Breastfeeding and First Nations Families

on June 20, 2016

Breastfeeding is the natural way of feeding babies for humans of every ethnic and cultural background. Canada’s First Nations peoples traditionally breastfed their babies. The period of breastfeeding usually lasted until the mother became pregnant with another child or the child was able to fill all of his nutritional needs by eating adult foods. Three to five years would have been the norm for breastfeeding duration. With the dramatic changes that have been experienced by Aboriginal peoples over the past 200 years – from living situations to the increased availability of non-traditional foods (including formula) and the cultural shifts away from the traditions of the past – breastfeeding went from being the norm to being less common. As families became disconnected from each other and their heritage, the wisdom and breastfeeding knowledge of the older women (the Grandmothers and Aunties) was often not available or discarded in favour of the lure of the modern and manufactured life style seen in the non-aboriginal communities and in the media.

The 2009-2010 Canadian Community Health Survey [1] looked at women across Canada who had given birth in the last 5 years and gathered information on birth and breastfeeding practices. The survey found that significantly fewer off-reserve Aboriginal mothers initiated breastfeeding (77.8%) than did non-Aboriginal mothers (88.0%) and significantly fewer off-reserve Aboriginal mothers breastfed their last child exclusively for six months (or more) (16.6%) than did non-Aboriginal mothers (26.7%). This survey did not include data for women who lived on reserves or in other Aboriginal settlements. Interestingly a comparison of breastfeeding initiation and duration rates of the First Nations communities in British Columbia using 2006 data found in the document STRONG WOMEN, STRONG NATIONS:  Aboriginal Maternal Health in British Columbia [2] showed higher rates than the Canadian average at that time.



The Canadian Community Health Survey included Inuit women living in the 10 largest communities in Nunavut but not those living in more remote communities. Their information was included in with the other off-reserve Aboriginal mothers. A 2006 Indigenous Childrens’ Heath Report [3] showed a rate of breastfeeding initiation for all Inuit children of 66% compared to the Canadian average at that time of 80%.

The good news is, like many cultural and ethnic groups, Aboriginal communities are working to reclaim their traditional breastfeeding knowledge and heritage. In 2013, the Kanesatake Health Center in Quebec became the first aboriginal health center in North America to receive an official BABY FRIENDLY Health Center designation. From 1995 to 2001, Jane Banks, CHN for the Kanesatake Health Center, developed and implemented a breastfeeding promotion program that saw breastfeeding initiation rates increase from 32% to 75 percent. This program called Ka’nisténhsera Teiakotihsnie`s [4] (KT), “she who helps the clan mother” applied principles of cultural competency and capacity building, utilizing the strengths within the people. Building on this foundation, ten years later, the health center began working toward Baby Friendly accreditation. This involved the adoption of a Baby Friendly policy; the training of staff and a dynamic group of breastfeeding peer support women; inter-generational gatherings; and establishing partnerships at many levels. The community has seen the breastfeeding initiation and duration rates increase substantially. Karen MacInnes, Maternal Child Health Nurse, reported, “At the time of our accreditation, not only did 90 percent of our mothers initiate breast feeding but 90 percent of those mothers breastfed six months and beyond!”

As part of the circle of support for breastfeeding families in Canada, La Leche League Leaders provide breastfeeding information and support to all Canadian parents. The resources of La Leche League are available, without cost to the participants, in-person in many communities and by phone or e-mail to those in remote communities. To find support check LLLC’s “Get Help” webpage [5].

While the bodily processes of breastfeeding are more or less the same for everyone, the questions and concerns of Aboriginal breastfeeding mothers may differ depending on their life situations and support systems. Some people are more comfortable receiving information when the language and cultural references are familiar and when the people in the photos seem familiar. The Ontario Best Start Resource Centre has created a breastfeeding resource for Aboriginal women called “Breastfeeding for the Health and Future of Our Nation [6]”. This booklet follows the medicine wheel and uses it to share key information and skills for breastfeeding. An Aboriginal mother from Yellowknife created a video sharing her own journey to gather information about breastfeeding during her first pregnancy. It can be seen HERE [7].


