’s trying to incorporate and work its way with the Caribbean Indigenous side, and that’s hard. It’s not an overnight process, like you said; it’s going to take some time, but they’re working together. I’m finding some similarities and I’m like, “Oh. So this was this, this whole time.”
For instance, the burning of the sage, I realized on my mother’s side, my abuelita used to do the same thing, and I was like, “Oh, wait.” But it wasn’t as often as folks do it now. A lot of folks burn sage every single day. When I look at that, I freak out, because I’m like, “Oh, no! Y’all are not supposed to do that. That’s not what I was taught. No. It’s for medicinal purposes when needed,” not just like, “I’m going to burn it every day to start my day.” That’s not how it is.
But then, I take a step back to say, “Okay. We’re on native land and we all have to recognize that where we are,” I will say in the United States because there are also others listening from all over the world, but those in the United States and above us and below us, we’re on native land, and the Americanized or the westernized way of burning sage has spread like wildfire and just everybody is doing it. So I’m also taking the time to be, “Okay. This is a time to realize it’s not an attack against your culture. It’s not. They don’t know any better.”
That’s really folks trying to connect to their own roots, in a sense, because I feel like that’s the first step. It’s one of those, they’re learning as well, because they are somehow getting in touch with their roots, and then the more they get into the cultural practices, the more they learn, “Oh. I’m not supposed to burn it as much as I’ve been burning it.” There are other ways to cleanse my spaces or to center my energy and all that. So yeah, I love that whole just taking the time to put together both sides, if you come from both sides, different cultures. Even if you’re not aware of whatever culture you come from, then you’re still learning.
We are all learning our journeys, and that’s why it’s so important, if you have an elder, sit by their feet and learn. If you don’t, like you said, do the ancestral work for those that’s in your culture, do the ancestral work, find a mentor to help you do that, as well, because it’s beauty into learning, learning about your culture, and learning to appreciate your culture as well. I love the steps you suggested or recommendations you suggested to folks to just study from somebody who’s a part of that culture and just study it from them, get it from them, get that information, that knowledge from them, as well.
I want to take a dive into … I’ve heard you talk about it before, and I’ve seen it here and there, but many may have not heard of what the term is called … racial healing. So can you explain to our listeners what is racial healing and how does it show up? Or what does that look like for birthing bodies of color?
Ihotu Ali: So racial healing goes really deep. You’re talking about elders, how to find mentors, and I do want to leave a note of caution that anti-Blackness is real, and I think it does show up. It’s very real. It does show up in cultural appropriation as well, because even some of our own people and the way that we talk about culture, some cultures seem hyper positive-ized. We’re all kind of caricaturized in this hyper-capitalist world, so we get reduced to what we can offer, to what we can be sold on. So you have things like the Rebozo is so beautiful because it’s so colorful or sage and all these herbals and everything, and I think something that I’ve struggled with, and this is how it’s an internalized healing that’s first, I think, for me, this is just me, my process as a mixed-race and Black woman, understanding that African traditions have not been cool-appropriated maybe to the same degree as others because they’ve been vilified.
So much of African healing is about spirituality, and was highly colonized, and so there’s a big Christian presence. There’s this real pushback on our spiritual healing traditions that it’s voodoo. Right? And so, I think you have cultural appropriation in some cases, where everyone wants to do yoga. So everyone wants to get acupuncture, but no one wants to go to a Black spiritual healer because we think they might be doing some shady stuff on the side. I feel like we have to also be careful with our elders and careful with ourselves that we are really reclaiming what’s ours, as we do the work.
We’re loving what comes from ours, as well, and not missing the gaps where there is an American culture where it’s like, “Oh. Well, you can do this type of culture healing, but you can’t do that type of culture healing.” It’s a package. Right? So I think that’s a piece of racial healing. I think that’s important to bring up because when we say we’re recreating ceremonies, we want to recreate all the pieces for all of us. So the ceremony that the Oshun Center for Intercultural Healing did with this woman named Brie, was this experimental space of, “We’re going to try to reclaim all these different pieces of your lineage and do something that’s like a closing for you.” It’s not closing the bones, but it is hopefully somewhat of a full package that’s reimagined, that’s remembered, that’s for her.
