Family Values and the Value of Families in the Mescalero Tribe

Family Values and the Value of Families in the Mescalero Tribe

I was no chief and never had been, but because I had been more deeply wronged than others, this honor was conferred upon me, and I resolved to prove worthy of the trust.


Family Life in the Mescalero Tribe

The Mescaleros are one of several indigenous American peoples who make up the larger Apache Tribe. A nomadic people, the Mescaleros once populated areas in what is now the southwest of the U.S. and Northern Mexico. Today, the Mescalero Tribe, which consists of Mescalero, Lipan, and Chiricahua people, live on a 463,000 acre reservation in the state of New Mexico. What is quite astonishing is that while no longer nomadic, many of the traditions of family life in the Mescalero tribe are still observed today.

Like many other indigenous American societies, Apache society was matrilineal, and both property and lineage were passed on through the mother. In family life in the Mescalero tribe, men who married became members of their wives’ family household. If a husband’s behavior was unacceptable, a woman could divorce him by simply removing his belongings from the house. It was common for several extended families to both travel together and live in close proximity to one another, sharing resources and cooperating when defence became necessary.

Even while traveling throughout family life in the mescalero tribe, married couples maintained their own residences, called wikiups. Women were often responsible for constructing the homes, as well as decorating them. Their homes were constructed of natural materials, including the tanned hides of the animals they hunted for food. In addition to construction work, women also collected agave, nuts, and other vegetables. Many were also hunters of smaller game such as rabbits and antelope, as well as warriors during battles.

While most tasks were carried out by both men and women, men usually designed and made hunting tools and defensive weapons, while women typically designed and made clothing. Great pride was taken in clothing in family life in the Mescadero Tribe, which was often intricately beaded and played an important role in social ceremonies.

Special Ceremonies Celebrating Family life in the Mescadero Tribe

Two special ceremonies were observed for all Apache children. When a baby was old enough to no longer need to be carried on the traditional cradleboard, they were given their first, and often only, haircut by the shaman to bring good luck. At two years of age, in the moccasin ceremony, children were given new shoes and clothes before walking eastward. The purpose of the ceremony was to help the child begin a favorable journey through life.
Grandparents had the important role of teaching young people both practical skills, such as tanning hides, and acceptable cultural behavior. Cooperation was highly valued and children were discouraged from rivalry. The contributions of grandparents was important in family life in the mescalero tribe and grandparents were honored during another important ceremony which marked the passage of young girls into womanhood.

For eight days, the young women wore ceremonial buckskins and refrained from contact with water. The men built a ceremonial tipi while a feast was prepared for a celebration of her success in learning her tribal language and mastering social values such as kindness, good manners, and fortitude. Both a medicine man and a medicine woman participated in saying prayers and advising her concerning the many aspects of her future family life in the Muscadero Tribe. This ceremony is still practiced today.

Religion and Politics in Family Life in the Mescadero Tribe

The center of the religion of the Apache people was a Creator that was neither male or female, but a presence manifested by natural phenomenon such as the sun, wind, and rain. There were also important legendary cultural figures, both male and female, in the form of The Twin War Gods and White Painted Woman.

Politically, the leader of the group was typically male. His leadership was based on his ability to persuade others. However, individuals and families were ultimately free to decide for themselves whether to follow his suggestions. Families or groups that disagreed were also free to leave the group. Today, there is a tribal government separate from that of the U.S. government.

The gender equality of family life in the Muscalero tribe is reflected by the fact that the tribe has already had two female Presidents, while the U.S. has not yet had one female president. In 1959, Virginia Klinekole was elected as the tribe’s first woman president. After her term as president, she was elected to the Tribal Council, where she served until 1986. After the death of popular leader Wendell Chino, who served as president for 43 years, another woman, Sara Misquez was elected.

Parents all over the world continue to teach their children the importance of many aspects of family life in the Muscalero tribe, such as kindness, cooperation and respect for the knowledge and experience of community elders. These values contribute to mutual understanding between all members of the family of man.

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family life in in the Mescalero Tribe
Ta-ayz-slath, wife of Geronimo, and one child, wikipedia commons

September 30,2016  |

family Life with Iroquois

Hommage to the Equality Principles of the Iroquois Nation

Family Life With Iroquois Nation

It’s quite possible that family life in the Iroquois Nation may have had a lasting influence on the quality of women’s lives all over the world. Iroquois society reflected the basic tenet that life has no real quality without equality. In their society, women enjoyed far more freedom and many more human rights than the women of early American society.

