When Camie Jae Goldhammer gave birth to her eldest daughter in 2009, it didn’t go the way she planned: She ended up having an unplanned caesarean after hoping for a vaginal birth.
But she says when she was handed her baby and the nurse encouraged her to try breastfeeding, it was a healing moment.
It “felt like we were visited by my ancestors, the women that came before me,” Goldhammer said.
At the time, Goldhammer, who is Sisseton-Wahpeton and living in Washington State, was a licensed social worker focused on issues of intergenerational trauma in the Native community. No one in her family had breastfed for generations, and when she started looking for resources, she couldn’t find any specifically designed for Native women.
So in 2010, she started the Native American Breastfeeding Coalition of Washington and three years later, she became a certified clinical lactation consultant — the highest breastfeeding credential you can pursue.
A year later, she met her “breast friend,” Kimberly Moore-Salas, at the National Breastfeeding Conference.
Moore-Salas grew up on and off the Navajo Reservation in Arizona, watching her mother and aunties breastfeed and riding the bus to the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) office with her mom for formula and food vouchers.
Years later, when she began having her own children, Moore-Salas knew that she wanted to breastfeed and thought it would come naturally. When it didn’t, she reached out to the Indian Health Service breastfeeding support program.
The experience inspired her to help other women: When she was ready to go back to work, she started a job with the WIC program and became a breastfeeding peer counselor. Then she went to work at a hospital where she could train to become a certified lactation consultant.
Despite being told that she wouldn’t make it because she lacked a nursing background and the right college credits, Moore-Salas eventually finished her training and started working as a full-time lactation consultant in Phoenix.
In 2017, Goldhammer and Moore-Salas launched the Indigenous Breastfeeding Counselor training — a 45-hour foundational lactation course to “train Indigenous people as breastfeeding peer counselors so they can serve their own community.”
The pair led their first training in Barrow, Alaska, in 2017. Since then, they have taught nine other trainings, from Hawaii to Standing Rock, and certified 220 Indigenous breastfeeding counselors.
Jasha Lyons Echo-Hawk (Seminole/Pawnee/Creek/Omaha/Iowa), a doula, activist and student midwife, founded Native Breastfeeding Week last year to break down colonial norms associated with parenting and make Native breastfeeding experiences more visible.
This Native Breastfeeding Week, Indigenous lactation advocates like Goldhammer and Moore-Salas are coming together to hold workshops and virtual events to celebrate, decolonize and make visible the diversity of Native lactation experiences. Indigenous women breastfeed at rates below the national average, often due to cultural trauma and ongoing health care disparities, they say.
“Lactation is my superpower, but it also seems to be treated like a privilege and not a sovereign right, regardless of whether you’re Native or not,” Lyons Echo-Hawk said.
At workshops, Goldhammer tells participants that “all of this information is in your memory, you have it in you, it’s been passed down from generation to generation. We just want to give you the space to come into that knowledge.”
Many women of color have been shut out of lactation education due to the high cost of licensing and credentialing requirements that require formal education, Goldhammer says. Goldhammer and Moore-Salas are two of only about a dozen Indigenous certified lactation consultants, out of more than 18,000 in the United States.
As they launched the Indigenous Breastfeeding Counselor program, Goldhammer and Moore-Salas said they received immense support from the Black breastfeeding community, particularly the team at Reaching Our Sisters Everywhere in Atlanta.
“The solidarity that has occurred in breastfeeding and BIPOC communities as a whole has made a huge difference because for a lot of us we felt like we were the only ones doing something,” said Goldhammer.
In their workshops, Goldhammer and Moore-Salas are intentional about taking a different approach to their teaching. “We talk about how to decolonize certain practices” in parenting, said Moore-Salas, and how bodies, the land and water interconnect.
That can also mean trying to provide a culturally relevant environment. For Amber Wong, a Native Hawaiian and a certified lactation consultant based out of the Waimānalo WIC Clinic in rural Oahu, seeing her skin color reflected in the model breasts was powerful. When she invited Goldhammer and Moore-Salas to Hawaii, she asked them to integrate Native Hawaiian learning and practices into the training. They included speakers on Native Hawaiian trauma and plant medicine, and featured events like a saltwater cleansing and traditional foods feast.
For many Indigenous women, cultural trauma has created a barrier to breastfeeding.
“The genocidal policy of kidnapping Native children from their families and putting them into Indian boarding schools didn’t happen a million years ago, it didn’t even happen a hundred years ago for some of us. It happened, for me, two generations ago,” said Lyons Echo-Hawk. Her grandmother was taken to an American Indian Boarding School — designed to strip Native communities of their way of life — when she was 5 years old. Colonial acts like this displaced families and built shame in Native communities that interrupted intergenerational teaching like breastfeeding, she says.
Lyons Echo-Hawk sees lactation not only as a way of providing for the next generation, but as a way to heal past ones.
“Little by little we are doing things to undo the things that happened to us, that happened to our previous ancestors.”