LANSING — Doodooshaaboo, or breastfeeding, is a traditional practice in the Anishinaabek culture, but today’s Indigenous mothers and babies have statistically one of the lowest rates of exclusive breastfeeding at six months of age in all races or ethnicities nationwide, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The organization recommends that babies be fed exclusively breast milk for the first six months of life.
However, few American mothers achieve this goal – only about 25% overall, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Aboriginal mothers are 50% less likely than white mothers to reach the age of six months.
As part of Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s commitment to supporting the vital role breastfeeding plays in providing a strong foundation for Michigan’s infants, August 2020 has been declared National Breastfeeding Month. Awareness month includes the second week, August 8-14, as Aboriginal Breastfeeding Week.
The proclamation signed by Whitmer said Michigan is committed to improving outcomes for Native mothers and infants during prenatal, postpartum and lactation support to reduce Michigan’s infant mortality rates.
“Indigenous maternal mortality is two to three times higher than white maternal mortality and Indigenous infant mortality is three times higher than white infant mortality with a 73% increased mortality risk if the baby is not breastfed,” Whitmer said.
For Aboriginal families, breastfeeding can play a role in general health issues. CDC data shows that American Indians and Alaska Natives face the highest rates of obesity and diabetes.
Michigan recognizes the grief of Indigenous peoples and joins in mourning the loss of Indigenous children “whose remains were and are being discovered on stolen land and those who were denied their birthright to the perfect first food “, said Whitmer in the proclamation.
For centuries, the tribal nations of North America were forcibly removed from their homeland and placed on federal reservations. Beginning in the 19th century, the American and Canadian governments began forcibly separating Indigenous children from their families. They were sent to off-reserve boarding schools.
In addition, Indigenous peoples have been and still face systemic racism. This has an impact on Aboriginal families who are trying to breastfeed.
Breastfeeding wasn’t a norm growing up for Angie Sanchez, a tribal citizen of Ottawa’s Grand Traverse Band and Chippewa Indian. She said she and her siblings were not breastfed, nor were people she knew in her community.
This knowledge was not passed on and it was not something that really crossed her mind until she had her own baby.
Sanchez said she knew she wanted to breastfeed, but didn’t know who to turn to within her family or community when problems arose to feed her son.
“I really didn’t understand the power of breast milk back then, and it’s so much deeper than just food,” Sanchez said.
She was able to correct the problem with a lactation consultant, but wondered how many other Aboriginal mothers have or struggle with breastfeeding and end up stopping due to lack of support?
This led to Sanchez undergoing a week-long training in Sault Ste. Marie and become certified as an Indigenous lactation consultant in 2019.
The program was hosted by Reanne Madison, Traditional Ojibwe and Mexika Birthkeeper of the Michigan Intertribal Council and under the direction of Camie Goldhammer, MSW, LICSW, IBCLC of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate.
The training provided Sanchez and other participants with support and education to help decolonize parenting and food traditions within their communities. The education in the program is different from other lactation certification classes, Sanchez said; they provide culturally appropriate breastfeeding support that includes trauma learning, due to the long history Indigenous mothers have been continually separated from their babies.
So, during her first year as a doctoral student in the Department of Geography, Environment, and Space Sciences at Michigan State University, Sanchez applied for a grant to help change that for native mothers in Michigan.
She and her advisor, Dr. Sue Grady, received $344,406 from the Michigan Health Endowment in September 2020 to support the “Embracing Culture” Native American Breastfeeding Initiative.
“I want to pull the resources together,” Sanchez said. She explained that, under the guidance of her advisor, “we are looking at where rates of breastfeeding initiation are low among Native American women in Michigan and collecting that data.”
From there, they will assess where rates are low and assess where it is needed, she said.
The grant will implement breastfeeding programs in six Michigan tribal communities, two in the Upper Peninsula and four in the Lower Peninsula. Over 150 Indigenous people will be trained and certified as Indigenous Breastfeeding Counselors to bring breastfeeding back as a ceremony in their communities.
The certification is a week-long, 40-hour program for Indigenous Peoples. Additionally, health workers and other Indigenous peoples will be trained on how best to support breastfeeding in their communities.
Sanchez said the act of breastfeeding is “medicine” and is the first medicine babies receive.
“It’s our right to have this ceremony with our babies.”
Classes will be available in Michigan beginning in the spring of 2022.