Mothering Resistance and Reclamation—Indigenous Mamas

Thursday, May 09, 2013

By Erin Konsmo 

In many ways, the Native Youth Sexual Health Network is a family that works together and throughout Turtle Island to reclaim ourselves through sexual and reproductive health, rights, and justice.

For Mama’s Day our blog focuses not only on the range of Indigenous language definitions that exist for what ‘mama’, ‘mother,’ or ‘mothering’ means, but also on how we understand these words in our distinct Indigenous nations and how we stand in resistance to oppressive conceptions. What we see is that for many Indigenous Peoples mothering is a resistance to colonial definitions.

The variety of words that are used for “mama” in different Indigenous languages is a good place to start to recognize the many different forms of mamas. These are just a few:

Nîkawî in Cree
Nîmama in Michif
Kutj in Mi’kmaq
Anaanak or Anaana in Inuktitut
Giye in Potawatomi
N’gaashe or Nimaamaa in Anishnaabemowin
Eadni in Saami

Although there exists much diversity throughout Indigenous cultures and communities, for many Indigenous nations, mothering is a collective responsibility that is sometimes shared among many, with women taking on caring roles beyond immediate family. Colonization has brought a focus to individual care only. For this reason, Indigenous children, who are often cared for by many (including aunts, sisters, grandparents, etc.), may be seen as ‘running wild’ by those who don’t understand the cultural background. Giving birth, and in fact the entire process of birthing, is transformative and spiritual for Indigenous communities; but in the mainstream, labor and birth have become a part of the medical industrial complex. The impacts of these forms of colonization on Indigenous forms of mothering continue to be seen.

Our work also focuses on the self-determination of Indigenous youth to decide when, how, and with what supports and information they would like to have families (including families of choice)—free of stigma and judgment. A lot of the media that surrounds Indigenous youth who decide to have families focuses on the negative so-called “at risk” factors, ignoring cultural systems for how we understand, build, take care of, and nurture our families.

As Indigenous Peoples, mamas take shape in many different forms and bodies. Here is what some Indigenous youth in our network shared about their understandings of what it means to be a mama:

“A mama is a mama is a mama. Meaning you may be two spirits—trans, butch, femme, married, divorced—but we all have the same goal and value to do our best with what we can. The structure is linear, not hierarchical; no one type of mama is better than another. And just because someone dresses like a 'man' and uses 'male' types of pronouns or labels for himself doesn't mean that he can't also think of himself as a mama.”

“I love sisters who act as mamas too! L'nu families, our family is like a puzzle. That meant we were split up only to be reunited in my late teens.”

“Someone who is there for you, cares for you, no matter what.”

Mothering is an act of resistance and reclamation for many Indigenous Peoples. To be a mother has become a way to push back on ongoing legacies of European and Western notions of what “proper” mothering is. Mothers resist continual state custody, foster care, and the removal of Indigenous children from their homes. To be a mother is to resist forms of cultural genocide.

The health and well-being of a nation depends on the health and well-being of mothers. That is not to say that our male, Two Spirit, and gender fabulous community members aren’t just as important. At the same time, we do recognize that we all belong to Mother Earth.

Indigenous youth are resisting narratives that don’t recognize the sacredness of the many ways we bring life to all that we do; we are restoring our own definitions of mama, building up families when we are disconnected from our own, caring for other Indigenous youth as we resist colonization, and sharing our knowledge with new generations about our bodies and our sexualities. All of this is a restoration of mothering and what it means to be a mama.

These Indigenous forms of mothering resistance and reclamation are what help to maintain culturally safe sexual health education. When Indigenous children are able to stay with their mamas, families, and communities they are more likely to be connected to their culture, a support system where they can learn about their bodies within their own histories. When Indigenous youth have mamas that take many forms they can go to them to talk about any number of subjects from sex education to harm reduction and culture.

On this Mama’s Day, we at the Native Youth Sexual Health Network celebrate all Indigenous mamas and the many forms in which they come, as well as the critical everyday, on-the-ground work they do for our families, communities, and nations.

Erin Konsmo is the Media Arts & Projects Coordinator at Native Youth Sexual Health Network. The Native Youth Sexual Health Network (NYSHN) is an organization by and for Indigenous youth that works across issues of sexual and reproductive health, rights, and justice throughout the United States and Canada. 

This blog post is part of the Strong Families Mama’s Day Our Way celebration. You can read more posts in the series on the Strong Families blogStrong Families is a national initiative led by Forward Together. Our goal is to change the way people think, act and talk about families.

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