Family Life | Ruth A. Myers Center for Indigenous Education
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Required Profile of Learning
To achieve a diploma a student must show an appropriate level of achievement in each of the following elements:
Understand what they read, bear and see. Comprehending, interpreting, and evaluating information received through reading, listening, and viewing;
Write and speak effectively. Writing and speaking in English clearly for academic, technical, and personal purposes with a variety of audiences;
Gather and use information. Applying methods of inquiry needed to conduct research, draw conclusions, and communicate and apply findings;
Understand interactions between people, their world and their cultures. Understanding how principles of interaction and interdependence affect physical and social situations;
Make informed decisions. Applying informed decisionmaking processes to promote personal growth and the wellbeing of society;
Know how to manage a household or business. Understanding the effective management of resources in a household, business, community, and government.
Students will be able to:
- define the unique features of family structures/relationships of American Indians in Minnesota.
This outcome includes:
- defining extended family.
- understanding gender issues, responsibilities.
- understanding role of elders.
- understanding effect of government policies.
All students should learn that American Indians have strong family traditions that include the extended family. This increased understanding will promote more effective cross–cultural communication in a diverse society.
American Indian World View/Cultural Content
The family, the roles played by family members, the functions of the family, the customs surrounding family life and the spiritual dimension of family are the center of American Indian culture.
Teacher Background Information
Traditionally American Indian families include a wide circle of relatives who are linked together in mutual dependence. Family members share resources and responsibilities. This encompassing concept of family is referred to as an extended family.
There is also a spiritual dimension to the idea of family. The Dakota use the phase mitahuyapi– owasin which means all my relatives. All my relatives includes not only the Dakota, but all human life, plant life, animal life and all things of this Earth. The Ojibwe use the term indinawe maagauzag which can also be translated all my relatives. American Indians use the symbol of a circle to describe the kinship and interrelationship of all of nature. The family is a circle with each member playing a reciprocal role. The life passages through which we all move is a circle. The seasons of the year form a circle.
Since the appearance of the Europeans on the American continent, American Indians have been struggling to retain the right to freedom, land, tradition and a way of life, that is, for Indian values. This struggle for cultural survival has never been easy – not during the days of colonization nor today during economic competition and culture clash. The majority of American Indians were forced to live in poverty during the past 300 years. Poverty is corrosive and destructive to culture and the values embedded in the culture. The well–known results of poverty are family disintegration further deteriorating the social structure and the social fiber. Social fiber is based upon a shared value system in which individual and group attitudes are shaped. Norms for behavior often represent cultural ideals and are not necessarily observed on a daily basis. It is a foremost interest of parents to equip their children with the tools of survival. It is obvious that the survival of the children and the survival of the culture are related.
American Indian families include a wide circle of relatives who share resources and responsibilities. Family includes more than parents and children. Families include grandparents, uncles and aunts, cousins and many others. This wider concept of family is called an extended family. The circle of relatives who live together or in close proximity are linked in mutual dependence. Grandparents and other community elders have always played a major role in rearing and educating the young. It is customary in many tribes for the grandparents to raise one or more of their grandchildren. This type of shared responsibility for parenting is a family and community strength. The grandchild is an extension of the grandmother and grandfather.
Among the Dakota, each child born into the family is called by a kinship term that states his or her gender and birth order. The first born if a female is called Winuna which literally means first born female. The first born if male is called Chaské which literally means first born male. There are four other names for female children, and four other names for male children that also state the birth order. The children are always called these names by family members.
The Dakota call other relatives by kinship terms that are different from those used in the Euro–American kinship system. For example, father´s brother is called father rather than uncle and his children are called brothers and sisters. Brother and sister terminology is also more specific reflecting not only the gender of siblings but also age differences between them. A woman would call her older sister, Aconna, but a much older sister she would call Micun. She would address her younger sister by a different term, Tanksi. A Dakota husband generally came to live with his wife and her family after marriage. Dakota women were considered the owners and managers of the home and they decided where each member would sit or sleep. The couple observed the custom whereby a husband never talked directly to his mother–in–law nor a wife to her father–in–law. This practice is considered a sign of respect among family members.
Dakota parenting traditions demonstrate the belief that children should be loved and cherished. Love is shown by parents and other family members who provide for the child´s needs. There are stories told that long ago, when food was scarce, the elders voluntarily went without food, so the children could be fed. Dakota parenting traditions also include the belief that children should not be disciplined too harshly or subdued too strongly because such action would destroy the spirit of the child. Through encouragement and gentle discipline, children learned to be responsible.
