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Hey Cousin!

"Hey cousin!" -- that greeting, seemingly straight-forward enough, means different things in different cultures. To the mainstream, cousin typically refers to a first cousin. The child of a parent's sibling. Second and third cousins are differentiated and labelled as such. In the Indigenous community first cousins are often treated and referred to as siblings. Beyond that, second, third, fourth, fifth, they're all cousins. Any relation at all, no matter how distant, is a cousin, assuming the parties are of similar age.

If there's a disparity in the age we use auntie or uncle. If there's a great disparity in age we use kookum or mooshum (grandma and grandpa in Cree). Even if there's no blood relation Indigenous people often refer to themselves as a relative of some sort. It connotes a connection that the word satisfies.

Two issues ago I wrote about visiting Auntie Ann. She's not my auntie by blood but she was my late mother's best friend. I call her Auntie to honour that relationship. My kids call her Kookum Ann. Much like the African-American community Indigenous men with no blood relation often refer to themselves as brothers, as in brothers of different mothers -- bro. For women it's similar,
the use of the word sister often bandied about without a blood tie It's how we roll. A cultural difference that seems innocuous enough but like all cultural differences it leads to any number of unfortunate misunderstandings, and in many cases, under estimations of the closeness of extended families.

The nuclear family (consisting of two parents and their children) evolved from Western Europe and was initially promoted by churches and theocratic governments, and later by proto-industrialization and capitalism (to promote consumerism). This paradigm is often referred to as the traditional family.

The Indigenous use of the phrase means something entirely different. On one level traditional families are those that have carried on the spiritual and cultural traditions of our people, foregoing christianity and capitalism in favour of practices established since time immemorial. On another level traditional family means the extended or communal family. The adage that it takes a community to raise a child was a literal practice in Indigenous culture. 

Many immigrant communities in North America operate this way as well. The nuclear family paradigm being forced on Indigenous communities has, in large part, contributed to family breakdowns resulting in large numbers of children in Indigenous communities being kidnapped by the state and placed in foster care or adopted out.

In the Indigenous context the nuclear family model is problematic. It doesn't account for the closeness of cousins. Nor does it account for the inclusive use of the word.

Case in point -- in the fall of 2015 the Mrs. entered and won a contest in Edmonton for an all-expense paid trip to Super Bowl 50. But in the aftermath she and the bar owner discovered a family connection. They didn't know how they were connected but they were connected. So I said they were cousins. The regulars, after witnessing an out of town Indigenous woman win their grand prize, began to raise a stink. Family members of the bar owner, it allegedly had been announced on occasion (though never while we were there), were ineligible. After we got back home the bar owner sent the Mrs. a court order to return the tickets. She did, but not before tracking down exactly how they were related.

In 1969 the Mrs. (of Mohawk and Anishinaabe descent) was adopted by a white family. The father in that family turned out to be the bar owner's great-grandmother's brother. Cousins? By Indigenous standards maybe. By mainstream standards they wouldn't even be considered relatives. I guess the bar owner decided to go with the Indigenous paradigm.

One element of mainstream society and how it relates to the Indigenous family paradigm is particularly unfortunate and manifests itself during bereavement.

Case in point -- we had a recent death in our family. My son, attending a local educational institution, had a test scheduled around the time of the funeral. He asked the school to let him write the test at a later date so he could attend but the school said no. They only allow postponement of tests for funerals of siblings, parents or grandparents, not, in this case, the husband of an aunt.

That policy shows a clear bias towards the nuclear family and a clear disregard for the Indigenous extended family.

In this so-called age of reconciliation that policy must change.

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