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The power of support systems and the wisdom of elders

APRIL 10, 2023

When Associate Professor Dr. Jennifer A. A. Gubbels was close to starting her sabbatical in the fall of 2018, she chanced upon a guest lecture by Dr. David Olson, a professor at the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology (University of Alberta) who was visiting Augustana University where she teaches in the Biology department. 

“I wasn’t quite prepared to attend that talk and I had to borrow a pen from someone to take down notes. It was a powerful talk that really inspired me,” she said. Dr. Olson was presenting his research on preterm birth, the role of stress in pregnancy, and how writing and sharing feelings or experiences of trauma lowered preterm birth rate in women who experienced the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire in Alberta.

Dr. Jennifer A.A. Gubbels

This lecture and Dr. Olson’s work inspired her to focus on researching preterm birth in South Dakota during her year-long sabbatical. She partnered with her colleagues Karla Abbott, Beth Saxvik Boyens, Ph.D., and late Sandie Hoover-Kinsinger to learn from women in Eagle Butte, Cheyenne River Reservation, about their primary stressors during pregnancy that may be overlooked as factors in the heightened preterm birth rate. According to March of Dimes, some of the highest preterm births in the state are in reservations, with Ziebach County (Eagle Butte) at 15.5%. 

Right around then, Dr. Gubbels was recognized as the 2018 South Dakota Mother of the Year where she was awarded a Golden Rule Grant. Through the grant she supported the Native American Pregnant Mothers Project, a program closely related to her research. 


By practicing the Lakota tradition of talking circles, the researchers collected narratives about pregnancy and parenting on the reservation from the perspectives of both young mothers and tribal elders. The talking circles revealed transgenerational/historical trauma and instability in housing, daycare, and relationships as major contributors to the stress of pregnancy and parenting. “We learned so much about how they overcome obstacles and hardships while bearing and raising children. These native women joining the talking circles really exhibit resilience and hope,” said Dr. Gubbels.

She said that it was a long trying process to get the research and talking circles started, and the Golden Rule Grant from American Mothers was the nudge she needed to pursue the project during her sabbatical. The research has added a new dimension to her work, which dealt with studying epithelial ovarian cancer. Dr. Gubbels now conducts bench research in her lab to better understand preterm birth, inherited stress, and generational trauma. “We had considered the talking circles as a first step to finding an intervention to study preterm birth, but the women in Eagle Butte found the talking circles to be really useful and wanted to facilitate more of them,” she said. 

Members of the talking circle through the Native American Pregnant Mothers Project in Eagle Butte, SD, with blankets made by members of the Nebraska American Mothers Association.

Since their first visit, there have been a handful of talking circles and the next step is to organize them monthly for young mothers and elders in Eagle Butte as well as expanding it to other areas. “The elders play a huge role in the talking circles as well as in providing care in the community. Having them show the path to resiliency and hope has been a really great way for young mothers to open up about their challenges and stressors while finding some solutions and connections within the community,” she said.

The work Dr. Gubbels and her research partners are doing speaks to American Mothers in so many ways. Every mother has a voice, and sometimes we just need a nudge to find connection and support to tap into that powerful maternal energy. We are proud to support projects and organizations like these through our Golden Rule Grant Fund. American Mothers strives to recognize the positive impact mothers are making in their lives and in the life of their communities, while sharing stories and wisdom from inspirational mothers across the country.

Learn more about the Golden Rule Grant Fund here.


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