Indigenous Sovereignty Begins at Birth: A Conversation With Camie J. Goldhammer

July 19, 2023 Nia Tero Season 3 Episode 7
Indigenous Sovereignty Begins at Birth: A Conversation With Camie J. Goldhammer
Show Notes Transcript

“Pregnancy is a natural time to think about, ‘what is it that I'm going to pass down?’ For most of us, that is culture... our spirituality, our language, our food, and our connection to land.”    

Parenting is a cultural practice that has the power to heal historical trauma, according to Camie J. Goldhammer (mixed race heritage, Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate). She is a birth worker and lactation consultant who is devoted to supporting Indigenous parents - both living on their homelands and in the diaspora. She describes her own spiritual experience of healing her ancestors through her first birthing experience, and the essential role non-parents play in the lives of new parents and families. Camie trains Indigenous doulas and lactation consultants across Turtle Island and is the founding executive director of Hummingbird Indigenous Family Services, an Indigenous agency that serves Indigenous babies and their families.       

Host and Producer: Jessica Ramirez. Story Editor: Julie Keck. Audio Mix: Ha’aheo Auwae-Dekker. 

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Indigenous Sovereignty Begins at Birth: A Conversation with Camie J Goldhammer
Seedcast Season 3 Episode 7
July 19, 2023

[00:00:00] Jessica Ramirez: Hi, I'm Jessica Ramirez, and this is Seedcast. 

[we hear the sound of Jessica testing the mic saying, “Test, test, test, test, test, test, test…”]

From what we know of our Native cultures, pre-colonialism, protecting babies and families was a community effort; and access to traditional medicine, and the teachings of our people, was a vital component of our wellbeing. 

[we hear the sound of knocking, and a door opening]

[00:00:24] Camie J. Goldhammer: Hiiii!  

[00:00:25] Jessica: Hi Camie! 

[00:00:26] Camie: Hi, Memphis, say hello! 

[00:00:00] Jessica: Thank you for having us, I should’ve brought my dog! 

[00:00:31] Camie: I know, she would've loved it!  

[00:00:33] Jessica: I'm at the home of Camie J. Goldhammer in Seattle, Washington here on Coast Salish territory.  

[we go back to the recording from the on site interview]

[00:00:40] Jessica: I don't know how many interviews you've done...  

[00:00:42] Camie: A couple.  

[00:00:43] Jessica: A couple!  

[00:00:43] Camie: Yeah [laughs]  

[00:00:44] Jessica: [teasing Camie] You know, just a few, I'm kinda famous. 

[00:00:48] Camie: [laughing] Kind of—my girls ask if, they're like, “Are you famous?” And I'm like, “In Bemidji, Minnesota in a very like, niche!” You know? 

[00:00:59] Jessica: [laughs] Yeah.  

[00:01:00] Camie: Yes. In the Indigenous birth worker lactation world, you could say that [laughs]. But yeah, no. In general, I'm not. 

[theme music begins to play in the background]

[00:01:21] Jessica: Camie has spent nearly 20 years serving urban Native families, and in 2021 co-founded Hummingbird Indigenous Family Services, a nonprofit created to serve Indigenous parents and their growing families. She's a national leader on topics of racial equity, birth work, and breastfeeding reclamation. So yeah, she's kind of famous! And I wanted to talk with her, because pregnancy and becoming a parent are significant human experiences, and fairly mystifying to me. 

Theme song by Mia Kami: We are standing, hear our calling, we are rooted to the ground we’re here to stay. No staying quiet, we stand united, we are rooted to the ground, can't tear us down, we’re here to stay… 

[00:02:20] Camie: [speaks in Dakota language] So I said good day relative, my name is Camie Goldhammer. I'm a Dakota woman, so my tribe is Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, and I live in Duwamish territory, also known as Seattle. I am a clinical social worker, lactation consultant, and full spectrum Indigenous doula. Yeah! 

