Fulbright scholar researches indigenous Canadian birth workers

  • Caroline Fidan Tyler Doenmez is a Dublin native who recently received a Fulbright Canada grant to continue her doctoral research. Courtesy photo

  • Caroline Fidan Tyler Doenmez recently received a Fulbright Canada grant to continue her doctoral research. Courtesy photo

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 10/28/2020 9:26:58 PM

A Fulbright scholarship is a competitive award that is intended to foster harmony between nations. Dublin-raised Caroline Fidan Tyler Doenmez, who is completing a Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota, has big plans for the one she received in April – even if the pandemic changes the way the research gets done.

Doenmez is pursuing a doctorate in sociocultural anthropology, and received a prestigious Fulbright Canada award this April to further her work studying indigenous doulas, or nonmedically trained birth helpers, and how their work can counter the trauma some indigenous families continue to face.

Rather than being an expert coming in to help, Doenmez said her job is to learn from others’ expertise, and to amplify their stories so that they reach more audiences.

“Anthropology has a history of extractive research,” She said. “To avoid that, I really try to base the work I’m doing in community questions and needs. It involves a lot of listening and being willing to rethink assumptions in what I think is important, or useful in sharing information in communities – and being willing to hear “no.””

Indigenous women leaders, activism, and reclamation are themes that have fascinated Doenmez through her entire life, so she was shocked to first learn about the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada while earning her Master’s degree at Columbia University.  “We don’t think of Canada being ravaged by colonial violence,” she said, but a national inquiry in 2019 concluded that the ongoing violence constitutes a genocide.

Growing up in New Hampshire, Doenmez recalled only ever hearing about Native American people as either extinct, or living in terrible conditions on reservations out west. “I never felt that I was made aware of the fact that indigenous people survived and continue to survive colonialism, and are all over the place, and have incredibly important things we need to learn from,” she said, beyond the “strange little markers of stereotypes,” like cigar store Indians or native-flavored names like Camp Wa-Klo.

She immersed herself in North American indigenous studies, and immediately recognized certain issues from her own family’s history. Doenmez’s father is Kurdish, an ethnic minority under international law. The government forcibly removed Doenmez’s grandfather from his land in Eastern Turkey, she said, and the family’s language was illegalized. “When I started to learn about the similarities between these different types of dynamics, I couldn’t believe I had never heard about them before,” she said. She directed her work to examine how indigenous communities might experience justice.

A “watershed moment” came in 2016, when she and her partner both were accepted at the University of Minnesota, where Doenmez is earning her Ph.D.  They visited the Standing Rock Indian Reservation just as the Dakota Access Pipeline protests were growing, where they brought donations and lobbied support. The experience expanded Doenmez’s concept of what justice could look like for indigenous communities in Canada, to include rights to land and clean water. She also met indigenous birthworkers at the protest, and they introduced her to the role of childbirth in the equation. “Usually when people hear ‘colonialism,’ they think only of conquest in terms of land,” Doenmez said, but the intimate realm of the family is one area where you can still see its effects.

Indigenous doulas are supporting families who are threatened by child apprehension by social workers, Doenmez said. She’s focusing her work on communities in Winnipeg, Manitoba, a province where indigenous people comprise 18 percent of the total population, but 90 percent of the children placed into foster care. Doenmez sees it as a continuation of indigenous family separation practices,  from the “sixties scoop,” where 20,000 indigenous children were adopted out to white, middle class families half a century ago, and the cultural assimilation residential schools in the 1800s that took 150,000 children away from their families. Doenmez hopes her research leads to a wider understanding of how some systems that are supposedly in place to “care for” indigenous people can actually perpetuate colonial power and violence.

“I really want to draw people’s attention to the fact that pregnancy and birth are key sites of colonialism and dispossession,” Doenmez said, and to amplify and uplift the work of indigenous doulas. Doulas help people prepare for and experience birth, advocating for them in hospitals, making sure consent happens for various medical procedures, helping people access resources and facilitating culturally appropriate and safe forms of care. Research and documentation necessarily involves questions about racism in the healthcare field, and about how childbirth has changed from a community, family-based event into a hyper-medicalized one in which many women report feeling harmed, she said. Doenmez said she hopes her research could contribute to policy changes, or garner more funding and support for indigenous birth reclamation projects.

Doenmez’s field work involves spending a lot of time in communities and with people to understand how their daily life and activities shapes their worldview. She might have a number of sit-down interviews with the same person to get to know them and their perspective. A keen sense of what’s appropriate is essential as a nonindigenous person doing research with indigenous people, she said, and she strives to not intrude on others’ lives. Therefore, intimate events like births and medical appointments are not her primary research focus. Instead she focuses on the doulas themselves, and gleans much from the public events of Winnipeg, whether from talks about indigenous issues, marches and environmental events, and art exhibits, film screenings, and poetry readings.

Donmez’s plan is to be in Canada from January through August 2021, but she’s fully aware that the COVID-19 pandemic could have other plans. The pandemic already caused her to miss an indigenous doula training she was scheduled to attend, but other trainings are being moved online, and she knows she’s committed to the project, regardless of what form it winds up taking.

Doenmez attended Cobb Meadow School, Mountain Shadows School and Dublin School, all of which helped her to understand the land and its other creatures, and to understand her responsibility as a visitor to care for it, she said.  She taught English and Spanish and coached girls’ soccer at the Dublin School for a couple of years after earning a Bachelor’s at Smith College. Doenmez returns to the area to visit family frequently.  

“I feel like I can always come back,” she said.


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