American suffragettes Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Matilda Joslyn Gage, and Lucretia Mott socialized with Iroquois women who were citizens of a six-nation confederacy. For a month, Lucretia Mott observed indigenous women share in discussion and decision-making as their nation organized its governmental structure. Shortly afterwards, she and Stanton held the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls. After Matilda Joslyn Gage was arrested in 1893 for attempting to vote in a school board election, she was adopted by the Mohawks, one of the six tribes of the Iroquois confederacy.

While serving as president of the National Woman’s Suffrage Association in 1875, she wrote a series of articles about the Iroquois for a popular magazine. In her articles, she stated that the “division of power between the sexes in its Indian republic was nearly equal” and that the Iroquois family structure “demonstrated woman’s superiority in power.” By contrast, women in early American society had no rights at all.

Ethnographer Alice Fletcher quoted an indigenous woman as saying “As an Indian woman I was free. I owned by home, my person, the work of my own hands, and my children should never forget me. I was better as an Indian woman than under white law.” Many indigenous women resisted becoming American citizens for that reason, since family life in the Iroquois Nation afforded motherhood far more respect.

In an article, Sally Roesch Wagner, author and founder of one of the first women’s studies programs, offers a conversation in which an indigenous woman named Alice described women’s role in government. Clan mothers were responsible for nominating men for chiefs. Only men who had never committed a theft, a murder or a rape could qualify for nomination. Marital rape was virtually non-existent. In his 1881 book, Legends, Traditions and Laws of the Iroquois, Tuscarora chief Elia Johnson, wrote that European men respected women “until they became civilized”.

In 1981, in response to the assertion that there was no evidence that societies in which women shared equal political power with men existed, Paula Gunn Allen, a Laguna Pueblo/Sioux author and scholar, wrote “Before we decide, when we search the memories and lore of tribal peoples, we might be able to see what eons and all kinds of institutions have conspired to hide from our eyes…”. Even today, family life in the Iroquois Nation continues the tradition of women and mothers bearing the responsibility of nominating and counseling the male chief who represents their clan in the grand council.
The role of women in family life in the Iroquois Nation was extremely diverse. In addition to household duties such as preparing food, they also participated in politics, and even gambled. A matrilineal society, property was passed down through the mother to her daughter, and after marriage, the man resided with his wife’s family. Men and women shared power equally.
Molly Brant, an Iroquois woman, is a good example of the extent of political influence that women enjoyed as a result of the gender equality of family life in the Iroquois Nation. After falling in love and having children with Sir William Johnson, a loyalist in the Revolutionary war, she became nearly as influential in English colonial society as she was in her own.

She played such a large role in mediating between the Iroquois and the colonials that one British commander remarked that that her influence was “far superior to that of all their Chiefs put together”. The British government built her a house, and the Canadian government gave her 120 acres of land in appreciation for her service. However, she is a controversial figure within the Iroquois Nation.

It is said that to forget history is to repeat it, but in the case of family life in the Iroquois Nation, in which women enjoyed equal rights, history may well be worth repeating. As women in modern societies continue to struggle for social, political and economic equality, the historic example of gender equality set by the Iroquois Nation proves that it has been achieved, and can be again.

family Life with Iroquois

July 8,2016  |

family life with the !Kung

Choose Understanding over Judgment: A Recipe for Extraordinary Anthropology

“Equality between the sexes is probably greater among gatherers and hunters, including the !Kung, than in most other societies around the world.”

–Marjorie Shostak

Originally published in 1981, Marjorie Shostak’s popular book titled “Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman” was reprinted in paperback in 2000. It continues to earn rave reviews from readers as well as the respect of anthropologists and academics the world over.

Preparation for Family Life with the !Kung

One of the many things that makes this such a remarkable book is the degree of dedication shown by the author in making it possible. That dedication took the form of painstakingly learning the language of the !Kung people during the three years from 1968 to 1971 that she experienced family life with the Kung. Her willingness to learn to communicate with them in their own language was an important factor in inspiring the level of trust necessary for Nisa to confide the many personal details which enabled Shostak to understand the true meaning of family life with the Kung.

All languages contain slang as well as nonverbal cues that affect meaning. To achieve even a rudimentary vocabulary took six months even with complete immersion and the aid of a tutor. It took ten months to acquire the linguistic skill to communicate on the level necessary to conduct a meaningful interview. After the first fifteen initial interviews, she returned in 1975 to complete six more before publishing the book and was surprised to learn how much family life with the Kung had changed in such a short time.

