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Sunday, May 8, 2016


By Mary A. Adair

Motherhood within Native American culture is a fascinating microcosm of the culture itself. It encompasses a unique mix of nurturing and independence that prepares their children for both a celebration of life’s forthcoming blessings and the promise of a less than forgiving world with its fair share of challenges.

There was a time when Native American mothers kept their children close to them by tying them in a sling to their bodies and carrying on with their daily duties, whether it be retrieving beans and berries for dinner or gathering wood for fire. However, modern society has crept in and has chipped away at that simple way of life; some Native American mothers have gone from breastfeeding to bottled milk. But, the cultural tapestry woven by the women before them remains key in how Native American mothers preside over their families.

For Native Americans, tribal identity is very important and is a key factor in the personal development of their children. Women are the stewards of this tradition. They play a key role in an extended family system that’s defined in terms of household composition which includes the mother, father, children, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Within this setup, the mother of the household is responsible for setting a tone of assistance and nurturing.  Grandmothers play the role of teacher by way of storytelling.


The values of loyalty, respect for elders, humility, giving and sharing, avoidance of personal glory, and love of the land is taught by the mother.  Native Americans have respect for nature and believe in working with nature rather than fighting it or trying to control it. Native American mothers regard children as beloved gifts.  Rather than likening children to chores or people who must be controlled at all costs, these mothers genuinely enjoy caring for and playing with their children. 

This lays the groundwork for their children’s’ value systems. Responsibility, courage, patience, optimism, and contentment is also reinforced. 


Children are typically reared and socialized in an atmosphere that exposes them to a large number of family members - parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents.  Not only does the mother provide child rearing, but also aunts and grandmothers. Grandparents – especially the grandmothers - tell the children stories about their heritage so that cultural beliefs and values are passed on.

Mothers set a tone of autonomy so as to allow children to learn to make their own decisions. Developmental milestones are treated with a sense of laxity. For example, it would be unusual to find a Native American parent working with their child with flash cards in an effort to encourage the child to be an early reader. Children are seen as unique individuals who develop at their own pace. Native American parents permit their children to develop in their own time and with minimal rules. The belief is that attempting to guide or control behavior of another individual is disrespectful. That’s not to say that discipline is nonexistent in Native American families. Correct conduct is taught to children via ceremonies and direct or indirect instruction by parents, extended family, tribal elders, or traditional healers. Positive reinforcement is used to teach children.


Though there’s been an evolution away from some Native American traditions, the overall spirit of those traditions still remain. It’s important to understand some of these traditions to get a sense of where these women – mothers – get their unique sense of family values.

The importance of women in Native American culture is apparent when you consider that beyond being mother to their tribes’ children, they were farmers, craftswomen, builders and even warriors. This required a strength that was essential to the survival of their tribes and their children.

It wasn’t uncommon for women to gather materials and build homes for everyone. In most tribes, women were considered owners of the homes in which they lived.  Also, Native American mothers would help their men hunt buffalo, then skin, cut and cook them.  Native American women were not only homemakers. The made tools and weapons, served as medicine women. Many tribes considered women to have more healing power with a special connection to the spirit world. They cared for their children and husbands.

Today, the granddaughters of these women are now mothers of their own. She is the provider, nurturer, mother, counselor and she is the spiritual and medical healer to her children and tribe much like the mothers of the past.

Motherhood within Native American culture is both sweet and complex. It involves the wearing of many hats and the expending of much time. But, these women would not have it any other way as this is what keeps them tied to their beloved traditions and one with their spirit. Form them, family is about emotional support, mutual aid, respect, affection and deference and respect given to their husbands and their extended families.


  1. Good post, Mary. I think all mothers want the same things for their children, don't you? No matter what our cultural heritage, we just want our children to be happy and healthy.

  2. This is pretty fascinating. I lived moderately close to a reservation and my elementary schools would "join up" for certain events, but us being kids no one wanted anything to do with the other schools and just clumped together. Honestly, I felt like our teachers would chill out a lot when the other school was around, and I wonder if this is related to what you're describing above.

    Anyway, it's interesting to reflect on.

  3. I too think mothers are universal in wanting their children to be healthy and happy. Great post, Mary.


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