Critical polyamorist blog
My mother-in-law is dying. Even though her son and I are no longer together, she is still my mother-in-law. My co-parent, as we call each other now, is still my mother’s son-in-law. At least that is what my Native American mother says, and vehemently. I have no trouble with that. Just because Co-parent and I are no longer a monogamous romantic couple, does not mean that I do not want to remain his family. We raise a child together. We sometimes think and write together. We have been loquacious friends since the night we first met, and I hope we will continue to be. Until death do us part. In addition to being a stellar father to our child, a good son- and brother-in-law, he is a beloved uncle to my nieces and nephews--our nieces and nephews. We Natives—at least in my extended family and tribe—tend not to let white men’s laws and norms completely distort our thinking about family. That is not to say that we have been able to completely resist Eurocentric norms related to kin and marriage. Witness the politics of tribal enrollment in the United States in which our regulations governing who gets to be a tribal citizen have been informed for 100-plus years by curious Eurocentric notions of biogenetic kinship. Our ancestors were also forced into monogamy by U.S. and Canadian state-builders who could not grant them full humanity without forcing indigenous people into heterosexual one-on-one, lifelong relationships, nuclearizing their families, attaching marriage to land ownership, and extending those notions of ownership to the women—the wives in whose name allotted lands were also given.
But in everyday practice, we are still adept at extended family. Beyond biological family, we also have ceremonies to adopt kin. And in my extended family we engage in a lot of legal adoption. This is aided by the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) that prioritizes the adoption of Native children by Native American tribal families so children have a better chance of remaining inside tribal cultures. In my opinion, we are culturally superior to the mainstream in the U.S. in our skills and values for making extended family. Not unlike this new practice of mine—polyamory (when it does not stop at sex and self-actualization, but goes farther to make family or community)—our tribal webs of kinship can be more emotionally, environmentally, and economically sustainable. Although like polyamory, the entanglements are demanding and it’s no bed of roses everyday.
My mother-in-law and I were close. She always loved Native American art and took an interest in me right away when Co-parent first brought me home. I am not an artist of course. He would roll his eyes. He would lovingly tease her. For my part, I loved listening to her many stories and drinking wine together. She told me she loved having another woman around after raising only sons. And she was from the first moment thrilled with the coming of our child. The day she received in the post her birthday card with our positive pregnancy test folded inside, she left us a voice mail: “You have just lifted a dark cloud over my head!” She was so excited at our pregnancy. Her other grandchildren live half the world away. She too rarely sees them. Fittingly, our child is so much like my mother-in-law. Like Grandma, our child is an artist, and an animal lover. They share the same sense of color and abstractness in their painting. She doted on our child until she got Alzheimer’s. Even afterwards. When our child enters the Alzheimer’s unit, Grandma’s eyes light up.
I have a difficult time with her passing. I do not mourn her dying. She did not want to live with dementia. I wonder if her spirit is trapped in her body and I want her to be free of that. Co-parent and our child and I agree: It is a blessing that Grandma is about to go to the spirit world. Although the thought crosses my mind that she has another capacity now. She looks with wonder at snowflakes and leaves twittering in wind, at miraculous birds. No, my difficulty is watching how my ex-husband’s Euro-American family greets death. Unlike in our tribe and family, they do not sit with their dying elder through the days and nights of the passing. First in the hospital for however long it takes, and then afterwards, a three-day wake. There is no tribe to bring food for the family. They do not tell stories for days punctuated by laughter, suddenly swallowed voices, silence, tears. Death like this at the end of a lived life is an event. We mark it, a bon voyage. I can bring none of this to my mother-in-law’s deathbed. While my tribal family still claims Co-parent as kin, familial terms are no longer forthcoming for me from his biological family. My rights are diminished and distance is what feels respectful while they mourn. My mother-in-law will likely die alone, outside the minutes of their daily visits. They are pained at her passing. They have a hard time watching her. I do not understand their relationship to death. She had a full life and for her generation of women, much more equality. She had children, a loving husband, an artistic path—her very own thing. Our child does not get to sit long enough with Grandma. The adults are too quick to leave. I hear she is in no pain. She goes peacefully. Why is coming to the end of a good journey unbearable to witness? Does the quieting of her vitality seem undignified, a failure? Death is too often construed as “giving up the fight.”