For good reason, the book both redefined the ethnographic interview and demonstrated its power as a tool for anthropological research. In addition to the twenty-one initial interviews, Ms. Shostak was also able to observe Nisa’s social interactions and corroborate much of what she had been told. Ironically, in many societies, women are culturally more free to speak with other women than with men, especially outsiders. Until the 20th century, the majority of anthropological field work was conducted by men, for whom it was difficult to impossible to gain the experience and perspective of the women of the culture they were studying.

Milestones in Family Life with the !Kung

An analysis of the book suggests that may be one reason that so little information about women’s lives is available. It also points out that Shostak considered Nisa her instructor, a cultural expert regarding the rites of womanhood and family life with the !Kung, and paid for her services during the educational process. The stories in the book represent only eight percent of all the interviews. Information from the interviews was arranged in chronological order from birth through all the milestones of her life as a woman.

Those milestones included discovering sexuality, marriage, childbirth, and maturation through old age. Respect for the culture as well as for linguistic precision were factors in Shostak’s choice to remain as true to the Kung form of expression as possible. According to an overview of the book, each of its fifteen chapters’ focuses on a different aspect of family life with the Kung. Through her experiences, the universal nature of the social intricacies of love, loss, joy and sorrow that accompany all women throughout their respective life journeys is affirmed.

Ms. Shostak, battling cancer, returned for the last time in 1993, and after searching the desert for weeks, found Nisa once more. Their communications during that visit served as the inspiration for a second book titled “Nisa Revisited“, which she was able to nearly complete before her death. Upon her death in 1998 at the age of 51, her work was described by the New York Times as having

“injected new life into techniques of anthropology”.

Her contribution was all the more remarkable since although her degree was not in anthropology, she later became an associate of the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology at Harvard University.

Her book continues to be taught in universities and the field of anthropology continues to benefit from Shostak’s dedication and respect for other cultures. However, perhaps it is women who benefit most from learning that some cultural differences can be beneficial ones.

family life with the !Kung
Woman Digging With Infants, taken by Marjorie Shostak

May 23,2016  |

Meaning of Kinship Bonds in a Matrilineal Primitive Society

“Just as love is an orientation which refers to all objects and is incompatible with the restriction to one object, so is reason a human faculty which must embrace the whole of the world with which man is confronted.”

–Erich Fromm

The Kongo Kingdom existed as an independent state for over 500 years, from 1390 to 1891. It covered the territory of what are now the African states of Angola, Cabinda, the Republic of the Congo, and portions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Gabon. As a result of invasion and colonization by various other countries, including France, Portugal and the Netherlands, and rebellious uprisings against it, the territory and names of states in the area have changed more than once.

Ancient Traditions & Family Life in Kongo

Little, if any, written history about family life in the Kongo Kingdom before invasion and occupation by competing ideological and economic interests exists. However, resistant remnants of their formerly matrilineal society still exist, as evidenced by the greatest respect and responsibility for child care being bestowed upon the oldest brother of the child’s mother. While under the political control of other nations, many of the original kinship systems were abolished.

The many languages and dialects of the area also reflect their formerly matrilineal customs. Despite the abolition of matrilineal practices, through the many languages and dialects of the area, people continue to define themselves in reference to their mother’s clan. “Home” is defined as the village in which that clan is located, and family life in ancient Kongo society took place in these villages. Under subsequent governments, sections of each matrilineal clan were divided into landowning houses, with inheritance continuing to be passed through the female line in many places.

There are many words that reflect the kinship bonds that made up the societal structure of family life in ancient Kongo society. Those words have been passed down throughout history from generation to generation. For example, mpangi, the word for “siblings” is used to describe any two people of the same social status as the speaker. The word for “child”, mwana , is also used to describe a mother’s brother’s daughter. According to the reasoning behind the language, all cousins are considered siblings, much like some Indigenous American tribes such as the Crow.

The male leader of a matrilineal group or clan is referred to as a nkazi. His power is limited and most disputes that arise in family life in modern society are managed by committees consisting of members of members of both the maternal and paternal clans of the parties in question. Those committees can include children and grandchildren, and also represent their clans at important social functions such as weddings and funerals. The spokesman of the clan, called the nzonzi , is chosen for his ability to influence others through the use of authoritative cultural references, much like legal precedents are used in the courts of the Western world. All such communications between clans conclude with the exchange of food and gifts.

