Series 1 Episode 1: Dr Naomi Simmonds on decolonising birth

Naomi Simmonds (Raukawa, Ngāti Huri) (she/her), Co- director of Tūānuku Ltd, has an extensive research background and has expert knowledge on Kaupapa Māori and Mana Wahine methodologies. She is engaged in a range of Kaupapa Māori research projects pertaining to whānau (family) wellbeing, land-based learning, and tribal environmental management. Her research looks at the intersections between land, identity, and wellbeing. Her most recent research, through the Royal Society of New Zealand Marsden Fast Start Grant, has involved re-walking 378km following the journey of her ancestress Māhinaarangi to understand the lessons, memories and knowledges that are embedded in the footprints of our ancestors. Naomi is a mother to two daughters. She is an avid reader, passionate writer and novice walker.

You can read Dr Naomi Simmonds’ PHD: Tū te turuturu nō Hine-te-iwaiwa: Mana wahine geographies of birth in Aotearoa New Zealand


Download Transcript (PDF)

INTRO — This is Doctor Naomi Simmonds. She’s a Māori woman of Raukawa and Ngāti Huri descent, a mother, an academic and a leader attempting to create space for Māori knowledges and tikanga to flourish, especially when it comes to birth and mothering.

NAOMI SIMMONDS (guest) So our language tells us that we are one and the same with the land.

You’re listening to Birthing and Justice with Doctor Ruth De Souza. And in this series, I’m having conversations about birth, racism and cultural safety with some of the leaders in my field of birth care. I am thrilled to have Doctor Naomi Simmonds join me. Her work gets to the heart of what I’ve been thinking about recently. She says that if we set aside patriarchal and colonial value systems, privilege whānau and the collective, and uphold female ancestors and goddesses, the result for Māori women can be transformative. So let’s get into it.

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RUTH DE SOUZA (host)Kia ora Naomi. It’s so lovely to be talking to you. My only wish is that we were talking in person over some nice kai, but it’s really great to be talking to you.

Yeah, me too, likewise. Thanks Ruth.


I wondered if I could start by asking you: why do you care about decolonising maternity?

I don’t have a choice. And I say that because I’m a mother of two young girls, and I want their experiences as wāhine—their experiences as women, their experiences as young women, as growing women, as potentially birthing women—I want that to be laden with the knowledges and practices of their ancestors, as I do their whole entire lives. And so I want them to be able to stand really firmly in that power, and understand what that means, and to be existing within a healthcare system that supports and celebrates that–that enables that to occur.


It seems that your work is focused on reclaiming uniquely Māori knowledges. Why are women—wāhine—looking for elements in Māori mātauranga and traditions that can re-empower them and their whānau?

I think we’re looking for it because we know that they are better for us in terms of our wellbeing, in terms of our way of existing in the world, in terms of affirming what we may already know at an individual level, but that we may not have affirmed at a collective level. And so I think we’ve always been looking, and we’ve always been practising. So for me, part of the reclamation is actually about acknowledging and celebrating what has been able to be sustained through colonialism, but it’s also about recognising that many of our whānau—many of our wāhine—don’t have access to those things anymore.


So folks who are listening, if some of the words we’ve been using in te reo Māori have been unfamiliar, I’d really encourage you to track down Naomi Simmonds’s PhD. If you Google it, you will find it. And at the very back of it, there’s a really fabulous glossary which has explanations of these words. And I’m wondering whether you can give me some examples about the practices, and whether they’re easily enacted, particularly within our current maternity systems?

