Art Is An Instrument for Change: A Look Into Three Coastal Salish Artists

The United States is a fast-paced society with easy access to information from around the world; we are only limited by the speed at which we can navigate the Internet. Basic education is now available to more people than ever in history (Roser & Ortiz-Ospina). There has never been an easier time to reevaluate how people are represented, specifically those groups that have been abused throughout colonial history. The Internet is a great platform that artists, who use their creations as a promotion of social awareness, can use to reach a broader audience. Art can provide insight for the outside world about the inequalities the Native artists and their communities are currently facing. Art can be an instrument for social change.

I was interested in how Native American artists might use their art and platform to share the modern truths of their people, and I wanted to focus on artists who are from the land I live on, land that was stolen by European settlers. As of the 2010 census, there are 5.2 million American Indians and Alaskan Natives living in America. In the Washington State Puget Sound area, sometimes referred to as the Salish Sea, that would be the Salish people. Salish is the broad term for the Native groups that occupy land reaching into Canada and down all the way into Oregon covering 645,000 acres (Coast Salish Gathering). Salish refers to the language group of the people who live/d there (Wright). Photographer Matika Wilbur is Swinomish and Tulalip, Qwalsius Shaun Peterson is a Puyallup multimedia artist, and Roger Fernandes is a storyteller from the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe. They are all Coastal Salish artists who seek to educate their communities about the realities of modern Native Americans and combat their negative and primitive portrayals in mass media.

Historically the Salish were known for living in large Longhouses, containing immediate and extended family. The ancestral people fished salmon freely; they hunted deer, elk, moose, birds; they gathered roots, herbs, and berries. For most of the year they lived in temporary camps and migrated to their permanent winter villages where many of their traditional ceremonies took place. The Coastal Salish created Story Poles and celebrated at Potlatch events, called Sqwigwi, where they gathered and shared their wealth with each other (Northwest Heritage Project). Much of their culture was lost in the aftermath of American western expansion and through the forced assimilation in the 1800-1900’s, some of which has been slowly recovered. Today, the Coastal Salish groups continue to honor their past with many of their historical traditions and can include anywhere from 500 to 2,000 members (Jack).

Matika Wilbur is a social documentarian who is travelling across the United States for her current photography piece, Project 562. The project is intended to provide a better representation of contemporary Native Americans than what is seen in media and history books. The number “562” is for the number of federally recognized American Indian tribes at the time she started. For Wilbur, “giving power to a number was important… even though finding an accurate number is difficult, given the ever-changing political climate” (Stretten). Since starting the project, that number has grown to 573, which she believes “is indicative of the progress Native Americans are making today” (Moya-Smith), progress towards national cultural recognition.

Around 2012, she left her life in Seattle to go work and live out of her car in efforts to complete this project. Living off funds raised by two Kickstarter campaigns and the generosity of her subjects, Wilbur has photographed over 300 tribes and traveled to 40 different states. What is important to her, is how the subjects see themselves, and so they lead the sessions. “I am not shocked by poverty…. I don’t think it’s the only thing worth photographing. [Those] are the pictures that come out about our people. It’s always the same thing,” (Graves). Instead she asks the subjects to choose where they would like to be photographed, asking only that it is on their tribal land. They dress however they like, pick a spot, and she waits until “she can feel what she calls ‘the connection’,” (Graves), and then she takes the photos. In this sense, she differs greatly from the photographer that she is most commonly compared to, Edward Curtis. Curtis was a very famous Non-Native photographer, known for a producing similar work as Wilbur, except he was not as welcome in the native communities. He intended to catalog all the groups because at the time it was thought that Native groups were going extinct. He was known for bringing his own props and dressing his subjects, “[he] wanted to show Indians in their pristine state” (Kidwell & Velie 125), which often meant stripping them of their modern artifacts. This simply contributed to the ongoing stereotype of a cultural group “stuck” in the past, instead of recognizing them as modern people. Wilbur allows her subjects to present themselves as they wish to be seen – in a sense delivering self portraits of a greatly unknown, unrecognized, and variant culture. She explores a variety of topics in her interviews with her subjects; on how they feel they are misperceived; on what they dream of accomplishing; of their favorite memories. When asked how she personally navigates being Native American in the modern world, she responded “We walk in two worlds…. We learn to navigate with a moccasin on one foot and a tennis shoe on the other” (Stretten).

