courtesy OXDX
'Super Native Woman' design by Jared Yazzie and OXDX Clothing

Mother's Day, Superwoman Complex, and Getting Better: Loving Native People Better, v. 2

Gyasi Ross

Disclaimer: Zero research went into this piece (except for watching decades and decades of Native boys growing up under incredibly loving Native moms).  Indeed, absolutely nothing that I write below is backed up or verified by science, just observation, and an inspirational conversation in Santa Fe.

Native women and Native men have, like the vast majority of America, serious, serious problems living with each other (as evidenced by the fact that divorce rates in America are now down to 45%). As I get older and examine my own life, and also am graciously invited to share in other lives, I’m beginning to realize that the problems between Native women and men begin in adolescence or childhood.  Heck, infancy.

Really, really, young.

See, a LOT of those Native female/male problems comes down to this: Native boys and men expect wayyyy too much from Native mothers.  We never truly grow up in that regard—we get used to mom always cleaning up our messes for us.  As young boys, we get used to moms always using their Magical Mama Spit™ to slick our wind-blown hair back behind our ears and we get used to their Magic Mama Breath™ blowing the eyelash out of our eyes.  Except that as we grow older, the Magic Mama Spit™ turns into dollars (that mom really doesn’t have) that bail us out of bad situations and the Magic Mama Breath™ becomes excuses that magically makes us feel better about the childish decisions that we continue to make.

Mama continues to be there for us.  She continues to be our superwoman.  Her Superspit™ and Superbreath™ always makes us feel better.

Even in adulthood.

Still… -sigh- …superwoman is not realistic.  Superwoman is not sustainable.  Superwoman kills moms and also kills relationships and…well, we’ll get to that soon.  But in the meantime, suffice to say that Mothers, Native and non-Native, are not superwomen.  Yes, Native mothers seem to have a superhuman amount of love to give (largely as a result, oddly, of the historical trauma and peculiar persecution that Native women have endured; indeed, it seems like individuals that continue to give love when love seemed utterly pointless, futile and even dangerous to give have a special capacity to love), but that does not make them “superwomen.” 

Therefore, in honor of Mother’s Day and hopefully to start a conversation of reconciliation with our mothers (and girlfriends and wives), I offer this piece to suggest giving moms a little rest from having to play the superwoman.  I offer this piece as an idea for mama’s boys—just like me—to love Native moms slightly better.  With absolute love and admiration and respect I offer this thought: we need to stop the superwoman and let her just be a woman.

Let’s be clear: all of us have some accountability in the Native Superwoman Complex. It’s a vicious cycle, complex and deep.  Still, some bear more responsibility than others.  

Native men contribute greatly to the superwoman complex by being absent in disproportionate numbers, leaving the parenting burden to fall into the mother’s lap. We further contribute to the superwomen complex by being unemployed in disproportionate numbers, leaving the financial burden to fall into the mother’s lap.  When it’s all said and done, Native men have a great obligation to change this because we cause a great deal of the harm, yet we definitely cannot do it alone because Native women also hold power and investment in the superwoman complex. Indeed, even regarding Native men’s lack of financial support, it is deep as many of our communities simply do not enough job opportunities and so contributing financially is difficult.  This is not an excuse—we’re trying to be constructive, so no excuses are necessary because no one is judging.  It’s just a fact.

Native Communities contribute because non-parental men are loathe to step up and act as the proxy parent for those little Native boys running around. This is endemic within our communities—now, it’s actually become a thing to ridicule, when someone is raising another man’s biological child.  There are few Tribes with programs in place to mentor the children (male AND female, although I’m focusing on male) of single mothers.  In past times and in many communities, when the father was absent from the child’s life (perhaps he fell in battle or disease), an uncle or other close relation was expected to step up as the father figure.  Now, there is no real protocol and as a result nobody knows whose responsibility the child is (except blaming the single mother).

Native Mothers contribute by doing the most humane and logical thing that they can do—trying to be the mother, the father and the supportive Native community all at once.  It makes sense—who else is going to raise the child?  Moreover, there tends to be this sense of guilt; the dad made the choice to leave and the mother inexplicably feels that it was her fault that he left, as if she should have simply endured more. Therefore, Native moms tend to ostensibly say, “Since dad is gone and there is no male role model, I will have lower expectations for my son because he had nobody to teach him…”  Mom tends to handle the son with kid gloves, so that the son doesn’t feel compelled to leave the same way that his father did.  The mother serves the boy hand and foot, as she would the man of the house if he were around, and this odd emotional incest happens that makes the boy dependent on the mom. The excuse-making begins, and the superwoman cape goes on.

