by Sharon H. Chang
CAMIE GOLDHAMMER swings open the door to her well-kempt home in Columbia City wearing a big grin–but then quickly apologizes. “Hi welcome come on in! Sorry, just hold on a sec…” She rushes back to the kitchen table to finish booking work travel. Camie is a really busy woman and I’m lucky she has time to meet up. After a couple minutes she closes her laptop, turns a warm expression on me, and prepares to talk about racism, saving Native American babies lives, and vision across generations.
Camie Goldhammer is a Native activist and social worker, the first Native lactation consultant in Washington state and nationally renowned breastfeeding equity advocate. “I identify as Native, mixed-race,” she tells me. She is Sisseton Wahpeton. Her paternal family is enrolled at The Lake Traverse Reservation in the upper northeast corner of South Dakota. “We’re one of the Plains tribes, the Warrior tribes,” she explains. “The more common term that most people know is ‘Sioux’ but typically we don’t call ourselves [that].”
Camie grew up working class in Issaquah, pre-Microsoft. “At the time [Issaquah] was very different than it is now,” she reminds me. The city was not racially diverse at all. “In high school our mascot was the Issaquah Indians,” she says, to the point. “That was my little first bit of activism, changing that.” She graduated from high school in 1999. The mascot was officially changed to The Eagles two years later.
Camie went on to become a first-generation college student earning her Bachelor’s in Psychology and Sociology from Portland State in 2004 and a Master’s in Social Work from the University of Washington in 2006. In graduate school Camie focused on maternal-child health with a specialization in impacts of intergenerational trauma on attachment and bonding. She was one of only two Native students in her graduate school cohort of ninety. Before she even graduated, she was hired as a therapist for a new behavioral health program with the Snoqualmie tribe.
It was during her time at Snoqualmie Behavioral Health that Camie became pregnant with her first child. “So this is where we get into my current work cause that’s an important part of it,” she says pulling herself upright. She looks me straight in the eyes, measures my engagement, makes sure I’m paying attention. When she got pregnant, Camie tells me, breastfeeding didn’t mean much to her. “I had not been breastfed. No one in my family had breastfed for several generations so it wasn’t at all the norm. I had never seen anybody breastfeed before.”
But then Camie passed her due date and was induced at forty-two weeks. “It went the way many inductions go,” she says. “It didn’t work. Baby’s not ready, body’s not ready.” Camie’s daughter ended up being born by cesarean April 2009. “I was devastated,” Camie tells me describing how she was so upset she was sobbing in the operating room. “And not in a way like I felt my body failed me. I knew that I would’ve been able to have that baby. I was frustrated with the system.”
Everything changed though when a very special nurse stepped in, made sure Camie’s newborn went skin-to-skin right away, and helped the pair breastfeed within minutes of birth. “When [my daughter] latched on it was a life changing moment for me,” Camie now recalls with joy. Not only did she feel warm and fuzzy, Camie says, but she also had a vision of her ancestors, “all the women that came before me, just smiling at us and happy. I was like oh this is it . . . This is why I’m here.”
The once ambivalent Camie went home and suddenly found herself happily breastfeeding–a whole bunch. She learned everything she could about it including benefits such as reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancers, respiratory illnesses, and SIDS. Yet as a Native social worker she was starting to get involved with Native American Women in Dialogue on Infant Mortality (NAWDIM) and learning something else. The top killers of Native babies are SIDS, respiratory infections and the flu. “In Washington State we have three to five times more Native babies die of SIDS than the general population,” she says. NAWDIM “started to dialogue on this because that loss to a community–to lose babies that often–is devastating.” And Native women, she inserts, have some of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the nation.
Add to this that a time came when Camie personally needed a bit more breastfeeding support herself but felt disconnected from postnatal support groups which comprised all white parents. “It was not a space [where] I felt that I could talk about anything,” Camie admits. “I was like–these are not my people.” She looked specifically for breastfeeding support for Native families locally and nationally. Nothing. “There was just nothing anywhere,” she tells me incredulously. And finally roads began to converge:
“So I saw that there was nothing. I’m seeing that breastfeeding is really important for these things that are killing Native people and Native babies. And I’m seeing that in the Native community our breastfeeding rates are extremely low. Over the course of a couple weeks, couple months, I make that connection. And I was like I need to start something.”
Camie reached out to multiple breastfeeding organizations with an idea to start a Native peer support group. “All of them were like, ‘We don’t do that,’” Camie remembers unfortunately, “‘We don’t separate on race.’” But she did at last get an email from the Breastfeeding Coalition of Washington that they would love to collaborate. “And so we met on Christmas Eve 2010,” Camie relays proudly, “and started the Native American Breastfeeding Coalition of Washington. Which still exists.”