Art and Culture

While very little written history of family life in ancient Kongo society exists, some art has survived. In an article about the artwork of the Kongo people, Alisa LaGamma, curator of the exhibition Kongo: Power and Majesty at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, discussed the ways in which the artwork reflected the role of women in society. According to her, many of the pieces incorporate symbols of women in positions of leadership and social influence.

She says that much of the art depicting family life in their society was created in response to the threat to their way of life caused by the transatlantic slave trade. Many people also died as the result of epidemics of illnesses from foreign lands. Because of the large number of deaths, women, as sources of regeneration, had a great deal of responsibility for continuation of the culture. Some of the artwork was created with the dual practical purpose of providing assistance to women having children. Significantly, women are portrayed upon thrones and wearing traditionally male crowns.

The creation of art as a way to preserve one’s humanity in the face of oppression has a long historical tradition. However, the creation of art does require a certain amount of social and political stability, which much of the African continent had very little of during the demise of the Kingdom. Family life in war-torn countries is far too difficult to allow time for much more than survival. It is fortunate that at least these relatively few masterpieces survived so many generations of political turmoil.

Each culture provides a valuable piece of information necessary for the preservation of family life. When all of these pieces are assembled, they complete the grand puzzle of life to which all loving parents perpetually seek answers.

family life in Kongo
Kongo-Yombe Maternity Group, Democratic Republic of the Congo

January 20,2016  |

parental roles

Araphesh Motherhood and Parental Roles in Today’s Society

Margaret Mead said,

“Anthropology demands the open-mindedness with which one must look and listen, record in astonishment and wonder that which one would not have been able to guess.”

And she looked and listened alright.

Equal parenting roles is really only now starting to take hold in our society, meaning that it is not as looked down on as it once was. The rise in stay-at-home dads in charge of infant development is certainly evidence of this.

National Public Radio in the United States reports the Census Bureau’s finding that 3.5 percent of stay-at-home parents are dads, and this number has doubled in the last ten years. This percentage doesn’t include dads who work part-time, and the figure is likely largely unrepresentative of the larger, true number of dads who are their children’s primary caregivers. Parental roles studies in the United States may take an interesting turn as men begin to take care of their children more and spend more time with them outside of work.

This is making big headlines in today’s news because, as a society, men are considered the breadwinners and in charge of the financial aspect of the family’s life. Women, on the other hand, are thought to be better suited to seeing to their infants’ development and taking care of the household responsibilities. Parental roles are clearly defined, but are they?

Arapesh Motherhood seen by Margaret Mead

Around the world, however, this is not necessarily the way that all societies operate. Margaret Mead, the famed cultural anthropologist who started her work in the 1920’s, observed societies in Papua New Guinea in which our cultural norms and parental roles were seemingly turned upside down and inside out.

One people group Mead studied was the Arapesh. This group had gender role expectations and parental roles than were different from some surrounding groups, and they were definitely at odds with the expectations for men and women in society in the West. In general, the male and female Arapesh were cooperative, calm, and helpful toward one another. This contrasted with the Mundugumar (Biwat) people, a group in which both men and women were more aggressive. The Tchambuli (Chambri) were even more distinct in that the women were more dominant than the men.

Ideas on parental roles were also very different. Much of Mead’s work was criticized for being too neat and fitting in easily into her nurture over nature theory, but this was how she initially described these groups of people.

Infant development and parental roles

Infant development and parental roles was a key component of Mead’s research. She noted that the Arapesh and Mundugumor mothers carried their children around in containers attached to their foreheads, according to the Library of Congress website. The Arapesh used net bags, while the Mundugumor used more rigid baskets that were likely more uncomfortable for the infants. Older children among the Mundugumor were carried around on their mothers’ backs simply by their holding on to their mothers’ hair.

Nature and Nurture, the start of a debate that lasted a century

Mead’s field work over 24 trips to the South Pacific indicated that cultural environment was at least as strong an influence as biology on gender and parental roles in a given society. She viewed humans as a whole, and she thought that all facets of life were connected. She believed that all cultures could learn from each other, states the Intercultural Studies website. In her works Male and Female and Growth and Culture”, Mead laid out her ideas that personality differences between men and women are in large part due to how they were raised instead of biological tendencies, according to the website.

Infant development among the Arapesh centered around adults considering it important to tend to their needs, despite inconvenience to themselves. Adults take care of babies by holding them and tending to their needs.