In the Ojibwe language there are kinship terms for children and other family members. In the Anishinabe kinship system, younger siblings are not distinguished by gender. They are called *Nii–she–may, my younger sibling. Older brother is called Nii–sa–yay and older sister, Niimi–say. Aunts and uncles are distinguished according to whether these aunts and uncles are related through the mother´s or father´s side of the family. Maternal uncle, for example, is called Nii–zhi–shay, and paternal uncle, Nii–mee–shu–niay. Great grandchildren are called Inda–ni–kubi–ji–gan, which literally means two pieces of rope spliced together or "what I have spliced."
Many Anishinabe children have more than one personal name given at different times. Children may receive one or more names when they are small. The name may be given by an elder. Parents customarily bring tobacco to the elder who they want to name their child. The name comes to the elder in a dream. The parents then prepare a ceremonial feast. After receiving a name, the child and elder are bonded in a special relationship. They call each other, nii–ya–wé e meaning my namesake. A child may be given a nickname rendered either in Ojibwe or English. This name reveals something about the child´s special character. Examples of naming occasions:
- Birth name
- Formal name
- Name given during illness
- Name given at puberty – named after one of personal attributes
- A child´s name may be that of an elder who has passed on
Family refers to an even wider circle of relatives who belong to the same clan. A clan is symbolized as a species of bird, animal or fish. There are many bands or divisions of the Anishinabe nation. Within this large nation, are 20 or more clans. One definition of family is the Ojibwe word in–do–daim meaning my clan. Those who belong to the same clan consider one another as close relatives.
In the past as well as today, children are cared for by a circle of relatives. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, and fathers as well as mothers take responsibility. Like the Dakota, Anishinabe child rearing includes the conviction that harsh discipline destroys the child´s spirit. Positive discipline takes place through adult example, encouragement and community recognition of the child´s accomplishments. * The double vowel system of spelling is used.
Parenting encompasses the following time periods, beginning at birth: Infancy (birth to two years), Early Childhood (two to six years), Middle Childhood (six to twelve years) and Adolescence (puberty to adulthood). During these time periods children develop in the following major areas: physical, cognitive (thinking abilities), social and emotional; and what is called moral development or moral reasoning including spiritual development.
Parents change and continue to develop as well. In some cases parenthood begins in adolescence. Parents develop through early and middle adulthood to late adulthood and older age, possibly in the role of grandparents. Each developmental stage has its specific tasks that need to be accomplished and certain goals to be achieved. Also, each major stage has its difficult transitions, hurdles and sometimes its typical crises. For the parenting adult there is a transition into responsible adulthood, a mid–life transition and an adjustment to late adult life. Children face many challenges to develop competence and to achieve acceptance in a world that appears difficult to understand and often appears threatening. One example is in the task of achieving balance between one´s own needs and the needs of others. Through all changes, culture, with its inherent system of values and attitudes, is capable of providing guidance to children as well as adults. In the eyes of an American Indian parent an event in the human life–span may be interpreted in a way different from that explained by the western scientific method. Many times American Indian teachings for children and adults reveal many similar, if not identical, concerns and understandings for the complexities of growing–up as those identified by modern child psychology. Many if not most of our children have roots in both worlds and must learn to successfully raise a family in a culturally diverse society. Love between American Indian parents and their children is not different from that between non–Indian parents and their children.
American Indian tribes and individuals mark the passages of life through ceremony, ritual and prayer. There are special ceremonies and practices at birth, naming, puberty and marriage. When a person moves back to the spirit world, the passing is marked by ritual and ceremony. Teachers should be aware that American Indian families may or may not continue to practice in the traditional ways.
Family and Gender Roles and Responsibilities
In the old ways, gender and family roles and responsibilities were clear. One of the most important philosophical beliefs in this area is that of equality. While gender roles and responsibilities were and are clear, the concept of equality is paramount. Women have traditionally been responsible for the home and men have been the providers and protectors. It is not unheard of for role reversal to occur and when it does occur the community does not condemn such behavior. Both men and women have been and are warriors, hunters, teachers, medicine people and leaders who offer their gifts to the community.
Basil Johnston, author of many books about Ojibwe life and culture, speaks about this concept of equality, both in relationships between men and women and in the role of children in the family. "The Anishinabeg word for the relationship between a man and a woman was wee kjeewaugun, meaning companion – a term which referred equally to male or female. There was no distinction in sex; no notion of inferiority or superiority. More particularly, weedjeewaugun meant Companion on the Path of Life – "he who goes with" or "she who walks with.: For both men and women a companion was someone to walk with and be with through all aspects of life and living. Such was the notion of marriage; the taking of a companion. It was the strongest of bonds."
In describing the role of children, Mr. Johnston says, "A woman may give birth to many children. To all she gives food, care, and a place near her. To each she gives a portion of herself; to each she assigns a place in the household. No child by virtue of priority of birth or other attributes may demand for himself more than his brothers or sisters. A mother gives equally to all of her children, from first to last, from strong to weak. All are entitled to a place near her bosom in her lodge. Her gift does not diminish but increases and renews itself".
