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Katsi Cook interviewed by Joyce Follet (part 2), April 2, 2010

 File — Box: 100
Katsi Cook interviewed by Joyce Follet (part 2)
Katsi Cook interviewed by Joyce Follet (part 2)

Scope and Contents

In this 2010 follow-up to her 2005 Voices of Feminism oral history, Cook begins in the Sophia Smith Collection, where she comments on selected items in her papers. She then details her paternal and maternal lineage. Cook provides a full discussion of the centrality of birth to her world view and to her practice of midwifery as cultural, spiritual, medical and political work. She assesses the impact of her decades of activism. Cook concludes by singing Mohawk healing songs.

Dates of Materials

  • April 2, 2010


Language of Materials


Conditions Governing Web Access

This interview recording may not be placed on the web because there was no formal web access agreement signed. Please consult with special collections staff at to inquire about the existence of or access to digital copies.

Conditions Governing Access

This interview is open for research use without restriction.

Conditions Governing Use

The interviewer and narrator have transferred copyright of this interview to Smith College.

Biographical / Historical


Sherrill Elizabeth Tekatsitsiakwa (Katsi) Cook was born January 4, 1952, the youngest of four children of Evelyn Kawennaien Mountour Cook of Kanawake, Quebec, and William John Cook, both enrolled members of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe. Katsi’s mother was educated by Catholic nuns. Her father, a Dartmouth grad, was a Captain in the U.S. Marines and a World War II fighter pilot. Her mother and father died when she was a child. Katsi grew up in the Akwesasne community on the St. Regis Reservation, which straddles the U.S. – Canada border along the St. Lawrence River. Cook describes Akwesasne in her youth as “a reservation community of subsistence fisher-people, gardeners, herbalists and midwives.” She attended private Catholic boarding schools but began participating in longhouse culture as a teen.

Cook attended Skidmore College from 1970 to 1972, then transferred into the first class of women accepted at Dartmouth College. She soon left college to become involved in the American Indian Movement (AIM).

After a brief first marriage, she married José Barreiro, a Cuban-born activist and academic. In the early 1970s, and again in the 1980s, Cook and Barreiro worked with the Kenienkehaka Longhouse Council of Chiefs at Akwesasne, where she was Women’s Health Editor of Akwesasne Notes, a clearinghouse of information for the emerging Indian consciousness movement. She toured the U.S. and Canada with White Roots of Peace, a group she describes as a traveling university through which participants learned Native knowledge from elders and imparted it to others.

Cook sought out traditional birthing methods as she prepared for the birth of her first child in 1975. She took up midwifery after participating in the 1977 conference at Loon Lake, NY, where traditional chiefs, clan mothers, and young activists from the Six Nations worked to define sovereignty for Native peoples and identified control of reproduction as one of its essential elements. In 1978 she did an apprenticeship in spiritual midwifery at The Farm in Tennessee, followed by clinical training at the University of New Mexico Women’s Health Training Program. She was struck by Pueblo and Navajo women’s lack of knowledge regarding reproduction in general and Native birthing traditions in particular, and recognized this loss of self-knowledge and cultural ways as a consequence of colonization. This awareness, coupled with community concern about the sterilization of Native women, led Cook to reclaim childbirth as key to community healing and survival, a process of empowerment through which women revive indigenous culture and restore Native peoples’ connections to ancestral land.

After moving to South Dakota, Cook became active in AIM. In September, 1978, she attended the founding meeting of Women of All Red Nations (WARN). She then worked at the Red Schoolhouse Clinic, a WARN project in Minneapolis-St.

Paul, where she trained an Anishnabe Birthing Crew and created the Women’s Dance Health Program.

When Cook and Barreiro returned to Akwesasne in 1980, the sovereignty movement was militant and the community was under siege. Cook helped develop the Akwesasne Freedom School and continued midwifery practice. With a grant from the Ms. Foundation, she introduced the Dance Health Program to Akwesasne (1983-89). When concern arose about the safety of breastfeeding, Cook launched the Mothers’ Milk Project in 1983 to monitor the environmental impact of industrial development promoted by the St. Lawrence Seaway Project of the 1950s. The Mothers’ Milk Project provides direct services and advocacy in Akwesasne, which Canada has singled out as the most contaminated of 63 Native communities. As a result of Cook’s efforts, Akwesasne became the first community to include human health research in the Superfund Basic Research Program. The Mothers’ Milk Project is cited as an example of an emerging reproductive rights activism that challenges the “pro-choice” movement to expand its focus beyond abortion and adopt a broad social justice agenda.

Cook has participated in national and international women’s health movements, including service on the board of the National Women’s Health Network, involvement in the Nestle boycott, and work with Mayan midwifes in Guatemala. She monitors indigenous rights in the drafting of midwifery legislation and is the founding aboriginal midwife of the Six Nations Birthing Centre where she assists with student training, curriculum development, and community education. Cook is Director of the Iewirokwas Program of Running Strong for American Indian Youth. Supported by a Ford Foundation grant, she is currently developing the First Environment Institute to restore indigenous puberty rites as means of advancing maternal and child health on the Akwesasne and Pine Ridge reservations. She is also conducting research with the Indian Health Service and writing Daughters of Sky Woman: A Cultural Ecology of Birth.

Cook and Barreiro live in Akwesasne and in Washington, D.C., where Barriero is director of research at the new National Museum of the American Indian. They have 5 children.


Joyce Follet (b.1945) is a public historian, educator, and producer of historical documentary. She earned a Ph.D. in Women’s History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is Coordinator of Collection Development and Director of the Voices of Feminism Project at the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

Related Materials

The Katsi Cook papers; the National Women's Health Network Records and the Undivided Rights Book Project Records are available for research at Smith College Special Collections.

Processing Information

Digital files (mp4) have been copied from access DVDs from 2010 interview (discs 10-14). Note: the original video tapes have not yet been digitized.

Repository Details

Part of the Sophia Smith Collection of Women's History Repository

Neilson Library
7 Neilson Drive
Northampton MA 01063