The early stages of Camie’s Native lactation work were bringing people together, different tribes, to talk about breastfeeding and what was being done in their communities. Camie tabled at powwows throughout the year, distributing handouts, providing comfortable space for women to feed their babies and just chat. Simultaneously Camie had transitioned into working for King County Public Health with WIC and Maternity Support Services. She also became pregnant with her second child who was later amazingly born at home via vaginal birth after cesarean.
The path her ancestors had set her on was unwavering. Camie was coming into serious mama power and awakening a razor sharp analysis. She saw how others were surprised about low Native breastfeeding rates because of racist stereotypes. “They really think of Native people as like sitting in the forest breastfeeding their babies 24/7 and that’s just not the case.” She thought even more about the families she worked with and her background and foundations of intergenerational trauma:
“I got to a point where I looked at breastfeeding a lot differently. Where at first I started thinking about it as this warm and fuzzy, connecting to my ancestors, it’s good for my baby, kind of thing. To really looking at it as a social justice issue; looking at the barriers to breastfeeding for people of color [and] white privilege in the breastfeeding world.”
The lactation profession, Camie illustrates, was founded by white women for white women and remains a profession almost entirely dominated by white women. “Then we have this historical trauma, colonialism, separation of women of color from their babies on a systemic level for generations,” she points out.
For example, both Camie’s great grandfather and grandmother were taken as children to assimilative Indian boarding schools (Native children are still disproportionately affected by the child welfare system). When a white-dominated lactation profession develops atop centuries of transgenerational trauma among families of color, Camie sums up, “it leads to extremely low breastfeeding rates in communities of color that contributes to our health disparities and our premature deaths.”
So in 2013 Camie sat for the lactation consultant exam and became the first Native lactation consultant in Washington state. That same year she helped organize a seminal conference called The Inequities In Breastfeeding Support Summit: How White Privilege and Racism Is Failing Mothers and Babies of Color. It was incredibly well-attended and a historic milestone in shifting the lens on lactation work towards equity. The following year she posted a rant to Facebook after being told to pump in the bathroom at a Native first foods conference. The Facebook post went viral and calls started rolling in. Camie spoke for a Kellogg Foundation event on historical trauma, how it affects breastfeeding, and healing through nursing, mothering and connecting. From there, things snowballed even further and she became a national advocate and spokeswoman.
Camie is proud of the work being done. Still currently, she estimates, there are probably only twelve Native lactation consultants total in the U.S. and Canada combined. Meaning there is a lot of work yet to be done. But Camie will keep answering that call.
Today she presses on down that road laid forth in her ancestral vision years ago. She continues to do a lot of national Native racial equity breastfeeding work, traveling, teaching, giving presentations, working closely with Native coalitions. Much of her time is spent working with CHAMPS (Communities and Hospitals Advancing Maternity Practices) to help tribal hospitals in Alaska and Oklahoma and hospitals serving Black mothers in Mississippi, New Orleans, East Tennessee and San Antonio go baby-friendly (a UNICEF initiative to support breastfeeding). Locally she just took a new part-time position with MomsRising as campaign director for paid family medical leave in Washington state and she is starting the lactation department at the Rainier Community Clinic.
It’s hard to imagine one person, who is also a partner and mother of two, doing all these things. But Camie’s passion–lit afire with her first baby and breastfeeding vision–illuminate the room like the sunshine we Seattleites only see in summer. And as our interview comes to a close she has, believe it or not, even one more project to tell me about, something she’s wanted to do for a long time. Camie is creating an Indigenous Breastfeeding Counselor certification program for people who work with Native families. Her goal, she tells me, is an Indigenous Breastfeeding Counselor in every tribal community in every major city in the country. The sunshine and clarity in the room get a lot brighter as Camie now turns a knowing gaze on me and I’m thinking about her ancestors and her vision again when she brings it home,
“That’d be like a thousand people,” she smiles. “I think I can do it in my lifetime…This is incredible, incredible work.”
Sharon H. Chang is an award-winning author, scholar, and activist who focuses on racism, social justice and the Asian American diaspora with a feminist lens. Her inaugural book Raising Mixed Race: Multiracial Asian Children In a Post-Racial World was released in 2015 to very positive reviews. Some of her short-form pieces have appeared in BuzzFeed, ThinkProgress, Hyphen Magazine, ParentMap Magazine, The Seattle Globalist, AAPI Voices and The International Examiner. In 2015 Sharon was named Social Justice Commentator of the Year by The Seattle Globalist.
Featured image by Sharon H. Chang