If people who are listening are curious about what that process was like in detail, feel free to go to my website. I think at the end of this, we’ll say all those things, but we wrote in detail about what that was like and how it was really a wild process of sorting out all the things that are in our head about what’s okay and what’s not okay and what starts to get into scary land of this healing, starting to go in the directions of pagan or this or that, that we’ve been told is not okay, and also be firm in yourself about what are your lines of safety. What are your lines of what’s okay for you in this moment and being perfectly there with yourself in what feels safe, including protective practices for yourself.
So all that to say, Mystique, there’s really two references I’d love to bring in to also speak to racial healing. One is research from a professor at the University of Washington Center for Science of Social Connection. His name is Jonathan Kanter. He has some pretty incredible research. It was a randomized control trial that was done with medical students to track how effective are certain types of inclusivized trainings on their level of microaggressions expressed for their patients.
What they found was more effective than regular run of the mill, implicit-bias trainings, they included a training that was a mindfulness workshop that about reciprocal exchange of vulnerable stories between white people and people of color. I tell a vulnerable story, you respond with empathy, with care and concern, and then you tell a vulnerable story, and I respond with empathy and care. After a series of those, which how often does that happen that were in spaces like that?
Iya Mystique Faodugun: It’s rare. Very rare. Very rare. Yes.
Ihotu Ali: They found that it dramatically reduced the amount of microaggressions that white doctors were expressing toward their patients. So that gives me hope on one level of how do we start to build racial healing, this expression, mutual care for each other. The other I’d like to bring in is from the Seven Fires Prophecy. So the Seven Fires Prophecy is a prophecy from the Anishinaabe people. It speaks to seven different periods in time of native people in the United States. They prophesied migrations. They prophesied people losing their land. They prophesied losing their language, giving up their children, things that have eerily come true, and the prophecies say that we’re in a certain time right now called the seventh fire.
And so, I have this quote from Robin Wall Kimmerer. She’s the author of Braiding Sweetgrass, which is a gorgeous, gorgeous book. She’s a writer and ecologist, and the way that Robin Wall Kimmerer describes this seventh fire period that we’re in now, and if you Google Robin Wal Kimmerer and Seventh Fires Prophecy, you’ll come up with the whole video. She’s a beautiful speaker as well. She says … I’m paraphrasing … all the world’s people will come to together during the seventh fire, and there’ll be a fork in the road. So there’s two paths. One path is lush and, she says, green and dewy. You just want to walk barefoot through it. The other is nothing but cinders. It would cut your feet, if you try to walk.
And we stand here at a time in history, at a choice in the history of humanity, the history of mother earth, as well. And we know, of course, we want to take that dewy path, but what the prophecy tells us is that that is not our work. Seven fire people might look longingly at that path, but instead we have to turn back, along our ancestors’ paths, and pick up what was left for us. Pick up the fragments of language, pick up the ceremonies, pick up the healing stories, pick up the worldview that says we are givers to the world and that the world is sacred. Only once these things are in our bundles, can we go and walk that green path. We have to first remember who we are.
So when I listened to this, I was shook because we are so aware of what’s not working. We are so aware of racial harms and the hurts and the violence, and we’re so aware of the trauma. That alone is a step because we weren’t always so aware and not everyone was equally so aware, and there’s still work to do on that. But we now have this opportunity to say, “Well, how do we even move forward?” So this question about racial healing, I was like, “Wow.” The only way I can make sense of doing it is around conversation and community in safe ways, in consensual ways, and trying to rebuild this ceremony in a way that works for us, even if you’re not religious, even if you’re not spiritual in the slightest.
There’s definitely been times in my life, I was not spiritual at all, or I defined it in my own way, but I think of ceremony as a party with symbolism, with meaning. The way that the native tradition brought in blessing ways into birth work. In a way, that’s been culturally appropriate because now sometimes it’s, “Oh, it’s just a party blessing.” But the point is not just the products. The point is the people and the worldview and creating safety and creating this deep healing, and creating this kind of portal that birthing people get to walk into.