As Canada celebrates National Aboriginal Day on June 21st, La Leche League Canada joins with Aboriginal families in celebrating the traditional way of feeding our babies.

More Resources:
Breastfeeding for the Health and Future of Our Nation, Available in PDF in English, Cree and Ojibway.
The Creator’s Gift to Mothers, Shibogama First Nations Council

If you need more information or have a breastfeeding problem or concern, you are strongly encouraged to talk directly to an accredited La Leche League Leader. In Canada, Leaders can be located by clicking or Internationally

If you have found this article helpful, La Leche League Canada would appreciate your support in the form of a donation at so we can continue to help others breastfeed. Thank you!

LLLC Spring Appeal Campaign for the support of breastfed babies: Help LLLC Grow – If you, or someone you know, has benefited from the support of LLLC, a donation is one way you can “pay it forward”.
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Over 385,000 babies are born in Canada each year and we want to ensure every mother has access to La Leche League Canada support whenever she needs it. We are working hard to grow and we need your support. Every donation helps us provide more support to more families!
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Our volunteer Leaders are the cornerstone of LLLC and the support we provide. We have increased our Leaders by 10% in the past year and Leader Applicants by 40% over the past 2 years!
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Native Resistance: Decolonizing My Birth Experience

Christina and Baby360


Back story: My mom was born on the pueblo here in New Mexico with the assistance of a traditional midwife. The plan was for my grandmother to birth at the Indian hospital in Albuquerque, but as she could tell the baby was coming, they knew they weren’t going to make the hour drive. Thankfully at the time, there were still midwives in the village.  One was summoned to the adobe house where my grandma soon delivered my mother just fine.

By the time I came around, however, my family had migrated to Los Angeles for better opportunities during the Federal Indian Relocation era. My mom, still a teenager and fresh out of high school, birthed me at a local hospital and that was that.

Knowing how my mom came into this world made me curious about the tradition of midwifery in the pueblos. Once I learned I was expecting in the summer of 2012, even more so. Was there any Native midwives still practicing? I set about investigating home birthing locally, in books and on the web.

I was surprised to learn that in 1927, eighty-five percent of all births in the U.S. took place at home. Even in the 1940’s, fifty-five percent of births still occurred in the home. However, by 1973, ninety-one percent of babies were born in hospitals.

Has the move toward clinical birthing been good for women? Fast forward to a 2007 report by the National Institute for Health and Clincial Excellence (NICE).  The study concluded that women who give birth at home are more likely to deliver vaginally and to have greater satisfaction from the experience when compared with women who give birth in a hospital.

It also determined that the hospital setting increased the likelihood that the woman would receive analgesia, obstetrical intervention and a delivery using instruments, and decreased the woman’s satisfaction with the experience.

Finally, it reported that women who give birth at home may experience an equal or lower risk of perinatal mortality than when they receive care in a hospital. Things that make you go hmm….

I also learned that midwifery, the practice supporting a natural approach to birth, enjoyed a revival in the United States during the 1970s; clearly an offshoot of the hippie movement. Now who were the hippies modeling their counter culture lifestyles after? Think about it!

Pueblo Midwives, A Thing of the Past?

Living in Santa Fe, a city seemingly filled with upper-class, middle-aged liberals who espouse and can afford an organic, holistic, “alternative” life experience, it wasn’t hard to find some useful, local mama-to-be resources.

However, what I wasn’t able to find was the Native connection I was looking for, nor was I able to locate a practicing midwife in either of my pueblos. When I asked the Pueblo women I knew, I mostly got a deer in the headlights look. What had happened to the tradition of midwifery? Had it all but disappeared in only two generations? Sadly, that seemed to be the case.

Yet, it wasn’t completely a lost cause. I finally connected with another Pueblo woman, roughly my age, who had birthed her son at home. She said it was the single most incredible experience of her life.

