‘Food as medicine’: How this birth worker carries on the teachings of her great grandmother

Indigenous doula and midwifery student shares about the magic of a postpartum pot roast

My baby girl was born under the strawberry moon, on the eve of the summer solstice, in June 2019. 

The month of June marks the arrival of the strawberry moon — a reminder that it’s the perfect time to harvest strawberries. This is a teaching I carry as an Opaskwayak Cree. When I arrived home from the hospital, my doula Keisha Amanda Charnley welcomed me with a bowl of fresh strawberries.

The next thing Charnley prepared for my family was an elaborate pot roast, with a side of buttery corn on the cob. As we ate together around our family table, I felt so nourished, so cared for.

And in the days that followed, as I learned how to nurse my new baby, Charnley’s food and care gave me strength.

Baby June next to a ‘postpartum roast’ prepared by birth worker Keisha Charnley. Photo by Ian Simpson

Charnley is from the Katzie Nation, located in the lower Fraser valley region of B.C., and she has ancestral ties to Blackburn, England. 

She is deeply connected to the spirit world, and I believe she was chosen to be a ‘welcomer’ for the babies sent to us.

As a birth worker, aunty, doula and midwifery student, Charnley carries the teachings and stories of her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, and I felt this presence as I welcomed my own daughter into the world. 

For Charnley, the act of preparing delicious hearty meals for her clients during their postpartum recovery is not only about providing nourishment for parents who have recently welcomed a baby — it’s also about honouring her great-grandmother’s teachings. 

‘Born to carry the knowledge forward’

Charnley grew up hearing stories from her family about her great-grandmother and the ways in which she cared for the people around her.

“She was blind and overcame many challenges in her life, as a lot of Indigenous matriarchs do,” says Charnley. 

“They told me that my great-grandma Mandy was a midwife and delivered many babies,” she says. “A blind midwife — and that just added to the sparkle in my eye that I have for her.” 

Charnley says the community still refers to her great-grandmother as ‘Aunt Mandy’, and she feels the nickname “speaks to her impact on her extended relatives and family.” 

Not only did Mandy deliver babies in the community as a midwife, but she was also gifted at preparing food using a wood stove, despite not being able to see. 

Throughout her life, Charnley’s own mother, great-aunt and grandmother shared the kinds of meals her great-grandmother used to prepare, including lots of pot roasts.

This intergenerational knowledge and sharing of stories has culminated into Charnley’s practice as a birth worker, where she draws inspiration from her great-grandmother to cook a postpartum roast for families after supporting them through labour.

“Many of the stories I grew up with in my family are centered around food and the power of food to bring people together,” says Charnley. 

‘Our food is our medicine’

Many of Charnley’s friends, relatives and ‘sisters’, have come to her for support during their pregnancy, birth, and postpartum recovery journeys. Food became a natural part of how she supports her relatives and the people she cares about, says Charnley, who has attended over 75 births to date. 

“We always have to eat. So when somebody is preparing a yummy, nutritious meal for you, then that takes away a task that you have to do to care for yourself,” she says. “You can use that energy to focus inwards a bit more and focus on caring for the new spirit who has just come into the world.”

Charnley says she was taught that doing work in a good way often begins with sharing a meal. 

“Food is a conduit for conversation and relationship building,” she says. “So much love goes into preparing food for the ones we care for, as Indigeous people.”

Foods prepared or harvested by Keisha Charnley, from left to right: berries, a ‘postpartum roast’, and dried wild salmon. Photos courtesy of Keisha Charnley

“Whether it’s saving your pennies to get groceries from the store or to get a treat for the babies or… picking berries or going out to get an elk. All of those different ways that we bring food onto the table requires strength and hard work,” Charnley adds.

Charnley learned more about the origins and stories of traditional food through her work with Indigenous youth and Elders at the xʷc̓ic̓əsəm Garden, also known as the Indigenous Health Research and Education Garden (IHREG), at the University of British Columbia. 

The name xʷc̓ic̓əsəm translates to “the place where we grow” in hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓, the traditional language spoken by the Musqueam people whose unceded lands the garden resides on. Charnley worked with the Culturally Relevant Urban Wellness program as a youth worker and with the Medicine Collective.

She spent her days sharing her knowledge around harvesting foods, collecting medicines, and preparing meals for youth, Elders and staff. 

“There’s all the statistics that Indigenous people face around health inequities, and that’s often what’s talked about,” she says. “But I was privileged to grow up with the stories of our strength, how our food is medicine, and also to live that at the Indigenous gardens through the care of Elders.”

“The foods that we eat — the pieces of the land, the berries, the fish, and the roots — get transformed into our food, which transforms into our bodies, all of our cells and DNA, and that gets passed down generation to generation through birth,” she says.

Charnley is currently training to become a midwife. This means she will be responsible for the clinical and medical parts of labour and delivery.

Once she takes on this new role, she plans to continue preparing feasts for the families in her community.

“We know how powerful it is for us to eat our ancestral foods,” says Charnley. “And that baby is coming into the world with their blood memory that connects them to their land and foods, with their connection to their parents’ ancestors and a wisdom — a supernatural wisdom.”

Our series on reproductive health access is made possible in part with funding from First Nations Health Authority (FNHA) and Thunderbird Partnership Foundation. Their support does not imply endorsement of or influence over the content produced.

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