When my daughter was born, my partner and I knew we wanted her to grow up with the innate knowledge that she has the power to be herself—100 percent, unapologetically Indigenous. It was essential, then, that I returned to the parenting principles of my ancestors and consciously integrate Indigenous kinship practices (IKP) into her childhood.
Indigenous kinship requires that the dynamic between child and parent is one of equality, understanding and truth. Kinship, by definition, is steeped in the bond of blood connections, returning to a deeply nurturing love of family and community. As a mother, consistently maintaining an open listening environment for my daughter has been key—even before she could form words. One of the most striking examples of the power of this bond came early on, when she was just a baby.
It was a cold fall afternoon and my daughter, River-Jaxsen, was just four months old. I received a message from my brother, Jake, who was living in Thunder Bay, while my little family—myself, my partner and our daughter—were living in Treaty 6 territory on Poundmaker Cree Nation in Saskatchewan.
While I understood his desire to meet his niece, my partner and I were unsure if we wanted to make the long trek with a newborn. But in keeping with IKP, we provided space for River-Jaxsen to make the decision. She was sitting in her car seat in the living room while we discussed whether to go or not. We asked, “River-Jaxsen, give us a sign if you want to go to the powwow in Prince Albert, three hours away, to see your Uncle Jake?”
She stared at us with her big brown eyes and started to kick her long, spindly legs really fast. We asked her again, “River-Jaxsen, give us a sign if you want to stay home.” She stared at us and didn’t make a move. My partner looked at me and said, “Let’s make sure that wasn’t a fluke.” I nodded and he asked her again, “River-Jaxsen, give us a sign if you want to go the powwow in Prince Albert to see your Uncle Jake.” Again, she kicked her legs really, really fast. “Give us a sign if you want to stay home,” he asked. She was still. We laughed and started to pack.
Even though River-Jaxsen is a great traveller, it took double the time to get to the powwow. As long as it took, as many gymnastic manoeuvres I mastered to change her diaper and nurse her throughout the trip and as tired as we were when we finally arrived at the powwow, it ended up being more important to us than we ever could have imagined.
Later that summer, my brother committed suicide. He was 30 years old. That powwow was the last time we saw Jake, and if River-Jaxsen hadn’t given us clear signs about making that visit happen, she would have never met her outgoing, humble and kind uncle. I treasure those memories of my brother singing powwow songs to his niece as he rocked her to sleep in the bleachers. The songs still ring in my head from time to time.
It was moments like these that I will always be grateful for because moments like this were never supposed to happen: Indigenous peoples were not supposed to survive the process of colonialism, and neither were our songs.
Through treaties, residential schools and policies aimed at assimilation, colonialism has taught Indigenous families like mine that an authoritarian presence over children is acceptable and mandatory for the successful sustainability of our families. And it tore at the fabric of Indigenous families. The trauma and abuse that my mishomis (my grandfather) endured at residential school seeped into my own childhood via my mother.
What I want for my daughter is the complete opposite of how I was raised. It means unlearning every colonial rule in relation to parenting and families and reigniting traditions that have been torn away from us.
I was brought up with the generic system of reward and punishment. As I got older, punishments became abusive and violent. I was told to quiet down if I was expressing joy too loudly and that I was OK when I was crying (when I wasn’t). My emotions and ways of being were policed to the point where how I should act became ingrained in me.
I didn’t speak my language, I didn’t know my songs from back home, and I didn’t know what ceremony felt like. I didn’t know how to skin a rabbit or how to maintain a relationship between myself and my extended family. In my teen years, it became obvious just how deeply rooted colonialism was in my being. I was ashamed of being Anishinaabe, I was ashamed of my skin colour, and I was ashamed of my mother. It led to self-destructive behaviours from alcohol and drug use and abusive relationships that I could only view at the time as “normal.”
After years of work, forgiveness and relearning what a healthy mother-daughter relationship looks like, my mother and I transformed our own relationship. I worked through my traumas to the point where those learned behaviours dissolved. For this, I am so grateful because it meant that some of the most important work for the beginning stages of building and growing a healthy Indigenous family had already begun when I discovered I was pregnant. Rather than transplant my grandfather’s colonial pain into my daughter’s consciousness, I was able to pass on my mother’s Indigenous love and provide a life of abundance and safety for her.