She led me to the wonderful Native woman-centric organization based out of Espanola, N.M.,Tewa Women United, where I was able to connect with a highly competent, cool as a cucumber, licensed midwife; not Native but totally knowledgeable and culturally aware, nonetheless.

Incidentally, New Mexico is one of 10 states that accept Medicaid for home birth which makes it a truly viable alternative to the conventional hospital birth for low-income women.

Decolonization Begins at Home

Being an overall healthy, low-risk Native woman attempting to live an authentic indigenous experience, I knew I wanted to “decolonize” my labor.

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve hated hospitals and the sickness and smell associated with them. I knew instinctively that I did not want a medically-centered, medicated labor experience; rather, I wanted to be in a comfortable setting with the people, objects and ambience of my own creation.

Besides, if my grandma and countless Native women before her had birthed in the comfort of their own adobe homes, tipis, wigwams, wikiups, longhouses, igloos, why couldn’t I?

Once I found my midwife, I was ready to tell the women in my family about my decision, bringing new meaning to the phrase Native resistance!

Both my mom and grandma, the same one who birthed on a dirt floor in the pueblo, tried to talk me out of it. You’re too old! What if something happens?! Blah, blah, blah.

I chose then to ignore any fear-based thought processes and move those kinds of conversations on, recognizing some women weren’t capable of understanding the experience I was seeking.

Maize Jade Castro Harris made her way into this world on April 8, 2013, at 8:54 a.m. in the comfort of our home, my bedroom to be exact. It was a long and arduous labor. There’s nothing romantic about it; it’s hard, painful work. But I am happy to have experienced it in all its blood, sweat and tears, of sound mind and not doped up on painkillers.

And One More Thing

If people weren’t shocked enough by my choice to have a home birth, what freaks them out more is when I tell them I ate my placenta.

Of all people, it was Kim Kardashian who recently brought this topic to the mainstream on her reality show, “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.”

While still pregnant, Kim considered eating her placenta. I know, trust me, it sounds crazy at first, but the reality is that pretty much all female animals eat their placenta after birth.

In my copious research, I learned the benefits for us human females are that eating it in some capacity, of which there are several, is said to regulate hormones, replenish nutrients lost after birth, restore mama’s energy and help to alleviate post partum depression.

Henrietta Toledo holds her newborn granddaughter, Maize.








And noo…I already know what you’re thinking! I didn’t eat it raw, Apocalypto- style, though I most certainly could have. Through the “earthy” mama network, I found a great lady here in Santa Fe who does placenta encapsulation.

She came to my house shortly after the baby was born and conducted the entire process with complete transparency so that the placenta never left my home. The result was a freeze-dried placenta powder, gently sifted into glycerine pills.  She offered me a broth to drink as well but…I wasn’t that hardcore.

Present in the room were my two amazing midwives and my awesome husband. My mom was close by in the house, and was able to cook and care for all of us as her granddaughter’s arrival approached. I cannot express how lovely it was to have her there, as she had been so nervous about it at first.

After it was all said and done, her beautiful, healthy grandbaby in her arms, she totally understood why I wanted to do it the way I did.

In retrospect, I would like to have shown more excitement about it all but I have learned to quell my enthusiasm. Some women just aren’t ready and have had a shocked, sometimes truly fearful reaction. Most can’t envision a labor without drug intervention.

The Challenge

Of course, not all women can or want to have a homebirth for a myriad of reasons that I won’t get into, but my burning question is this: Why have we as Native people in general, become so dependent on Western medicine and ideologies?

As indigenous women, what happened to our inherent womanly circles of support, in the time of birth and otherwise? Where are our traditional midwives and feminine knowledge


We must recognize that when we talk about self-determination and sovereignty, this includes taking back our holistic health, especially in regard to the most sacred aspects of our lives!

Granted, I understand as a people we are still facing the effects of colonization and all that comes with it, but we need to start somewhere and what better way than with taking ownership of our bodies? If you ask me, bringing a new life into the world is about as sacred as it gets!

Are there practicing midwives in your community? If not, can we collectively reclaim these traditions and start to mend this broken hoop?