After thinking hard on this, I conclude that a fundamental conceptual break conditions their relationship to death. Materiality is severed from spirit in their world. There is life and death. It is not only scientists who do this. Believers do too. The relationships are long and intimate between Western science and Christianity. There is no dichotomy in their shared conceptual-ethical framework that does not become hierarchy: life/death, human/animal, man/woman, civilized/savage. Death is bad because death ends life. They are afraid of death. In such a worldview, Earth and spirit do not touch. For some, there is no spirit, only earth. For others, Heaven is out there, the angels are holy and fly away. They don’t often know spirits to bridge worlds in mundane ceremonies, or in dreams. In their stories when spirits walk the planet, they are ghosts troubled and lost on their way to Heaven or diabolical and slipped through the cracks of Hell. But our spirits are persons—our social relations, wise or imperfect. Some were human. Some may be again. We tribal people don’t have scripture or a Google map plotting the streets of the spirit world. We don’t all share one named broker from this world to the next. We don’t pretend to know much. But we do know that death of the body opens up another stage of being. We have all seen or heard of it. We may not all have the same relations with spirits, but it is impossible to live in a tribal community and not live within a world where spirits do things. For us, materiality is part of beingness, not the other way around.
With my mother-in-law’s passing, I am grateful again that I am a tribal person. I would not wish our Peoples’ hardships on anyone, but I would want no other life, no other body than that which is a product of their work in this world. Through colonization intimate relationships with our Peoples’ places of origin were disrupted. So much of indigenous peoples' self-determination in the U.S. (and Canada) is attempting to reconstitute those relationships with land, or just to live there. We attempt this in ethically impoverished political-economic systems, like washing filthy clothes in filthy water. But we also sustain our relations in non-material ways. Just as we do not relinquish the beingness of our human relatives with the passing of their biophysical bodies, we do not relinquish our relationships with our nonhuman relations in these lands, even after the legal, material, and scientific claiming of their bodies by nation states.
In the company of four generations I watched my great-grandmother breathe in and never again breathe out. A few hours later she visited her house. My aunt smelled her perfume wafting through the rooms. For twenty years she has visited me in dreams. I hold her rose-petal hands. I tell her I love her. As I age, I think of new questions to ask her. I hope my mother-in-law will visit our child in dreams. As our child grows older, the questions will come. Last night I said, “when you visit Grandma tomorrow, hold her hand, talk to her, tell her you love her. You never know what she might hear. Let her know she’s not alone.” Our child said with a “duh” tone and a shaking-back-and-forth head, “I know Mom. I promise. I was rubbing her head yesterday. I wanted to stay.”
We fall to Earth into the hands of our ancestors. Why should we not leave it from beneath the touch of our descendants or our relations as they hand us back to ancestors again?
The Critical (and ethnocentric) Polyamorist
8/20/14 Postscript: This bittersweet article, "Dead at noon: B.C. woman ends her life rather than suffer indignity of dementia," was published today in the Vancouver Sun. My mother-in-law (who, when she was still lucid) had expressed similar concerns as Gillian Bennett, the woman in the Sun story. My mother-in-law had also expressed the desire for options besides living with dementia in a completely incapacitated state.
 David M. Schneider. American Kinship: A Cultural Account. Second Edition. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1980 (1968). Also see Kirsty Gover, “Genealogy as Continuity: Explaining the Growing Tribal Preference for Descent Rules in Membership Governance in the United States,” American Indian Law Review 33(1) (2008): 243-309. Also see Kirsty Gover, “Genealogy as Continuity: Explaining the Growing Tribal Preference for Descent Rules in Membership Governance in the United States.” American Indian Law Review (33)1: 243-310.
 Sarah Carter. The Importance of Being Monogamous: Marriage and Nation Building in Western Canada to 1915. Edmonton: The University of Alberta Press, 2008.
Photo credit: Short Skirts and Cowgirl Boots by David Hensley
The Critical Polyamorist, AKA Kim TallBear, blogs & tweets about indigenous, racial, and cultural politics related to ethical non-monogamy. She is a prairie loving, big sky woman. She lives south of the Arctic Circle, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. You can follow her on Twitter @CriticalPoly