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By Judith K. Witherow

     Several months ago I saw an article in the newspaper about a Mother of the Year contest. Fantastic, I thought! Here's my chance to make up for a whole lot of things. Simple, too, because I always believed I had the best mother in the world. After reading the necessary qualifications, I found that not one of them applied to her. This woman that I have always loved was a complete failure according to these printed rules:

    "First: She must be a successful mother as evidenced by the character and the achievements of her children. Second: She is an active member of a religious body. Third: She must embody those traits highly regarded in mothers: cheerfulness, courage, patience, affection, kindness, understanding, a good homemaking ability. Fourth: She must exemplify in her life and her conduct the precepts of the golden rule. Fifth: She will have a sense of responsibility in civic affairs and be active in service for public benefit. Sixth: She must be qualified to represent the Mother of America in all responsibilities attached to her role as national mother, if selected."

     Where did the promoters of this contest find their yardstick for measuring a woman's worth? Was it the same measure that has always stipulated that this is a one-culture country and either you assimilate or pay the consequences? Why must everything be based on white, middle-class standards? I keep asking myself these questions, but apparently there are no readily acceptable answers. What I know for sure is that we as a people no longer wish to deny our Native American background--not when we see the alternatives that serve as a replacement. Not being able to enter my mother in this contest may seen of small importance, but it's just another in a long list of ways to discriminate. I would like to give another version of what is and what isn't important in a mother.

    First, that she be a successful mother as evidenced by the character and the achievements of her children. I can only presume this means college-educated or outstanding in some other "reputable" field of endeavor. This first qualification is wrong for many reasons. The sole responsibility for the character and achievement of the children is placed on the mother. The role of the father, or another male figure, is of no apparent significance. Outside influences of peers and society are totally ignored. What bothers me the most is that it's only the finished product that matters. What the mother may have had to sacrifice in raising her children is of no relevance. She can only attain the status of Successful Mother through the achievements of others.

     Suppose, in your culture, the emphasis was placed on your ability to live off the land. Just surviving would be a great achievement. Anyone who is aware of the soci-economic condition of Native Americans could attest to this; we have the worst conditions of any race. In my family we are all highly skilled in ways pertaining to our natural background. I am proud to be considered an expert markswoman. I also fish and hunt. My skills rival anyone I know. These achievements are of great importance in maintaining our culture. Society does not view these traits as such. They are considered leisure activities, or at worst, barbaric practices. It is not taken into account that a segment of this society still lives off the land. Fishing and hunting are natural means of survival although man's continued interference with the environment will soon destroy even this option. What is so wrong in preferring meat that has not been shot full of hormones or antibiotics? It doesn't take an expert to figure that this is the reason that germs are becoming resistant. Where is the cruelness in giving a wild animal an even chance when you are hunting? Is either of these things taken into consideration in your slaughterhouses? We have a natural respect for all living things. It is not wrong to use anything the Earth Mother has provided for you. Keeping nature in balance is something that we have always recognized. It is why the present belief system has all of the natural forces at odds with the way it was in the beginning. These things, I believe, constitute character. Would a contest judge agree?

     Second, that she is an active member of a religious body. At face value, this would seem to mean your standard organized church. Culture aside, we all know what role we as women have been allowed to play in any church. This country has always been big on pushing Christianity. It has gotten the United States a foothold in just about every country in the world. There has always been an overwhelming project to Americanize and Christianize. The terrible thing is that it works so well. You are given religion, and in turn you lose your identity and your culture. This new religion gives a false sense of being accepted. In reality, it is another ploy on the road to assimilation. What you believe in would not be considered an acceptable religion. It would not be respected that you were in awe of the moon, the sun, the earth, and all of its elements. Nor would the Earth Mother, or any other deity, be acceptable in this land where a white, male God reigns supreme.

     Third, that she embodies those traits highly regarded in mothers: courage, cheerfulness, patience, affection, kindness, understanding, and a good homemaking ability. These are highly commendable traits, but they won't "put meat on the table." My memories are of a woman carrying water from a creek to wash clothes by hand; a woman constantly in search of dead trees to chop up for firewood; a woman wise in the use of teas and herbs, because unless it was an emergency, doctors were an unaffordable luxury. Superstition played a large part in some of the cures. Two examples: If you stepped on a nail, you greased it and put it above the door. If the evil spirits came in they would slip back out. The wound was also treated with poultices so you were doubly protected. Another cure was for whooping cough. When Mother was a baby, her brother came down with this disease. Her parent's were afraid that if she caught it she would die. A neighbor brought his black stallion over, and had it blow its breath in her face. She's never caught the disease. I have no explanation. I only know that it worked. I know that willow bark is good for curing headaches. (It is what aspirin is derived from.) I know society sneers at cures like these. When we see things like DES, Flagyl Thalidomide and many other things, we can't help but wonder whose ways are really uncivilized.

     Without question she had most of the traits mentioned earlier--courage, patience, etc. If you can raise six children to adulthood, under the worst of conditions, whether you did it cheerfully or not is of little importance. When you don't have running water or electricity in your house, you can bet you don't have much else either. Being a good homemaker in the shacks we grew up in would have been a monumental feat.

    Fourth, that she exemplified in her life and her conduct the precepts of the golden rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Here she would definitely qualify. She would never deliberately hurt anyone, even when we considered it justifiable. She would make any number of excuses to explain why someone acted a certain way. Perhaps her pride wouldn't allow her to admit that such things as racism and classism existed. The older ones, like my mother, accept it as the natural order of things. My generation is learning to question every aspect of this society. The "golden rule" is one that has to be applied by everyone if it is to be accepted and respected.

     Fifth, that she has a sense of responsibility in civic affairs and that she is active in service for public benefit. These two rules stretch the imagination until it snaps. If you are hungry and in rags, civic or public services will not be high on your list of "things to do." Your race alone might exclude you from "responsibility in civic affairs." It happens in the most unlikely places. Having a poor woman volunteer her services would upset the "natural order" even though she would be able to say where those services could really be used. A working woman is doubly discriminated against. In most cases she can't afford to volunteer, and even if she did, getting paid wouldn't be considered necessary.

     Sixth, that she be qualified to represent the Mother of America in all responsibilities attached to her role as national mother, if selected. How could anyone not tamed and trained in this society's ways ever hope to qualify? I wouldn't want to qualify. It seems to me everyone is too hung up on certificates and credentials.

     I would have liked to honor my mother; that is, I would have, until I gave it serious thought. There is no way I would expose her to so much phoniness. She may have been unacceptable in this contest, but in my world she is without comparison

     Maybe I haven't expressed all of her attributes properly. Maybe no one else would see them as such, but this business of accepting only one life-style as proper is unreal. Somewhere along the way the true values in life have been lost.



Judith K. Witherow, American Indian. Writer, photographer and artist. Writing and photography are now at one with her outlook on numerous political issues. Awarded “Community Builder for Decades” Pacifica Radio In Our Voices 2007. Board Member: Sinister Wisdom.


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