Even though the Arapesh considered childrearing  the duties of both men and women and saw equal parental roles, R. F. Fortune, Mead’s second husband noted in an “American Anthropologist” article he penned in 1939 that

“The biological multiplication of the clan is, however, a definite Arapesh ideal maintained by the clan. The Arapesh express more concern for replenishing the land with children than they do for finding land for their children. . .They give a barren woman an intentionally shameful burial.”

Today, as gender roles change, as they have in decades past, it is important to remember that raising children in a world where two incomes is essential for many families requires men and women to pitch in. Each family should decide whether the primary care of children falls to the man or woman, how to best attend to infants’ development, and each member should be comfortable with that decision. Society’s views of parental roles, working women, stay-at-home men and any combination of the two will ebb, flow, and change direction based on the way the wind is blowing at any given moment.

What is important is that the children are getting the best the parents can offer them.

Here you you will find more about the Navajo, a maternal society.

parental roles
Margaret Mead (1901-1978) Source: Wikimedia

May 15,2015  |

maternal society

Motherhood in Navajo tradition, a maternal society

The Maternal Society

The Navajo have a drastically different way of parenting than modern day western parents. Though in both cultures the mother takes on the dominant care-giver role the Navajo society puts much more emphasis on the importance of childrearing. The bond between mother and child from this culture is of particular interest. It is a true maternal society.

Navajo children are the center of entire communities and basically control their schedule from birth. Mothers are expected to nurse on demand until the baby decides to wean itself, sleep with their infant, and continuously teach and prepare them for adult life. In contrast modern western mothers and doctors usually recommend feeding and sleeping schedules and having the baby sleep alone.

The Changing Woman

The Navajo are known for their strongly maternal society in contrast to Western male dominance. One of the reasons for the strong mother figure came from the tribe’s creation story. The “Diné Bahane” explains how the Changing Woman rubbed the first four clans of the Navajo from her very own skin. This Mother Earth figure is meant to be the Navajo women’s role model and serves to establish maternal dominance in this maternal society.

The primary care giver in a maternal society

It was a woman’s main duty to have several children and to be their primary care provider. The mother-child relationship is considered the most important bond in this maternal society. The bond was so important that resources and lineage was all passed on the woman’s side. Commonly all of the nursing, bathing, comforting, teaching, and feeding were duties that the woman would perform. The men’s primary duties were to provide for their wives and children the things they could not provide themselves.

feeding babyThe Navajo mothers would take their babies with them everywhere and even created cradleboards, a type of infant carrier, to carry their babies with them when collecting food or tending to crops.

When babies became fussy feeding baby was the first thing that Navajo mothers offered. Feeding a baby was not scheduled. Schedules were very flexible and there were no bedtimes. The mother and baby typically slept in the same bed until one year of age.

Breast feeding in a maternal society

Breastfeeding is an essential bond in the Navajo tribe. It was very rare that a mother would not breastfeed her baby. Mothers milk in a maternal society takes on another meaning. Mothers were expected to have a diet high in meat and herbs dedicated to milk production for their infants.

The Navajo believe breastfeeding provides a number of great benefits including improved physical growth, faster development, provided for attachment, created a sense of security, and turned into better listeners. If the mother’s milk failed or has not come in yet feeding baby from a bottle was traditionally practiced. They would feed them goat, cow, or sheep milk.

The Navajo believed that bottle feeding was not natural and may result in the baby crying needlessly. Infants were fed and weaned on their own schedule but usually babies would wean themselves between 18 and 24 months old.

Maternal society raises children in communities

Because the Navajo do not practice birth control their family sizes are not at all restricted. On the contrary larger families were considered better due to a high mortality rate for young tribe members. Twins on the other hand were not handled well because the mother would often have difficulty caring for two infants.

Usually if the mother can’t care for her baby a relative will take on the responsibility. THis is quite typical for a maternal society. Traditionally women would have the responsibility of not only their own children but their relatives as well. Communities came together to raise the children and frequently older children would live with a relative other than their parents. The community recognized that mothers are unable to completely provide everything for every child. Feeding children as a group was considered to strengthen the entire society.

The tribes or this type of maternal society had a much more encompassing definition of family than the Western world. Historically families included mom, dad, unmarried children, married daughters and their husbands, and their children as well. Typically everyone lived in clusters like this within shouting distance.