Not all contemporary American Indians agree with this dual-world narrative however. “We are a contemporary people and I don’t agree with the idea of ‘walking in two worlds’, as if my Native identity was incompatible with modern life. I attend ceremony, participate in my culture, and can feel no guilt about interacting with the world of today” said multimedia artist, Qwalsius Shaun Peterson in an interview for with Asia Tail for the Tacoma Art Museum. Peterson, a member of the Puyallup tribe, has been a professional artist for nearly 21 years, and while he has commissioned work across the globe, his work has been primarily installed locally in the Salish Sea area.

Previously, it was mentioned that the Salish people were known for their Story Poles. This information was lost until recently, and the fight to recognize the true history has been led in part by Peterson. One of the first pieces of public art that Peterson would create was for the newly built Chief Leschi Schools in Puyallup around 1996. The board initially commissioned a Totem Pole from First Nation carver Bruce Cook III. However, Cook was uncomfortable with the task because he wasn’t from the local Coastal Salish groups, and because Totems are not a part of Coastal Salish culture (Farr). This misconception was established itself in the Pacific Northwest in 1899, when “the city of Seattle erected a Tlingit Totem Pole of the Raven Clan, stolen from a village in Alaska” (Farr). After the loss of cultural knowledge that was in part due to the forced assimilation of native children, many Salish people do not even realize that it is historically not their iconography. Instead, traditionally the Salish people carved Story Poles, which were stationed outside of their longhouses. The important distinction, according to Peterson, is that “A Totem Pole takes from family crest iconography, and because we are not organized by clans in our culture, here we create Story Poles where the stories essentially belong to the community, not one singular family” (Farr). Peterson took over the Chief Leschi project and the scope changed from designing a Totem Pole, to a designing a Coastal Salish Story Pole. It was the first large carving project that Peterson was a part of, and while he had mentors and a community to help him carve, there was little guidance as to the proper design he should follow. He spent much time researching and collecting information on true Coastal Salish art traditions and iconography. After it was erected, not everyone was happy with the change that had taken place. “Some tribal members weren’t happy about it” said Peterson in an interview with Sheila Farr, “They wanted a Totem Pole, the familiar iconography; they were like ‘what is this type of work you are doing?’ It was unfamiliar to our own people.”

Since then, Peterson has been a key figure in reviving the Coastal Salish art traditions. The Coastal Salish aesthetic is distinct from the other groups is many ways. The most obvious way is its fluidity, varying greatly from the art style more commonly found in northern groups called Formline. Coastal Salish art can also be distinguished by the shapes it uses. The Coastal Salish basic design utilizes three shapes: the circle/oval, the crescent and extended crescent (similar to the Formline U-form), and the trigon (Peterson). It is believed that the design originates from low relief carvings (Wright; Peterson). This is evident through design development; Coastal Salish work relies on carving out the negative space to create the design – Formline designs are created by building up shapes using the positive space (Wright; Peterson).

Peterson is also very outspoken about how he feels his people have been treated. “Our people are part of this land and its history, but most importantly we are part of the present. The art I create will aim to communicate that and, in the process, create space for dialogue” (Tail). But the space he has created goes beyond his artwork. He also has a blog that features several op-ed pieces that could be a discussion on about how Native American’s are portrayed in the media, or a behind the scene look at his most recent public work commission (Qwalsius). He uses the aesthetics and design traditions that are not well known in hopes of bringing the knowledge back, that artwork itself largely inspired by his people’s stories and characters. “I believe that the art itself has been most responsible for preserving our stories…. Though I work in a variety of media I keep in mind that it’s not the media that drives the works themselves but the story or feeling it is supposed to carry to the observer” (Stonington Gallery). His public works installed around the Salish Sea area have opened up a cultural and historical education to, not only non-Native Americans living locally, but also the high number of tourists who travel from all over the world to see the great city of Seattle and it’s surrounding areas.