Yeah, there’s a range, and one of the kind of key findings in my research was that the birth space plays a really big role in terms of how easily enacted or not, our tikanga—our customs and practices—may or may not be. So for example, the practice of returning the placenta to the earth—te whakatauki te whenua te whenua—is something that’s relatively well known now and has been… there’s been a resurgence and a reclamation, to the point now where it is a relatively common practice within most whānau. And that’s been a turnaround of only one generation. So my placenta was never returned to the earth; it wasn’t common practice at that point in time, in the ‘80s, and it wasn’t something that was discussed or even offered to my mum and dad when they had me, right through to when I had my children. It was something that we took for granted that happens, that’s what you do. So it’s been a short process of reclaiming that particular tikanga, and there are many, many examples of the different ways that whānau are practising that. So for example, some families have a special place that they take the whenua to, and they have ritual around that and they bury the placenta. Other families it’s about getting it in the ground as soon as possible, and so there’s one person in their family, for example, who’s charged as soon as that baby’s born, the placenta’s taken and buried on their tribal lands. Others who perhaps aren’t connected in to their tribes or their tribal lands, bury them in a pot plant and they take them with them. So they know it’s important that the placenta’s in the ground, because the earth is our mother—Papatūānuku—but they’re still working through where that might be in terms of the permanent place that that placenta’s buried. But I think it’s really important to acknowledge that that’s one of a raft of things that exist in the Māori maternity’s knowledge and practice space, that has been recognised by our midwifery and hospital policies and processes. And there are a whole raft of other things that are either ignored, seen as inconvenient, aren’t really understood, seen as unsafe, that aren’t given the same kind of recognition or space to be able to practise that. And so there’s the material things—for example using muka, which is softened flax fibre to tie the cord—there’s those kinds of physical, tangible things that are part of our customs and protocols, but there’s a whole lot of other things that are part of what I would term Māori maternities that aren’t as tangible, and then, therefore are often more difficult to create the kind of understanding and space. So things like the spiritual side of birthing, the importance of our waiū, the importance of whānau—that’s a big one that we see all the time, that we come up against hospital policy around the number of people that can be present at a birth, or that can be around the birthing room. So there’s a whole range of intangible things I think that whānau are looking to reclaim, are looking to engage with. 


Those stories have really haunted me in terms of what we’ve done in hospital systems that have really kind of shaped the experiences of Māori in ways that have been very painful and violent, you know?

Yeah, and I think there’s… you know, just picking up on the mumae, the pain that has occurred over generations, and there are sadly a multitude of stories that we could share around the culturally, spiritually and physically traumatic experiences that our mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers have had to go through in terms of their birthing experience—in terms of their experience and understanding of their own bodies, and in terms of their experience as mothers—that we need to engage in healing that mamae, as well as the… part of the reclamation is actually healing from that trauma and actually understanding the depth in generational impact that that can have on whānau and on our ability to trust ourselves, and trust our own bodies, and trust that we understand what we need, and that within us are our own tikanga, are our own rituals that we can perform, that we can engage with. 


Totally, totally. How does one become a Māori feminist geographer? What was your journey? 

Oh, that’s such a great question Ruth. And it’s one that I’ve been reflecting on recently actually, and it’s a little bit kind of focused on reconnecting with our ancestral geographies, and the knowledges and maps and concepts and amazingness that our ancestors left for us. And so using that as my geography, as my kind of guiding map to understand more about myself as a Māori woman, as a Māori mother, but also to understand more about what it means for us collectively as wāhine Māori and as whānau Māori to live well in our current environment, and whatever the future might hold for us in terms of that. So I did do a geography degree. I was really fortunate to do a geography degree in a department that was well known for being radical in terms of the kind of geography that it did. So radical in terms of, it wasn’t connected to an earth sciences department, but also radical because it had a really strong feminist and queer geography focus and a very strong Māori geography focus as well. And so I was really fortunate to be kind of raised academically in that department with some really amazing mentors, and through my graduate degree—my master’s—I was able to kind of bring those two things together, thinking about what it means to be a woman and what feminism means and what it means to be Māori. And then through my master’s I discovered the world of mana wahine, which is where I ventured into for my master’s and PhD, so… 


I loved your PhD. I had the privilege of being one of the examiners and it won the New Zealand Geographical Society’s President’s Award for Best Doctoral Thesis. You mentioned a mana wahine framework—which is what you used in your thesis—and you use it to expose how patriarchal and colonial ideas and values are embedded in childbirth. Do you think you could tell us a bit about the mana wahine framework?

