Posted by on May 14, 2012 in Uncategorized

Of All the Rights of a Woman, the Greatest is to be a Mother

By:  Renee Holt

Colonization has distorted so many indigenous values and views. Women were held in high regard and were the backbone of family and community. Too much chauvinism in our communities, long time ago when a woman spoke, men bowed their heads and listened. There was much respect.—Kimberly Tootoosis (Nakoda/Cree)

I dedicate this column to my beautiful daughter, Alana Tiikpuu and to all the beautiful, strong women out there in Indian country.  You inspire me to be greater than I ever imagined and wake me up in the morning even when the sun doesn’t shine; and for all my Indigenous sisters, although we are miles apart and we may never meet, scattered across this beautiful land we call Mother earth, We’tespe or Na’ha’zhaan Bi’kaah, as a single mom.  I know that I do not struggle alone, and for that you are my greatest inspirations.

*As is the mother, so is her daughter. Ezekiel 16:4

Recently, I experienced pain that opened my heart to a family history that I had long suppressed.  The emotional pain and abuse I experienced made me look within, especially as I sought help and support- both professionally and personally.  The details of domestic violence are never pretty and shame invades my pride.  Not wanting to share the mistreatment and struggling with the hurt, all of that changed when I looked into my daughter’s eyes recently.

The pain I saw made my eyes sore from the realization that I was no different than my friends and relatives and women across Indian country that endure, or have endured, domestic violence.  Despite my education level, I want to state, being educated does not always mean one has “made it.”  After all I had been taught and led to believe, I know now that getting an education does not always equal “safe” or “successful.”  Personally I had been taught that getting an education means knowing “right” from “wrong” and that one could attain and secure a good job.  I was the poster child for that after completing my Masters degree.  I found a good job and worked long hours and traveled many flights across Indian country, trying to make a difference.

What I have come to realize is, in spite of accomplishing an education, Indigenous women struggle and fight for our communities daily, not in the literal sense but emotionally, physically, and spiritually, because we are the backbone of our families and communities.  Even when we are too tired to fight, we still have enough fight left in us, especially when it comes to our children.  Motherhood is what makes us do anything and everything to protect and provide for those we love fiercely, especially our children.

I married at a young age, believing it was the “right” thing to do, and after hearing my father (who I wanted to please) tell me I needed to “quit playing house,” as well as my aunt tell me what was important for a “good” family life. “A child needs both a mother and father in a home,” she said.

Not knowing what it meant to be married and filled with uncertainty, I was a naïve and ignorant.  Looking back on it, I realize I believed it was “okay” for the head of the household to drink because my stepdad, who was an influential man in my formative years, imprinted in my mind that it was okay for a man to drink so long as he kept a job and provided for his family.  I learned since that time it is not “okay,” and much later, even though my stepdad stopped drinking completely, things got worse as his alcoholism progressed before they got better.  Seeing these “things,” such as verbal and emotional abuse, I have since seen and felt through my daughter, that it is not okay and apologizing saying “I’m sorry” for abusive behavior and not changing the behavior IS problematic.

Having gone from my stepdad taking care of me into a marriage with a man who came from a “good” family according to my aunt and mother, I believed I had things together.  All the while instinctually I had this desire and wish to not be in a relationship that was unfulfilling.  After four years of marriage I divorced my ex-husband after denial of progressive dysfunction.  Knowing instinctually it was not okay, I still stayed in the marriage as long as I could.  I was ill-prepared for the emotional aftermath.  After reading a blurb in Parenting magazine that the same sex parent is the most influential on a child, I knew I did not want my daughter to see any more abuse then what she had already witnessed, and was certain I did not want my son to grow up thinking it was “okay” to mistreat a woman.

You see, while growing up, I saw my mother go through abusive relationships and witnessed her accepting it was “okay.”  I made a vow to myself that I would never be like my mother, and believed I was not.  I grew up seeing drinking as a “fun” thing, so long as it was with family you were okay.  Today I know it’s not okay to be casual about alcohol, when my mother struggles with it and uses it to suppress her pain of abuse from her childhood.   As a young girl, seeing pain and heartache in my mother’s life and hearing my aunt struggle as a single mom told me, “as long as you work hard and take care of your kids everything will be alright.”  What I did not know until professional family counseling therapy is that years of suppressed memories are embedded in us and until we grieve those memories, we have cellular biological memories woven into our memory.

Until recently, I did not know that I had suppressed memories of abuse related to alcoholism or that I had buried the residual effects.  It wasn’t until I saw the look in my daughters eyes that I self actualized…  I was no stranger to domestic abuse growing up and had formed dysfunctional relationships in my own adult life.  How could I have let that happen?!

