Breastfeeding is one of the most sacred things parents do for their children, but so is the decision not to breastfeed.  For low-income women who cannot or do not want to breastfeed, their safety net assistance via Women, Infants and Children (WIC) are at stake.

While the rationale for increasing the food package for exclusively breastfeeding mothers and parents is understood, it does not acknowledge the nuances of indigenous breastfeeding.


There is an increase in programs, coalitions and events that are developed by and for indigenous people, like the Navajo Nation Breastfeeding Coalition. Young Women United launched the first ever #1stSacredFood Twitter chat in 2015 by and for Native moms and people, so we could have a conversation with indigenous people worldwide about breastfeeding.  We had a more successful Twitter chat this year.  Native women-led coalitions, like the Native American Breastfeeding Coalition of Washington, are blossoming all over Indian Country. It is efforts like these that are showing us, indigenous people, that breastfeeding is a way to reclaim our identity, by incorporating our cultures and languages into teaching about breastfeeding, and feeding our families as a whole.

Women and parents who need assistance from WIC are usually low-income and do not always have the resources or time to exclusively breastfeed.  According to the Department of Agriculture’s site, families are given a more expansive food package every month plus a free electric breast pump if the child(ren) are exclusively breastfed.

For Native American women, these guidelines can be problematic.  Those who live on reservations may live in a food desert where they will have to travel long distances to buy food as well as traveling far to go to work.  Many of the jobs held by Native people are those in Indian gaming facilities. Many of these families live in poverty while working full time jobs. Survival in a very westernized world has severely altered indigenous ways of life, from not always being able to grow our own food to having our children in schools that do not always recognize the unique communities they are in, further exacerbating generational inequities.  

The WIC program is an example of state and federal policies not recognizing the unique struggles that Native communities face.  Candidates for office or elected officials who speak to Native communities are always calling for the need to honor self-determination and sovereignty.  The reality is that our indigenous identities have almost completely been wiped away thanks to state and federal policies (re: Indian Removal Act and the Allotment Act) that make self-determination hard to obtain and even harder hold on to.  

If federal and state policy makers are genuinely interested in working with tribal communities to make them better, there must be an acknowledgement of our struggles, why we have those struggles, and asking us how our culture can help bridge the gap between survival and thriving while not redirecting resources or reducing them to assist indigenous mothers and parents. 

Rachael Lorenzo (Mescalero Apache/Laguna Pueblo) is the policy associate at Young Women United, which leads reproductive justice organizing and policy initiatives by and for self-identified young women of color in New Mexico.