Native American women DO breastfeed. This is something we don’t talk about often. It seems that when discussing the breastfeeding rates of Native women (as well as other communities of color) the focus tends to be on how we don’t breastfeed. My entire first post was devoted to this topic. We focus on disparities and inequities and disease and death. Those things are extremely important. They must be talked about and talked about often.
As important as these conversations are, I wonder if constantly talking about the deficits of Native mothers is creating much more harm than good. There are a few things I know without a doubt, Native mothers are some of the strongest, most devoted mothers on earth and ALL mothers want nothing but the best for their children.
When I attend community events my most favorite moments are when an elder comes up to me and whispers “I breastfed my son until he was 5 years old,” as if she is telling me something that she has never told anyone before. I hear stories like this all the time. Stories that show us time and time again that Native women do- in fact breastfeed and have always breastfed.
A Snoqualmie grandmother shared her breastfeeding story with me. She stated, “I have lain down and gave birth to 6 children. I breastfed for 16 continuous years, and let me tell you, I have made many many mistakes as a mother but I have never regretted one second I spent nourishing my children- mind, body and spirit.”
A Tlingit woman shared beautiful memories of her mother and aunties. She said that when she and her cousins were little they would all stay together when their mothers were picking berries, drying salmon or doing some other type of work. One of the sisters always stayed back with the kids and would nurse the children that were still breastfeeding. She had distinct memories of her little brothers being nursed by her aunties.
A Yakima mother of 4 grown children told me her breastfeeding journey. She had all 4 of her children by the age of 19. For a bulk of the time she was breastfeeding she was nursing at least 2 children. She said that she had so much milk that her arms could not comfortably lie at her side. The nurses at the hospital in Yakima heard about “this Indian women on the rez” who made a lot of milk. She states one day a nurse showed up at her house with a pump that she operated with her foot. They told her that the babies in the NICU needed her milk and asked if she would pump milk for them. She agreed. The nurses would come by regularly and pick up her milk and bring it back to the sickest of babies. She did this for years.
“I fed them all,” she said.
“What do you mean you fed them all?” I asked.
“I mean I fed them all,” she answered.
There are so many stories like this. Are you Native and do you breastfeed? Do you have a breastfeeding story/memory to share? If so, tell us about it!
I am writing this, our first ever blog post, from the Native American Breastfeeding Coalition of Washington’s booth at the 2014 University of Washington Spring Powwow.
There are several powwows year-round in Washington, but UW’s is the unofficial start to powwow season. It’s indoors, three days long, and plays host to thousands of people from around the Northwest and beyond.
I always love UW’s powwow because it’s a preview of what’s new. During the “off season” beaders inevitably come up with some new trending style that they all seem to share telepathically--shirt designs or star quilt colors…a slogan or a new type of earring. This year it’s Seahawks (Seattle’s still a bit excited about this whole Super Bowl thing). There are Seahawk medallions, Seahawk quilts, Seahawk shirts, Seahawk prints, Seahawk barrettes...I couldn’t resist a pair of Seahawk earrings. I even saw a Seahawk jingle dress.
But with all the change, there are the regular standbys that is guaranteed to be at every powwow: the multigenerational family wearing matching shirts (or Seahawks jerseys), fry bread, salmon jerky being sold on the sly out of backpacks, kids running around free and reckless (at a powwow everyone and no one has a constant eye on your kid) and that pulsing background music-- a perfect mixture of drums, jingles, old friends reuniting and laughter.
Beyond the beads and drums and greetings, however, there is another inevitable occurrence I can always count on being there—bottles…lots and lots of bottles. They are in stroller cup holders, poking out of diaper bags, being made by aunties and moms and dads and siblings… and of course in the mouths of our native babies. Bottles have become commonplace in our community. Bottle-feeding has become a cultural norm.
Currently, the recommendation is that all babies get nothing but breastmilk for the first six months of their life followed with breastfeeding for as long as both mom and baby would like to continue (with 2 years being the minimum).
As of 2012, less than 10% of Native babies meet those recommendations. That means nine out of ten Native infants receive either artificial infant milk (formula) or solid foods before they are six months old.
The health implications of this failure are far too great. American Indians and Alaska Natives are less healthy and die sooner than their non-Native counterparts. We are affected at epidemic proportions of diabetes, heart disease, obesity and cancer. Our babies are dying of SIDS at five times the rate than other babies. Research continues to show that breastfeeding plays a significant role in decreasing the risk of all of these illnesses. With SIDS, especially, we see an increased risk of 75% for babies that are not breastfed.
Let’s sit with that terrifying piece of data for a minute:
A 75% increased risk of dying from SIDS if you do not breastfeed.
Native babies are dying. Native people are dying sooner that they need to. This should not be ok with any of us.
Breastfeeding—traditional, nurturing, free, strong, spiritual, and a once-honored part of Native culture—helps solve this problem.
This is why we have launched Indian Country Breastfeeds. It is through this website and blog that we hope to bring attention to the crucial importance of breastfeeding in our communities. We hope to learn, share, and connect with those working hard to increase the breastfeeding rates among our people.
Won’t you join us?
Join us in making Indian Country, Breastfeeding Country.
Meet the Author
Camie Jae Goldhammer, MSW, CLE, IBCLC, (Sisseton-Wahpeton) is the founder and chair of the Native American Breastfeeding Coalition of Washington, a member of the Native American Women's Dialogue on Infant Mortality, and a founding member of the Collaborative for Breastfeeding Action and Justice. Her work focuses on the effects of historical and complex traumas on American Indian/Alaska Native families, inequity in breastfeeding support, breastfeeding justice, and food/tribal sovereignty through breastfeeding.