Unlike Wilbur and Peterson, who utilize social media and pop culture to educate their audience on Native issues, Roger Fernandes as hardly any internet presence. Fernandes, a member of the Lower Elwha Band of the S’Klallam Indian band in Washington state, is a well-respected artist and educator. He is the Executive Director at the grassroots non-profit South Wind Native Arts and Education Foundation; he is also on the arts advisory committee for the Potlatch Fund, a Native-led nonprofit that provides grants and leadership development to local tribal members. But primarily, Fernandes spreads awareness about Native American issues in a more traditional form, arguably the most traditional form. Roger Fernandes is a Storyteller.

Storytelling goes beyond the literal reciting of a story, it is an entire performance that includes music and dance. The power lies in repetition. Learning the stories begins as a child, hearing the stories over and over until the point they “[know] the story well enough to tell it, as the story [is] now a part of them and their memory” (Fernandes). The stories evolve as the listener hears them again and again. Initially, they serve as literal lessons to teach children what is expected of them, and real-life dangers. As they get older, they can explore those metaphors to help guide them through adult issues. At a cultural level, “These stories explained the world and how it worked and demonstrated how human beings were to live in the world in balance with each other and all living things” (Fernandes). Fernandes is an active educator in his community and surrounding communities at events, such as the “Native Oral, Visual, and Digital Storytelling for Social Justice” hosted by Antioch University, or Native Storytelling sessions with local libraries. He helped create a lesson plan for grades k-5 with Washington State Leadership and Assistance for Science Education Reform (LASER) project, so that teachers have a Native American story component while teaching science lessons. “Books and television and the Internet have replaced storytelling. We believe they are the new and improved way of communicating and teaching” he says, “[But] the true power of storytelling comes when the moisture of the teller’s breath gives life and power to the story” (Fernandes).

These stories are fundamental for one’s health, “Stories lead to a spiritual and emotional understanding on how to live in the world….  Spiritual health that people need is told in stories that convey how a human being is to live in balance with family, community, and nature” (Wisdom of The Elders). Fernandes’ storytelling is for all people, “sharing these types of stories Native people can teach non-Natives about the aspects of their culture that go beyond food, shelter, and clothing. These stories actually define the culture of the tellers” (Wisdom of The Elders). While the stories can be shared with people outside the tribe, to tell these stories as an outside citizen is to directly insult the practice itself. “To truly know the meanings of the beings represented in Coast Salish art, the owner or artist would need to tell us, or the story would have to have been passed down” (Wright). It takes more than pure memorization to tell the stories, it takes cultural knowledge and years of fundamental analysis of one’s self and their environment. Fernandes’ willingness to perform these stories for outer communities allows Non-Natives to not only learn from tribal wisdom, but better understand the modern voice of a marginalized group which they may have previously misunderstood due to stereotypes that still persist.

While it is important that we work collaboratively to revive cultures, and to help limit the destruction to cultures, it is also important to ensure that the people leading those projects are from the culture itself. Such as was seen with Peterson and his work with the Chief Leschi schools. The knowledge necessary cannot be taught in a class or a book. There are techniques and resources that cannot be mimicked. Art is something that is enjoyed across cultures, and interacted with on a regular basis, even if we are unaware of it. From huge sculptural pieces, to photographs, to Storytelling – art is all around us in its variant forms. Art is accessible across languages and perspectives. By using art as a tool to talk about their present culture, while using the methods of the past, these artists have found a beautiful way to take back the narrative and create representation that is raw, honest, and cultural. We need to open a dialog for change, and art is the perfect instrument to do so. Fernandes said it best, “Art raises questions” (SAM).


I wrote this VERY LONG paper as my final project at Bellevue College in my Native American Studies class. I spent many hours on it, had many friends look and edit and reedit, and I am very proud of how it came out despite the challenges that I was dealing with while writing.

