For Thanksgiving, my family and I spent holiday at my sister Robbyn’s. We all enjoyed our time there and were thankful for the family time. In the late I’ve been thinking about what the holidays truly mean to me as I’ve gotten older.
As a child, although I didn’t understand my mothers decision to leave me with extended relatives, the choice she made on my behalf are clear to me today. I understand that it was a sacrifice for my mom to leave her children in order to find work and my dad had no idea about what being a father was starting at the young age of 17. Today both my parents share they each learned a lesson that influences their choice to be the parents and grandparents that they are today.
I’d like to share a personal side of my life and let you know, I was not raised by my natural parents but raised and adopted into a large clan of relatives who helped my parents. I am thankful that me and my siblings were fortunate to have extended family in our lives. As a child, I didn’t realize how growing up in the Native community required the extended family unit. It’s during the holiday season when I truly count my blessings for family. I realize they are integral to who we are as Native people and from what I’ve heard from both my parents, at certain times throughout their upbringing they had cousins who lived with them for years and no one questioned why, they just lived as a family.
Around this time of the year I look around and read news about homeless people who may have no family to turn to and children who go without. I am thankful my mom did not give me up for adoption to a non Indian family, because I was born in LA where the adoption of Native children was a common occurrence in the 70’s and recalls she was approached by hospital staff who had suggested if she wasn’t ready she could give her baby up for adoption.
As I thought about the sacrifice my mother made to leave me with me with an aunt, I could see why I love my nieces and nephews as my own. I look at my babies and see how our extended family has reached out and helped me over the years. Although I am a divorced, single mother and my children have a father that is involved in their lives, its important to remember, parents don’t parent their children alone in Indian country.
During the Thanksgiving holiday my dad had an awesome story time (as I did the nod a couple of times) I heard my dad reminisce about his bachelor years and knew his experiences had made him the man that he is today. Never mind that he had this worldly experience, because I have learned, it came at a price and he recognizes he wasn’t the best father that he could have been. All the experience and money in the world could not take back the years he missed out on his older children growing up. My Pops shared that he learned fathering a child did not make him a man, nor did partying up the lifestyle that he had as a bass player in a rock band, or a chef at a five star hotel, nor did living in LA working at a major media studio. All the “things” he liked including the great celebrity experiences and worldly life had led him away from being where he needed to be. As my padre recalled some of his fun times, he also shared that he woke up one day and realized there was more to life.
By the time my dad came to this realization, my mother had remarried and divorced. In the words of my dad, “your mother had moved on and while she was living her life, I was out partying and eventually met the woman who helped me see it all.” I don’t know how long that process took for him, but today I’m thankful he “woke up” and met the woman who would become the catalyst for the change that occurred in our father (I am one of eight children).
Most often, I am thankful for my mom who never gave up on getting her kids back, especially as I hear news of people who lose touch or disconnect with their parents because of resentments. Believe me, there was a time when me and my sisters were separated, but with my mothers determination she was able to get all us together. I have fond memories that make my life unique and special. During the holidays (and every other birthday), I think back to a time when I acted ungrateful towards my Mom and remember resenting her when I saw that I didn’t get a fresh crisp clean pair of BK’s, but instead received a pair of ProWings from Payless Shoe Source. I remember my older sister Reese scolding me with a question asking me why I made Mom feel bad? I look back today and know my ungrateful attitude was youthful, naive, spoiled ignorance. I don’t like that I made my mother feel bad and remember despite my spoiled behavior, my mother did her best and there really are kids who didn’t have their mother or a birthday bash, let a lone a home.
When I count my blessings, I begin to think about my upbringing and realize I have much to be grateful for. My mother did her best for me and my sisters. While I may recall being raised by extended family members from my adopted family, I also have fond memories of the hardships and struggles we had in the house that my mother had made into a home.
Our mother made certain we were always fed, clothed, and had a roof over our heads. Often times eating foods we did not “like” and swore “when I grow up...” today those have become home foods for me. Homemade tortillas, liver cooked with bacon, spam with potatoes, chorizo, red beans and rice, and more fried potatoes. When I look back, I believe we had a great family support system that allowed me the opportunity to become who I am today. Today I understand that as a community Native people can not exist without a family support or kinship/clan system, because it is the thread of who we are.
My family kinship/clan system is one of my saving graces when I think about my natural parents and my step parents who also played significant roles in my upbringing at certain stages in my life. Although my father was not around the first half of my life, my step dad was. For that I am grateful, especially as I have come to realize, he didn’t have to raise me as his own but he did and ensured I was provided for. Today, as a young adult, I think about the stability that my step dad provided with the support and help of his sisters.
As I think about the work that I do as a board member for one of the oldest and largest Indian education advocacy organizations, I know my personal experience is why I want to help the children in our Native community, including children from my own family. Stability is important to every child growing up and is serious business when we have issues like the Native American Achievement Gap. I understand there are issues going on at home when a child is unable to focus on school and may experience what non Natives have labeled as arrested development. We don’t know what a child goes through once they leave the classroom and nor do we understand the cultural barriers that may exist if they do not tell their teacher or a trusted friend what goes on at home (or not).
Recently I attended a town hall community meeting hosted by a Tribal Education Department for members of a local school board. At this productive and proactive community meeting, a member from that tribal community reminded us (the teachers, members from that community, and my colleagues) to think about what a student learner may experience at home when we discuss high school drop out rates, low test scores, absences, juvenile delinquencies, and learning difficulties. The concerned tribal member stated it is important to remember, “in order for a child to be successful in the classroom… we don’t know what this child goes through at home… think about what they have to deal with and how it effects them in the classroom.”
As Native people, we are taught that children are the reason why we do anything when it comes to teaching, whether the teachings are tribal or a formal education. Indigenous cultures around the world believe children are blessings and providing for their safety is important and guiding them through generations of Indigenous knowledge (which is a value). As the old saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child.
As a call to action, based on this glimpse into my personal life, during these times, let’s take a look at what we have going on in our lives and see how far we have come, overcoming adversity is not easy when done alone, but with the help of others, anything is possible.
Based on that community meeting and what the lady shared, it occurred to me, I was that kid who was not supposed to graduate high school. I was not a stellar student in high school nor did I have a desire or any ambition to go to college, in fact I wanted to become a model. Today it makes me laugh when my friend jokes about aspiring models… I was one of those girls! The comic relief about that subject makes me chuckle as I look back on how far I have come and where I am going.
As the final week of the third semester in a doctoral program winds down for me, I know where I have come from, who I am, and where I am going because of my upbringing. I am amazed at this process and recognize I have come a long way and have so much more ground to cover. I acknowledge that being a part of this program is a privilege and there are not very many Native people in doctoral programs. The few who are and that have successfully completed a program is around .001 % of the Native population. The stark reality of this fact opens my mind up to why it’s important for me to continue what I’m doing and to surround myself with like minded people. Without their help I know I would have other challenges that could distract me and this is certainly one that helps me remain focused.
Family, friends, and community can help any child succeed. I don’t know where I would be if I didn’t have the family that I did and can’t confidently say I’d be where I am without them. As I look back, I know it is their belief in me that helped me get to where I am and what I am truly grateful for. As we begin to celebrate this season I hope we can gift more family time and remember it is the thought that counts and gifting the newest or trendiest clothing line is not what it’s all about.
With that I wish you all a happy holiday season and hope to see some of you, for those I won’t be able to see, continued blessings and Walk in Beauty .