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Motherhood: contemporary American culture vs. Sioux culture

Indian motherhood
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Mother’s Day is celebrated on the second Sunday of May in the United States, and in several countries throughout the world. The holiday in the U.S. began as one daughter's effort to complete the unfulfilled dream of her mother who had a deep-seated ideal of creating a fitting memorial for all mothers, so that their families could have the opportunity to remember and honor “the person who has done more for you than anyone in the world" and to acknowledge the value of all that mothers freely offer to their children and families each day.

The government’s recognition of the holiday created for Mother’s Day in 1914 was the outcome of the efforts of Anna Jarvis, whose love for her mother inspired her to fulfill her mother’s dream of creating some lasting tribute to mothers and motherhood. When Anna’s mother, Ann Marie Jarvis passed away in 1905, her daughter vowed to finish her work. By 1908, Anna Jarvis persuaded her mother's minister at Andrew’s Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia, to hold a Mother's Day celebration on May 9th, the anniversary of her mother's death.

The initial celebration of what was merely the beginning of Anna Jarvis’ quest to create an official, government sanctioned holiday honoring mothers, originated in the Christian church where her mother had taught Sunday school for several years. The holiday was initiated within the environment of the religious foundation of Anna’s life. She had been raised in a loving Christian home and went on to express her gratitude to her mother and for the love she received from her. Amazingly, Anna had been born during the American Civil War, which was the most destructive war in American history; yet amidst such destruction, her parents brought her into the world.

In stark contrast, the United States today is over a hundred years from that dark period in American history, and a very different social sentiment exists in America regarding the value placed upon mothers and motherhood. Today, an increasingly prevalent or acceptable societal perspective is that becoming a mother and motherhood in general holds less value than remaining unmarried and without children. In addition, an even more alarming view I that unwanted pregnancies are easily dispensed with, and even unwanted babies can be disposed through abortion. It is not clear whether a majority of Americans are unaware of the ongoing reality of abortion in America.

A few concerned representatives in the U.S. government reveal that over 4.000 babies are being aborted in the U.S. every day. This is over 1.6 million babies every year! Tragically, this single reality expresses so much about how contemporary American culture values motherhood, or how much the contemporary culture has devalued bringing a human life into the world. This stark reality says a great deal about the lack of regard for the value of human life, period. The “progressive” view of womanhood has diminished the value of motherhood. This progressive view of womanhood contradicts the overall meaning underlying the celebration of Mother’s Day.

On the contrary, the traditional concept of motherhood that originated in America long before the celebration of Mother’s Day expresses a genuine respect and sincere value placed upon motherhood and specifically the gratitude for mothers. Long before Europeans came to the Americas, Native Americans and American Indian peoples held a much deeper regard for motherhood. Looking back at the so called “savages” one can recognize a different reality in the native societies. Unfortunately, many of the European descendants did not have the desire to take much of the native culture seriously, and in turn, the Indians had little desire to share their innermost attitudes toward life and beliefs with the white population for a number of reasons.

Only over time have some of the innermost beliefs of American Indian peoples seeped out into the wider American culture. Unfortunately, relatively few have had actual exposure to such spiritual beliefs or ways of living. In stark contrast to prevailing contemporary societal perspectives on motherhood, the Sioux Indian perspective is a bit different, but also quite refreshing. And while it may be a bit rare to consider an American Indian view of motherhood in this day and age, some Americans may find it to be enlightening. Especially since most of the Indians throughout the Americas respected life and all living things, from their view, humans were a special part of the Creation.

In general, most American Indian cultures observed an attitude of respect toward women overall, but even more with respect toward mothers. Several indigenous societies had extended to women specific individual and community "rights" and many nations or tribes expected women to accept and maintain leadership positions within the social and political realm of clan or tribal organization. More specifically, one beautiful expression of high regard for women in general and motherhood in particular is found in the writings of Ohiyes’a, who was born in 1858 into the Santee Sioux tribe of the Sioux or Dakota nation. He became a well-known Indian author and from his writings can be gleaned a great amount of insight into Sioux culture.

When this Sioux Indian converted to Christianity, his English name became Charles Alexander Eastman. He eventually became the first American Indian doctor after graduating from Boston University in 1889. Encouraged to write of his culture, he wrote numerous books about the perspectives of his people about life, and in 1911, he had one of his books published which deals with the Sioux or Dakota nation’s perspective on women and motherhood. This book was entitled The Soul of an Indian: an Interpretation. Here is a representation of some of the deeper aspects that can be linked to Mother’s Day from what Ohiyesa wrote in that book:

The Moral Strength of Women

In the woman is vested the standard of morals of our people. She is the silent but telling power behind all of life’s activities. She rules undisputed in her own domain… All virtue is entrusted to her, and her position is recognized by all.

The Great Song of Creation

Our education begins in our mother’s womb. Her attitude and secret meditations are such as to instill into the receptive soul of the unborn child the love of the Great Mystery and a sense of kinship with all creation.

A pregnant Indian woman often chooses one of the great individuals of her family and tribe as a model for her child. This hero is daily called to mind. Gathers from tradition all of his noted deeds and daring exploits, and rehearses them to herself when alone. In order that the impression might be more distinct, she avoids company. She isolates herself as much as possible, and wanders prayerful in the stillness of the great woods, or on the bosom of the untrodden prairie, not thoughtlessly, but with an eye to the impressions received from the grand and beautiful scenery.

To her poetic mind the imminent birth of her child prefigures the advent of a great spirit – a hero, or the mother of heroes –a thought conceived in the virgin breast of primeval nature, and dreamed out in a hush broken only by the sighing of the pine tree or the thrilling orchestra of a distant waterfall.

And when the day of her days in her life dawns – the day in which there is to be new life, the miracle of whose making has been entrusted to her – she seeks no human aid. She has trained and prepared in body and mind for this, her holiest duty, ever since she can remember.

She meets the ordeal of childbirth alone, where no curious or pitying eyes might embarrass her; where all nature says to her spirit: ‘It is love! It is love! The fulfilling of life!’

When, at last, a sacred voice comes to her out of the silence, and a pair of eyes open upon her in the wilderness, she knows with joy that she has borne well her part in the great song of creation!

The Child’s First Lesson

The Indian mother has not only the experience of her mother and grandmother, and the accepted rules of her people for a guide, but she humbly seeks to learn a lesson from ants, bees, spiders, beavers, and badgers. She studies the family life of the birds, so exquisite in its emotional intensity and its patient devotion, until she seems to feel the universal mother-heart beating in her own breast.

Oyihesa’s sharing of this native perspective was part of a larger body of work. Today, he is considered to be the first American Indian to write and publish American history from the Indian viewpoint. His words open up a deeper insight into the indigenous people’s respect and love toward mothers.

Happy Mother’s Day to all moms throughout the all the world!