Growing Up In My Northern Cheyenne Community Showed Me What Parenting Could Be
To describe my childhood as “everyone knows everyone” would be an understatement. Our lives are intertwined from birth.
“Make sure you mix everything up good and scrape the bowl” was a common refrain I heard sitting at my grandmother’s kitchen table helping prepare meals. I’d heard it countless times, along with many other instructions, but pretended to be learning something new. “Like this?” I would ask, knowing exactly what she meant. Her guidance didn’t begin and end with cooking lessons and recipe sharing. In almost everything my grandma taught me, she made sure I understood. Through storytelling, she explained bits of knowledge and culture. Living with her meant that learning took place throughout the day.
I grew up in a very rural area in Montana, on the Northern Cheyenne reservation. To describe it as “everyone knows everyone” would be an understatement. Our lives are intertwined from birth. The family units very often include grandparents living in a household with their children and grandchildren.
My grandma was a central figure in my childhood on the reservation, where it’s the natural order for the entire family and extended family to be involved in raising children. We could find everything we needed among our people, including guidance, child care, shelter, and more. While this isn’t a universal experience within my community, it’s a very common one.
It was in my grandmother’s home where I gained valuable knowledge in our traditional teachings and old-fashioned ways of living. I spent many days at her house waiting for my mother to finish work, and I also stayed with her during the summers when she was free. At various times, we actually lived with her temporarily. There was a lesson to be had in daily chores, receiving guests, and even the slang words we used. It didn’t feel like guidance or instruction, just routine conversation. I learned the basics of cooking and home care alongside encouragement to pursue an education and career. In the midst of quality time with my grandmother, she told many stories about our heritage and family history.
If I ever needed help or had problems, I knew an entire phone book of relatives was at my disposal.
In my community, it’s not uncommon to have generations living under one roof. While this way of living alleviates financial pressure from family members, that’s only one benefit of intergenerational households. In many households, dancing and regalia are passed down between siblings and cousins. The youngest generation eagerly watches family members perform and practices alongside them, both in the arena and in living rooms while family elders guide everyone.
When I was old enough, I began babysitting younger family members. It didn’t feel like work or chores but rather time that I got to play with little cousins. We would climb hills and explore outside. During the summers, I spent all day with them and we prepared meals together just as I’d been taught. We’d also clean up after ourselves with my grandmother’s words about the importance of keeping our homes in order in mind. If I ever needed help or had problems, I knew an entire phone book of relatives was at my disposal.
Many Indigenous nations in close proximity have similar practices and living arrangements. The state of Montana is home to seven Indian reservations and 12 Native American tribes. Throughout history to the present day, we are connected in various ways through intermarriage, allyship, and celebration. We attend the same powwows, schools, and sports events. Our inside jokes and humor are almost universal. We can mimic one another’s accents and have a decent knowledge of how things operate within the respective communities. We are often visitors to each other’s land. There are many families with multiple tribal affiliations whose children grow up among the different communities. This makes for several family homes that are welcoming and helpful, and gives inter-tribal families the chance to exchange cultural practices and share knowledge with the next generation.
“There’s always someone to watch the babies.”
Many children divide their time across their various communities. Kay Medicine Bull of the Northern Cheyenne and Diné tribes says her two grandchildren have numerous family members to turn to. “There’s always someone to watch the babies,” she says. “If I can’t, then my parents are there.” Family support allows Medicine Bull’s daughter to be a stay-at-home mom. She maintains regular contact using FaceTime between visits.
Culturally, we refer to our first cousins as our siblings, and our parents’ cousins as our aunts and uncles. We also call our grandparents’ siblings grandma and grandpa. The closeness between our immediate and extended family isn’t something I’d considered until I moved away from my homeland at 21.
I had joined the military after hearing recruiter pitches about a better life, but I didn’t anticipate the culture shock. I learned family support isn’t available to everyone, and I began meeting people who didn’t even know some of their close family members or lost touch to the point of becoming strangers. That’s when I learned the distinction between first and second cousins and that “great-aunt” and “great-uncle” were actual things. I thought I’d heard it all until “step-grandmother” came along. These just weren’t part of my lexicon. People constantly move outside of their home states or even the country, which wasn’t common in my community. It didn’t look anything like what I’d known my entire life.
My grandma is long gone, but her words continue guiding me through life, and have prepared me to continue our practices anywhere.
The better life that was promised was subjective. The child care expenses were high. Members of the military were expected to draw up plans and designate a person who would take their children in the event of a rapid deployment. This seemed so daunting after growing up knowing several households were open to me if I needed them. We simply picked up the landline and dialed one of several memorized phone numbers.
The times have changed a little. but technology has introduced more ways to stay connected than ever before, which are even more important now that I live abroad. Through this lifeline, I’m able to witness the continuing cycle of passing knowledge to the next generation. When the Covid pandemic started, our traditions and values remained intact. People were adhering to guidelines in the interests of preserving community. Families were isolating together and pooling resources during financial hardship. The greater community mobilized to care for and protect the elders among us. It was encouraging to watch from across the ocean.
Unlike many other cultures, there’s not a diaspora of Natives living overseas, let alone from my specific tribe. There aren’t neighborhoods I can visit for a taste of home. Connecting with other cultures with similar practices has taught me that traditional teachings touch the daily lives of people growing up in intergenerational families. Outside my community, these have manifested in smaller ways, like offering a place for friends within my home, babysitting without expecting to be paid, inviting people over just for a chat and meal, and making sure that everyone I care about knows they can call me in any circumstance. My grandma is long gone, but her words continue guiding me through life, and have prepared me to continue our practices and adapt anywhere.