So… my friend posted this article from Mamahub on his facebook page – and invited my take on it. I pointed out, first and foremost, that this man is LOATHED in many indigenous circles because he represents the very worst in cultural exploitation. The indigenous repulsion to Nelson’s book has been voiced very well, not least by the likes of Nixiwaka Yawanawá and Indigenous Rights Activist Stephen Corry and has also been voiced in other Aotearoa blogs such as Mr JDHQ and Anthsisters. I’d have hoped that Nelson would have the decency to back down but no – we’re still getting doses of his incredibly inappropriate diarrhoea-logue – this time in relation to “tribal parenting”.
Anyway I was invited to elaborate, and specifically to address the article’s focus on childrearing and cultural comparisons. I tried to post the following but Facebook kept post-blocking me (“there’s an error with this post right now” – I BET, FACEBOOK).
So here we have it:
I honestly can’t write about my opinion of what Jimmy Nelson’s said about the “traditional” child rearing practices of “the tribes” without addressing his politics and agenda – because it’s this very agenda, which is not new, and is actually quite common, which has impacted upon our childrearing practices. VERY little of what he is saying relates to my reality as a Maori woman, or those of the Maori mothers I live with, or have worked with over the years as a Maori Health Researcher and Maori Women’s Health Researcher.
There was a time we were having children as teenagers – and that was the case for young pakeha mothers as well (two generations ago most women were having children in their teens, indigenous or not) – and in those cases they were in societies and communities that supported that choice. These days, for Maori, having children at a young age is NOT an empowered cultural choice that is supported or encouraged by a community or society. It’s not, usually, a “choice” at all – so much as a consequence of many other factors, many of which are related to multiple generations of social disadvantage. It’s certainly not a choice that’s made from an empowered, and fully informed space. It’s also a choice that leads to a very disadvantaged life for Mama and baby because hey, we don’t live in tribal villages with grasshuts – and nor are our societies set up to allow us to live in our tribal groupings or even in our tribal spaces. We are subject to the same laws and economic policies as everyone else which means that being a young parent means you’re more likely to have your education truncated, you’re more likely to have a lower income, and a colder, damper home, consequently with ill children, and all the social judgement that goes with it.
Now the young Maori Mamas I have worked with are incredibly strong, resilient, caring Mamas who are up against incredible odds in raising their children – odds which would defeat many in the same situation – and many of those odds exist in systems that have been built upon the kind of racist exoticized ideas communicated by the many Jimmy Nelsons in our history. The racism inherent in our health system, for instance, means that you’re not likely to have any access at all to a culturally relevant childbearing or childrearing program, in fact you’re not even guaranteed to have great access to any health system at all if you’re Maori in NZ. Neoliberal economic policies that centralise our populations into urban centers and away from our own traditional communities, and alienate us from our own wisdom and economic landbase, function to break the kinship systems that would have, traditionally, allowed for a collaborative childrearing framework. The foundation blocks of all of these systems was research that profiled us as primitive, exotic and historic.
So to say that “in the tribes, they all have their children in their teens” well that, again, is not at all reflective of the reality that faces Maori, or many other indigenous populations around the world – it minimises the fact that this is driven by a system which disadvantages us and advantages the likes of Nelson. Who is he referring to in his answers? Is he talking about us, now? Because for all the reasons stated above, that doesn’t apply. As I understand it, he’s talking unilaterally about this notion of “the tribes” – a direct (and very fetishized) homogenisation of all that is not colonial. But I don’t fit in that model, and pretty much everyone I know doesn’t fit in that model – I know for sure Pita Sharples and the others photographed don’t fit in that model. So as far as everything he says, well I’m just left thinking “who the hell is he talking about?” and also wondering how many other indigenous people, from other cultures that he’s claiming to talk about, would be thinking the same.
“It’s a survival of the fittest. If you’re not healthy when you’re born, you die; as harsh and simple as that. Those who are born healthy, functioning, they live, and they live a healthy life.”
That’s also bollocks – and belies the fact that we have always had a very complex, and effective medicinal practice which was just as much employed for babies as it was adults. Again, he’s primitivising indigenous culture as a whole, based on a very, very limited time spent with any of them really. He spent three years putting this book together – I wouldn’t consider that enough time to speak authoritatively on any one culture’s practices let alone on the 20 odd cultures that he claims to be lumping into one nobly primitive, yet brutal group.