I was drawn to write about these artists because they were local to where I live. When I first started that quarter, I realized that I didn’t know very much about the indigenous people of my own backyard. It felt very hypocritical to pursue my goal of archaeology without knowing about the living people that have been in my own city for thousands of years. Because we live in an age of social media I wanted to include a bit of that, but that really isn’t the main focus. The main focus was the people themselves and the culture they are fighting to keep alive.

If anything, I hope that you come away with VERY BRIEF insight to the Salish people, and that you investigate the culture of the people in your area that were forcibly removed so that you could live there. 🙂



That Damned Fence

“Loyalty we know, and patriotism we feel,
To sacrifice our utmost was our ideal,
To fight for our country, and die, perhaps;
But we’re here because we happen to be Japs.”

“That Damned Fence” Author unknown, Poston Camp 1942

Nation of “Immigrants”

For simplicity’s sake, let’s say that America started around the 1500’s as the English and Spanish monarchies were exploring more and more of the mysterious land that is now the North, Central, and South Americas. The English’s first colony on the new continent was Jamestown, in what is now Virginia. By 1611 we begin to see the first African slaves in North America. They were previously found in the southern Spanish colonies, and white Europeans were beginning to find that the cheap labor could lead to faster and less expensive processes. Prior to the colonization of the America’s, slavery meant something completely different than what we associate with it today. Previously, slavery was between feuding religious groups or large cities where the defeated were placed into indentured servitude. Indentured servants were often allowed the opportunity to work out of their servitude through repayment, religious conversion, or sometimes they worked off their debt in hopes that their children could be free. In the building stages of early America, indentured “white and black servants worked side by side” (Goodman 18). These are the days before “white” and “black” were used in legal terminology. Race did not exist yet. It was much later, in the 1700’s, that we see deepening racial categories. Slowly, more and more propaganda that was released helped to create deep social divides between the lower class. Racial scientists sought out “evidence” as to what made each race so different. Carolus Linnaeus described the six distinct people; he even determined what each race was “governed by” and their “universally shared” attributes (Goodman 20). Benjamin Franklin wrote false articles about the danger and violence that the Native Americans were causing for the settlers, “leaking” them to the French newspapers and other European circles in hopes of gaining sympathy – money and resources – from them (Parkinson). These same fake articles made their way back to the colonies, stirring up concern from the white populace, and encouraged the racial distinctions between the immigrants and the indigenous peoples.

Build A Wall:

Since 9/11, white America has been most concerned about middle-eastern and Mexican immigrants. The government has increased its budget from 7.5 billion to 417 billion on border protection and immigration enforcement (Pringle). There are articles every day about children that are being separated from their parents when caught crossing the border. Recently there has been controversy over whether the children are being treated properly after reports of a child that died just days after release (Sacchetti). Families are risking their lives just for the chance to make it across America’s borders. Restrictions and increased security have only changed the routes that the illegal border crossers are taking, and there is inconclusive evidence that the heightened security is actually decreasing the number of people who try (Pringle). Jason De Leon, an anthropologist studying the routes and lives of the migrants, says that “the more recent the migrant site is, the smaller and more remote it tends to be” (Pringle), people are now rock climbing, risking coyotes, dehydration, etc. In terms of racial strife, our Mexican border is the tip of the iceberg. There have been Muslims targeted, refugees are being denied entrance to the country, there have been mass shootings, and public arenas have been bombed; all in the name of Making America Great Again. And while it would be easy to blame the violence on our current political leaders, given that was their slogan, reports show that while there was a spike in hate crimes following the beginning of our 45th president’s term, the number of incidents is on a decline in most major cities (Farivar). America’s racist history is far from being healed over. In a time full of hatred and turmoil, it is absolutely shocking that we are not looking back at what damage our racial division has caused previously, especially past events that haven’t even reached their centennial.