Navajo mothers in a maternal society

Navajo mothers care for and generally interact with their babies more than anyone else. This culture or maternal society provides an example of a society which places this mother and child bond above all else. Modern mothers are evolving into a society much more similar to Navajo tradition than historical European traditions.

Today’s modern expectation is that mothers should be both empathetic towards their infants and completely devoted to fulfilling their physical and emotional needs. It can sometimes feel overwhelming trying to provide such encompassing care as just one individual and not with the community’s support. It can be very beneficial to take note of some Navajo beliefs on child care. Although I’m not suggesting going out and making a cradle board…

Head over here if you want to find more about how wonderful Karen Sacks who explores the range of motherhood roles in primitive societies.

maternal society

May 6,2015  |

extended families

Childbearing in primitive societies had no impact on productivity thanks to the concept of extended families

Dealing with Motherhood in Other Societies

Karen Sacks, a professor of anthropology and director of women’s studies at the University of California at Los Angeles was one of the women who showed how women would deal differently with motherhood in other societies. The definition of a mother is in these societies quite different. Extended families was a major contributing factors. An extended family is a family that extends beyond the nuclear family, and it thus consists of grandparents, aunts, uncles, or cousins all living nearby or in the same household.

In her book, Sisters and Wives, written in 1982, she writes a lively and beautifully researched analysis of mothers roles in primitive societies (pre-capitalist) in Africa. She showed how they turn out to be quite interesting for women’s issues throughout our modern world. She does not moan about the equality debate between men and women but gives a data driven explanation of women’s relationships and their status across six different African groups of societies.

The Definition of Motherhood

In analyzing the ethnographic data describing the division of labor by sex in 224 societies, Karen Sacks showed in 1979  the enormous range of economic activities that women perform in different societies (Sisters and wives. The past and future of sexual equality. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1979). Women may be primarily responsible, for

“(…)mining and quarrying, stone work, lumbering, herding, clearing the land for agriculture, burden carrying, and grain grinding”(…)”

Furthermore, Sacks found that in all societies women combine these physical activities of producing food and material objects with the physical activities of child rearing and motherhood.

“While carrying, bearing, and nursing babies is certainly productive labor, no human society has denied this as the totality of women’s labor.”

A most significant conclusion of Sacks, and directly contrary to most analyses, is that it has been women’s subsistence or productive activities that have shaped her relationships to reproduction and the conditions of her motherhood rather than the opposite. They did indeed have another definition of a mother, family life and the role of extended families.

Ruth Bleier another scientist, devoted herself to applying gender role analyses and perspectives to the theories and practices of science after seeing how sexist and other cultural biases affected the biological sciences. She did not agree with the many gender differences in the areas of math, verbal skills and creativity supposedly biologically based.

Ruth received her M.D. in 1949 from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, then the only remaining women’s medical school in the country. She practiced general medicine in the poor, inner city of Baltimore for nearly ten years. She then took a postdoctoral training position in neuro anatomy at the John Hopkins School of Medicine and joined the Department of Neurophysiology at Wisconsin in 1967. In the early 1970s, her book Science and Gender, A Critique of Biology and Its Theories on Women, and her anthology, Feminist Approaches to Science, are considered classics and are required reading in many women’s studies courses.

Extended families

Ruth Bleier wrote in 1984 in her book Science and gender. A critique of biology and its theories on women  (Pergamon Press. p. 145-146):

‘It is reasonable to assume that !Kung women know that nursing stops menstruation and therefore pregnancy, and they are thus scheduling their childbearing to fit the requirements and capacities of their essential foraging and other productive activities, which provide the majority of the group’s food and water… The difference between women and men is women’s capacity to bear children, and this must, therefore, account for all the other dichotomies and inequalities, whether or not they follow logically… However the ethnographic and ethno historical evidence demonstrates that there has not been a universal basic division of labor into the categories of women’s reproduction and men’s production, and that women have not been universally excluded from any sphere of productive activities by their childbearing capacity or by child care.‘

Women have not been universally excluded from any sphere of productive activities by their childbearing capacity or by child care. It seems to be rather a matter of organization or social institutions so exclusion of young mothers does not take place on a large scale. The notion of extended families is crucial in the analysis.

Here are Margaret Meads views on the nuclear versus the extended families.

extended families
Who are we – Where are we going, by Paul Gauguin, Metropolitan Museum of Art

April 20,2015  |

maternal health

What we learned from the Samoan indians on maternal health and breast feeding

Have you wondered about the history behind the re-introduction of wet nurses and breastfeeding into American and European culture?