[00:02:56] Jessica: Camie is someone who I think would describe herself through her work to most anyone. Her practice is a big identifier of who she is, and I think it's because she gets to have a professional identity while getting to be deep in her Native identity, serving her Native community. And she's really good at it too. 

[00:03:16] Camie: I've only ever wanted to work in the Native community. I have almost exclusively only worked in my community, as well. For me, becoming a mom and having my kiddo, I trust that where I'm at is where I was meant to be, always. I grew up with, like—my dad is my Native parent. His mom, my grandma, was a very important person in my life. So I, you know, very much had strong connections to who I was as a Native person, or a Native kid. And, there was also a pretty big disconnect too within that, right? Like knowing and being raised Native, but also not necessarily being raised in the culture, right? Like, in the practices and things like that.  

[00:04:08] Jessica: Camie grew up needing affirmation and connection to her Native Dakota identity. As a mixed race person, she looked to her grandma for cultural connection, and yet she still often looked for what is unseen. She looked for a sign for connection to her Dakota ancestry.  

[00:04:28] Camie: The only way I can describe this is similar to how I hear some people talk about religion and what they would call a god. That kind of thing of like, “Are you there? Show me a sign.” I always had that when it came to my ancestors, ‘cause I knew that the ancestors were there, that they were like watching out for us, that kind of thing; but never actually felt that in my core, if that makes sense. And it was something that I wanted.  

[00:05:03] Jessica: What Camie is saying here does make sense to me. As someone who was born and raised in what is currently known as South Texas in the United States, I know this feeling very well. My ancestors’ Indigenous culture, and knowledge is a vital part of my Mexican family's identity; and its complex work to piece together the stories and the names. It's so hard to find belonging in something that wasn't designed for me to feel like I have claim to. So yeah, I often am left wondering. Who are my ancestors? What are their stories? And what are the lasting effects of their experience that continue to leave an impression on my life? 

[instrumental music plays in the background] 

Camie shared with me a story from her Dakota teachings. 

[00:06:03] Camie: And I've shared this story many times, but it does kind of go back to our Dakota teachings, which is, we believe, or are taught, that babies choose us. So babies are with our ancestors, they're in the stars. They're not, you know, it's not a heaven or anything like that. It's just they're stars, and we're star people. And a baby looks down and decides, “You're my mom, you're my dad” or, “You're my parent.” And they make that decision, which I think is a really empowering thing. And that's something that in my work that I've done over the last 20 years, it really does come—that is like a core value of mine, that that baby chose that parent. Like, they had that ancestral knowledge that they were the right person for them. And that's why and how I've been able to just devote my life to supporting people and parenting their children. I don't know. It's just so easy for me to look at parents through their baby's eyes and see why they picked them.

[instrumental music continues] 

So, what happens when someone is having their baby, we go through what we call transition. It's the time period from when a person is in active labor to when they start pushing. So there's that transition between those two things. And there's a shift, right, and that's a time period that's very scary. It's very intense. It's often the time where someone thinks they can't do it any longer. They might start panicking. We believe that that's actually when we go and retrieve our baby. We're straddling. We have one foot here on Earth, and we have one foot on that other side. I wouldn't call it life and death, you know, but that is kind of what it is, right? We have to do that to bring our baby here, and bring them earthside. 

[00:08:48] Jessica: Hearing these teachings is the closest thing to magic and time travel that I have ever heard. As someone who has never given birth, hearing this story created so much awe and wonder for me. Like, you must leave this earthly plane and enter another to bring your baby to this earth. This experience sounds epic, transformative, and yes, very scary. There are layers of complexity here, especially as so many people give birth in medical settings, are far removed from their ancestral practices. Camie didn't have the labor that she expected, but she found another time when the ancestors were very close. 

[00:09:39] Camie: I had a C-section, so I never went through transition, but I had an amazing nurse who had talked to me about breastfeeding. I had really not thought about breastfeeding before, and then she said, “It's time to feed your baby,” and Dylan latched on to me. 

