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Breastfeeding coalitions emerging across Indian Country

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By Bill Graves / Native Health News Alliance

Crystal Leonard and Coltrane Leonard

Crystal Leonard, Navajo, holds her son Coltrane Leonard, who is now 3 years old.
Credit: Indian Health Service

By mid-October of 2013, two months before she is to deliver her first child, Shallee Baker has no doubts about how she will feed her baby boy.

Her tribe, the S’Klallam, has repeatedly reminded her breastfeeding is far and away healthier for her baby than formula. She gets that message during nutrition appointments at the tribal health center, when the public health nurse visits her and when she periodically joins a young mother’s group on the tribe’s Port Gamble reservation on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula where she lives.

“It is out of my comfort zone,” says Baker, 23.  “It is going to be different. But I really want to do it because it is best for the baby.”

Baker receives consistent breastfeeding education as a result of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe’s Breastfeeding Project, launched early in 2013. In September, the tribe brought Camie Jae Goldhammer, 32, Seattle, founder and chairwoman of the Native American Breastfeeding Coalition of Washington, to talk to Baker and the young mothers group.

The S’Klallam project, Goldhammer’s group, the Oregon Inter-Tribal Breastfeeding Coalition and other tribal and statewide Native breastfeeding coalitions are sprouting from the ground up in Nevada, Arizona, South Dakota, and other parts of Indian Country, teaching Native mothers that breastfeeding is the natural, traditional, healthy way to feed their babies.

That same message is spreading from the top down through multiple national channels, including:

The push for breastfeeding is gaining steam because health leaders are more clearly seeing its power to improve children’s health, strengthen mother-child bonds and keep families connected to Native tradition.

Rose Hill, 70, of Portland, member of the Oneida and cultural adviser to the Native breastfeeding coalition in Oregon, says breastfeeding “has always been a unique bond between women and babies supported by the community and the sisterhood of the tribe. …It seems like such a natural thing that we have lost touch with.”

But Native mothers, indeed all American mothers, have a long way to go in making breast milk their infants’ prevailing diet, according to 2011 pediatric nutritional surveillance statistics reported by the Centers for Disease Control:

  • Sixty-nine percent of Native American mothers breastfeed their babies at birth, which is higher than the 66 percent average and higher than all other racial and ethnic groups except for Latina and Asian/Pacific Islander mothers.
  • Only 28 percent of Native mothers, however, are still breastfeeding six months after their children’s birth.
  • Only 17 percent are breastfeeding after a year. IHS wants to see all Native mothers breastfeed exclusively for six months and with supplements for at least a year.
Port Gamble

The young mother’s group gathers in October by the doors of the traditional longhouse on the Port Gamble S’klallam Tribe reservation on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. From left: Judy DeCoteau, family support specialist holding baby Judy Lynn, daughter of Amanda Purser; Maria Mockel with her baby, Teagan; Heila Blair, community health nurse; Sierra DeCoteau, holding her baby, Nakaya; Paris Orallo, Blair’s daughter; Jordan DeCoteau in red shirt behind Paris; Savannah Strickland; Amy Membrere, mental health counselor with her baby, Wyatt; and Shallee Baker.
Credit: Bill Graves

Breastfeeding health benefits

Mother by mother, Native Americans are learning about the power of breast milk, well-documented in studies, to foster brain growth and reduce a host of health problems afflicting Native children, including Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, obesity, type 2 diabetes, allergies, respiratory infections, asthma, ear infections and tooth decay.

“Breastfeeding is normal; formula is artificial,” says Clifton J. Kenon Jr., maternal and child health consultant for the IHS Aberdeen region encompassing Iowa, Nebraska and North and South Dakota.  “Breastfeeding is superior; formula is inferior.”

Still, health workers say they continue to see some Native mothers and grandmothers encourage their young moms to use formula for convenience, especially if they work. Despite the S’Klallam’s stepped-up emphasis on breastfeeding, tribal member Jordan DeCoteau, 19, says she breastfed her 7-month-old baby for only a week. She decided formula would be easier, and her mother and grandmother agreed.

