Earlier this year, a state Department of Health panel submitted a report showing that American Indian and Alaska Natives who give birth continue to have a higher maternal mortality ratio than any other ethnic group—eight times greater than white people and twice as large as Black people. As alarmingly, the report found that 80% of these pregnancy-related deaths were preventable. 

To address this wide disparity, a nonprofit organization called Hummingbird Indigenous Family Services plans to pilot the first guaranteed income program in the United States to exclusively serve Indigenous communities.

A vast majority of these deaths are preventable. Washington Department of Health

Hummingbird aims to support Indigenous mothers through services such as doula training, lactation counseling, and culturally relevant care. Founded by clinical social worker and Indigenous doula Camie Jae Goldhammer in 2018, the organization has focused on creating space that honors traditional birthing practices and bridging the gap in health care for Indigenous people who give birth. 

In a remote interview, Dr. Socia Love-Thurman, a family medicine physician at the Seattle Indian Health Board (SIHB) and a member of Hummingbird’s Cultural Advisory Council, said the organization is changing the tides in Native mortality and finding the right resources for the Indigenous community to be able to take care of themselves.

“I've witnessed a lot of systemic inequities our Native women face in hospitals,” she said, “There’s a lot of overt racism that happens… and so as a community we try to wrap around and support our relatives with more advocacy.”

Abundance auntie Tia at a community learning circle. Betty Rose Cortes

Dr. Love-Thurman said Native people have very specific practices and teachings during the birthing process. Some cultural practices include ceremonies involving the umbilical cord and burying the placenta where the child was born as a way to root them to the Earth. 

Facilitating those rituals “don’t come easy when you deliver in a hospital,” she said, citing her personal experience of seeing “a lot of deliveries where an Indigenous person did want something and was completely denied that service.”

Hummingbird uses its Indigenous doula program to provide those sorts of services for Indigenous people who give birth, which can lead to better birthing outcomes. “[There would be] lower instrument deliveries, lower C-section rates, and better breastfeeding rates,” Dr. Love-Thurman said of a world where every birth came with a doula. 

Community members speaking at the Hummingbird Maternal Mortality Report convening. Betty Rose Cortes  

Hummingbird will expand and enhance their mission with the launch of  The Nest Program—a pilot basic income program focusing on Native people. Applications are currently open. 

Over the next six years, Hummingbird will give up to 150 Indigenous families monthly payments of $1,250. The payments will start at pregnancy and will continue up to a child’s third birthday. This total amount works out to about $45,000 for every participating family, and all payments come with “no strings attached.” Families will have total financial autonomy to decide how they want to spend their money, which comes courtesy of the Perigree Fund, a nonprofit run by child psychologist, philanthropist, and major Democratic donor Lisa Mennet. 

In a remote interview, Hummingbird Nest Director Patanjali de la Rocha said Washington Indigenous communities designed the program. The local Indigenous community Hummingbird serves and is a part of agreed on the number of people the program would serve, the amount of money people would get, the geographical area served, and income qualifications. Indigenous people have some of the highest rates of poverty in Washington, and this new guaranteed income program will be a step towards closing this disparity. 

“For our community, this means that we’re reinstituting that notion of abundance, that your needs are met while you’re doing the most sacred thing, which is growing our next generation,” Love-Thurman said. 

She added that relieving financial stress during pregnancy also has the potential for positive health outcomes. Stress creates extra cortisol, which can lead both to chronic physical and mental health conditions. She hopes less financial stress could lead to lower cortisol levels, which could lead to medical benefits for both the parent and the whole family.

Hummingbird Indigenous Family Services staff meeting up at Executive Director Camie Goldhammer's home. A Nice Mail Carrier

“Guaranteed income isn’t just about the tangible money. It’s also undoing these harmful narratives around poverty that make it an individual moral failing, when really it’s a policy failure,” de la Rocha added. 

Love-Thurman said Hummingbird's women-led leadership in this work stems from matriarchal traditions going back since time immemorial, but Patanjali noted that this particular program took inspiration from the "abundant birth project" in California. 

The project is a guaranteed income program that provides unconditional cash supplements to Black and Pacific Islander mothers. The University of California - San Francisco is currently conducting a study on the program's effectiveness in improving the health and economic outcomes for those communities. 

In the past two years, Hummingbird has been pushing with a coalition that would initiate a statewide guaranteed income program in Washington. Though this policy has a long way to go, de la Rocha hopes that Hummingbird’s pilot program can show how vital and life-saving a guaranteed income can be.