This blog post was written by Sarah-Anne Gusdal who is an Ojibwe/Anishinaabe/Metis woman claimed by the Ataagewininiing People. She is also of settler descent. Her pronouns are she/her. You can learn more about Sarah-Anne here, and support her new publication, You Are Sacred.
From Jess and Nita: We had a deep desire to celebrate Indigenous Milk Medicine Week and to offer you a unique perspective through a paid partnership with Sarah-Anne. We hope you enjoy this post!
Breastfeeding is ceremony. Breastfeeding is decolonization. Breastfeeding is sacred.
As a woman of Anishinaabe/Metis descent, I feel that the first steps towards reclamation, reconciliation and truth is to raise our children within our culture and in alignment with our traditional ways of life. One of those traditions is breastfeeding. I can’t speak to every person’s journey when it comes to breastfeeding, but I can speak to mine. I am so grateful to be on an almost two-year journey of breastfeeding with my son. Even after all this time I am still humbled by this sacred ceremony of connection, still in awe of each letdown I feel within my breasts, and I still well up with the warmth of love each time I gaze down to meet his eyes. It is our time to feel that sacred oneness we share as he pulls nourishment from my breast.
I can’t speak to “Indigenous Breastfeeding,” without speaking to the teachings surrounding women and children. Children are the hearts of our communities and women are seen as the sinew that ties them together. Both women and children are seen as sacred in our culture, as they both share a close connection to Creator.
Children are closest to the Spirit World, as we believe our lives are cyclical, beginning in the Spirit World, then as infants, children, young adults, adults, Elders, and finally entering back into the Spirit World. For this reason infants/children are seen as sacred as they are new to this world, but closer to Spirit. It is our duty as parents to honour and protect our children by teaching them how to live the Good Life, one that is guided by the Grandfather Teachings and the Medicine wheel (more on this later). We aim to curate a life that upholds that connection to Spirit.
Similarly, women also carry a close connection to Creator because we create life. We hold a portal to the Spirit World within our wombs, we are Life Givers and Protectors of Water, the source of all life. Our greatest Mother, Mother Earth, She carries life to all, Her rivers are the milk that come from Her breast, just as our breasts give the waters of life to feed the children. Not only do we give the first nourishment through the waters of our breast, but we also provide the first contact with sacred water within our wombs.
The impact of colonization on Indigenous Breastfeeding
I also can’t speak to our traditional breastfeeding practices without acknowledging the effects colonization has had on these practices and traditions. Before colonization, women and children were cherished, honoured, respected, and celebrated. Now Indigenous women go missing and are murdered at a rate 10 times higher than the national average; homicide being one of the leading causes of death amongst young Indigenous women.
To this day Indigenous women are being forcibly sterilized without their free, prior, full and informed consent. Often these forced sterilizations taking place during labour or immediately post-postpartum. “Birth Alerts” still occur, a practice in which hospital staff flag an expecting (often Indigenous) parent of being unfit to care for the child they are carrying, resulting in the newborn being taken from their mother’s arms, often directly after birth. These alerts are correlated to the racism, discrimination, and stereotyping Indigenous people receive in today’s colonial society, enforcing the perception that all Indigenous women are drug addicts and alcoholics unfit to raise a child.
It’s important for me to speak to the injustices we as Indigenous people experience, being punished and harshly judged for the symptoms of intergenerational trauma caused by the very government that continues to attempt to harm and uphold systems that oppress our people. This harm has come in many forms, from the aforementioned to making practicing our Ceremonies and traditions illegal to one of the most potent forms of harm our people have experienced, Residential Schools.
If you are not aware, generations of Indigenous children were forced to attend “residential schools” where they experienced obscene amounts of physical, mental, and emotional abuse in an attempt from the government of Canada and various churches to “kill the Indian in the child.” Though the last residential school closed in 1996 Indigenous people are still experiencing the effects of these so called “schools” as they’ve polluted our bloodlines with trauma, shame, and killed many of our ancestors that should have lived to teach future generations our languages, traditions, and culture. To carry forth with traditions and teachings (including those around breastfeeding) we’ve quite literally had to survive genocide.
In knowing this, you must understand that procreating and raising your own child as an Indigenous person is an act of resistance and decolonization. Though Residential Schools are now closed, it’s important for Canadians to also understand that the current Child Welfare System would benefit from a revival. Some facts you might want to consider:
These statistics serve as a reflection of the long-lasting impact of colonialism and Residential Schools. For me, the irony is that the Child Welfare System exists on the ground filled with the bodies of the children that should have been our Elders. It shouldn’t have been this way, but it is.
