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The backbone of Indian country

PORTLAND, Ore. - A thin blanket of fresh snow with scrubby sage sticking
out covers the high desert land around the Zuni pueblo in northwestern New
Mexico. Out across the low hills the Little Fire God leads 10-foot high
Shalakos and their entourage of Longhorn, Mudhead and Whipper kachinas into
the village. Bells and rattles and clappers sound in the cold, crisp air
that smells of cedar smoke.

And the Shalakos clacking their long beaks, and making high pitched, bird
sounds. But the kids aren't afraid. Even the littlest ones. There they are
in grandpa's or daddy's arms. Held high above the crowd so they can see.

Over in Navajoland, another variation on the theme of extended families
taking care of each other. At the Many Farms Trading Post it's Saturday
morning. Mom and dad are going ahead with older sister to buy supplies,
grandma and Sonny trailing behind, taking the old woman's time as she
shuffles in her tennis shoes. The grandmother's head is covered with a
bright red flowered scarf, but she left her cane at home. With Sonny by her
side, she doesn't need a walking stick. She's been watching him since he
was a baby, while her daughter and son-in-law went to Dine College in the
summers to work on teaching degrees. Now Sonny's watching after her.
Extended families are a circular thing.

Kinship relations are as horizontal as they are vertical, though. In the
longhouse on the Umatilla reservation up in Oregon where a naming is under
way aunties pass around the baby all laced up into its cradleboard. First
this one bouncing the baby on her lap and smiling, then another one holding
the tiny girl up so all the women can admire her.

And the baby is admirable - dark brown eyes shining under a crop of thick
black bangs. All decked out with a Pendleton blanket just the right size,
arrowhead designs in navy and bright green and turquoise and purples
striking bold marks in the wool weave. Her blanket tucked in under the ties
of the cradleboard just nice like someone really cared.

That's the key. Really caring. And while all the color and tradition makes
it fun, keeping families together goes beyond any particular doings, right
down to the quick of it all.

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Two mothers meet at an Indian organization in San Francisco. They find out
they're from the same tribe and decide to get an apartment together with
their children. Within months the kids start calling each other brother and
sister, and after the women check their family histories, they discover
they are distant cousins. It goes that way in Indian country, even if folks
happen to be living in the big city.

The country crowd does its part too, of course. It was a sunny day last
summer when members of the Lummi tribe, Frank Lawrence Sr. and his
grandsons - Devin and Jeremy, donned full ceremonial regalia. The three of
them danced in the Stommish Days Pow Wow with the blue waters of Washington
state's Puget Sound in the background and the smell of barbecued salmon in
the salt air. While Jeremy, the youngest member of the trio, didn't have on
his mirror shades or even much in the way of buckskin and fringes, he was
there. There strapped to grandpa's chest, feeling the beat of the drums and
the rhythm of the dance in his very soul.

Because it's in the soul where extended families are connected. Right there
in that quiet, invisible soul place where people can feel first hand that
there really is enough to go around. Enough time. Enough food. Enough
money. Abundance enough to share.

Abundance, not scarcity that's what extended families in Indian country are
all about. The Zuni babies feel it. As does the Navajo grandmother and the
women living in San Francisco with their kids and the Lummi males in the
Lawrence family. It goes the same way with the Hopi and the Plains people
and beyond. Anywhere folks still have their finger keeping time to the
beat. It's there in the houses. Little aunties swooping in on the babies
the minute they cry and picking them up in their arms. And if the child
won't settle down for one, someone else comes along and gives it a try.

"Okiwa," is how it goes on the Hopi mesas. "Poor thing," someone might say.
"Okiwa, don't cry."

Or over in Navajo country, a similar assurance.

"It's okay shi yazsha," an old man hosteen might say to his little
granddaughter. "It's okay, little one."