*A mother’s heart is the child’s schoolroom. – Henry Ward Beecher

Without knowing how people would influence and encourage me, I have been a single mom tending to my cubs living the best way I know how.  Prior to school I considered myself a survivor; an “independent woman” sans Destiny’s Child as my anthem.  A self-reliant, educated, Indigenous independent woman who could handle her business and take care of her kids… seemingly.

Never in my wildest dreams did I think of myself as a victim.  After all, I had achieved a Masters degree and found a secure job.  I had “made it,” based on what Indian country standards of “making it” mean.  With a salary above average and living off the rez, “making it” was the achievable goal.  For anyone who has a graduate degree and a solid job, regardless of personal history or background, that’s “making it.”  I prided myself in not “needing” my children’s biological other, and my ego would not allow me to use the single mom card.  I disliked sympathy from anyone and would downplay single motherhood.  There was too much emphasis on ego, and not enough on spirit or heart health as I forged through a professional career.  Along the way I’d meet young Indian women who would look up to me, and as flattering as that was, at the end of the night when a long day was over, sometimes I would cry myself to sleep.  Hard work might pay off and I may have been able to “support” my kids somewhat, but I was still a single mom and there was a missing parent who made me feel bad about divorcing him, all the while he is suffering from alcoholism.  The children suffered with us.

What I had suppressed during those post-divorce years is the reality that I did not think, nor did I believe, I was the victim of domestic abuse because I had left that relationship.  Yet, I was.  I have learned, since immersing myself in my career and being the best project manager and higher education administrator I could be for Indian country, that I was not, nor has it been the best thing I could do for Indian country.  The best thing I could do is be a mom to my children so that someday they will become citizens of our Indigenous community with healthy coping mechanisms.

*Of all the rights of a woman, the greatest is to be a mother. – Lin Yutang

Despite my self inflated ego about education, I have rediscovered strengths and weaknesses.  My responsibility is to my children.  I cannot blame their father any more than I already have and I must be willingly to accept it is time to face my demons.  What I have learned is that having accomplished a higher education does not make me immune to the dysfunction I have lived.  I am faced with knowing my daughter has witnessed and experienced her father’s verbal abuse.  Even though we are divorced, the abuse continues- especially when I ignore and suppress the painful emotions of abuse.

With the helpful and encouraging words of a few friends and family; three years ago I left a financially secure job and a professional network which has since then helped me to gain additional support and broadened my horizons further.  Family who were there for me are no longer present, and friends who were not family have became the family I need.  Not only have I been humbled, greater than that, I was blessed.  Believe me, I cannot do this doctoral program alone.  With extended family helping from both sides of the family, I’ve been able to manage.  However, the unresolved grief has been far more challenging.

Since I started my doctoral program in 2009, a peeling away of layers of multi-generational trauma has occurred.  It has been a slow and painful process, but it has also been liberating.  To me, it is Indigenous liberation, as I reclaim my sense of Indigeneity and womanhood.  The pain has opened my heart, mind, and spirit to how I was affected by the oppression of what a woman was or was not supposed to be like based on how I was raised by my aunt (and mother).  Without truly knowing my own background (due to the suppressed memories and unwillingness to see abuse), I had not acknowledged that I had been affected until I saw the pain and hurt in my daughters eyes.  What I’m experiencing and learning is this: until a person is willing to heal themselves, behaviors will continue.

*Focus on the behavior, not the person.

As it is, when it comes to domestic abuse, it’s not always easy to recognize or acknowledge.  Most of the time, the abused and abusive partner have difficulty in accepting that they are victims and/or perpetuators.  Neither want to let go, nor can women leave even if they wanted to, especially when there are children involved.

With recent legislation in the Violence Against Women Act statistics of domestic violence are understated in Indian country!  I won’t bore you with stats.  Although sometimes these roles may be reversed (it IS possible to have a female abuser), statistically the domestic abuser is most often a male.  The abuser uses threats of violence, bullying, or worst, acts violently to gain power and control over their partner.  The events are usually progressive and can begin with verbal abuse, belittling, badgering, and making the abused lose confidence in themselves and actions.  I know because I’ve lived it!  It can escalate into shouting, pushing, and beating.  Although I was never physically beat, the verbal and emotional abuse is worse. The pains of being told you’re stupid, an idiot, dumb, retarded, fat, from another Tribe, or that no one likes you can dig deep when confidence is low.

