Cultures, Primitive Societies

Motherhood in Navajo tradition, a maternal society

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

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