Native Births: The Isolation and Independence of New Mothers in Waterlily
Ella Cara Deloria’s novel Waterlily carefully considers the role of women, not only as respectful instructors of etiquette, dedicated sisters, and hospitable homemakers, but also as the primal maternal beings responsible for birthing the tribe’s newest generation. One of the supreme duties of these women is to create progeny that will raised to respect tradition, value kinship etiquette, and continue tribal legacies. While Waterlily does detail the circumstances in which the children are to be raised, careful emphasis is placed on the mother’s duty to the actual birth itself. This text in particular stresses the means by which a woman is to go about giving birth as a member of a tribe, whether she is participating in a tribal migration at the end of her term or waiting safely inside the shelter of an established campsite. The first portion of Waterlily invites the reader to witness Blue Bird give birth on two different occasions. These episodes differ in terms of location and the terms by which tribal society dictates how the new mother is to behave. The text, therefore, instills a sort of value in the social power of the physical act, making an effort to detail how exactly it concerns the mother’s reputation in tribal society. While the first birth emphasizes Blue Bird’s isolation, the second further details the conflation between the social expectation to be independent and her duty to maintain positive relationships with the kinswomen that help her prepare for the birth.
The birth of Waterlily in the novel’s first chapter is quite a powerful introduction to the often strenuous circumstances surrounding the birth of a child. As this is the first time Blue Bird gives birth, there is a heightened presence of anxiety as the narrative unfolds. Not only has she been traveling upon horseback for an extended length of time, but she is expected to discretely slip away from her migrating tribe members and give birth on her own. No one is explicitly warned of why and where she is going, even in spite of a potential case of emergency. Present day readers of the novel can admire Blue Bird’s courage to do so alone, without medical attention or even the support of a loved one. Therefore, the act of Blue Bird venturing off into the remoteness of the woods elicits praise of her capabilities to take care of herself and her child without the help of the community’s immediate backing. Relying on her memory for previously shared birthing wisdom from her grandmother, Blue Bird labors in the solitude of the woods’ isolation. Amidst the shelter of the trees, she endures the physical feat with nothing but whatever comfort her grandmother’s words can provide her. One of the most telling pieces of wisdom that Blue Bird obtains is the following: “No woman cries out like a baby; people ridicule that… If one is old enough to bear a child, one is old enough to endure in silence” (Deloria 5). She maintains her silence out of a desire for communal respect, despite her isolation from the rest of the group and the natural inclination to moan in intense pain. After she successfully delivers Waterlily, Blue Bird is described as wrapping her newborn in a fawnskin that was prepared in secrecy. This detail in particular is pertinent in the way that it shows that she had spent time equipping herself to give birth alone. Even in preparation, she did not rely solely on the providence of others. Blue Bird carries herself with strength and dignity as she approaches her impending due date with isolation in mind.
Blue Bird and her child eventually rejoin the end of the line, unnoticed and weary. She does not call attention to what has happened regardless of her exhaustion. She maintains her silence after the birth until attention is paid to her by those who realize what she has accomplished. The eventual offering by her cousin to stay and rest for the night is comforting because others will be able to monitor her and the baby’s health, yet it doesn’t diminish the feat that the new mother just accomplished. Because she has birthed Waterlily according to the expectations of her tribe, she is rewarded by the care of her cousin.
The second birth reiterates the idea that if a woman is old enough to be with a man and bear his child, then she should be strong enough to do so independently. The narrator states, “Women were quick to deride the pregnant woman who wanted to be babied by her husband” (58). A pregnant woman cannot rely too heavily on the pity of her husband, as it is her practically inescapable biological duty to give birth. In this case, Blue Bird has to more carefully consider her relationship to her kinswomen. Because she is to give birth to her new husband’s child within the confines of the tipi, she has to be careful to maintain her independence whilst being respectful of her sisters-in-law and mother-in-law. Her husband Rainbow’s sisters shower her with attention and lavishly made cradles for the newborn. While she is expected to show gratitude for their care, she does so with “tact and restraint” (60). Once she gives birth, she is rewarded by being made comfortable to rest, and her baby is shuffled between the two gorgeously crafted cradles gifted to him by his aunts. Although his aunts care for Blue Bird and the child out of respect, expectation, and tradition, it seems as if there is an underlying motivation for providing the child with such lavish gifts. The narrator flashes forward to a time where the newborn will be able to speak on his own, finally able to relay to the public how he was treated by his aunts at his birth. As the narrator makes clear, “That would be his subtle way of boasting of the kind of family he was from—a family in which the conventions and kinship etiquette were carefully observed” (65). So, while the aunts are dutiful in upholding kinship etiquette with Blue Bird, bestowing such lavish gifts upon the newborn is also a power move that bolsters the family’s public reputation. Because Blue Bird behaves appropriately, she helps to encourage this kind of generous treatment of her son. No matter how much attention she is given or not, a new mother is expected to respond with both grace to others and respect for herself as an independent woman. While her kinswomen can provide additional comfort, Blue Bird is aware that she possesses the innate power to give birth in isolation. She has accomplished this feat in the past, and it seems to serve as an intrinsic form of motivation behind her awareness not to rely too heavily on the care of others. A mother that is able to preserve her independence while still being respectful of the tradition of the service of other females is a mother that gives birth in the most revered way. The act of birth as a reoccurring theme seems to emphasize the innate power that women possess to accomplish such a physically taxing act with great mental strength.
Although the circumstances of both births differ, a potent connection does exist in the dialogue that occurs before the birth. In the first chapter, the grandmother is recalled to say that if a woman is old enough to give birth, she is supposed to do so in silence. The second birth also stresses that if a woman is old enough to be with a man and bear his children, she is to behave in a certain respectful way. Birthing, then, becomes for the novel an explicit coming of age phenomenon that women are to endure carefully and purposefully. Blue Bird’s aforementioned mental strength and diligence in preserving her reputation as new mother proves that she has matured in a way deserving of the tribe’s utmost respect.