Is there a way that we can, through the pieces of research and science and evidence and story and food and colors and culture and whatever we have at our disposal, our memories, our DNA, our dreams, to put together little ways of doing ceremony, especially for Black and brown people, especially for white people who want to reconnect with their ancestry in a way that’s not about white supremacy. How can we be experimental? So that’s kind of what I do with the Oshun Center for Intercultural Healing, where a small group that grew out of Minnesota Healing Justice Network, or healers or doctors or birth workers, and we are trying to create ceremony and reclaim traditions and be in real, honest, sometimes hard conversations with each other about how does it look like to show up for each other and for ourselves with that authenticity.
Iya Mystique Faodugun: That’s beautiful. That’s deep. The topic of racial healing, it’s deeper. It gets even deeper because there’s also more work to do, and the quote that you provided, we have to get back to using the tools that are there, that we possibly were ignoring this whole time, and so we’re being forced to now use them. We have to learn how to use them, in order to clear that path that is going to cut our feet up or help us walk over that path that’s going to cut our feet up, because we want to take the easy way. We want to go to the lush. Yes. We want to go to the lush side, but we never know what that lush side has to offer. It could be something.
Ihotu Ali: It has to be learned.
Iya Mystique Faodugun: Right. Exactly.
Ihotu Ali: That lushness takes the work. There’s so much harm that’s been done. Sorry. We are the generation that has an opportunity to atone for and to start to deconstruct and rebuild. We’ve got to plant seeds. You’ve got to till the soil.
Iya Mystique Faodugun: Yes.
Ihotu Ali: You can’t plant seeds in bad soil.
Iya Mystique Faodugun: No.
Ihotu Ali: We have really bad soil.
Iya Mystique Faodugun: Yes.
Ihotu Ali: And we can be tillers right now, and it might even be our next generation that plants the seeds, but they won’t know what to plant if we haven’t done our seed saving. I think there’s also something about what’s fast and easy. For me, being a doula all these years, becoming a midwife or becoming a doctor, is a much longer process. Becoming an acupuncturist and spending four years in Chinese medicine school, that’s a huge sacrifice. But what if we could reform those professions and so that they were not so hard for us in many ways, so that we could go into those professions more, and then we would have this whole picture.
Because I will say I love being a doula and being a doula is a snapshot of what used to be a much bigger tradition of community healers and doctors, and so just because it’s hard, we can’t give up getting the whole pollo guisado picture. And then, what if it fades away over time? What do we have left? We’ll still have doulas, but we’ll have doctors, and what we really need to talk about is the mainstream system, too, and how that’s not working and how reclaiming and getting to that dewy place is taking to task the big professions that are not suiting us.
Iya Mystique Faodugun: Right. I’m going to use your food analogy because those big professions are that pollo guisado, but like you said, it’s a lot of times, us as a whole, as a collective. Because my mama always says, “If one person does wrong, we all do wrong, as a collective,” especially coming from a community, you can’t make pollo guisado with a can of chicken noodle soup. It’s not going to happen. It’s not going to taste the same. It doesn’t have that love. Now, you can make a different kind of chicken noodle soup, though, where you’re making the noodles, or you cut the chicken or whatever; you are incorporating fresh ingredients into the soup and it’s your own. It’s not yet pollo guisado, but it’s your homemade, made with love and intention, to just heal, and it’s meeting in the middle. We all have to meet in the middle.
When it comes to birth working practices, a lot of times folks want to rush into this and we can’t. As we’re wanting to save lives, we’re wanting to create safer spaces, but also protect our culture and, in the long run, and while we’re doing this to create the change, we have to listen. We have to slow down. We definitely have to slow down because we live in a society where it’s fast-paced. It’s boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. And then, we don’t take time to make room to just slow down and just heal each other, heal ourselves, individually.
Because this work is hard, whether you’re a doula, whether you’re OB, midwife, whatever, it’s hard work in birth work. It really is. So I hope everyone takes this in and just knows that we’re literally all in this together. We might be divided, but I feel like we are dividing ourselves. We’re dividing each other up and we don’t have to. It’s also important to respect each other’s cultural practices. We spoke on appropriation versus appreciation and I feel that once we learn the difference, we’re able to incorporate a better sense of the healing we need as a culture, as people of color, and those who are not of color to just take a look and understand where we’re coming from, and listen to us.
