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American-Indian Families

Family Life Today

In many respects, the history of the past has influenced and helped to shape the structure, roles, and meaning of family to American Indians today. American Indians would define family as members made up of fictive and nonfictive kin (blood related and non-blood related), extended family, tribal community, and the nation of American Indians as a whole today. In this regard, one is never alone or without family, a kinship network. Some tribes are patriarchal and patrilocal; others are matriarchal and matrilocal in structure.

The structural context of the family is immersed in history and traditional cultural values (Red Horse, Lewis, Feit, and Decker 1978; Red Horse 1980). For example, American-Indian women were often viewed in the context of expressive roles; namely, childrearing, domestic tasks, and the overall concerns of the family (Hanson 1980; John 1988). American-Indian men were often cast in roles of leadership outside the home; as medicine men and spiritual guides, and as leaders in tribal community matters.

Today, some believe that the centrality of the culture is maintained in American-Indian women (Allen 1986). This is a progressive and feminist view that does not apply across all tribes in the United States. For example, women of tribes in the west and southwest have lower status than those from tribes from the east and south. Others view the role of women as based on an ethic of care (Gilligan 1993) in which women are principally concerned with the responsibility and activity involved in the care of others and their development. In essence, American-Indian women see themselves as providing an integral role centered around an ethic of care that is the connection between relationship and responsibility.

The contemporary role of American-Indian women is very much rooted in their role historically, but in a more modernized version due to the changing times.

Women's activity—in relation to others—is more aptly depicted in language such as "being able to encompass the experiences and well-being of the other" (Miller 1986, p. x). What American-Indian women have been doing in life is best described as "active participation in the development of others" (p. xx).

This active participation occurs daily; as the women interact with adults and children they engage in a relational connection. By looking at the conventional ways women have been socialized to carry out the expressive activities and functions of the so-called female role—that is, wife, mother, nurturer, responsible for child rearing and the private sphere of home—it is clear that these expressive activities are focused on serving others' needs. For American-Indian women, then, ties to others represent affiliations based on an ethic of care: the connection between relationship and responsibility (Silvey 1997).

In their role as American-Indian women, women are viewed as the carriers of culture, or put another way, keepers of the culture. As such, the women are not suppressed in their role, but the same cannot be said for American-Indian men. The cultural context of the outside, larger society has negatively affected the role and status of the American-Indian male compared to that of the American-Indian female. From a historical perspective, the net result over time has evinced a cultural context of adaptation and evolution in the role and status of American-Indian women and men, as opposed to tradition.

American-Indian men have a harder time finding their niche in contemporary society. The status of the Indian male has not risen anywhere near that of the Indian female. It is much harder for men to find employment that has the opportunity for career advancement. American-Indian males have been known to be great on their feet and have been sought out as ironworkers and for various jobs in the construction field. More often than not, the Indian male will find himself relegated to providing for his family through various means of manual labor and work in blue-collar industries. It is rare that American-Indian men can be found working in white-collar occupations and jobs that tend to hold status and prestige, all symbols of very successful and upwardly mobile men by today's standards. Many American-Indian men are in prominent roles within their tribal communities as tribal judges, tribal chairmen and administrators, and in mental health and casino positions. Some men have gone on to become lawyers and work for their tribe or types of Indian legal services. Others have very strong creative and artistic abilities and have become entrepreneurs.

However, it is still far easier for American-Indian women to find jobs that enable them to provide for their families and establish a career ladder at the same time than it is for American-Indian men. Historically, the role of American-Indian men as providers for their family was much easier, and held more status, than it is or does in contemporary society.

The structure of American-Indian families is often misunderstood and confusing to non-American-Indian people. The expansive nature of the family structure, inclusive of extended family systems, is confusing because of the number of non-blood-related members inherent in the family. Not all members may be primarily of American-Indian descent or of the same tribal affiliation. A nonblood or fictive member may be an elder who is referred to by other members as an uncle, but who in fact has no biological relationship to other members.

Confusing to the non-American Indian is the number of people who reside together and that it is not always possible to tell by looking at members which ones are fictive and nonfictive (Red Horse 1980; Silvey 1997).

The goal of family and parental support, within the context of the American-Indian family of origin, is to foster interdependence. The family serves as a facilitator in the development of its members and does so according to family or cultural role, not necessarily according to age (Red Horse 1980). Family and parental support encompasses cultural and spiritual maintenance, satisfaction of physical and emotional needs, and the themes of providing care, being cared for, and preparing to care for, throughout the lifespan. In this regard, the family is strengthened and lifelong interdependence among members is fostered. This approach to familial support contrasts with European-American family support in that the goal of the latter is independence of members rather than interdependence among members.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural AspectsAmerican-Indian Families - General Points Of Interest, Boarding Schools, Family Life Today, American-indian Child Welfare