The Community Way of Teaching A Child
Traditional American Indian approaches to teaching and learning provide a powerful model for a constructive learning environment. Learning in the community was and is vastly different from what usually happens in a formal classroom. In these next two paragraphs, Jane Deborah Wyatt provides a description of the contrast.1
"In the community the usual way for a child to learn a skill from an adult is to observe carefully over long periods of time and then to begin taking part in the activity. The way in which a native child learns the technology of fishing is a good example. By accompanying adults on fishing trips and by listening and observing, a child learns places for fishing and how to set nets, use a dip net, and prepare the fish for eating. A child also learns names of different types of fish, parts of the fish, types of nets and assorted gear, and styles of preparation. All of this is learned by watching and doing with a minimum of verbal preparation or interchange. Similarly it would be unusual for an adult to ask a child to verbalize what has been learned; whether or not the child had taken in and retained the information would be evident in the next fishing trip. A child may of course, ask questions about the skills being performed, and the adult may supplement the actual performance with verbal commentary. However, verbal instructions without demonstration and participation, a frequent occurrence in the schools, are rare in the community."
"Story–telling in a community setting is also quite different. During a fishing trip a story about other trips or about the history of the area might be told, or the same information might be told weeks later in a totally different context. In either case, once the story was started, it might continue for hours. It would be considered stifling to limit a story–teller to twenty minute sessions. Yet this is precisely what is done in school. During story–telling sessions in the community children are expected to listen quietly. At the end no one asks them to recite the names of the main characters or to answer questions about plot, motivation and moral. In the school classroom the essence of learning is the articulation of information and skills in verbal and written form according to a predetermined timetable, and quizzing to determine if students have retained information."
Role of Elders
Elders have a very special place in the community and in the family. According to Basil Johnston, in Ojibwe Heritage, "It was the elders, grandmothers and grandfathers, who taught about life, through stories, parables, fables, allegories, songs, chants and dances. They were the ones who had lived long enough and had had a path to follow, and were deemed to possess the qualities for teaching wisdom, knowledge, patience and generosity." 1 Wyatt, June Deborah. "Native Involvement in Curriculum Development: The Native American Teacher as Cultural Broker," Interchange, 9, No. 1, 1978–79.
Grandmothers teach young women their roles and responsibilities. Grandfathers teach the young men. Grandmother or Nokomis has a special place in the teachings and stories of the Anishinabe people. Most of the stories begin with Nokomis and her grandson. Nokomis raised her grandson, who is *Waynaboshoo/WinnebozhootNanabozho. It is not unusual today for grandparents to continue to raise grandchildren. It is also traditional for aunts and uncles to help with the discipline of the children.
Effects of Government Assimilation Policies
The assimilation policies of the federal government were purposeful and part of a systematic effort to remove the traditional values, languages, history and culture from American Indians. These policies had and continue to have a tremendous detrimental effect on American Indian culture and language. Some of these policies include:
- creating a reservation system
- making a relocation policy (government efforts to transfer American Indians from reservations to urban centers)
- instituting an allotment policy to break up the American Indian land base
- sending young American Indian children to federal and mission boarding schools
Many of the children sent to boarding schools were not allowed to go home except for periodic visits. In these schools, the history of American Indian tribes was not included in the American story, with pre–contact history treated with a few paragraphs in most texts. Children in boarding schools seldom learned the oral history of their tribes from their elders and storytellers. This had a serious effect on the self–worth and self–esteem of American Indian children. Many of them had a sense of alienation from the political, social and economic make–up of the country. Unfortunately, this practice of exclusion continues today in many history texts and schools. Public school education may have a similarly negative impact when not inclusive of an American Indian world view. *Note: Different spellings are used by people in different areas.
With the implementation of the federal policy of sending young children to federal and mission boarding schools, a link between the elders and the young was broken. Children came back from these schools unable to speak their traditional languages with any degree of sophistication. In many cases they had been led to believe the language should not be spoken at all. As the children of these schools became adults, many chose to not teach their traditional language and culture to their children. Their own memories of the punishment for speaking their language at these schools was much too painful. Many had been put into isolation and beaten for doing it and the only future they saw for their own children was to completely assimilate into the American way of life. This is a common element of many invaded groups (Freire, 1973):
"For cultural invasion to succeed, it is essential that those invaded become convinced of their intrinsic inferiority. Since everything has its opposite, if those who are invaded consider themselves inferior, they must necessarily recognize the superiority of the invaders. The values of the latter comes the pattern of the former. The more invasion is accentuated and those invaded are alienated from the spirit of their own culture and from themselves, the more the latter want to be like the invaders; to walk like them, dress like them, talk like them."
