Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

The Strengths of Apache Grandmothers: Observations on Commitment, Culture and Caretaking

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

The Strengths of Apache Grandmothers: Observations on Commitment, Culture and Caretaking

Article excerpt

"My great grandmother is a special person to me because she did a good job of raising my mother. I am happy for what she has done and for what she is still doing for us." So begins a tribute written by Garrett Dazen, a fifth grader, published in the Fort Apache Scout, June 1, 1990. To persons unacquainted with Apachean families (including several Apache populations as well as the Navajo), this tribute may hint of possible failure in the family system: what happened that made it necessary for the great grandmother to raise the mother? In fact, rather than signaling family failure, the statement is testimony to one of the great strengths of Apache families, a traditional pattern of responsibility and care that continues to serve families and protect children.

This paper compares two normative models of grandparenting, one common in Anglo-American culture and the other an Apache pattern. The introduction of these contrasting models is followed by a description of contemporary Apache grandmothering and its social context, as enacted by White Mountain Apache grandmothers living on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation. Finally, there is a systematic comparison of selected themes and issues in both ethnic contexts, and of the meanings and consequences of grandparenting for community and family life.


Wilson (1984a), commenting on social scientific studies of black families, observed that there had been much more attention paid to their pathologies and disorganization than to their remarkable strength and resilience. So it also is with studies of Indian families. People who know very little else about Indian Americans share stereotypes about the poverty, violence, and alcoholism that characterize their families. Yet Anglo Americans are generally unaware of the tenacity of Indian family values and the maintenance of strong kinship ties and family identity among them in the face of almost insurmountable odds.

In family matters, as in other patterns of behavior, it has been assumed by white Americans that their own cultural norms for acceptable behavior are the "right" ones, normal and morally superior to other patterns. Thus, in scholarship as well as popular stereotypes, Anglo American family patterns have been held up as optimal standards. To the degree that the families of ethnic minorities have differed, they have been defined as deficient, disorganized, or immoral (Wilson, 1984b:1333). "Help" in better adjusting and conforming to majority standards, often unsought, has been offered or imposed on Indian peoples by teachers, counselors, missionaries, social workers, politicians, and other professionals.

One of the purposes of this paper is to call into question the superiority of the standard "white" family pattern as it applies to grandparenting. Another is to document the continuing commitment of many Apachean grandmothers as bearers of the cultural heritage and of ultimate responsibility for the physical well-being of their families. Defined by her culture and often by circumstance as "caretaker of last resort," she devotes extraordinary effort and personal sacrifice to performing the grandmother role.


Family scientists sometimes talk of "the" family life cycle, or "developmental stages," as if such cycles and stages were part of humanity's genetic heritage rather than social constructions. In practice, there are many ethnic and individual variations in such stages and cycles. With respect to grandparenting, many of the standard models of family life in America assume a configuration where grandparents are acknowledged as kin, but play a peripheral role in the lives of the families of their children and grandchildren. In the usual "family life cycle" model, with "stages" often presented as universals without significant ethnic qualification, American older couples "launch" their children and move into an "empty nest" stage. …

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