There’s a new coalition forming here in California, one focused on the state’s dynamic indigenous communities. The Native Breastfeeding Coalition of California might be in its infancy, but it already has big aspirations.
The organization’s mission is to work collaboratively within the Native American & surrounding communities to increase rates of lactation initiation and duration to improve the overall health of Native families, and to increase community empowerment through support to aspiring Indigenous lactation professionals.
“Native” is a term founder Ashley Sayers, IBCLC, uses to encompass all communities indigenous to Turtle Island, the lands commonly known as North and Central America, and South America. A breastfeeding coalition serving these communities has been a long time coming, Sayers said.
California has over 110 federally recognized tribes and is home to the largest urban Indian population. California has long served as a hub for relocated Natives, not to mention indigenous immigrants from other countries.
“We have powerful pockets of indigenous lactation advocates doing great work throughout the state, but there are nuances specific to Native populations — rural, remote locations and lack of access to quality perinatal care — that need to be addressed at a systemic level,” Sayers said. “As a statewide coalition, we can provide a unified voice that brings attention to what our communities need.”
Sayers recently returned to California after spending some time in Washington, where she created a program to produce 10 new breastfeeding specialists from marginalized communities as chair of the Kitsap Breastfeeding Coalition. The program’s success earned Sayers the Native Knowledge Award this year from the U.S. Breastfeeding Committee.
Sayers (Turtle Clan, Ojibwe) grew up in tribal foster care, which gives her a different perspective than those who grew up with sustained community ties. Separation is not an uncommon experience in the Native community due to historical trauma, but is one factor that may be benefitted through breastfeeding increases in the Native community.
Her goal for the Native Breastfeeding Coalition of California is not to replace any current efforts but to amplify them, specifically by providing a path for indigenous people to receive the education, experience and mentorship required to provide lactation support and care in their own communities.
“The best people to hold and uplift a community are those who come from it,” she said. “And the only way to have more indigenous lactation educators and providers is by championing them. By providing scholarships and offering a point of contact for mentorship, we can increase access to the field and better support indigenous families who want to begin and continue human milk feeding.”
For now, though, Sayers is looking for other lactation-supportive indigenous California residents to join the effort. And all are welcome.
“Imposter syndrome is a side effect of colonization,” she said. “After generations of being dismissed and silenced, I understand that some people might not feel qualified to join a statewide movement. But the only qualification our coalition needs is a profound interest in our mission and in this work. Everything else is secondary.”