By Amy Agnello
Issue 107, July/August 2001
Breastfeeding is the cornerstone of the early mothering experience, building an inextricable bond between parent and baby. By nursing, we create a sense of peace and safety for our babies, providing refuge and establishing a foundation upon which healthy and happy futures are built. This is just one of many reasons why a group of American Indian women in one Minnesota community are making a concerted effort to return to breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is a part of traditional Indian parenting; but a number of factors, including the ubiquitous promotion of formula, enforced assimilation into the larger culture, and the marginalization of indigenous people, have contributed to significantly reducing the practice.
The impact of more than 400 years of genocide continues to be felt in Indian America. Indian people have been pushed to the margins and to near invisibility by the dominant culture. Yet in rural areas and urban centers throughout this country, Indian communities continue-some thriving, some struggling, raising families and looking to future generations to carry on language, culture, and religious traditions.
As a result, there is a tremendous need for culturally relevant services, resources, and support for Indian families. Breastfeeding can help establish and restore families; it deepens a mother's confidence in her ability to meet her family's needs while she relies on the integral support of other family members to maintain the nursing relationship. The involvement of community is a vital part of this connection. In 1999, Sara Brave Heart, a woman of Cherokee descent living in St. Paul, Minnesota, saw this ad in a weekly American Indian newspaper: "Seeking native women to provide breastfeeding support to other native women." A certified La Leche League leader, longtime political activist, and advocate for Indian issues, natural parenting, and breastfeeding, Brave Heart responded by joining forces with two other women: Artie Thompson, a breastfeeding peer counselor and doula (professional labor support assistant), and Mary Rose, a community health nurse. Together, the three formed a breastfeeding advocacy and support group to serve Indian women and their families in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area. They called the group Nature's Way Circle. The "Twin Cities" are home to more than 20,000 Indian people, most of them from tribes spread throughout Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and the Dakotas. Nature's Way Circle provides outreach and education to urban Indian mothers through home and hospital visits, informational materials, a breast pump loan program, and a biweekly support group. In the interview that follows, Sara Brave Heart discusses Nature's Way Circle, a return to traditionalism in the urban Indian community, healing families and communities, and grassroots organizing as a means to social change.
What was the inspiration for Nature's Way Circle?
A woman named Joan Dodgson, who was working on a master's thesis at the University of Minnesota that focused on her work as a nurse with communities of color, talked with Indian women in Minneapolis about breastfeeding and found a lack of resources for them. She placed an ad in The Circle [an American Indian newspaper] asking for native women interested in supporting other native women who wished to breastfeed. At the time, I was getting my certification as a La Leche League leader, and my primary interest was to get breastfeeding information and bring it back to the Indian community. I answered Joan's ad, and we began meeting in June 1999 with community health nurses, people from the Indian Health Board and the Minnesota Indian Women's Resource Center, and others. One of the women at the meetings was Artie Thompson, a doula and breastfeeding peer counselor in the African American community. Like me, Artie was a stay-at-home mom. We also met Mary Rose, a community health nurse at the American Indian Family Center in St. Paul. The three of us produced a brochure, did publicity at powwows and other cultural events, and then launched our monthly daytime meetings. We've recently expanded the program to include a monthly nighttime meeting.
Did you see this as political organizing?
Certainly. Because we're a grassroots organization and don't have 501c3 status, we needed a fiscal agent. The St. Paul American Indian Family Center agreed to serve as the umbrella organization for a March of Dimes grant we wanted to apply for. Several other organizations donated meeting space, postage, photocopying, and so on. The other leaders and I donated our time and expenses. We produced our own brochures and informational materials, which gave us a wonderful freedom in terms of content. At one point the Ramsey County Health Department [in St. Paul] offered to produce a glossy informational brochure for us. We gave them our draft and found that they had omitted all the information that we included about traditional values. They also cut out our cautions about not going on Depo-Provera birth control shots while nursing, not consuming alcohol, and anything remotely controversial or Indian. We knew this wasn't what we were about, and in the end we refused the offer. I co-wrote the March of Dimes grant with LaVon Lee, director of the St. Paul American Indian Family Center, and eventually we received $4,000. We found a home at the St. Paul American Indian Family Center. We bought two breast pumps in addition to the two others we had, to loan out to moms. We developed informational folders dealing with many issues facing mothers, such as returning to work or school (many of the moms we work with are still in high school or college), pregnancy, and older babies and nursing. Indian people have the highest rate of incarceration and the highest rates of fetal alcohol syndrome, diabetes, and cancer. Breastfeeding helps the whole family spiritually and physically. Indian people need this healing.
What obstacles have you had to overcome to reach people?