Ihotu Ali: Listen to us.
Iya Mystique Faodugun: Sit down in the circle.
Ihotu Ali: Right. A big part of healing is going to mean conflict resolution and sitting down and saying, “There is something that’s happened that isn’t okay,” and we’re going to take … Circle practice is this very common Indigenous practice, restorative justice, transformative justice. These are concepts we can look up and we can say, “I had a traumatic birth at a hospital and I would like to sit down with the providers and some administrators and understand what happened, and I want them to know, I want them to listen to my voice, the ways that their actions impacted me. And I’m going to also listen to the administrative restrictions that they’re facing, as well.” The exhaustion that they’re facing, that this medical system doesn’t serve them any better than it serves us in some ways, and that we can be in that space and express vulnerability and receive empathy both ways.
So we start to break down we’re humans in a system that is complicated and we’re getting harmed, but we can come back together. There’s been PAD circles with members of the leadership of Spinning Babies and Minnesota Healing Justice Network over the last year and I could have a lot to say. We might not have time, but a lot to say about what that process has been like.
Gail Tully and I were speaking on the phone yesterday and texting this morning about what can we say as lessons learned that we could share out into the birth community? That it’s not easy, it’s not quick and dirty, but it’s really healing in the long run to stay in relationship and to say, “Hey, I really wish this could happen,” and, “Okay. I hear you and I really value you and we’re going to do what we can to make it happen, and also there’s these constraints on our end, and how do we over were time work together to get to a place where we’re both seen and caring for each other,” instead of just breaking apart?
Iya Mystique Faodugun: Absolutely. I agree. So we could go all day about this topic. We have to keep going, not just with this episode, but in other episodes in the future. But how can our listeners and everybody follow you and your work and support you with the work that you do?
Ihotu Ali: They can follow me on social media, Ihotu Ali on Instagram, on my website. So it’s spelled I-H-O-T-U A-L-I is my last name. So the website’s ihotuali.com. I’m really interested in folks who geek out about this stuff the way I do, and, “How do we be Afro-futurist and start to put pieces together and highlight those teachers who are really doing the work?”
I want to shout out teachers of mine that I follow, Shafia Monroe, Layla B., Raeanne Madison, all in the birth space, Heng Ou, who is author of First 40 Days, speaking from Chinese traditions. All of those folks are birth workers and bringing in so much of Black and African traditions and Indigenous, US Indigenous, traditions. And then, herbalists like Karen Rose, spiritual healers like Iya Funlayo, Malidoma, and Sobonfu Somé, may they both rest in peace. Malidoma passed recently. Panquetzani of Indigemama, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Mayte and Montse.
There’s ways to do this work, but we’re not going to do it alone and I’m not going to do alone, so if you’re interested, chat us up at the Oshun Center for Intercultural Healing. Send me an email, firstname.lastname@example.org, and let’s keep talking about it. If we can keep the conversation going and hear stories like … Mystique, if you end up doing a ceremony with a Black around birthing family, and it really worked, I’d love to hear about how it went. Our Oshun Student Center, as we are doing different ceremonies, we’re going to put that up on our website, as well, and put it out on social media.
You can also take the online course called Everyday Sacred, which is our thoughts on how to practice cultural appreciation and not appropriation and start, especially for European-descended folks, start to do that research into your own lineage.
Iya Mystique Faodugun: Well, thank you so much Ihotu. Like I said, again, this will not be the end of this discussion because this is literally just scratch the surface, if that, and I’m truly appreciative of you and your energy and the work that you do for the community and the communities around. So thank you so much for coming on.
I’d like to thank our listeners for listening. If you would like to leave a review about this episode so for the Evidence Based Birth podcast, please do so on any of the platforms that you are listening to right now, and also be sure to check out our YouTube channel, as well. So thank you for listening and bye.
Ihotu Ali: Bye.
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