Breastfeeding and Food Sovereignty
Being a young mother in college means I search for every way to minimize expenses. This is one of the benefits of hand-me-downs and cloth diapering, but also breastfeeding. Costs are high, especially being a mother of twins who are now two yet not potty-trained. For me though, while hand-me-downs and cloth diapers are convenient and have various intrinsic values, breastfeeding specifically has a deeper meaning.
I am a big supporter of knowing and practicing one’s heritage. For Native Americans, that means breastfeeding. Think about this for a second: what if grandmothers seven generations back didn’t breastfeed their children? I named my daughter Sinopah for her grandmother of seven generations, Sinopah-aki, and it is humbling to think that my daughter wouldn’t be here if our grandmother didn’t breastfeed. Camie Jae Goldhammer, 1 of 10 Native Americans who is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, says that 40% of reservations don’t have running water, and of that 40%, 13% of that water is contaminated and not suitable for use with formula to feed an infant. On top of that, only 10% of Native infants are exclusively breastfed for the recommended first six months of life. According to census.gov, in 2014 the Native American poverty rate was almost double (28.3%) the nation’s average of 15.5%. Why is it then that we are only seeing 10% of Native women breastfeeding when it is definitely the cheaper option?
The unresolved historical trauma from economic/sustenance loss, translocated refugee symptoms (i.e. lack of security), and forced dependence upon an oppressor have lasting effects. The disempowerment of our roles as sacred life-giving women gives rise to increased rates of domestic violence and child abuse, while negative impacts on our self-esteem lead to second guessing our ability to provide complete nutrition. That grandma you have who says, “Feed that baby a bottle” puts doubt in your mind about continuing to nurse because your baby seems to always be hungry, playing on an historical fear of starvation. Traditionally, parenting meant you were raising the caretaker for your nation. It is a sacred responsibility. We as a people did not own our children, we did not create that kind of co-dependency—that is assimilation. Our children were the center of our community; we knew the value of their wisdom because, like the elders, they are closest to the Creator.
Today, resilience gives us the chance to break the silence of our ancestors who were forced into boarding schools and institutionalized into thinking that we cannot stand apart from the majority. We can share the knowledge of the benefits of breastfeeding. The CDC tells us that Native infants have the highest mortality rate because of SIDs and the flu. But could this be because we are lacking that first food? Food sovereignty is a big thing in Indian Country right now, why then do we only have 10 Native lactation consultants in the country? Is breastmilk not enough of a first food? To me this is the epitome of the removal of our basic right to raise our children in our traditional ways.
Celina Gray is a student at Salish Kootenai College and the mother of twins.