[melodic ambient music plays] 

And literally in that moment—I mean it was like in Star Wars, like when you go into warp speed, all of a sudden in a different galaxy, just you go, whoosh! And that's what happened. Like we all of a sudden were just like in our own world, and all I could see was her nursing. I couldn't see anything else around us. 

And then I had a feeling that someone was watching us. You know what I mean? I just could tell that we were being looked at and that we weren't alone. And I looked up and what I saw, or what I knew I saw, was the faces of the women that came before me.  

[melodic ambient music continues] 

And they were looking at us. And this was the thing, is that they were smiling. And I knew in that moment that what I was doing was healing them. 

[melodic ambient music intensifies] 

And then it was over, like it was gone. It was such a powerful experience for me where like my whole life, I have longed for that. 

[00:11:39] Jessica: And just like that, Camie got her sign.  

[00:11:43] Camie: The way I mother is most in line with the way I know my ancestors mothered pre-colonialism, which is just with deep abiding love. Like, that's it. Because we didn't have to worry about anything else. All we had to do was love our babies. I'm so proud of the way that I was able to do that. And so I really think for me, mothering is the most traditional thing I've ever done—and I don't mean traditional in the sense of 1950s, traditional, right? I mean like, in line with the way my ancestors parented. Because I didn't go through transition and labor. Nursing is the time that I was like, “You're my baby, I'm your mom, and it's you and me.” 

[melodic ambient music continues]

I really believe love, attachment, bonding—I really believe—heals historical trauma. Not only because I saw it with my own eyes, right? I saw the women that came before me, happy. And it was finally like, okay, here's that reclamation and that ability to say like, “No, we're doing this. Like, I'm a Native mom. I'm raising my Native babies, and that's it. No one can stop us.” I wanted as many people as possible to experience that and be empowered in their Indigenous matriarchy. That's the thing about parenting and you know, in this case, since I identify as a mom, talking about mothering, we have to remember it's a cultural practice. Mothering is a cultural practice. Breastfeeding is a cultural practice. These aren't things that you know how to do. And I think that that's one of the greatest myths that mainstream white society tells us is that mothering is natural or instinctual, and it's not. Because when we look at our primate relatives that are closest to us, you know, gorillas in captivity don't mother their babies. They don't know how to, they have to learn those things, because they don't see it.  

[00:14:16] Jessica: What Camie says here is so important, because as Indigenous people, we need to be with our own in order to know how not only to take care of ourselves, but of each other. And Camie reminds me that parents need a greater web of support to raise the little ones.  

[00:14:36] Camie: For humans too, like when we think about the world we grow up in, we don't learn how to be a mom by giving birth to someone. We learn it by being mothered ourselves, by being around mothers, by being around aunties, you know? And I really wanna like, call out that role of the auntie too, because it's such an important thing. Because, bottom line is, not everyone's path is to be a parent, right? Like, that doesn't make any sense from an evolutionary perspective too, right? We need so many people to take care of babies. 

And my friends Elena and Red Rock—who I've learned so much from, you know, especially around traditional birth practices—Red Rock did a fatherhood panel a couple months ago, because he grew up traditionally, and so has a lot of those teachings. And he's the one who shared like, the only role of a parent traditionally was to love your child. That's it. He's like, it's the aunties and the uncles and the grandparents that were responsible for the discipline, the teachings, you know, like all of those other things. The parents only were there to love their baby, and that makes so much sense to me. But when we look at a traditional community, or pre-colonial times where that was possible; but now we're all living all over the place. Even if we live near a family, they might not be healthy. They might not be someone that we want to be a part of our daily life, be someone that we can send our kid to learn things from. I mean, there's just so much. We live hundreds of miles, thousands of miles away. And that was all intentional, right? The US government—speaking, you know, specifically about the US—but we know that colonial governments have replicated these policies all over the world, but the purpose has always been to disrupt the family. Most of us are not on our traditional homeland. You have so many people in the urban areas that are just so disconnected for lots of reasons. All of it intentional, though. That changes everything. 