“Our misfortune to be here in the west / To keep us penned behind that DAMNED FENCE:”

It is a common misconception that tensions between whites and Japanese Americans were due to World War II. In actuality there were many events leading up to the war where the Japanese Americans faced blatant hatred and racism. Down in Arizona, during the depression in the early 1930’s, there was a “cantaloupe blight” (Walz), which led the white farmers to band together in protest of the Japanese farmers who were only guilty of turning a profit from a fruit the white farmers had stopped growing. A protest of white farmers descended to the streets of Glendale, Arizona, with signs demanding that the Japanese residents “LEAVE BY NOON AUGUST 25th OR BE MOVED” (Walz).  The protest was followed by a series of hate crimes; bombing the Japanese farms, firing shots at the Japanese farmers, or vandalizing their farming tools. By 1940, the numbers of Japanese farmers in Arizona went from an estimated 121 to 52 (Walz), over half of the original Japanese population.
In Washington, there is evidence that “US government had been monitoring the activities of Japanese Americans on Bainbridge Island” as early as 1922 (UW), with no evidence then and no evidence now to show that they were guilty of espionage. Japanese Washingtonians were first evacuated from Bainbridge Island. They were given six days to pack up their belongings, sell their homes, and be ready to board the ferry. There weren’t too many events of Japanese rebellion. It was a shared belief that by following what the American government asked, they would be protected. In the book Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, author Jamie Ford tells the story of a young Chinese Seattleite, Henry Lee, who falls for Keiko Okabe, a Japanese American girl whose family is taken in 1941 to an internment camp. While visiting the Okabe family in Camp Minidoka, Keiko’s father explains to Henry why they do not fight being relocated. By following the restrictions, they are proving their loyalty to America, “We don’t agree, but we will show our loyalty by our obedience” (Ford 229). He goes on to talk about if they issue a draft for the Japanese men that he would go in a heartbeat, that “the only way we can prove we are American is to bleed for America’s cause…. In the face of what’s being done [to us]” (Ford 230).
Henry’s father expressed similar feelings of making a sacrifice of himself, for the sake of being considered American. He accepts the fate of limited conversation with his twelve-year-old son so that he will be proficient in English. He sends his son to an All-American white school, to further assimilate Henry to American culture, instead of local Chinese schools where Henry would be more welcome. But his sacrifices for Americanization have a limit, and once he has the money saved he sends Henry to China to finish up school instead of staying in the United States. This was also a practice that Japanese Americans followed; raising their children in America, but sending them back home to finish up their educations. In fact, many American born Japanese were stranded in Japan during the war, only to speak very little English upon their return (Walz).
It was not only white people who expressed distrust towards the Japanese; Chinese Americans also expressed hatred and prejudice to their Japanese neighbors. During WWII, the Japanese were not just fighting with Americans, they were also fighting with China. I think that the hateful attitude Chinese Americans expressed was not just because of the war happening on China’s soil, but also because most Americans, and including some Asian Americans, couldn’t tell the difference between the two ethnicities, and so the fear of being mistaken as “the enemy” led to Chinese Americans doing all that they could to distance themselves from the Japanese. In the book, Henry is worried about getting trapped in the Idaho camp because “Caucasian people” wouldn’t know the difference between him and the Japanese prisoners (Ford 226). He couldn’t even tell that Keiko was of Japanese descent when they first met. Recognition came from cues like traditional dress, language, and names.

“find the sweet among the bitter:”

While the Japanese Americans had difficulty bringing their religious beliefs with them to the very Christian America, they were able to bring over some of their other traditions and cultural knowledge. Walz notes that Japanese farmers utilized traditional farming methods they had learned from family back in Japan. Growing lettuce and green onions involved similar irrigation processes that are used to grow rice. In Henry’s family, we see that they maintain the use of traditional Chinese dining habits; using chopsticks, the lazy-Susan they use for serving, the proper etiquette followed when serving tea. Throughout the book Henry describes the Chinese meals that he eats at home, such as preserved duck egg, or jook – “thick rice soup, mixed with diced preserved cabbage” (Ford 45); meals that would not usually be served for breakfast by “traditional Americans.”

Never Again:

The United States has this nasty issue of major problems that are built on a history of false perceptions and irrational fears. From selective housing reforms, to the Trail of Tears, to literally rounding all the Japanese residents and shipping them off to camps; America and its values are so intertwined in race and racism that it will take centuries to have an established system that isn’t still benefiting from prior injustice. Distributing funds to the families that were mistreated is not a solution, it is a band-aid. We as a country need to work to create opportunities for each other. We need to acknowledge the damage that our ancestors have caused. We need to learn from our history and the personal accounts of people who have been wronged. We need to develop a better system of letting people come into our country and take a holistic approach to the issues that surround immigration. Until we take these steps, we are doomed to keep making the same mistakes.