In my humble opinion, we can say as Native people we aspire to live a “traditional” life, but how do we integrate our indigenous beliefs into our daily lives in a way that shows the world who we really are?

These are challenging times to be a Native person, I know.  But if not now, when?

A Colonized Ally Meets a Decolonized Ally: This is What They Learn

1. A colonized ally stands in the front.  A decolonized ally stands behind.

2. A colonized ally stands behind an oppressive patriarchy.  A decolonized ally stands behind women and children.

3. A colonized ally makes assumptions about the process.  A decolonized ally values there may be principles in the process they are not aware of.

4. A colonized ally wants knowledge now!  A decolonized ally values their own relationship to the knowledge.

5. A colonized ally finds an Indigenous token.  A decolonized ally is more objective in the process.

6. A colonized ally equates their money and hard work on the land as meaning land ownership.  A decolonized ally knows that land ownership is more about social hierarchy and privilege.

7. A colonized ally projects guilt.  A decolonized ally knows it is their work to do.

8. A colonized ally projects emotions.  A decolonized ally knows Indigenous people have too much to deal with already.

9. A colonized ally has no respect for Indigenous intellectuals.  A decolonized ally knows Indigenous people have their own intellectuals.

10. A colonized ally has no idea they need to decolonize.  A decolonized ally understands they have to continually decolonize.

11. A colonized ally has no idea of the concomitant realities of Indigenous oppression.  A decolonized ally understands the many, layered, and intersectional oppressions Indigenous people live under.

12. A colonized ally speaks for Indigenous people.  A decolonized ally listens.

13. A colonized ally takes on work an Indigenous person can do and is doing. A decolonized ally takes on other work that needs to be done.

14. A colonized ally makes things worse.  A decolonized ally understands.

15. A colonized ally says, “It is time to get over it.”  A decolonized ally realizes one’s relationship to the harm is subjective.

16. A colonized ally appropriates another nation’s Indigenous knowledge.  A decolonized ally does the hard work to uncover their own Indigenous knowledge.

17. A colonized ally will loath this truth offered.  A decolonized ally will recognize the hard work telling this truth is.


Lynn Gehl is an Algonquin Anishinaabe-kwe from the Ottawa River Valley.  She has a section 15 Charter challenge regarding the continued sex discrimination in The Indian Act, and is an outspoken critic of the Ontario Algonquin land claims and self-government process. She recently published a book entitled Anishinaabeg Stories: Featuring Petroglyphs, Petrographs, and Wampum Belts, and her second book, The Truth that Wampum Tells: My Debwewin of the Algonquin Land Claims Process, will be published in March 2014.  You can reach her at and see more of her work at

Midwifery and Native Women: Changing Woman Initiative

Changing Women Initiative
Changing Women Initiative

By Samantha Nephew

Growing up Native, I’ve had to think about what parts of my life are “colonized” and adhere to values different than my own. Recently, I’ve been thinking about the one element that is so fundamental to life and yet status quo is hardly ever broken – birthing.

The Changing Woman Initiative in the southwest brings Indigenous identity and the values of respect and honoring women at the forefront. In cases of normal, healthy pregnancies, there should only be trust allowing our Native women to birth the way they inherently know how.

They say it’s one of life’s most profound, magical and enchanting moments – the moment when a mother holds her brand new baby in her arms for the very first time.

Now, I wouldn’t necessarily know that as I’m 26 and childless, but I’ve made my interest in birthing practices, pregnancy and child bearing known. There is so much beauty in the power of giving life. And to do so with the power of your heritage and history of resilience at your side – that’s what makes the Changing Woman Initiative so powerful, and it should be a model of birthing emulated throughout all of Indian Country.

Nicolle Gonzalez, Executive Director and Nurse-Midwife at Changing Woman Initiative, says she’s taken on this project because she wanted to “help renew cultural birth knowledge to empower and reclaim Indigenous sovereignty of women’s medicine through women’s stories and life ways.”