[00:17:00] Jessica: So what does it mean for Indigenous and Native people who are living in the diaspora, who are not living on their traditional territories, who are not living close to their people? I think it means we are forced to work extra hard to raise our babies with the love, care, and intention we know they deserve, knowing the distractions and violence of a world that surrounds us as omnipresent. But what Camie is doing, her birth work, practice, and leadership is a response to the environment that is attempting to disrupt the family. 

[00:17:37] Camie: Hummingbird Indigenous Family Services is a nonprofit that I co-founded with several Indigenous doulas, and we have our Birth Keeper program, which is our doula program. We are trying to separate from that word doula, too, because it doesn't necessarily align with who we are as Indigenous people and as Indigenous birth keepers, which is what we use. But we still use the term doula because that's what a lot of people recognize as the term to use. When you're talking about supporting people, having babies, or providing non-medical support to people having babies. For me, like the Birth Keeper program and the role that we play in supporting our families, having babies is unique to every individual. 

[melodic guitar music plays] 

We have some people who want an Indigenous doula because they just want an Indigenous doula. They just want someone else that might look like them that has a shared experience. It just means something to have someone from your community in that space. And then we have folks that are maybe reconnecting, like, you know, they know they're Native, but they didn't necessarily grow up in that culture, and they’re longing for that.

Becoming a parent is definitely a time that opens people up. Pregnancy is a natural time to think about, “What is it that I'm gonna pass down?” It certainly lays a foundation, and it's a foundation that we all stand on. What is this little one that's coming here gonna have of mine that I can give them? And for most of us, that is culture. It really is. And when I think of culture, that means like our spirituality, our language, our food, and our connection to land. Those are the things that make up culture. And for many communities, especially tribal communities, it is the matriarchs that facilitate that, right? We are the ones that pass down that information.

And so I think about those first years. You know, of a baby being born into a home where their parent was loved and supported, and safe, bringing them earth side, the foundation that that lays for a human—pregnancy and birth is our first ceremony that we go through. Breast milk or human milk is our first traditional food. We cannot have food sovereignty, or body sovereignty, or tribal sovereignty without these things.

[00:20:41] Jessica: Indigenous sovereignty begins at birth, and people like Camie remind us that we can have access to our culture and our traditions, that it's so important to remember where we came from. 

[theme music begins and plays in the background] 

This episode was produced by me, Jessica Ramez, and mixed by Ha’aheo Auwae Dekker, with story editing by Julie Keck. Nia Tero is a Seattle-based foundation. We are both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples with the mission to secure Indigenous guardianship for all vital ecosystems. That means we provide support to Indigenous peoples globally who are protecting their homelands from colonization and destruction. Their practices are one of our best guides for making earth livable for generations to come. Here at Seedcast, our guests represent themselves. They don't necessarily reflect the views of Nia Tero. We honor their lived experiences and honest perspectives. You can learn more about Seedcast and about our work at And don't forget, Seedcast is now on Instagram. Visit us at @niatero_seedcast and please, please share with your friends.  

The executive producer of Seedcast is Tracy Rector. The senior producer is Jenny Asarnow. Seedcast producers are Julie Keck, Stina Hamlin, and me, Jessica Ramirez; with additional support from Hao Awe Decker. Fact checking by Romin Lee Johnson. Nia Tero social media by Nancy Kelsey. Transcripts by Sharon Arnold. Seedcast graphics by Cindy Chischilly. Theme song is Rooted by Mia Kami. I'm your host, Jessica Ramirez, and we look forward to sharing more stories with you all very soon! 

Theme song “Rooted” by Mia Kami: Like the wind we still move, like the waves we rise high, like the sun we never die. No staying quiet, we stand united, we are rooted to the ground, can’t tear us down. We’re here to stay…