Everyone has a unique family structure, but that structure can’t exist without the influence of family culture and beliefs. As an Indigenous person living in the U.S., I’ve witnessed the power of extended family and the importance of staying connected. These are a few lessons I learned along the way. They may shift how you view your extended family because they apply across cultures.
1. Extended Relatives Play Educational Roles
When kids go to school, they learn from their teachers. When they come home, their parents take care of their personal needs and provide love and attention. Indigenous tribes and clans have cultural differences, but most view extended family members as having their own roles in children’s lives.
As part of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EACI) tribe, my extended family members are part of the teachers who raise young family members and provide life lessons as they grow up. They don’t have equal privileges as the child’s parents, but their connections with their nieces, nephews and cousins strengthen each child’s real-world education.
Native American family roles allow extended family members to pass down our heritage. They bring history to life by living where our ancestors founded towns in various regions of the U.S. Kids can learn the culture of each region and how our clans came to be by spending time with extended family members who understand the importance of their relationship.
2. They Can Influence Personal Change
When people seek help, they should have access to the necessary resources. You wouldn’t try to perform an appendectomy on yourself — a trained doctor can do the surgery better and more safely. Individuals who are struggling deserve resources ready to help them.
Unfortunately, Indigenous people can’t always access the help they need. We have underfunded communities and face socioeconomic barriers from a systemically disadvantaged starting point. Struggling to do things without external resources is partly why 27.6% of Indigenous peoples have a substance use disorder. Without anyone standing by their side to relieve their stress, anger, grief or pain, people seek unhealthy ways to cope.
Family is a crucial part of helping someone recover and live in sobriety. Loved ones create supportive environments by minimizing stress and eliminating triggers for people with substance use disorders.
If relational difficulties caused someone to begin abusing substances, both sides must work on the relationship’s issues. Identifying unhealthy habits like passive-aggressive communication is difficult if no one’s there to point out a person’s instinctive silent treatment or automatic backhanded comments. Repairing relationships is a vital part of staying in sobriety for many people, and extended family members play an essential role in that dynamic.
Having someone who loves you can also push you to become a better person. I know I would never have tried partner-focused activities like two-person yoga poses or participating in our Friendship Dance if my family members hadn’t been alongside me.
We listen to our family members above anyone else because they hold special places in our hearts. Without my extended family, I wouldn’t be who I am today. They positively impacted who I became as I grew up. Everyone deserves the same love and support from a larger group of family members.
3. They Help Families Fight Other Systemic Challenges
Multi-generational homes and communities are stronger when they rely on each other. Indigenous tribes face numerous systemic challenges that could otherwise tear families apart. Here are a few problems families may face together while broader change happens on state and federal levels.
We Face the Highest Poverty Rates
Indigenous peoples accounted for 25.4% of the national poverty rate in 2018, largely because of inefficient resources and discriminatory federal or state policies. The 2020 census even failed to include a category for Indigenous people when updating the federal policy statistics. Systemic change can’t happen if we don’t have an accurate understanding of the inequities we face.
However, extended family can help mitigate the challenges of crises like poverty. When more family members pool their collective resources, everyone’s quality of life improves. Native American kinship systems within family structures shouldn’t have to worry about it, but we do.
We Have the Lowest Graduation Rates
Public schools need adequate federal funding to provide students with the education they need to graduate. Although many states struggle to improve their grade school systems, those enrolling Indigenous students see the lowest graduation rates.
The National Center for Education Statistics released its “Report on the Condition of Education” in 2022. It found that only 74% of Indigenous high school students graduate within four years, which is lower than any other race or ethnicity category.
Our families know that many of our students struggle in school. Extended family members can help those kids study and get more passionate about their education if they live nearby. When loved ones show their kids they have faith in them and help them learn, those children are more likely to stay in school.
We Have High Rates of Violence
People who are living in the U.S in Indigenous communities likely know someone who survived domestic violence. The most recent research from the U.S. Department of Justice found that 83% of American Indian and Alaska Native individuals have experienced violence. That percentage accounts for millions of people.
When someone experiences domestic or intimate partner violence, they can’t just call the cops if their local police are underfunded and too far away on their reservation. They can’t get external support if no one’s there to help.
Extended family members become life-saving resources violence victims need to survive. Just having a family member who believes you can be enough to keep you going until you find a way out of that situation. Loved ones can also access help for victims if the violent perpetrator restricts them from contacting anyone outside their home.
Consider Native American Kinship Systems
I’ve watched people fail or succeed in their lives based on Native American family roles. Everyone lives a better life when they have a supportive community surrounding them. Who’s better to provide that level of immense love and support than extended family members?
We can all learn from how Indigenous people rally behind their loved ones while living in the U.S. The skills, knowledge and care passed down through generations create conditions that let everyone thrive.