Breastfeeding, our first ceremony
When I became a Mother, I knew all of this. Not just because this knowledge runs through my veins, but because I had to be aware of the risk I was imposing upon myself and my offspring when deciding to bring an Indigenous child into this colonial world. When I found out I was pregnant, I knew I owed it to my Ancestors and to the next 7 generations to raise my son in alignment with our culture and teachings. To raise my child with the core tradition that it is my duty to protect, nourish, guide, comfort and create a strong bond between myself and my child.
Breastfeeding my child was the first ceremony I took part in with my son, my first opportunity to welcome him from the Spirit World into this World, to honour his Sacred Knowledge given to him from Creator, the knowledge that guided him from my womb and into this world, his first destination my breast, my sacred mountains.
The Anishinaabe worldview on breastfeeding within community as I understand
In today’s world the role of breastfeeding is put solely on the Mother with very little support. Traditionally the Anishinaabe would see breastfeeding as a community effort, not just by taking on the duties of the breastfeeding Mother, but also by nourishing and caring for that Mother. When a woman gave birth and began breastfeeding, the community would rise up around her, delivering foods that were thought to increase milk supply, such as:
- thick soups and porridges,
- fish and venison stews,
- wild rice and
- raspberry root.
If for some reason the mother was unable to produce enough milk for their baby, another lactating mother would offer to nourish the baby from their own breast. Nowadays, once a baby is born, the mother’s needs are seen as less important by the eyes of the healthcare system, failing to understand that by meeting the needs of the Mother, you are meeting the needs of the child…that their needs are one and the same. This is where I believe we are failing lactating humans today; we need to adopt a way to honor nursing mothers as Sacred beings.
How breastfeeding is connected to the Medicine Wheel
This brings me to breastfeeding and its connection to the Medicine Wheel. The Medicine Wheel is a core value in the Anishinaabeg culture, the root of all our teachings, the guide which leads us to live a Good Life. The Medicine Wheel is made of 4 directions with 4 colours representing each direction. It is a complex and involved teaching, but I’ll do my best to bring an understanding of it through the lens of breastfeeding.
The Eastern Direction of the Medicine Wheel is represented by the colour yellow, yellow being the colour linked to new life, sunrise, and new beginnings. There is physical proof of this teaching, found in the colour of our “liquid gold” milk or colostrum, the first form of medicine and nourishment our bodies provide for our babies. Yellow also represents the infancy stage of life, the sunrise of our time here on Earth, if you will. The East also symbolizes the Spirit and when you breastfeed your child, you become one spirit, connected by the medicine you create in communication with your baby, how your milk changes to satisfy the always changing needs of your baby.
The Southern Direction of the Medicine Wheel is correlated with the colour red. This portion of the medicine wheel is regarded as the stage of growth and development, not only for your baby, but also for you as a mother as you learn and grow as a caregiver. A caregiver to your baby but also to yourself as you learn to care for your body in this new role, to provide yourself with the nourishment and rest you need in order to honour your child (this is where colonization steps in and takes away villages that were supposed to be there to support you so you can support your child). It also encompasses the creation of the everlasting bond you are creating with your baby. The Southern part of the Medicine Wheel is also the stage of youth and traditionally we would breastfeed our children well past infancy and into childhood.
The Western Direction is the colour black, which symbolizes the physical body, the Earth and Adulthood. These teachings can be found in the protection breastmilk provides to both mama and baby, protecting you by helping to contract your womb after birth and decreasing risk to future illnesses like breast and ovarian cancer and protecting baby with the antibodies that are found in your milk. Beyond that breastfeeding also helps to protect Mother Earth, simply by being a direct source of sustenance for your child and not harming any of Her with waste. All of these benefits not only help you and your baby for the rest of your lives, but also future generations. When you and your offspring are healthy and strong, you will be better equipped to live in the way of the 7 Grandfather Teachings to help raise healthy kin and to keep Mother Earth healthy.
The Northern Direction is white and is often associated with Elders, wisdom, experience and the mind. Breastfeeding teaches you so many things, it helps you learn about your baby and get to know them, it teaches you patience (hands up if you’ve ever breastfed a toddler or a distracted baby, or just had to get through those first few weeks of chapped nipples). It gives you the wisdom to know you are capable of hard things as well as gain wisdom from experience that you can pass down to future generations to make their journey easier than yours. When your child first latches to your breast, that is the deep ancestral wisdom that lives deep inside of them. No one teaches a baby to seek the breast when they first enter this world, but somehow, they just know.
Breastfeeding is a ceremony I am so grateful to have been able to take part in with my son. It has made me trust my body and intuition, to find the strength to sustain him through bleeding nipples and countless nights lying awake while he suckles at my breast to find sleep.
It is a ceremony that has helped my son find comfort and ease through difficult times, it has given him medicine in times of illness and this medicine is instilled deep within him so that he can always reach for me in times of need. This is proof of our connection to Mother Earth, that Her waters are within us, Hers feeding her children and you, yours.
Breastfeeding is ceremony and ceremony is healthcare.