Honoring the Ways Indigenous Women Feed Their Families

Rachael Lorenzo

I am doing the best I can as an urban indigenous woman. I do not always remember to put my cornmeal down at sunrise, the Pueblo way. I keep forgetting to ask my tribal home visitor to bring us some pollen so I can teach my daughter how to pray the Apache way. But one thing I always remember to do is feed my family. Eating is one of the most sacred things we do as Native people. To me, breastfeeding is also sacred. It is one of the hardest things I have ever done as a mother.

Thankfully there are growing movements surrounding indigenous breastfeeding. The Navajo Nation Breastfeeding Coalition is gaining prominence and started a “Mommy Cafe” where mothers and babies gather together to socialize. Young Women United created a Twitter chat called “#1stSacredFood,” by and for Native women and parents, last year. This year, it got over double the exposure.

When I was pregnant with my first child, Adalie, I was inundated with “breast is best” rhetoric. There was so much pressure to exclusively breastfeed from the media, my WIC caseworker, my peers, strangers on the street and in the store. I watched “The Business of Being Born” on Netflix over and over again. 

I was so determined to have the ultimate birth experience: unmedicated, with my mom and husband around, and the perfect latch. 

That is not at all how it went. I had such low fluid, oligohydramnios, that I needed a Cesarean section. I was terrified and I only had one major contraction. I was starved for over 24 hours and heavily medicated. I could barely hold my baby. When I tried to feed her, she kept “falling off” my breasts and the nurses seemed to get so frustrated with me that I stopped asking for help. They gave me a nipple shield and never explained what it was for. I went home after three days and my baby lost weight; her skin was getting drier and flakier. I needed to give her formula and I was frustrated that my husband woke me up every three hours on the dot to feed her. I cried in the pediatrician’s office when they gave me Enfamil and assured me I am a good mother. I did not give up breastfeeding. There was something in me that kept trying. I soon realized that formula feeding and breastfeeding are not mutually exclusive and my baby is growing perfectly with both. I was able to breastfeed until she was eighteen months. That’s a win, right?

When I became pregnant with my son, Jude, I was faced with the same circumstances: oligohydramnios and very little fetal movement. I was measuring thirty-two weeks and I was thirty-eight weeks. I made the choice to schedule the C-section. There was a fundamental difference between these two birth experiences, though: I had care providers who took time to understand my family and me. While they are not Native, or women of color, they had some understanding of how my family functioned. They encouraged my husband and me to seek traditional teachings surrounding pregnancy, birth and feeding. They asked questions about what we ate, what our parents are like, what our values are when it comes to eating, feeding my baby, parenting, work, what our interests are. They asked us about the art on our walls, the books on our shelves. This made all the difference in the world.

When they told me to go to the hospital to get my fluid levels checked, they made sure to tell me that I am a good mother for trusting my instinct. They said whatever decision I made about how I gave birth was the right one. Because I had that confidence, I went into the operating room with my doula’s pain management techniques to calm my nerves. When my son was born, we had skin to skin contact immediately after I was sewn back up. All my experiences, positive and negative, throughout my pregnancy and birth culminated in the moment I put my son to my breast. He latched perfectly. I was so overwhelmed with joy but also regret. Why did I not seek out answers from my elders with my first pregnancy? Does my daughter not deserve what I am experiencing with her brother?

Something in me clicked: this is what resilience is. I did not deal with a new baby who could not latch, but rather, she dealt with me not seeking our traditional ways. I realized that I am an indigenous woman in a very westernized world, feeding my babies the best way I know how, with what I have. That realization is sacred to me.

An elder in Laguna Pueblo, where I grew up, told me stories about her mother and grandmother breastfeeding that stuck with me: feeding each other was how we survived. We breastfed each other’s babies. When relations from other Pueblos were visiting or passing through, we fed those families and we helped with breastfeeding if needed. It sounds weird today — it may even look weird — but that may just be because our indigenous knowledge systems have been replaced with linear, westernized thinking.

For too long we, as indigenous people, have been told how to parent our children, how to feed them, how to fix their hair, how to dress them, where to send them to school. Now we are taking back our traditions and storytelling, changing the narrative, and it should always include breastfeeding. We may not always have the chance to exclusively breastfeed, and that is okay because we are surviving the best we know how. We are our children’s first teachers, first loves, and we should always feed them with that in our minds, however we feed them.

Rachael Lorenzo (Mescalero Apache/Laguna Pueblo) is the policy associate at Young Women United, which leads reproductive justice organizing and policy initiatives by and for self-identified young women of color in New Mexico.

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