A decade ago, Sharon Kaʻiulani Odom and her friend Puni Jackson were cultural practitioners with a burning desire to expand their knowledge of Native Hawaiian health techniques. As part of the healing collective Hui Mauli Ola, they formed a collective of wāhine researchers and practitioners, called themselves Ka Lāhui o ka Pō and started researching cultural traditions around birthing. They’d sit in living rooms, on lānai and under trees sharing ideas passed down from their families, spending entire afternoons working through old moʻolelo and debating the significance of this or that practice. Sometimes they ventured out on field trips to visit birthing stones on Kauaʻi and other sacred places, and talked about the ways they might work to bridge the gap between ancestral birthing traditions and modern western protocol.

Then, about six years ago, the ladies of Ka Lāhui o ka Pō were invited to present what they had learned about forgotten birthing practices at the Healing Our Spirits Worldwide Conference. After the presentation, they were inundated with requests from people wanting to know more, and the hui was able to start a birthing class with the support of the community center Kokua Kalihi Valley under its Roots program.

“In the Western world, there’s a lot of fear surrounding pregnancy and birth. We’re giving our parents the space to talk through every aspect of the process, and when those things are made right, the birth path becomes clear. We want to take away the fear and fill it with empowerment.” — Sharon Ka‘iulani Odom, Hui Mauli Ola

Odom and Jackson called all of the culturally rooted practitioners they knew and lined up volunteers willing to share their wisdom with expectant parents in class. “At first we were just learning for the sake of learning, but the overwhelming response showed us there was real need for this knowledge among our Native Hawaiian couples,” says Odom. “We read through the literature, conducted personal interviews and spent hours in discussion trying to decide how best to present what we were learning.” A sizeable grant from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) made it possible to afford supplies and pay their kumu, and the classes were an instant hit. Now in its 11th session, the Birthing a Nation series is open to pregnant women and their partners, with the goal of using traditional Hawaiian knowledge to cultivate connections and foster healthy births and happy babies. Preference is given to Native Hawaiians and Kalihi residents, but spots are open to all parents who wish to incorporate Hawaiian wisdom into their pregnancy and delivery.

Held one evening a week for eight weeks, the Birthing a Nation curriculum varies based on the practitioners available during certain times of the year. Kumu guide the parents in the application of ʻiewe (planting genealogy), ʻai pono (reconnecting to sacred foods), lāʻau lapaʻau (preparing plant medicines), moʻomeheu (culture) and hānai waiū (breastfeeding techniques). One evening may be spent at the Ho‘oulu ‘Āina nature preserve’s organic garden identifying and choosing special foods and herbs to support mom and baby’s wellness; another trying lomilomi techniques to encourage a deeper bond between parents.

The couples follow a very different kind of birth plan than you might see with a hospital – concentric, overlapping circles represent family, community, ʻāina, ancestors and akua, with the child (kama) at the center. Parents are encouraged to tap their parents and grandparents to learn about and integrate family traditions. Couples learn how to clear any enduring conflicts with the practice of hoʻoponopono so that they may bring their child into the most peaceful environment possible.

“In the Western world, there’s a lot of fear surrounding pregnancy and birth,” says Odom. “We’re giving our parents the space to talk through every aspect of the process, and when those things are made right, the birth path becomes clear. We want to take away the fear and fill it with empowerment.” In ancient Hawaiʻi, the kāne served a highly protective role, keeping the wahine hāpai safe, so the class also includes important models, stories and inspiration for how men can become more involved and support their women throughout the journey.

As Birthing a Nation project coordinator, Odom does the ʻai pono lessons at the beginning of the class to help parents grasp how important foods are mentally, physically and spiritually for mom and child, and understand the rippling effects of good health. “One of the things we teach is that you carry the sperm and the eggs of all your future generations,” she says. “Everything that you eat, say and do bathes the cells of your grandchildren. It’s not just about preventing diabetes or weight gain in pregnancy, it’s about taking care of our land, making sure seven generations down the line your family is healthy and that our oceans are clean.”

Each evening, a different couple brings a meal for the group, prepared with the concepts of ʻai pono. There is no cost to parents, but Odom asks for a commitment to show up as often as possible and to make food twice during the session.

Birthing a Nation also hosts practitioner workshops designed to build a network of traditional birthing caregivers who can support Hawai‘i families in a variety of ways. A recent OHA grant allowed Ka Lāhui o ka Pō to start offering ongoing sessions each month focused on creating a strong cultural foundation for practitioners, integrating Hawaiian language, oli and other fundamental elements. It’s their hope to not only build a cadre of support for local communities, but also to grow skilled practitioners who can host birthing classes and practitioner workshops in other local communities, as well. At present, prospective midwives have to travel to the mainland for certification, so the team hopes to eventually develop a program for Native Hawaiians interested in becoming midwives to meet the needs of the growing interest in home birth.

Ultimately, Ka Lāhui o ka Pō has their sights set on running a Native-Hawaiian-based birthing center that can provide guidance in whatever ways families need. Says Odom, “I don’t care if you give birth at home or in a hospital or in the forest, we’re going to give you tools you need for a safe, healthy and culturally connected birth event.”

The women of Ka Lāhui o ka Pō continue to research, always seeking new pearls of wisdom to enhance the experience for families – like studying the protocols, chants and plant medicines that might help couples faced with the loss of a child or infertility. After reading the word in a book and tracking down people who had personal knowledge of the tradition, they’ve successfully integrated the practice of ʻapuhala, a restorative drink given to the mother on the. third and sixth days following birth.

Throughout the process of bringing traditions to life, the program leaders are careful to honor the knowledge being passed along by making sure rituals and traditions are performed with integrity. They’re in the process of developing a supplemental curriculum that parents can follow, and one day they hope to publish, but the face-to-face sharing of knowledge is what will continue to make this program so impactful.

Mom Kira Lee and her husband Trevor attended Birthing a Nation last summer to incorporate cultural wisdom into the birth of their first child, Aukahi, who just turned one in August. “Ka Lāhui o ka Pō created a safe space to be hāpai, surrounding us with support and practical ‘ike, grounding us on their beautiful ʻāina,nourishing us and encouraging ʻai pono practice,” says Lee. “This class gave us emotional, spiritual, mental and physical support, from pule andknowing what to advocate for in a hospital setting, to practicing birthing positions, to enabling us to have an intervention-free natural birth. We were able to focus on how we want to raise our child, grounded in ʻāina and ‘ike Hawaiʻi… it reminded us that we have a strong lāhui to support us, and a kuleana within that lāhui as well.”