My partner and I work hard to establish healthy boundaries with our daughter while disposing of all the toxic behavioural norms and colonial traumas that we were raised with. IKP is a slightly different way of parenting. Instead of a reward and punishment system, IKP uses methods of healthy discipline, along with intergenerational teachings and guidance, so that kids know how to take responsibility for their own behaviours. Kids are raised to express all emotions, freely and openly, and parents teach them healthy methods to express those emotions. I, myself, strive to place the decision-making power in the hands—or feet—of my daughter when appropriate.
It’s important that she doesn’t grow up thinking she has to behave in emotionally expressive ways just to please others or to get what she wants. When River-Jaxsen would cry as an infant, my partner would lovingly cradle her in his arms. He would begin to tell her, “Cry as long you need to. Let it all out. Yell if you want to. Cry my girl, cry.” It became the normal way of giving our daughter space to know that it was OK to express all that she had to.
We still do this today by easing into a slow weaning from breastfeeding. Her Nohtaw (dad) puts her to sleep instead of me nursing her and he tells her, “It’s OK, you will nurse when you wake up. Just let your feelings out.” After a few minutes, she is OK.
Raising my daughter in this way provides me with a sense of security knowing that River-Jaxsen will always have generations of guidance throughout her lifetime. The lessons, virtues and traditional teachings that she is gaining as she grows are more than enough to aid her on her journey of life.
Traditionally, families operated and thrived by maintaining respect for one another and the land, valuing equality over hierarchy and considering community members to be extended family. It takes more than a village to raise a child; it takes generations of traditional knowledge and blood memory to raise strong, resilient Indigenous children. In IKP, it’s believed that aunties and uncles in a child’s life are just as integral as the mother and the father. However, the primary difference is that aunties and uncles are placed in charge of discipline so as not to sever the sacred bond between parent and child. By maintaining respectful and vital ties between infants, youth, adults and elders, we can ensure that the cyclical nature of family is never broken, with each generation learning from one another, gently and lovingly.
River-Jaxsen was 15 months old when she began to call her uncle (my partner’s brother) “Dada!”—the same term she uses for her father. It was in those moments that I recognized that my daughter had developed the visceral relationship with her uncle that has existed in Indigenous children since time immemorial. She still chooses to identify her uncle as her father, much like our children did generations ago.
It’s vital that we teach children that an Indigenous way of life isn’t seen as an alternative lifestyle but a priority. This means teaching children how to hunt, fish, trap and live off the land, as well as teaching them about forgiveness, about how to grieve based on their ancestral teachings and about which traditions to follow and at what times.
How that translates for us with our daughter is we try to speak the words that we know in our mother tongues and make sure that she is deeply familiar with land-based practices. We nurture her relationship with the land every day, even if it’s –21 degrees out.
Our daughter has already established a deep connection with our horses. We take her out to feed them daily, and she will grab a small handful of hay or oats and feed them, mimicking horse sounds as she does. At 20 months, she is beginning to learn the sacredness in water, land, animals and plants and will hopefully carry that with her as she grows. Unlike my own childhood, her connection to who she is and where she comes from will be so natural.
The lessons, challenges and trauma in life continue to be a steep learning curve for me. As I think about the suicide of my brother, I’m filled with feelings of injustice and anger. But the more I focus on what kind of person I want to help my daughter become, the more I focus on how I need to be authentic with myself as well. Suicide in Indigenous communities is an epidemic. IKP can play a vital role in helping us decide how to deal, heal and move forward. Allowing the tears to come and the grief to be felt and showing my daughter that grief can be expressed in a healthy way will ultimately aid my family in the long run in ways that I may not even see.
Hearing River-Jaxsen sing traditional songs as best as she can, watching her use words in her mother tongue—words that were meant to be extinct—and noticing when she expresses all parts of herself, freely and unbounded by restrictions, provides a sense of deep pride and gratitude in knowing that she will carry these on to future generations. I know our distinct cultures and languages are safe when I bear witness to the greatness that is my daughter.
She is living proof to me that colonial ways of parenting have not eradicated our own ways of parenting. Her voice is the connection to the land and our lineage, from one generation to the next. Her voice, in all of its innocence and wisdom, is the ultimate victory against 500 years of oppression, and that is something sacred—something to uphold and celebrate.
Andrea Landry is a mother, professor, therapist, and Indigenous rights defender who prioritizes Indigenous ways of living.
This article was originally published online in May 2018.