The old ideas of breastfeeding, maternal health and wet nursing are returning as part of worldwide or universal culture as science verifies vital aspects of maternal health that some cultures never lost touch with.

What is surprising is the story behind the history of breastfeeding reintroduction due to one educated American woman.

How Margaret Mead revived breastfeeding, promoted the wet nurse profession and maternal health professional work

In the early and emerging days of the field of Anthropology, Margaret Mead decided to place her professional focus as a Ph.D. on the Samoan people. In particular, she studied sexuality of females of all ages on the island where she conducted her work in 1924. However, what was interesting was Margaret Mead’s intertwining of personal experience with her professional study of the Samoan women.

What Margaret Mead studied in Samoa

Numerous references to Margaret Mead’s work with the Samoan women in 1924 have been published in academic works over the past nine decades. What makes her work so fascinating is that Mead attempts to display observations in the most honest manner possible.

This is the main idea behind good anthropology and dispelling the problems associated with ethnocentrism. Since Mead’s work with Samoan women is considered to be sound academic work, it is still highly referenced. One field of academia that uses her research frequently is nursing and maternal health.

What breastfeeding was like for Margaret Mead

You will see films and other works about Margaret Mead announcing that she “reintroduced breastfeeding to America.” When Margaret Mead pushed the envelope with challenging ideas in America about maternal health and breastfeeding, her notions denoted several big changes. Interestingly, maternal health practices during the 1920s and 1930s relied heavily on using formula instead of breastfeeding or using a wet nurse. Popular maternal health literature of the time also asked women to give babies formula on a schedule instead of feeding the baby when it was hungry.

Margaret Mead’s relationship with Benjamin Spock

In addition to a professional relationship, Margaret Mead used Spock as a pediatrician for her own child. Mead gave birth to a girl in 1939, and sought out the top professional of her time. Spock was the author of several books on childrearing that were crucial throughout the middle of the 1900s, and Margaret Mead shaped Spock’s writing about maternal health and breastfeeding with her research before she used him as a pediatrician.

Maternal health and wet nursing

In popular media, Margaret Mead was known for her work with the Samoan women that concluded that a baby should be breastfed on demand. This differed from a previous idea that was prevalent in American culture that asked mothers to feed their babies formula on a schedule. Nevertheless, what often gets overlooked is that Mead also favored wet nursing.

In the book A Social History of Wet Nursing in America: From Breast to Bottle by Janet Golden, there is paraphrasing from Margaret Mead’s autobiography, Blackberry Winter (1972), that talks about Mead’s concerns in 1939 that she might not be able to breastfeed her own child. If this was the case, Mead remembered that she decided she would investigate hiring a wet nurse. Janet Golden suggests that Mead may have found hiring a wet nurse in 1939 a challenge because the practice was sharply on the decline due to the upsurge in infant formula use.

Margaret Mead’s enduring legacy

On a deeper level, Margaret Mead said her thoughts about her Samoan research changed when she actually became a mother. In Divided Lives: American Women in the Twentieth Century by Rosalind Rosenberg, there is a quote that explains this shift.

In her earlier books, “Coming of Age in Samoa” (1928) and “Sex and Temperament” (1935), she had portrayed motherhood as incident in the life cycle, a positive experience but not significant for the culture at large. … By the time she wrote “Male and Female” in 1949, however, Mead had begun to discuss the ways in which biology might work dialectically with environmental forces to shape culture. Maternity became the central feature of this dialectic, the one great problem that all cultures must confront in organizing gender roles. How, she asked, do societies deal with universal experiences, like pregnancy and childbirth?

Opponents of Margaret Mead 

Infant formula was introduced in the 1920s, and an aggressive campaign to sell this product began. In the forefront was Nestle that was well-known for making advertisements for developing nations that encouraged mothers to use formula instead of breastfeeding.

The situation was so dire that United Nations stepped in to rein in Nestle and other infant formula companies in favor of breastfeeding. The main issue with that was that many women in developing countries did not have access to clean drinking water, and their babies would die. While it is not easy to find information about opponents to Margaret Mead and her work with breastfeeding, what you will find is a heavy legal push in the 1960s and early 1970s by infant formula companies that disputed Benjamin Spock’s published breastfeeding advice that used Margaret Mead as a reference.

What Margaret Mead means to us today

Over the past decades, multiple branches of academics have combined to form the philosophies behind worldwide maternal health practices. In the end, Margaret Mead is still remembered because her work is still relevant. The truths that she learned from the Samoan women about breastfeeding on demand were correct and transformed maternal culture in America.