Yeah. What I would start off by saying is, I think the little letter ‘s’ is really important when we’re talking about mana wahine, and by that I mean that mana wahine frameworks in the plural exist; that there’s no one way to understand a kind of… what has been translated as a Māori feminist framework or Māori feminist discourse, but actually is steeped in a very, very long history of our ancestors that recognises and celebrates—and I think the celebrating part’s really important as well—recognises and celebrates the unique role that we as wāhine, as women, have in our communities and our families. And that we have a specific role that’s come from our whakapapa—from our relationship back to our creation stories—that tells us about how powerful and strong and resilient and beautiful and knowledgeable and all of those things, that we are and that we can be. So for me, mana wahine—because I was looking specifically at Māori women’s experiences—was a given. But also it was something that was relatively new in terms of the academy. So whilst it’s ancient in its origin, and it grows from our ground and our waters and our histories, it’s actually relatively new in terms of its academic application. So I was really excited to be able to kind of engage with it and understand what that might mean for research; what it might mean for privileging Māori women’s experiences in all their diversity, and not kind of just looking at a singular narrative about what it means to be a Māori woman, and what it means in the space of kind of pregnancy and childbirth—which is an area where I think for a lot of wāhine Māori, the identity of being a Māori woman is heightened. That’s at the fore when you are… when you know, when you’re carrying a child and when you’re birthing and thinking about parenting. But yeah, probably the most important thing for me about mana wahine is that it’s diverse, that it’s plural, that there’s no one mana wahine framework that we can kind of pick up and replicate.


Absolutely. And I love the responsiveness of the mana wahine framework to context and place. I’m wondering, how does mana wahine kind of butt against white feminism discourse in this kind of space?

Yeah it’s a really interesting concept because I don’t necessarily see mana wahine in relationship to white feminism. So my understanding of mana wahine has very much grown from our own intellectual tradition and our own intellectual knowledges and what that means. And so mana wahine in that context, as talking back to colonisation, it’s recognising the unique and enduring mana and tapu that Māori women have had in our society and communities here in Aotearoa for a very, very long time, and that that’s been transformed through the… through colonialism and patriarchy. And what I would say is that my experience has been that one, white feminism has been given much more attention and space and has fought really hard for attention and space, and mana wahine has not been necessarily recognised in and of its own right, as a way to understand the world that we live in. And so that’s why it’s really important for me that we hold space for mana wahine and the kind of multiplicity of frameworks that exist within it, so that Māori women see themselves.


As you’re talking, I was thinking about how, you know, the issue of sovereignty—and for mana wahine sovereignty of… about birthing, birthing knowledges. How do you see that linking to the tino rangatiratanga of Māori communities? 

Yeah, it’s…entangled. I don’t think we can decouple one from the other. And I say that because, you know when we think about birth and when we think about women’s bodies, we are the earth, right? We are land, our language tells us so: so whenua means placenta, but it means land; when you’re hapū, the word hapū is to be pregnant, but it’s also our tribal collectives, it’s our sub-tribes. So our language tells us that we are one and the same with the land and so… [Laughs] Funnily enough, ‘cause my background is geography and environmental planning, and when I decided to do my PhD on birthing, I had people say, ‘Oh, how do you have a background in environmental planning and geography, but you’re doing a research project on birthing, they’re so far apart’—ironically said by white men predominantly. But for me as a Māori woman, they were one and the same; when I think about the work that I do in the environment space, and I think about the impact of colonialism and patriarchy on the land, they’re one and the same in terms of the impact on women’s bodies. So this idea around control, around institutionalisation, around medicalisation, extraction, all of those kinds of processes and ideologies that serve to impact the mana and tapu of women’s bodies, are exactly the same ideologies and mindsets that impact the mana and tapu of Papatūānuku and our land. So for me, tino rangatiratanga is about regaining sovereignty, it’s about our autonomy over our lands and our waters and our communities and our politics, and so it’s… you can’t uncouple that from our own bodies—having bodily autonomy is one and the same as fighting for our land, in my opinion.


I’m so excited about how as a geographer, what you’ve done with maternities, and Māori maternities, and wāhine Māori is to somehow embody these knowledges and then also really connect land, language and spirituality. We started the conversation talking about institutions, and I’m thinking about the institution of health services and, you know, what can we do to transform birthing for Māori in Aotearoa? What can we do differently? How can we bring care back?