So when it comes to comparing cultures – this guy is the very worst at it, not just because he’s homogenised us all in the most racist of ways, and not just because he’s primitivised us all – but because he’s had an incredibly limited time of observation with an obviously western-biased lens which could only afford him a ridiculously superficial opinion anyway. A number of his images of us were taken when he set up a stall at our performing arts festival, when we are purposefully in our regalia to celebrate our culture, a supposedly culturally safe space of which he completely took advantage of and exploited our vulnerability in that space. He was there for a few days in his stall at the festival, took a bunch of pics and then left – hardly the indepth saturation within our lives that would accord him any kind of nuanced understanding around our childrearing practices. Now why would he be pretending otherwise – why would he pretend to have the knowledge to be able to answer such questions instead of saying “well hey I was only there a short time to take some aesthetically pleasing pics I couldn’t really say I know much about their childrearing – maybe you should speak to an indigenous person”. Well that wouldn’t boost his profile and stroke his ego nearly as much would it. He’s commodified us – plain and simple. He’s claimed to be “celebrating” our culture – except we’ve never asked to be “celebrated” in this way and it certainly does nothing to help us. That tired old practice of exploitation dressed up as celebration is seen time, and time, and time again.
Do I think indigenous communities have better childrearing practices? Well in a traditional sense that would probably have been the case for many indigenous communities. I don’t know about all, but I am just thinking of the many that I have been in contact with and worked alongside. That is, in my opinion, largely due to an enhanced level of connectedness. Connectedness to each other, wider kinship structures, connectedness to the environment and what our obligations to her are – as well as how to live in sync with her for mutual wellbeing.
Today it is a different, and much more complex story. We are not dying as a culture – we are vibrant and we are alive. We are fighting for the increased return of our childbearing and childrearing practices and have very innovative and interesting programs that are maintaining and reviving this knowledge, and using it alongside the very best of technological advances, and the very best of what we have grown to know through research, to provide a safe, informed, and culturally relevant journey into parenthood for our young people, and into life for our babies. And of course there are the multitude of happy, healthy and well functioning whanau Maori who, in spite of the systems, manage to forge their own culturally relevant and healthy space for childrearing. But does Random White Guy want to tell THAT story? No he’s too busy romanticizing us and selling our images and profile off as a dying breed to make a buck. A buck which stays in his pocket and does not in any way go back to assist the cultures that he’s terminally diagnosed.
We’re very much engaged with the process of reconnecting to our ancestral ways and bringing that forth to a modern context but it’s nothing like what this guy has talked about. We have our own voice on these matters, and the system that disempowers our voice is the same system that priveleges the Jimmy Nelsons of this world.
So that article was not, in any way, parenting lessons from tribes – it was parenting lessons from a random white guy who has exploited tribes around the world and appointed himself an authority on them.
Here’s the NZ reality (and I know this applies for a few others as well):
Why are there Maori who are disempowered in relation to our childbearing and childrearing practices? Why has our ancient knowledge in this area fallen into disuse?
Because chumps like this have, for 150 years, being afforded the privelege of exposure, and have provided an image of us as a primitive, brutal culture – the noble savage – a thing of the past. Legislation has been based on it. Policies have been based on it. Funding has been wrapped around these very errant ideas. It has been, and is still used, to legitimise nothing less than warfare on our ways, our language, our culture, our leadership, our kinship. Saddest of all (and this is the bit that makes me cry tears of rage) – it was a story fed to us, through the colonial school systems, and has led to multiple generations of our own believing it, and operating from very disempowered spaces.
The connectedness I mentioned earlier? That is what many indigenous cultures have that provide richness not just to childrearing but to EVERYTHING… because it’s ALL connected!!! The discussion about our childrearing is very much a social justice discussion that is linked to our fight for our language (because the transmission of this wisdom is best done IN our own language). The protection of our language is very much dependent upon our landrights (because our language is based on nature and our links to it). Our landrights are inherently linked to the fight to repatriate our ancestral artifacts from overseas museums (because those artifacts contain valuable articulation of our connection to land using the written language of our ancestors – which was art). Similarly, there are an abundance of artifacts overseas which have direct relevance and information about our childrearing and childbaring practices. Colonial frameworks view these these things as seperable – and that’s just the problem – it’s not. And if we have any hope of becoming a socially just and sustainable society, we need to get back to understanding connectedness in it’s fullest sense, which includes understanding how the privelege inherent in Jimmy Nelson’s practices relates to the disadvantage (including access to our own childrearing practices) suffered by the people that he is exploiting.