(anonymous poem circulated at the Poston Camp)

They’ve sunk the posts deep into the ground
They’ve strung out wires all the way around.
With machine gun nests just over there,
And sentries and soldiers everywhere.
We’re trapped like rats in a wired cage,
To fret and fume with impotent rage;
Yonder whispers the lure of the night,
But that DAMNED FENCE assails our sight.
We seek the softness of the midnight air,
But that DAMNED FENCE in the floodlight glare
Awakens unrest in our nocturnal quest,
And mockingly laughs with vicious jest.
With nowhere to go and nothing to do,
We feel terrible, lonesome, and blue:
That DAMNED FENCE is driving us crazy,
Destroying our youth and making us lazy.
Imprisoned in here for a long, long time,
We know we’re punished–though we’ve committed no crime,
Our thoughts are gloomy and enthusiasm damp,
To be locked up in a concentration camp.
Loyalty we know, and patriotism we feel,
To sacrifice our utmost was our ideal,
To fight for our country, and die, perhaps;
But we’re here because we happen to be Japs.
We all love life, and our country best,
Our misfortune to be here in the west,
To keep us penned behind that DAMNED FENCE,
Is someone’s notion of NATIONAL DEFENCE!

Poston was one of the largest camps run by the War Relocation Authority and was built on the local Native American reservation. I found the poem on:

This essay was one that I wrote for my American Life and Culture class this past summer. We were instructed to read the book House on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford and then talk about racism within the book and American culture. One of the most surprising things I learned in this class came from Ford’s book, and that was learning that the Puyallup Fairgrounds in Puyallup Washington was used as a temporary relocation camp during the Japanese Relocation. I grew up in the area but had never know previously that it had a darker history. That solidified this idea to me, that we have to talk about our history, even the bits we aren’t proud of so that we can respect what people were forced through and to honor them by not repeating those mistakes. We’ll never get any kinder as a species if we don’t pay attention to our past. The world is as kind or cruel as we make it.

~ Raelee


• Farivar, M. (2018, August 10). Are Hate Crimes in US Peaking? Retrieved from
• Ford, J. (2009). Hotel on the corner of Bitter and Sweet a novel. New York: Ballantine Books.
• Goodman, A. H., Moses, Y. T., & Jones, J. L. (2012). Race: Are We So Different. Hoboken: Wiley.
• Parkinson, R. G. (2016, November 25). Fake news? That’s a very old story. Retrieved from
• Pringle, H. (2011, January/February). Archaeology Magazine – The Journey to El Norte – Archaeology Magazine Archive. Retrieved from
• Sacchetti, M. (2018, August 01). Migrant child died after release from detention, attorneys group alleges. Retrieved from center child died&d=5051093762706675&mkt=en-US&setlang=en-US&w=IEsYmSEpmmT4-P15wMAAOkzoAKz-fdke
• San Pedro Daily News, Volume 8, Number 227, 12 October 1910.——-en–20–1–txt-txIN——–1
• University of Washington Libraries. (1997). Japanese American Exhibit and Access Project. Retrieved August 14th, 2018 from,
• Walz, E. (1997). THE ISSEI COMMUNITY IN MARICOPA COUNTY: Development and Persistence in the Valley of the Sun. The Journal of Arizona History, 38(Spring), 1-22. Retrieved August 14, 2018, from

A Brief Overview of Henry VIII’s Many Wives, But Shockingly Few Children

(aka; Pregnancy and Childbirth in the 1500’s or Giving Birth While Rich and Unhygenic or I Swear It’s a Son!)