Centers like Changing Woman Initiative takes the medical, passive approach to child birthing out of the equation. Trust in the woman with the aid of her midwife is the ultimate approach here. Now that’s empowerment.

The impact of this center could be great for Native women in the densely populated Southwest where the Navajo Nation alone has over 300,000 peoples (as determined by a 2010 census report). In contrast, according to Gonzalez’s GoFundMe page, there are only 15 Native American Nurse Midwives in the United States. Examples like the Changing Women Initiative will hopefully influence other Indigenous people to follow suit. A need was certainly determined here.

What better way to keep our cultures and traditions alive by starting at the very beginning of our children’s lives?

As a firm believer in reproductive rights and justice, Indigenous sovereignty and cultural knowledge, I am a huge fan of this holistic birthing center designed with Native values at its core. I stand with women who want to decolonize their births.

Samantha Nephew is an enrolled member of the Seneca Nation of Indians in Western New York. She is knowledgeable in American Indian representation in media and seeks to know more. She lives in Buffalo, NY with her husband.

The Nation Builders

 In the 1960s and ’70s evacuating pregnant Indigenous women to regional centres to give birth was an unofficial government policy. Now, Indigenous midwives want to bring childbirth back to their own communities. Story by David Greenberg


Like many Inuit women, when Akinisie Qumaluk’s due date approached, she was sent to Moose Factory, Ont. from her village in northern Quebec.  This wasn’t anything new.  Evacuating pregnant women in northern communities became unofficial policy in Canada in the 1960s and 1970s in some communities and continues in most northern communities to this day.

“When we were evacuated to Moose Factory we were away from our families, we were away from our own country food, most of the women were away for weeks at a time and that wasn’t good for some families,” Qumaluk said.

The idea was that modern technology would improve childbirth outcomes.  Not everyone saw it this way.

“Women need that culturally secure and safe space to just be who they are, be honoured and their needs be met,” says Ellen Blais, co-chair of the National Aboriginal Council of Midwives. Midwives such as Blais and Vicki Van Wagner say that outside of North America, midwifery is widespread.

In Canada, Van Wagner, a professor of midwifery at Ryerson University, says that some healthcare professionals might not know what a midwife does. Van Wagner says that in the 1940s and 1950s, many babies were born on the land under the care of Indigenous midwives.  In the 1970s midwifery fizzled out and evacuation became policy as birth became more medicalized.

“It’s one of those incredible blind spots of Canadian non-Indigenous policy that you know, you just move Indigenous peoples from one culture to another and think nothing of it.”

Trauma at Birth

The evacuation itself could cause more adverse health effects than necessary.

Blais says that when you’re stressed out while pregnant, your body releases stress hormones which can have adverse physical effects on the baby.  Intergenerational trauma from Canada’s colonial history adds to the trauma, says Blais.

When women are flown from their communities they are usually alone for five weeks living in hotel rooms when they’re not at the hospital.  They don’t have regular access to home-cooked meals and if they have other kids at home, they have to arrange for their care, among several other things.

“You shouldn’t give birth lonely and alone, that’s just human rights, wrong,” Van Wagner says.

From life until death

It’s more than preventing loneliness.  The evacuation policy neglects the cultural significance of birth in many Indigenous communities. Sara Wolfe, an Indigenous midwife in Toronto, says that Indigenous midwives don’t exclusively deal with birth but “the whole life spectrum to death.”

Wolfe says that Ontario sees midwives as low-risk health providers for a specific time period.  She says this doesn’t match with Indigenous views of midwifery.

“Our community needs support and needs healing and needs access to care that is culturally safe and secure, that does incorporate teachings and practices,” says Wolfe.

Wolfe says that midwives are often asked to participate in milestone ceremonies and are valued in Aboriginal communities.

Rural and Urban Births

Wolfe works at Seventh Generation Midwives Toronto.  She notes that the access to proper birthing care is just as bad in cities as it is in remote areas.

“The experience of racism is disproportionate in the healthcare system,” Wolfe asserts.