It should be noted that some individuals had positive experiences in these schools and can relate instances of friendships formed, skills learned, and needs for food, clothing and shelter met.
The policy of assimilation also effected some American Indians´ views about leadership. In the past, the tribal community may have been able to draw upon the perceived wisdom of elders and other persons of knowledge. With the decline in the number of elders who practiced traditional lifestyles and beliefs, the decline in respect for tradition, and the encroachment of leadership styles based upon political power, many reservation communities saw a decline in the number of traditional leaders.
In many boarding schools, boys were trained to be farmers and girls to be homemakers. With this process of Americanization, they were implicitly taught that men and women were not equal. This conflicted with traditional ways. Before the coming of the European immigrants to this land, women were considered the equals of men among the Anishinabe and Dakota. The policy of assimilation did not wane until well into the 20th century. Until recently, social service authorities often placed American Indian children in need of such services into Euro–American foster homes. The Indian Child Welfare Act finally set guidelines whereby if American Indian children were removed from their homes, every effort had to be made to place them in American Indian homes.
The American Indian Family Today in the American Indian family today, parents continue to teach children in the old ways. Many parents expose their children to traditional story–tellers whenever possible and make efforts to tell the old stories. The traditional behavior management techniques are still in use in many families, albeit not as effective when young people are bombarded from all sides by media, materialism, and social issues like racism, poverty and chemical dependency. While most American Indian infants are no longer carried in cradleboards, parents understand the need to be close to infants and to provide nurturance to them. Many American Indian families understand the need to maintain harmony and balance in the home and to be at one with the environment. This way of life can be described in following quotations:
"In many Indian cultures, young children are considered sacred gifts to the family and to the tribe... Each child is to be treated with personal respect, as an individual bearing special traits, Each adult generation is to acknowledge the sacredness to young children, and to care of the coming generation..."
– Wahacanka Ska Win Gough, 1990
- Dakota Project. Lessons about the Dakotas of Minnesota. K–6. Contact Elitta Gouge. Phone: (612) 728–2000.
- Hirschfelder, Arlene. "Daily Lives" Happily May I Walk. American Indians and Alaska Natives Today. New York: Charles Scribner´s Sons, 1986.
- O–do–i–daym: Clans of the Ojibway Coloring Book. Minnesota Indian Women´s Resource Center, 1989. Phone: (612) 728–2000.
- Osofsky, Audrey. Dreamcatcher. Orchard Books, 1992.
- Positive Indian Parenting. Northwest Indian Child Welfare Institute. Parry Center for Children. 3415 SE. Powell Blvd. Portland, OR 97202, 1986.
- Regguinti, Gordon. The Sacred Harvest. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publications. Phone: 1–800–828–4929.
- Videos Spirit Bay Series. Thirteen stories about Ojibwe young people in the contemporary community of Spirit Bay, Ontario. Color (28 mm). Beacon Films. Phone: 1–800–322–3307.
- Video: "A Gift to One, A Gift to Many." Jackson, Jimmy
- A Long Time Ago Is Just Like Today. Oral Narratives of Ojibwe Elders. Duluth Public Schools. Indian Education Program, 1976.
- Broker, Ignatia. Night Flying Woman. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1983.
- Brunette, Pauline. "Wah–we–yay–cumig–oke Reflection and Reminiscence of my Ojibwe family." Colors Magazine. Vol. 2/Issue 3. May–June, 1993.
- Densmore, Frances. Chippewa Customs. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1979.
- Hilger, Sister Inez. Chippewa Child Life and Its Cultural Background. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1992.
- Hungry Wolf, Adolf and Beverly. Children of the Sun. A Rare Anthology of Childhood and Tribal Life Among North American Indians. New York: Morrow Publications, 1987.
- Ojibway Family Life in Minnesota: 20th Century Sketches. AnokaHennepin Indian Education Program, 1989. Phone: (612) 422–5784.
- Positive Indian Parenting. Northwest Indian Child Welfare Institute. Parry Center for Children. 3415 SE. Powell Blvd. Portland, OR 97202, 1986.
- South Dakota State University. Rural Sociology Department. The Dakota Indian Family. Brookings, SD: South Dakota State University. Bulletin 470, 1958.
- Unger, Steven. The Destruction of American Indian Families. Association for American Indian Affairs, 1979.
- Wax, Murray L. Indian Americans. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1971.
- Video: "Where the Spirit Lives." Color (97 mm.) University Film and Video. Phone: (612)627–4270.
- Video: "In the Best Interest of the Child: Indian Child Welfare Act." Arcata, CA: Shenandoah Film Productions. Phone: (707) 822–1030.