Let’s talk about pregnancy and the bizarre medical beliefs that were around in Britain’s Tudor era, specifically within the Tudor family themselves since we have so much recorded about the royal family. To help you understand the lack of understanding in Britain about women’s health I want to share with you this story of Henry VIII’s first wife Catherine of Aragon, and her first pregnancy which ended in miscarriage and a cover up. It was reported by her confessor, Fray Diego, that “instead of Catherine’s belly diminishing with the delivery, the swelling continued and increased enormously.’ Probably this was the result of infection. But, disastrously, her physician persuaded himself that ‘the queen remained pregnant of another child” (Starkey. 2003), and this was something that people actually believed! Even when Catherine’s period came back. Now, that being said, we are dealing with a powerful and wealthy royal family. It can be hard to decipher if physicians were really lacking understanding or if they were just desperate to stay in good favor of the king, especially as it became increasingly apparent that it would be an uphill battle for Henry to get the son he wanted. Lying to the king or blaming it on the woman was an easy out, frankly, especially when it was so common for physicians and midwives to predict the biological sex of the child (which of course they had no guaranteed way of doing). Catherine would go on to have eight recorded pregnancies in 9 years, only three of which would result in live children, and two of those would die before reaching three weeks of age. Only Mary survived.

There are several theories for why his second wife, Anne Boleyn, failed to produce an heir; the most popular, and most scientific, being the idea that she could have been rhesus negative (Weir. 1991). Rh disease “happens when the Rh factors in the mom’s and baby’s blood don’t match” or if the baby and the mother have different blood types (Bowers & Freeborn). “The Rh negative mom’s immune system sees the baby’s Rh positive red blood cells as foreign. Your immune system responds by making antibodies to fight and destroy these foreign cells. Your immune system stores these antibodies in case these foreign cells come back again. This can happen in a future pregnancy. You are now Rh sensitized” Luckily, “Rh sensitization normally isn’t a problem with a first pregnancy. Most issues occur in future pregnancies with another Rh positive baby. During that pregnancy, your antibodies cross the placenta to fight the Rh positive cells in your baby’s body” (Bowers & Freeborn). This would explain why Elizabeth was born with no recorded difficulties but every pregnancy Anne had following resulted in miscarriages and stillborns. If you know the history of Henry VIII and his wives, you know that a huge factor in Anne Boleyn’s beheading was due to her failure to produce a male heir. The possibility of her being Rh negative would mean that there was nothing she could have done to give Henry a son, that her body would never have been able to produce again, especially with the limited medical knowledge at the time. The condition wasn’t even known of until 1940.

(Before we talk about his third wife and final child, I would like to mention that there is large amounts of evidence that the main issue Henry VIII had was actually his own virility. He consummated his marriage with 5 out of 6 wives, two of which never had a recorded pregnancy. He had two recorded mistresses, but only one of them produced a bastard (Henry Fitzroy, born to 19 year old Elizabeth Blount in 1518). However, notice that he was with Lady Elizabeth for five years, with only one child to show for it. There were frequently rumors that “the king was ‘no good in bed” (Wilson. 2009), and he was insistent that a new wife needed to “incite his passion. This was unusual in an age when kings tended to regard sex with their wives as duty and with their mistresses as pleasure” (Wilson. 2009), so it is very likely that he had a difficult time fulfilling his side of the job and that that decreased their chances of pregnancy. I haven’t even  mentioned the impact of  the stress and anxiety both he and his wives faced after years desperately wanting a son.Consider those psychological impacts.. Ok back to pregnancy.)

Since there were no reliable tests at the time, most women didn’t know if they were pregnant until about five months in (some women were known to “show earlier” like Catherine of Aragon). “a women’s lack of regular menstruation could be related to several factors including illness, breast-feeding, excessive fasting or even a poor diet.” (Bryson. 2016) so missing a period wasn’t even a reliable clue. Some odd tests that did exist but were unreliable include examining the color of the woman’s urine, or “examining a needle left in the woman’s urine to see if it rusted, or seeing what happened when wine was mixed with the woman’s urine” (Bryson. 2016). Lots of interest in pee….

Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, would bring Henry the son he needed. Jane’s pregnancies seem to have the most recorded information, either because the outcome deemed her worthy of keeping history of, or historians are biased and just talk about her more. We’ll never know. In mid-july at six months pregnant, Jane had a massive craving for quail’s eggs, which were of course out of season and had to be shipped in. Makes you wonder what the lower class might have craved, not having access to such luxuries (the original tale of Rapunzel comes to mind… anyway). In September, Jane went into three weeks of “confinement” (Starkey. 2003) before going into labor.

Confinement, or “lying-in” was a common practice for women of noble birth. They would seclude themselves from the world and essentially just wait to give birth, and then again after giving birth. Procedures had been set by Lady Margaret Beaufort, Henry’s paternal grandmother, many years previously that dictated what the furnishings looked like and where they went; what types and colors of fabrics were used; but mainly that an expecting mother was to withdraw from court a month before labor. “Fresh air was not considered necessary, indeed it was thought to be dangerous, but one window was left uncovered to admit light to the chamber” (Weir. 1991), so there’s a nice stuffy visual for you. “The idea was to recreate the womb: warm, dark and quiet.” (Bryson. 2016).

However, it is during this lying in time that they were most susceptible to puerperal fever, considerably so after the birth. Poor Queen Jane, after labor that reportedly lasted three days and three nights, she finally gave birth to a healthy baby boy, Edward, only to die shortly after.. There were reports that Queen Jane underwent a c-section, fabricated by Catholic writers looking to erk Henry; we know that “The earliest explicit description of a Caesarean is from the 15th century” (Renfeld. 2015), and was generally only done if the mother died in childbirth in efforts to save the baby (Bryson. 2016). If Jane had gone through such a procedure, it likely would have led to a swift death, but instead she lay in delirium for three days, and then passed away nine days after giving birth to the first and only legitimate son of Henry VIII. Puerperal fever was a common fate that mothers faced after childbirth, and it was caused by infection. It’s frequency was dramatically decreased once people started washing their hands, as it is thought that is was passed onto mothers from the hands of midwives, and general lack of hygiene that people had back then.

Pregnancy and childbirth was no joke in these times. It is speculated that “more than one in three women died during their childbearing years” (Bryson. 2016), but it was relatively unavoidable for the average woman. And since childbirth wasn’t considered medicine by Western doctors, physicians were only brought into the birthing chamber if there were complications that required more expertise than a midwife might have. Not to mention that midwives were only available to women who had the funds or a family friend. We don’t have very much information on what the average Tudor woman dealt with while she was pregnant, but considering their status and the already strenuous feat that pregnancy was, we can imagine it was no fun at all.

I wrote the above mini essay for my psychology class. We were to look into a time period of interest and how they treated and viewed pregnancy and childbirth. Being a total Tudor nerd, I went with my gut instinct and actually learned a couple new things about my favorite family.

If you find some of the above information to be incorrect and would like to have a discussion about it, I would be more than happy. I am providing a works cited so that you see I didn’t pull anything out of my ass. If I am wrong about something I swear its the fault of the authors and/or doctors below. But also I love the Tudor family in general and am always up for a chat about one of the most dramatic families in history (shockingly they were not related to Zeus, but you might think otherwise).

Also if you want any recomendations on good historical fiction on this family, I’d be happy to send some your way.


Works Cited:

> Bowers, N., RN, BSN, MPH, & Freeborn, D., PhD, CNM, FNP. (n.d.). Rh Disease. Retrieved May 29, 2017, from

> Bryson, S. (2015, August 27). Childbirth in Medieval and Tudor Times by Sarah Bryson. Retrieved May 31, 2017, from

> Norton, E. (1970, January 01). Elizabeth Norton Historian and Author. Retrieved May 31, 2017, from

> Renfeld, K. (2015, June 30). Midwifery: Magic or Medicine in the Dark Ages. Retrieved May 31, 2017, from

> Starkey, D. (2009). Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII. London: Vintage.

> Weir, A. (1991). The Six Wives of Henry VIII. New York: Ballantine Books.

> Wilson, D. (2009). A Brief History of Henry VIII: Reformer and Tyrant. London: Robinson.

> Wood, J. W., II. (2008, March). Puerperal Sepsis. Retrieved May 31, 2017, from