To Aboriginal people, family signifies the biological unit of parents and children living together in a household. But it also has a much broader meaning. Family also encompasses an extended network of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. In many First Nations communities, members of the same clan are considered family, linked through kinship ties that may not be clearly traceable, but stretch back to a common ancestor in mythical time.
Under the rules of clan membership, individuals are required to marry outside the clan to which they belong. Over generations, this resulted in every family in a community being related by descent or marriage to every other family in the community. Indeed, in rural communities whose membership has remained stable over time, family and community represent the same network of persons.
The layers of relationship built up over generations are described in a study of traditional life among the Caribou Inuit who live in the area west of James Bay.
According to Caribou Inuit belief, the best marriages were those of first cousins, and the very best arrangement of all was a brother-sister exchange (akigiik) between two sets of cousins thus a brother and sister of one family would marry a sister and brother of another, the two sibling pairs being cousins to begin with. When a cousin marriage occurred, people who started life as siblings, cousins, nieces, and nephews suddenly would become spouses and in-laws of various kinds as well, thus building one layer of kin relations upon another. 2 The practice of marriage between cousins, with restrictions against marriage within the same clan, has been found in other Aboriginal societies as well.3 The problem of intermarriage with close kin were evidently known historically to Aboriginal people. Elders report that raids on neighbouring nations to steal wives, as well as large seasonal gatherings where marriages of persons from different communities were contracted, were methods used to broaden the gene pool of small communities.
Aside from descent and marriage, Aboriginal people became kin or like kin in other ways as well. For example, adoption was a common practice in most communities. Some nations, such as the Iroquois, adopted captives taken in war, giving family names and full membership privileges to these persons, who replaced a member lost to war or misfortune. It is still common practice in many communities for parents to give a child to another family in the community. In some cases, a fertile couple would agree to have one of their children adopted at birth by a childless couple in so doing the two families would contract a special bond with each other for life. As well, many traditionalists, having retained their knowledge of Aboriginal language, bush skills and medicine practices, consider it a privilege to have been reared by grandparents within these customary adoption arrangements.
Other forms of bonding within a community included hunting partnerships whereby kin groups or friends would share hunting territories to reduce the impact of the harvest on the land. The entire group would use the territory of one part of the partnership one year, then shift to another partner’s territory the following year. These partnerships also often entailed certain obligations to distribute meat from the hunt.
The effect of these diverse, overlapping bonds was to create a dense network of relationships within which sharing and obligations of mutual aid ensured that an effective safety net was in place. As Ernest Burch observed regarding the Caribou Inuit:
A Caribou Inuit society was entirely lacking in politically, economically, or other specialized institutions, such as governments, businesses, churches or schools. Almost all of the functions required to sustain life were performed within the extended family context. Indeed, to a degree that most Canadians could scarcely comprehend, the life of the Caribou [Inuk] revolved around the family - from the moment a person was born until the time one died.4 As is the case in contemporary society in Canada, among Aboriginal peoples traditionally it has been the responsibility of the family to nurture children and introduce them to their responsibilities as members of society. However, the extended family continued to play a significant role throughout the lives of its members. When a young man went out on the hill to seek a vision of who he was to be and what gifts were uniquely his, it was not because he was preparing to go out into the world and seek his fortune.
Rather, he could come back to the camp or the village to obtain advice from his uncles or his grandfather on the meaning of his experience, and his ‘medicine’, or personal power, was to be exercised in the service of family and community.
A clear division of labour along sex lines prevailed in most Aboriginal societies. For example, among the Anishnabe (Ojibwa),
... there was a clear distinction made between male and female roles, and public recognition went almost exclusively to the activities of men. The exploits of the hunter, warrior and shaman were celebrated in stories told in the lodge. The legends recording encounters with the supernaturals deal with the affairs of men. The role of women was to send men on their journeys with proper ceremony, to welcome them back with appropriate
mourning or rejoicing, to hear and applaud the accounts of their achievements.
Ojibwa women were, more, however, than passive complements to the life of their men. They were essential economic partners in the annual cycle of work. They were needed to perform the normal domestic chores of cooking, sewing and child care, but their skills were also essential to weave the fish nets and paddle the canoe during the duck hunt, to construct protective fur robes and roof the birchbark wigwam, to tan the hides and harvest the rice and maple sap.5 Métis families similarly divided responsibilities between men and women as they ranged on extended hunting expeditions from permanent settlements, such as Red River. A woman from a Montana Métis settlement, who lived a mobile lifestyle with a group that migrated from Manitoba to Montana following the buffalo, recalled camp life in the early part of the twentieth century:
Our men did all the hunting, and we women did all the tanning of the buffalo hides, jerky meat making, pemmican and moccasins. For other supplies, we generally had some trader with us ...who always had a supply of tea, sugar, tobacco and so on.6 In many Aboriginal nations, women could become warriors, hunters, healers or bearers of chiefly names and titles. But their contribution to the well-being of the community was typically through responsibilities specific to women, including marriage and child rearing. The fact that women did so-called women’s work did not necessarily mean that they had minor influence or low status...
The Métis Extended Family
Thelma Chalifoux, a Métis woman of senior years who has been honoured for her community service, spoke at our hearings about her experience in a Métis extended family:
... I was not a product of the Mission school. I was a product of a very strong Métis extended family that lived between the City of Calgary and the Sarcee Reserve.
...the role of women ... was to take care of the elderly people in our community. We each had a role.
My mother’s role was equal to my father’s. My mother’s role, my aunt’s role and my grandmother’s roles were that they looked after the whole family, the children, the garden, the berry picking, the food, because the men were away working most of the time. So they had total control and roles.
The man’s role in the family was to make the living and bring home the money. When times were hard, everybody stuck together. When my grandmother or my aunts were out of food, everybody joined together and helped them out. We were a very, very proud extended family. There was relief in those days, but we never took it because that was just gifts and we weren’t about to take it.
The role of the woman...was an equal role... The women’s role within the Elders, my grandmother’s role and my aunt’s roles we were almost like hidden leaders...
Everybody that needed advice went to my mother, went to my aunts, went to my grandmother. Even the men, when they went to the meetings and organizing, they never went before we always had a meeting and a gathering of the total family unit, the total community unit, and the women told the men what to say. It was a consensus of the total family unit...
Winnipeg, Manitoba, 22 April 1992
... In Thelma Chalifoux’s generation, the pursuit of the buffalo had given way to waged employment. Métis people (continued) to be mobile, but the maintenance of community life fell to the women.7 Sharing within the extended family helped ease the effects of economic ups and downs. Women were the decision makers and practical nurses, and they were secure in their skills and knowledge. Decisions in organizations, presumably political, were reached by consensus within the family.
Clearly, Métis culture in the framework of a strong extended family was a source of life skills and confidence for Senator Chalifoux. [Her experience] highlights the vitality of Aboriginal families and their effectiveness in fostering a strong sense of identity and extraordinary resourcefulness in individuals, particularly those who are now elders....
Source: (Canada. Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, 1993, pp. 11-15. Report of the Royal Commission on AboriginalPeoples. - Vol. 3. Gathering Strength. Ottawa, ON: Reprinted with permission from Canada Communication Group Publishing.)