Generational trauma among Native American cultures affects infant feeding

unnamedDressed in vibrant, traditional Native American clothing, adolescents stand together holding a sign that reads, “I Support Breastfeeding.” A man pictured in head dressing, a child with beautifully braided hair and a young woman in glistening jewelry hold signs in support of breastfeeding too.

“All walks of life” demonstrated their support for breastfeeding at this year’s Gathering of Nations (GON) Powwow held at the University of New Mexico, Young Women United Policy Intern Linda Nastacio writes in her blog post about her experience there.

Nastacio co-managed the Native Breastfeeding Twitter Chat from the Breastfeeding Tent during the Powwow where she and her colleagues live tweeted a discussion about infant feeding while hosting a culturally safe space for breastfeeding.

Also present at the Breastfeeding Tent was Rachael N. Riley, M.P.A.

Native-Breastfeeding-Twitter-Chat-copy-575x1024“The tent at GON is a phenomenal idea and a progressive one at that,” she says.  “I feel like the tent really did a great job facilitating bonding because the parent and baby could focus on bonding through feedings whether bottle or breastfeeding.”

Nastacio and Riley both address the importance of breastfeeding within their own Native American cultures. Nastacio represents the Pueblo of Zuni Indian Reservation and Riley is Mescalero Apache.

“When our babies are born, we hold them close to our hearts and chests, ready to nurse,” Nastacio says. “A bond is created as your first milk flows to your baby and you know it’s the best thing you’re doing for them. Trust is established and there is an intense overwhelming feeling of love. It’s unexplainable, unforgettable and sacred.”

Riley also acknowledges that breastfeeding is important for establishing trust between mother and baby. She says there is not much said about breastfeeding in her Native culture except that it is important for bonding and that it is intimate.

Rachael breastfeeding daughter Adalie March 2012.
Rachael breastfeeding daughter Adalie March 2012.

“To call it intimate is interesting to me, because it conveys a sense of maturity and a kind of awareness of the mother’s body and what she’s capable of,” Riley explains. “Calling breastfeeding intimate in our culture also reminds me of trust. I know it seems odd to some to think of a mother having trust in her baby but that’s what it is: trust that the baby knows when to cue for a feeding, trust that the baby knows how to latch or take a bottle, and trust that the baby knows when they are full.”

Breastfeeding culture stands at an interesting and complex position in the U.S. today; it’s even more complicated for Native American cultures dealing with generational trauma.

“Generational trauma is always present in every Native person’s life, whether they are cognizant of it or not, whether they are an urban Native or a ‘rez’ native,” Riley explains.

Riley identifies as both.

“As an indigenous woman– a term that I feel encompasses my three racial or ethnic identities– I see how federal policies, like the Indian Removal Act, play into how we view ourselves and our place in cultural or traditional society as well as western society,” she explains.

In her explanation of generational trauma, Riley references the Allotment Act which granted tribal land to white settlers.

“I see a connection to the land as part of identity and the forced removal of indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands hurt and nearly destroyed identities, and what it meant to be part of a community,” she explains.

Riley goes on to explain the “disgusting” and “shameful” acts by the federal government to promote Natives’ assimilation into Western culture. She references males having their hair cut off, students tortured for speaking their native languages and women forcibly sterilized.

Over the years, Native Americans adopted a western lifestyle, “because it really did make life easier,” Riley says. “I feel that is where many tribal communities begin to see the deterioration of traditional family values, the push for patriarchal and westernized family values.”

In this climate, Riley is concerned for her own children.

“My daughter is two and a half times more likely to be sexually assaulted and sold into human trafficking,” she states.

Expecting a son this summer, Riley says he will be “more likely to be targeted and attacked or killed by law enforcement.”

The robust history of Native American cultures weaves an intricate web including threads that threaten the sacred bond of breastfeeding.

Riley says her hope is that her “contribution to our Earth are two aware, compassionate, kind people who will know their cultures.”

Perhaps this hope begins by working to heal generational trauma by opening the dialogue about infant feeding within Native American cultures.

“A great way to normalize breastfeeding would be to get people and families to talk about breastfeeding and all the benefits that it has, creating more places that are baby-friendly, reaching out and working together with other communities, making breastfeeding a celebration and not a discrimination,” Nastacio suggests. “Native American families can embrace breastfeeding traditions and practice openly to teach our younger generation how very important it is to breastfeed and the connection it has to a healthy, longer life.”

Having struggled to breastfeed her daughter after a cesarean birth, Riley explains that the conversation needs to focus more on relationship rather than the “benefits of breastfeeding.”

Many mothers aren’t given the opportunity to attempt breastfeeding due to lack of support and the normalcy of bottle feeding in the U.S.

Riley says that general misunderstandings about infant feeding and lack of general support for breastfeeding force “so many families resort to formula feeding, which isn’t necessarily bad but they are not given the chance to truly explore whether or not breastfeeding would have been right for the moms while connecting to their culture and their baby.”

She wonders if the conversation about infant feeding is so westernized that “we don’t fully comprehend what challenges we really do face, from all sexualities, to becoming pregnant, through pregnancy, birth and then feeding.”

Rachael and Adalie, University of New Mexico’s School of Public Administration, Public Administration Graduate Student Association (PAGSA) photoshoot, August 2014
Rachael and Adalie, University of New Mexico’s School of Public Administration, Public Administration Graduate Student Association (PAGSA) photoshoot, August 2014

Here is what Riley suggests: “We need to talk to our mothers, grandmas, sisters, aunties, cousins, neighbors about how much we value feeding our children. We need to ask each other, ‘How can I support you with breastfeeding? How can I support you if you don’t want to breastfeed?’ Then we need to take the answers to our villages and tribal governments. We can also include community health programs in the conversation.”

Riley says she also wishes every rural and tribal community had a Baby-Friendly facility. In New Mexico, there are currently six Baby-Friendly Hospitals, four of which are on reservations.

“But three of them are on Navajo Nation reservation and one is on Zuni Pueblo,” Riley comments. “That leaves out other tribal and rural communities who could benefit from a culturally responsive facility.”
With a new baby on the way, Riley says she intends to “participate in conversations about making breastfeeding normalized–which is so strange, because why are we trying to normalize something that our bodies do naturally?”

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