I’ve always been really clear that I’m not a midwife, and I’m not a practitioner, and I don’t have health care practitioner experience. My experience of birthing has been birthing two children [laughs] and that I very much am a… I’m a researcher, I’m an academic. But what I would offer is that birth is one moment in the maternity’s continuum. And so when we think and isolate birth as the focus, then we put a hell of a lot of pressure on birthing mothers in terms of the kind of knowledge and reclamation that they may need to do, and we put a huge amount of pressure on midwives who are predominantly the lead maternity carers here in New Zealand, in terms of their role in ensuring cultural safety and all of those kinds of things. And yes, they have a pivotal role, but they’re also one person in a whole system of different people that women engage with through their maternity’s journeys. So I think it’s really important that we are understanding all of the pieces of the puzzle that play into that birthing moment, right? So that we’re not isolating the birthing moment as the only thing that we need to be thinking about. So for example, I know through the work that I’ve done with other midwives, and through some of the research that I’m on at the moment, is that our midwifery workforce in New Zealand is at a real pinch point in terms of workloads, in terms of just the sheer number of Māori midwives. We have so few Māori midwives, to me it’s just… that’s an obvious area that we need to be thinking about. Often our experiences in birth are impacted by our experiences in the healthcare system more generally, right? So if we’ve had whānau that’ve had a really negative experience in the healthcare system, we’re automatically coming into the birthing space feeling really unsafe. And so it’s really important that we see birth as a moment, but it is a moment in a much bigger picture. The other thing that I think is really important outside of the institution, is recognising the knowledge and expertise that sits within our communities, and that sits within our whānau. And so what does it mean to actually step outside of our institutions and create space and resource those whānau, hapu and iwi initiatives that are providing wāhine with all of that amazing, beautiful and strengthening knowledge and practice. That means that when they do engage with institutions—like our healthcare system, like the maternity system—they are confident; they know that they can advocate for what they need. The institution of midwifery historically has been focused on the partnership between the midwife, or the lead maternity carer, and the pregnant and birthing woman. And in actual fact as Māori women we exist within collectives; we don’t exist in isolation from them. So it’s really important that our whānau are recognised and celebrated and provided for, and that they also take up responsibility to support that birthing woman.



And I think one of the things that I got from your thesis was the beautiful distinction that you made between the etymology of the word midwife, which is to be with women, versus whakawhānau, to make family. And I think that’s a really precious distinction to end our conversation on. Naomi, it sounds like we share many of the same hopes and dreams and aspirations. It’s been so lovely to talk with you; we could have talked much longer, [Naomi laughs] and I hope that I get to catch up with you sometime in Aotearoa.


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Kapai. Ka kite mā te wā.



See you. Ka kite mā te wā.



Next time on Birthing and Justice with Doctor Ruth De Souza, I leave behind my clinical experience in New Zealand to find out more about birthing rites and rituals in my new home of Australia. My guest will be midwife and Birthing on Country advocate Karel Williams.


OUTROThis podcast is written and hosted by me, Ruth De Souza. Recorded at Windmill Studios in Melbourne on the traditional lands of the Eastern Kulin Nation. Sound design and mix by Regan McKinnon, artwork by Atong Atem, designed by Ethan Tsang, title track by Raquel Solier and produced and edited by Pipi Films. I’m Doctor Ruth and thanks for listening.


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BIOGRAPHY — Naomi Simmonds (Raukawa, Ngāti Huri) (she/her), Co- director of Tūānuku Ltd, has an extensive research background and has expert knowledge on Kaupapa Māori and Mana Wahine methodologies. She is engaged in a range of Kaupapa Māori research projects pertaining to whānau (family) wellbeing, land-based learning, and tribal environmental management. Her research looks at the intersections between land, identity, and wellbeing. Her most recent research, through the Royal Society of New Zealand Marsden Fast Start Grant, has involved re-walking 378km following the journey of her ancestress Māhinaarangi to understand the lessons, memories and knowledges that are embedded in the footprints of our ancestors. Naomi is a mother to two daughters. She is an avid reader, passionate writer and novice walker.


• You can read Dr Naomi Simmonds’ PHD: Tū te turuturu nō Hine-te-iwaiwa: Mana wahine geographies of birth in Aotearoa New Zealand


— Audio transcript edited and designed by Abbra Kotlarczyk, 2022. Note: t­­­­he purpose of this audio transcript is to provide a record and pathway towards accessing all Birthing and Justice conversations. Editorial decisions around the omission of certain words and non-verbal utterances have been made purely for stylistic purposes towards greater legibility, and do not infer a desired ethics of speech.