Native Women Brilliance: Let’s Start With My Mother

Native women show their brilliance all the time and they don’t receive acknowledgement for it nearly enough.

My mother spoke herself into the world. I can’t speak her story, but I can say I witnessed how she declared her own brilliance and conjured a new life—the new terms in which she would live after the turmoil she suffered. When she fell asleep with a book in her hand, or came out of her bedroom with a new manuscript, I wish someone had told her she was brilliant for everything she had done. What she was doing was exceptional, and I guess I wish someone had told her about the small stuff, too, how she made salmon patties that tasted like heaven, and god knows that takes Gordon Ramsey talent, and how she kept the house, which was, just architecturally designed to look and feel like depression, and she made it beautiful and made smell like sweetgrass and tea—so that when we came home we felt whole again. I wish I could tell her now, as a grown woman. Native women are not told they’re brilliant—not nearly enough. I’d like to say that you all, as I know you, confound me.

I see Native women I grew up with, who are now mothers, married to men who do or do not appreciate them, women who seem to, like myself, move through the day to day without much reflection or concern for their own autonomy. It’s what you do when you’re a mother, or a workingwoman, or a woman working for something better, or all of the above. This may sound general, but I’m speaking specifically to the Native women I know.


I often feel bound and exhausted by daily life—caregiving, loving, motherhood, teaching—to where I cannot truly ever sit down and flex my intellect, run through my deepest thoughts, find a venue for them, and a space where my mind can be acknowledged. So I’ve found other ways to be brilliant: the way I love my children. We make improvisational fun, and my baby knows his numbers and alphabet, and, in his raspy, two-year old voice, he comes up and tells me, “I got a life!” and runs around the house until I chase him. I have constant conversations with him, whether he understands me or not. I’ve tried to love my children uniquely, without seeing their faults, while holding up their independence. There should be a prize for that, but mothers don’t win awards, especially Native mothers. We are rarely congratulated, and more likely to be criticized.

My friends, they’ve found how to be brilliant mothers, too. I see their beadwork, their diligence, and the non-stop driving to games and recitals and practices, their hunting, their fishing, their language-teaching—I wonder how often they are told it is its own brilliance: finding the equation between too much and too little, honoring our culture while embracing our own beliefs and truths.

It’s not just my friends who are mothers; it’s the cousins who are going to school, too: they’re exceptional, and I’d bet money that they are underestimated in their classes, in their circles—but the way they somehow stay awake, after school, after work, after taking care of their families, and the way they tactfully avoid uncomfortable conversations with their conservative relatives or friends, and the way they honor the family—it takes duplicity and rhetoric and messing up, but the humility to keep pushing forward—again, I’m confounded. It feels like watching a literal star. Even when they’re making those choices we warned them about—it is somehow it’s own type of brilliance and art.

There are women I know who are disrespected, sometimes by their own loved ones, and negated. There are women who have some mastery, and I don’t see anyone around them acknowledging it. I’ve seen these women degraded, sometimes by themselves, at what they will condone, or believe. I think the lack of appreciation, or true witness, it makes their lives worse. I don’t believe they’re being treated as dynamic, dimensional, exceptional women. I think about how the world, in its unkindness, is derailing these women into submission—that they can’t be anything worthwhile, or do anything worthwhile, while what they are doing, no matter its condition or circumstance—it’s something profound. Life is profound, even the lives in need of redemption; maybe those are the lives with the most potential for profundity. I’ve seen people, a lot of men, negate our exceptionalism, maybe because they’re afraid, or just cruel.

The things I’ve done to find my own avenues, where I have learned to appreciate myself and be appreciated—it’s much like my mother’s story, where she spoke her true self into the world, and allowed herself to write and be full-hearted and unafraid. I decided to become a teacher in spite of people telling me I couldn’t; I decided to write and publish a book in spite of people telling me I was not enough, and I broke into a world unimaginable, considering where I’ve been, because I had something to prove, to myself and others. But what about the wonderful women who are discouraged by hatred, by naysaying, by the abusive and unkind people who stand in their way, or by the institutions? I believe they need to be recognized in all of their serious, or funny, willful, brilliant glory. They are exceptional, valued, underestimated, and maybe ‘too much,’ in the best way. I believe they should be told, so I’m telling you that I’ve learned a few things: You can take the world. It’s yours. You don’t need to be complete to be an absolute work of art. And maybe you won’t hear the appreciation you need, but it’s possible that a little girl, like the one I was watching my mother, marvels at the way you part your hair, or how you hold a book, and wants someday to have a mind like yours—imagines what kind of mystery there is inside of you, and knows the world is not ready, nor could even recognize its gift. Native woman brilliance, it is its own exceptional.

Terese Marie Mailhot is Saturday Editor at The Rumpus. Her book “Heart Berries: A Memoir” is forthcoming with Counterpoint Press and Doubleday Canada. She is a Tecumseh Postdoctoral Fellow at Purdue University.