Added to that are an extreme behaviors and attempts to limit the actions of the abused to reach out to family and friends for help.  The belittlement and bullying is somehow made “okay” when the person believes they are right.  Thus, a victim can be progressively caused to be isolated from the outside and family.  Although some abusers may be helped with professional family counseling and behavior modification therapies, most abusers will not stay in therapy long enough especially when they believe they know themselves to be better.

I have learned since that time that abuse and the tendency to control can be recognized even in a dating relationship.  These are “forgiven” because the victim “loves” the abuser.  One may also mistakenly believe that she can change the behavior after marriage and/or children, because that’s what a good woman can do right?  Unfortunately, this is not the case.  Regardless of my education level, I did not have a handle on how I had trained someone to (mis)treat me until I signed up for professional family counseling and therapy.  In therapy, I learned more about myself than I had been willing to admit, nor did I care to acknowledge: the painful memories of alcoholic male dominance, and authoritative behavior that was oppressive and abusive had not been addressed.

For me, even after the divorce, I did not know that dysfunctional behaviors of an alcoholic would continue.  My thoughts were, “now that I’m rid of the problem because I’m divorced I don’t have to answer to abuse.”  I also believed divorce meant all was good and done.  On the contrary, quite often many abusers continue this control by not paying court ordered child-care or alimony payments.  For me, the stark reality of controlling behavior all through the relationship and even after the divorce continued when I’m told how to communicate.

*Mother—that was the bank where we deposited all our hurts and worries. – T. DeWitt Talmage

Until recently, my daughter has been silent, but when I saw the look on her face after a recent abusive event, I knew she was her mother’s daughter.  I had to address the suppression of anger, frustration, and sadness that had also made me more sensitive.  In some instances overly sensitive and abusive to those who love and care for me.  When I self-actualized, I understood I was hurting the ones I love, because they are the closest to me.  I cried, realizing my opposition is not those I love and who love me, but the demons and behaviors of those who don’t.  As mentioned earlier, I believed I had a handle on my life.  I’ve been practicing yoga for well over a year now and have been working on meditation.  What I have not noticed during this time of self awareness is my beautiful young daughter blossoming before my eyes.

My daughter had watched me over the years struggle with the suppression.  She’s also struggled with telling me how she’s overheard people saying that even though I have an education, I’m really not that smart and “hated” how they made her feel.  What was disturbing to me was the anger and frustration she felt.  How did I not see this?!  When I heard how she would inflict pain on anyone who ever tried to hurt me or her and that I should learn to fight back and hurt people too, I felt shame.  Shame on me for ignoring my daughters feelings over the years, because Creator willing, this is something that did not just happen because her father and I had a disagreement.

I know I have a responsibility to talk with her about ending the cycle of abuse.  The pain in her frustration hurt me as I realized all she wanted to do was protect me.  Knowing that my daughter would do anything for me was a feeling I can’t explain, yet also heart breaking.  How could I have allowed this to happen under my watch?

*An ounce of mother is worth a ton of priest. – Spanish Proverb

You see, I’m here to share that yes, I am a survivor.  I have survived an abusive relationship with an alcoholic.  On the flip side, I have also met wonderful people who have shown me it’s okay to be vulnerable, and that being pleasant and respectful is healthy.  Sometimes yelling “shut the front door” and hanging up on the past IS necessary.  It has been scary and unfamiliar at times and some days I’m filled with doubt after years of feeling that I was not worthy.  Up until I started family counseling and therapy, I had buried years of unresolved grief that from my childhood.

I am a mother to three wonderful children who have shown me I can do anything I set my mind to when it comes to them.  They are my greatest inspiration and push me to do more than I did yesterday.  Sometimes I’m sleep deprived and overwhelmed with school, work, and family life, but there is nothing in this world that compares to them.  On this day I want to share with all women out there, regardless of race, creed, religion…domestic violence and abuse is never okay!

As an Indigenous woman I want to share this story because its an important part of the healing process.  Sometimes it’s not enough to look within our families and find the root of our hurts.  We also have to decolonize and use more of the ancestral ways of knowing, or Indigenous knowledge systems.  Reclaiming our womanhood and the bonds that tie us to the community and decolonizing how we are “supposed” to behave and how we view men is necessary.  Decolonization can happen when a mother sees her child accept an apology believing everything will be okay, however the shift in change that occurs also begins with correcting her and teaching her that it’s not okay when a person keeps apologizing for the same repeated abusive behavior.

Some of our people are fortunate and have not had to endure domestic violence and abuse.  My call to action to them is to help a sister, mother, friend, daughter, cousin, granddaughter if you can because in the end, we are all sisters.  We are sisters to a cause of raising healthy, functional children and we need both strong men AND women to help raise these young people who will someday become citizens of our Indigenous community.