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Katsi Cook interviewed by Joyce Follet, October 26-27, 2005

 File — Box: 15
Link to transcript of Katsi Cook interview
Link to transcript of Katsi Cook interview
Link to video
Link to video

Scope and Contents

In this oral history, Cook traces her family roots to the encounters among African, indigenous, and European peoples in the colonial era. She describes her early formal and informal education and her decision in the 1970s to "bail out" of the assimilation track and embrace indigenous culture and political struggle. She details the development of the Mother's Milk Project and its community-based research. Midwifery is the persistent theme of the interview as Cook recalls her attraction to the work, recounts the Mohawk origins story and its application to her own practice, and offers examples of births in which she integrates biomedical protocols with traditional customs including dreams, Mayan methods, and peyote. The oral history is a passionate statement by a leader of a transitional generation who practices midwifery as a process of restoring cultural integrity and achieving environmental justice through the empowerment of women. (Transcript 138 pp.)

Dates of Materials

  • October 26-27, 2005


Conditions Governing Access

At the direction of the narrator, this interview has been redacted and is open for research use without restriction. Tape 9 (pp. 129-130 of the transcript) of the unedited version of the interview is not available for research until January 4, 2035.

Conditions Governing Web Access

At the direction of the narrator, the redacted recording of this interview may only be placed on the web if access is restricted to the Smith College community. Please consult with special collections staff at to inquire about the existence of or access to digital copies. The interviewer and narrator for this interview have agreed that the redacted transcript may be placed on the web.

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 Katsi 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. She 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 and first child, 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; they 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 Mother's Milk Project in 1983 to monitor the environmental impact of industrial development created by the St. Lawrence Seaway Project of the 1950s. The Mother's 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 Mother's 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 midwives 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 are relocating to Washington, D.C., where he has become director of research at the new National Museum of the American Indian. They have 5 children.

Language of Materials