Today, we have universal maternal practices that are based upon using the most practical means possible. While we certainly have not strayed away from using infant formula, more women around the world are being shown by science and culture that breastfeeding is the best way. Perhaps in the future, Margaret Mead’s nod toward wet nursing practices will expand as breastfeeding acceptance becomes universal.

maternal health
The Natchez, Eugène Delacroix, 1835, Credit Line Gifts of George N. and Helen M. Richard and Mr. and Mrs. Charles S. McVeigh and Bequest of Emma A. Sheafer

April 15,2015  |

From Our Ancestral Tuareg Nomads: Traveling Towards Identity

“I think the driving force for cultural evolution is this desire for groups to be splitting off and separating and forming subgroups insofar as the environment will allow it. We see great cultural diversity and large numbers of cultures per unit area in regions of the world in which the environment is really rich.”

Mark Pagel

Traditional Social Structure of Tuareg Society

The legendary queen of the Tuareg culture, Tin Hinan, is believed to have lived between the 4th and 5th centuries. As a leader, she is credited with uniting many ancestral nomadic tribes into a single culture that still exists today. Anthropologists believe that her final resting place is at Abalessa, in what is now southern Algeria. The Tuareg culture once flourished in what is now Algeria, Libya, Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso.

Historically, family life in the Tuareg culture was nomadic. However, with the advent of the modern nation-state, nomadism is severely restricted, which has forced most of the Tuareg people to abandon their traditional herding and find jobs in towns and cities. Some aspects of family life in the culture has changed as the result of outside forces, but others remain the same as they have been for thousands of years.

Traditional Tuareg society was hierarchical, with nobility much like that of the United Kingdom. The foundation of family life in the community was large clans consisting of several family groups called tawshets each had a chief, or amghar. The amghar was chosen by the clan based on his matrilineal eligibility. The leaders of several clans often agreed to form a cooperative called a Kel, which means “those of”, and individuals identified themselves by the Kel to which they belonged. A leader of a kel, a majaghan was elected by the leaders of individual clans, and considered nobility, was responsible for organizing group defense during travel.

Family life in society differed according to class. Those in the noble class with servants to perform many of the time-consuming daily chores developed games for the children that would assist them in learning valuable skills they would need as adults. For example, ideblan was a role-playing game for girls in which they prepared to search for fruits and water. Other games taught them how to build tents and care for infants. There were even beauty contests for both boys and girls, with prizes for the best dressed.

Changes in Tuareg Family Life

Some social customs were observed in family life in Tuareg society regardless of class. For example a week after a baby’s birth, a naming ceremony is conducted. The evening before the ceremony, the baby is given a secret name by its older female relatives in their native language. On naming day, the baby’s head is shaved as a symbol of cutting ties to the spirit world. The baby is then taken to the mosque and given an Arabic name from the Koran by its father and an Islamic holy man. A celebration that includes a feast, camel races and dancing ends the naming ceremony. This double ritual is an illustration of the many ways in which the Tuareg people have managed to maintain their original customs and identities while adapting to the forces of the modern world.

Although various military occupations of their traditional nomadic lands resulted in many Tuareg people converting to Islam, women in their society are not required to wear veils. In fact, it is the men who wear veils. Young men of eighteen begin wearing the veil to signify their passage into manhood, and their readiness to marry. Marriage is also an important custom, and a wedding celebration can last for up to seven days. Even the camels and donkeys are decorated for wedding festivities, and older relatives build the bride a special tent. Traditional songs called Asak and poems called Tisiway are sung and recited by both men and women during celebrations.

Tuareg music has achieved global popularity with the band Tinariwen and the musical genre of takamba. Family life in Tuareg society was detailed in the popular novel of the same name, which sold over five million copies as well as being made into a movie in 1984. After traveling, much like the people whom it honors, an art exhibition titled “Art of Being Tuareg: Sahara Nomads in a Modern World“, is now at The Smithsonian Instutute.

A people accustomed to surviving without modern conveniences in the often harsh conditions of the dessert, the Tuareg people have proven to be extremely resilient. That strength and resilience, as well as the ability to adapt elements of other cultures to their own, has helped them preserve their culture. Considering the rate of change in the world, resilience is an excellent gift for parents to give their children.

tuareg family life
Touareg by Capture the Uncapturable, Flickr cc2.0

January 13,2015  |