ho’ohanau= the hawaiian word for the profession of obstetrics or midwifery, could be translated as ‘to create the space for giving birth’ from the words ho’o– to make or create and hanau– to give birth
In the ancient Hawaiian tradition, the function of birth was the “transference of Spirit and Soul from one dimension to the next via the womb.” (1) The practice of ho’ohanau (midwifery) had been researched and evolved for thousands of years so that “all experiences connected to the creation of life would not only be as efficient and painless as possible, but ethereal as well.” (1) And thus the role of the Pale Keiki (traditional midwife) was well respected and passed down from generation to generation, from mother to daughter, teacher to apprentice, elder to younger.
The Hawaiian practice of ho’oponopono (to set right or create goodness, sometimes referred to as a practice of forgiveness) was a part of the prenatal preparations from the beginning. From the time of conception it was important for an expectant mother to “clean the spiritual house, riding the soul of guilt, putting the mind and heart at rest- not imposing the mental and emotional burden of the mother onto the unborn.” (1) Great care was taken not to expose the pregnant woman to negative thoughts and situations. In fact pregnant Ali’i women (royalty) would be withdrawn to a birthing compound throughout gestation and birth to protect her from physical and psychic impurities.
When the alawela (linea nigra, the dark line that sometimes appears on a pregnant belly) reached the mother’s piko (navel), the midwife knew that the birth was imminent and would announce “The alawela has met the piko!” and the team would prepare for the birth, which traditionally would include building a seperate birthing house or structure. The friends and family who would gather outside during the birth would “compose birth chants, read natural phenomena, and search for Ancestral communications. The father of the child would surround the perimeter of the birthing compound with his Ancestral male images to protect the mother and their unborn child…” (2) During labor, the traditional Hawaiian midwife would encourage the mama to walk to loosen the muscles and ease tension, she would also administer sacred Hawaiian herbs as well as use a form of hypnotism or meditation which involved breathing and repeated mantras which “lifted her suffering, allowing ‘both [midwife and mama] to concentrate on the birthing process.” (2)
Most ancient Hawaiian women would birth in a squatting position with the midwife’s assistant kneeling behind the mother as a backrest, as the child emerged the midwife would hold the child up and shout “ike ‘ia na maka i ke Ao!” (the eyes have seen the Light!)
After the birth of the placenta, the traditional Hawaiian midwife would cut the cord with a bamboo knife, tie it off with a special string, and place a drop of mother’s milk and a bit of arrowroot powder onto the umbilicus. The placenta and umbilical cord were considered an extension of the body and thus valued and treated with respect in their burial “to create holistic harmony and facilitate Spiritual Evolvement.” The placenta (‘iewe) would be washed and buried with a tree seedling. After the umbilical cord stump fell off, it would be taken to one of several known sacred places and put into a hole in the lava covered with a rock. (2)
Haumea is the Hawaiian goddess of the sacred earth and birth, as well as Pele’s (the famous volcano goddess’s) mother. Haumea who gave birth herself to many generations of people from different places of her body (one generation was born from her shoulders, one from her knees, another from her forehead, etc) is said to have shown the people how to give birth through their sacred thighs. My favorite story about Haumea is one in which she appears to a womyn who is having a difficult birth and is getting ready to undergo surgery, and she says,
“In our land babies are born naturally without cutting open the mother.”
She then assisted with an herbal remedy and incantations and the birth proceeded quickly and easily. I find myself wondering… what herbal remedy? … could it be the flowering Hau tree (also named after the goddess Haumea?) whose slimy tea is said to aid the slipperiness of the birth passage?
Other things about ancient Hawaiian birth can be learned by reading the rocks. There are petroglyphs in several places around the Hawaiian Islands. I believe many of them are related to families and birth. In one family scene, you can see that one hand of the mother is highlighted with extra long digits, and additional ray-like lines highlighting like a halo the sacred gateway through which a child just emerged. (3)
… I believe this is depicting a mother who just received her newly born baby with her own hands.
In another, the description reads ”appendages in the genital area are unexplained” (3)….. could this be a footling breach birth? I think so.
One of my favorites is the birth scene at Puako which clearly depicts a twin birth- a womyn with an open circular vulva, a newborn girl up at her shoulder touching her face, and a newborn boy at her right arm being held upside down by the father. (4)
The presence of vulvae, pregnant wimyn, and birthing wimyn at these “legendary places… manifestations of belief and power, prayer and offering, made by ritual experts…” (3) tells us of the sacredness the Hawaiian people held for wimyn and birth; the honoring of the divine feminine.
For Polynesian wimyn, birth is not about pain and suffering… in fact, they were shocked to witness missionary women screaming and suffering throughout labor and birth. Every part of the birth journey from conception to treatment of the placenta and postpartum care was treated as sacred, and I think this is the important distinction… the role of the midwife or birth attendant then is to create a sacred space for giving birth.
If we can remember how to honor birth as so many of our ancient, native ancestors have, if we can make it sacred in our own way and give birth the respect it deserves as the ceremony of giving Life and Light to the Earth, then maybe our mamababies will stop being disrespected, harmed, and traumatized… then we will birth a world of peace.
(1) Daughters of Haumea: Women of Ancient Hawaii (Na Kaikamahine ‘o Haumea), Lucia Tarallo Jensen & Natalie Mahina Jensen; Pueo Press 2005
(2) “Hawaiian Beliefs and Customs During Birth, Infancy, and Childhood”, Mary Kawena Pukui; from Occasional Papers of Bernice P. Bishop, Museum of Polynesian Ethnology and Natural History, V16, No. 17, March 20, 1942
(3) Spirit of Place, Georgia Lee & Edward Stasack; Easter Island Foundation 1999
(4) Hawaiian Petroglyphs, J. Halley Cox & Edward Stasack; Bishop Museum Press 1970