Financially, we had a lot to overcome. We had to write our own materials and find funding. Finding a place to hold meetings consistently was hard. In the Indian community it takes quite a long time to build up people's awareness and trust of something new. We set up tables at powwows and put notices in The Circle. It has really been a matter of getting the women there; once they come, they continue to come. We operate on a lot of different levels, depending on where and how the moms need support. Some only call us or relay a message asking us to contact them; some prefer to come to meetings; others ask for help or information only if they see us at someone's house or at a cultural event. Mary has done a lot of outreach with her home visits, too.
Are there other groups of this kind that you are aware of?
I don't know of any. We have connected with women here in the Twin Cities who have been providing traditional birthing support for years. We're the newest generation. We may have access and support that makes putting a group together much simpler than in the past, but we are doing old work.
In your opinion, is the Indian community being targeted more actively by the baby-formula industry?
Due to poverty, lack of education, and isolation, Indian people are more vulnerable to misinformation or partial information, like the promotion of formula. Even in the city, reliance on government programs means that many options are not presented, and information is limited. A lot of programs are willing to give free formula but not to help with breastfeeding support. Thinking about the history of Indian people is a constant motivator to help women with breastfeeding, for the healing of the entire community.
Have you found any kind of stigma regarding breastfeeding in the Indian community?
I think the Indian community is broken in a lot of ways. There is a lot of abuse: sexual abuse, physical abuse, abuse of drugs and alcohol. For some people, breastfeeding is too sexual; they're not comfortable with nursing around family, because those family members may have been sexually inappropriate in the past. Some people have also really bought into Western medicine and Western ideas. They do not believe breastfeeding is any better than formula. Because of emotional, spiritual, and sexual abuse, giving your baby your body can be really hard. For the most part, there is a strong cultural pride around breastfeeding. I nursed my three- year-old son for a long time. I would nurse him in the company of men at different cultural events and found that these men would begin to talk in a prideful way about breastfeeding, remembering that "My mom breastfed me." Many women are also proud to talk about breastfeeding and have been brought up seeing breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is a cultural tradition in our community. One way to be connected to the ancestors today is to breastfeed.
What has been the response of the community to your group?
I recently attended a baby shower at the Indian Center, and Artie introduced Nature's Way Circle and invited women to come over to visit the booth after the shower. Tara, who has been attending our meetings, leaned over to me and said, "Artie didn't say how fun the meetings are, too." We surveyed all of the meeting participants from the past year recently and received high scores from everybody. People feel that the leaders and the meetings are approachable. In my work with La Leche League, strangers often will call with questions-they are comfortable doing that; but with Nature's Way Circle it is about becoming friends with these women. I am the same as them. It's been wonderful to get support as a nursing mom for myself as well. Many young mothers who did not nurse their first babies are now nursing their second.
How do you define traditional Indian parenting?
There's a hunger in the Indian community for traditional things, traditional values. Even if we don't understand them completely, we want them in our lives, and we want them for our kids. Breastfeeding encompasses a lot of subjects. We talk about natural childbirth and child spacing, swaddling, using cradleboards and hammocks, and carrying your baby. Innate respect for children is a traditional part of the culture. The Lakota word for baby, wakan heja, means "sacred being." We encourage the bonding that naturally happens. We try to awaken and reinforce these values, and we encourage long-term breastfeeding whenever possible.
Tell me about a success story related to Nature's Way Circle.
There is a 15-year-old mom whom Artie worked with as a doula. She came to one or two meetings before she had her daughter. Her home life is unstable, and the baby's dad is just 16. To look at her and her daughter you would think, "Oh, that poor baby," but she's breastfed exclusively and she breastfeeds in the open; there is no shame. She is absolutely devoted to her daughter. She is a great model for other young moms. We're all really proud of her.
What are your hopes for the future of Nature's Way Circle?
Our short-term plans include monthly speakers, people from the Indian community who have a particularly powerful insight to share about breastfeeding. We are planning a spring feast and give-away in honor of breastfeeding moms and their families. We also hope to hold family meetings to lend support to dads, siblings, and extended family. Before the world became industrialized, women always breastfed, and babies were birthed by midwives. There were women to help this process along, whether they were called witches, midwives, doulas, aunties, medicine women, or grandmothers. So we are just women today who're fortunate enough to have the privilege of supporting mothers who remember this connection to traditional ways of parenting and who want the best for their babies. That is how we got the name Nature's Way-because it is nature's way to breastfeed our babies.
For more information about Nature's Way Circle, contact The American Indian Family Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, at 651-793-3803.
Amy Agnello is a writer, prenatal and postpartum yoga teacher, and mother. She lives in Olympia, Washington, with her husband, Michael, and daughter, Luna, who recently turned 1.