“When I breastfed, she was up a lot, and I barely got any sleep,” DeCoteau says.

When Goldhammer delivered her first baby more than four years ago, she immediately breastfed her child, restoring a tradition lost four generations in her family.

“We didn’t breastfeed in my family,” says Goldhammer, who is Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate. The effects of historical trauma — of four generations of boarding schools, foster care, tribal displacement and assimilation — has severed Native women in her family and many others from a practice that had been standard for thousands of years, she says.

“My mom said it had never crossed her mind to breastfeed,” Goldhammer says. “With her, at that point, the tradition was lost. There was no longer any knowledge of how to do it.”

Camie Jae Goldhammer and daughter Dylan Phaye Goldhammer

Camie Jae Goldhammer of Seattle holds her daughter, Dylan Phaye Goldhammer. Goldhammer, Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, founded the Native American Breastfeeding Coalition of Washington in 2010.
Credit: Indian Health Service

Coalitions emerge

As Goldhammer learned about the dramatic health benefits of nursing her child, she decided to make it her mission to promote breastfeeding among Native American women. She created the Native American Breastfeeding Coalition of Washington in 2010.

She now works one-on-one with Native mothers to help them breastfeed their children as Washington’s sole Native American lactation consultant and is helping tribes and clinics across the state promote breastfeeding and laws that support mothers who want to breastfeed on the job and in public places.

She is also joining forces with Roberta (Eaglehorse) Otiz of Portland, Ore., who  in September launched the Oregon Inter-Tribal Breastfeeding Coalition. Ortiz, 37, Oglala Lakota and Shoshone and a trained community health worker and doula, is breastfeeding her 7-month-old boy, Ukiah, just as she did her previous four children.

She has enlisted about 20 mothers and health care workers in her coalition and is writing a grant proposal to train 30 to 40 mothers to serve as peer counselors to new moms who want to breastfeed.

Breastfeeding “promotes clean and sober living,” says Ortiz

In interviews, Ortiz and five mothers in her coalition all said that they, unlike Goldhammer, come from tribal families who breastfed their children. At least for them, the tie was never broken.

“Everybody breastfeeds in my family,” says Ortiz.

Barbie Shields, 33, of Portland, a student and member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, says her mother and grandmother touted breastfeeding.

“It has always been since the beginning of time the source of food for infants,” says Shields, who is now breastfeeding her third child, a 5-month-old girl. “There is nothing artificial about breastfeeding.”

Support for breastfeeding moms

On one foggy October morning at Port Gamble reservation, mothers gather in the housing center conference room within the tribal headquarters complex, called Little Boston. Over lunch, they share information and show off their babies. Among them is Sierra DeCoteau, 18, of the S’Klallam who sits quietly by a wall breastfeeding her 2-month-old baby, Nakaya. Most of the young mothers also breastfeed their babies, and those still pregnant say they will too.

They know they have a room available at the nearby tribal Health Center to breastfeed their children. And Heila Blair, the community health nurse and a lactation consultant, is available if they have any problems breastfeeding. Kahti Paydar, nutritionist and WIC coordinator at the Health Center, also will be encouraging them to breastfeed, unlike the old days when WIC used to supply formula.

“There is no sign of formula anywhere,” says Paydar.

The tribe has used a $34,000 federal grant to set up the breastfeeding room, provide young moms breast pumps and organize its education campaign. It is just one more way Native Americans are returning to their roots, says Emma R. Medicine White Crow, Comanche and Cherokee, who leads the breastfeeding project at Port Gamble.

“We were informed by Western medicine that formula is the best you can do for kids,” she says. “We’re going back to honoring how we fulfilled the role of mother and provider.”

© Native Health News Alliance

The Native Health News Alliance (NHNA) is a nonprofit organization working in partnership with the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) to create and promote shared health news content for American Indian communities at no cost.