Wolfe says that many healthcare professionals unfairly generalize Indigenous patients as stoic and as addicts. That’s why, she says, they’re often denied analgesia at hospitals.

Indigenous midwives work long-term with pregnant women to help them coordinate medical appointments. Because they come from similar backgrounds, Indigenous midwives often have empathy for the women under their care and are sensitive to their cultural needs. This is why Indigenous midwives say that expanding access to midwifery would improve health outcomes. But culturally safe birthing spaces for Indigenous women are as sparse in Toronto as they are in northern Quebec.

“Right now more than ever there’s been a concerted effort to reclaim our customs and traditions and one of the times when people are most motivated to do that is when they’re having a baby because they want something better for the next generation,” says Wolfe.

From a health perspective, Van Wagner is adamant that midwifery provides better outcomes.

“I would fight to the death to say that midwifery is actually the highest standard of care.”

And the evidence backs up her claim.

Midwives and obstetricians

Researchers from McMaster University analyzed data from planned births in Ontario between 2003 and 2006.  Lead researcher, Eileen Hutton and her team found negligible differences in the outcomes of planned homebirths and planned hospital births with midwives in attendance.

The kicker is that researchers saw that women who planned home births had much lower rates of intervention and risk to the mother during the labour process. Andrew Kotaska, an OB/GYN in Yellowknife, says that he maintains a good relationship with local midwives and speaks with them biweekly to discuss pregnancy cases.  Since some communities are far from a hospital, “careful risk assessment is essential.”

Because midwives are intimately linked to communities, they’re important resources for obstetricians that may “lack the time, interest, or training” to address wider community issues. Obstetricians, on the other hand, provide technical support to deal with complicated birth cases. That’s why Kotaska says “trust between midwife and obstetrician is key to success.”

But it goes beyond health outcomes. Government-imposed evacuations are seen as an infringement of Indigenous people’s autonomy.

“Don’t impose your ways on us anymore because we have our own and they’re beautiful and they’re very meaningful for us,” asserts Blais.

An example from northern Quebec shows how a rural community brought birth back home. Thirty years ago, a village in northern Quebec campaigned for its own birth centre run by Inuit midwives.

In 1986, Puvirnituq, Quebec opened a health centre that supported midwifery, after repeated calls from the community.

The Inuulitsivik Health Centre recruited ‘southern midwives’ to train Indigenous midwives in the community.  This is how Van Wagner came to Puvirnituq. Even though midwifery wasn’t regulated in Quebec in 1986, midwives practised anyway.

“We were kind of a legal policy challenge to the system,” says Van Wagner.

When opening the health centre, the Quebec government dodged the issue by recruiting nurses with midwifery training.  They opened the centre even though midwifery wasn’t provincially regulated. The midwives instructed Indigenous pupils and, in turn, learned how to work in the community. In 1998, Quebec legalized midwifery.

The law, however, didn’t recognize Indigenous midwives from Puvirnituq as legitimately accredited midwives.  The only designated training program in Quebec was at the University of Quebec in Trois-Rivières—far from Puvirnituq.

“That was a real culturally insensitive error,” says Van Wagner.

Van Wagner says it was a “real political dilemma” for Quebec to recognize the program in Puvirnituq.  Van Wagner says the program is as intense as a university program, but incorporates Indigenous traditions into the curriculum.

Full circle

Akinisie Qumaluk who once was evacuated to give birth, is now an elder midwife in Salluit, Quebec.

“It was something I’ve been meant to do,” she says

After the success of Puvirnituq, two more centres opened in Inukjuak in 1998 and Salluit in 2004. Akinisie sees the change midwifery affected in her community.

“We can use our own language and we can eat our own country foods and our families are just like a door away.”

About the Author

DAVID GREENBERG is a masters candidate at the Ryerson School of Journalism. David is passionate about stories, well told. He is a Montreal expat in Toronto and is on his last frozen bagel. David pursued a double major in history and film studies at the University of Western Ontario. His romantic vision of himself as a journalist is that he is a stenographer of history. Don’t bother asking his top ten movie list because he won’t answer such a silly question.