Native Boys contribute because we simply soak up the strangely incestuous love and never inquire why we get preferential treatment over our sisters and girls within the community.  We’re doing the most logical things in the world—enjoying privilege—why would we question it??  It’s like white privilege—folks usually only question preferential treatment when they’re getting the short end of the stick.  Finally, we contribute as we grow older by expecting our significant others to act like just our mothers—doing everything for us, laundry, cooking, cleaning, changing the baby’s diapers, etc. When the significant other doesn’t behave like a domestic servant, we end our relationships unceremoniously because our girlfriends/wives/main squeezes are not superwoman (and/or have no interest in being superwoman).  When that happens, we say “She has no home training.”  The truth is, she has no interest in being our mom. We have been effectively infantilized and we did nothing to change it.

Obviously, there are exceptions to these so-called rules.  Whether these categories hold up absolutely, however, is beside the point. The point is that Moms simply deserve better.  They deserve better than having an absentee partner that expects the woman to do everything for them, and they deserve better than for history to repeat itself when the child begins expecting the mom to do everything for them.  They deserve better than to feel guilt when a man decides that he isn’t mature enough or capable of being a good and loving father. Ladies, please say it with me one time, “It’s not my fault that my child’s father was not mature enough and/or loving enough to stick around and be the loving father that my child deserves.”

It’s not your fault.  Yet, in order to fix this, it’s going to take some teamwork, some faith, and some very tough love.

We need teamwork because, at the end of the day, we are all in this together. Native women, Native men, Native children and Native communities must succeed together—and we will only straighten this out if we work together. 

It’s also going to take a couple of generations—it’s a cycle.  We’ve got to weed out all of us spoiled mamas boys who breastfed till we were 8 and are used to superwoman moms—it’s going to take awhile.  But like most great things within our communities, it’s going to start with the women.  The superwomen complex will begin its demise when Native women decide that they are going to hold us Native men to our end of the bargain—both fatherhood, and boys as well—and that they will no longer don their capes in order to make excuses for the man’s failings.  Stop covering for them-this process requires PAINFUL honesty.  “No baby, your dad just didn’t see you this weekend simply because he didn’t make time for you.  I’m sorry that’s the way it is, but that’s the way it is.  I still expect you to clean up your room and take out the trash.”

You ladies have been doing the job of an entire village since you became mothers.

That’s not your job.  You are not superwoman; you are incredible mothers that deserve a rest sometimes.  Put your cape away—enjoy your day.

Happy Mother’s Day.  Love you.


Gyasi Ross
Blackfeet Nation Enrolled/Suquamish Nation Immersed
Twitter: @BigIndianGyasi




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Penelope Rose's picture
Penelope Rose
Submitted by Penelope Rose on
Awesome. Thanks for your honesty, not just for Native "Supermoms" but all of them.

Lady Ojibwe Lynn's picture
Lady Ojibwe Lynn
Submitted by Lady Ojibwe Lynn on
I really liked the art work in this piece. Immediately, I assumed the piece was about how great we NDN women are, instead, the shift was on NDN males and I really appreciate that, I agree it's time for discussion, change and no blame. There is definately "preferential treatment" applied to men, from their mothers. I wish that could be explained more. I have no brothers but I have witnessed how NDN mothers will do anything for their sons and I do not fully understand it. Thanks for the article...

Lady Ojibwe Lynn's picture
Lady Ojibwe Lynn
Submitted by Lady Ojibwe Lynn on
I really liked the art work in this piece. Immediately, I assumed the piece was about how great we NDN women are, instead, the shift was on NDN males and I really appreciate that, I agree it's time for discussion, change and no blame. There is definately "preferential treatment" applied to men, from their mothers. I wish that could be explained more. I have no brothers but I have witnessed how NDN mothers will do anything for their sons and I do not fully understand it. Thanks for the article...

WhiskeyBreath's picture
Submitted by WhiskeyBreath on

Shirley Murphy's picture
Shirley Murphy
Submitted by Shirley Murphy on
5/4/13 Well said. I always knew we Native MOMS had smart and observant sons who write so BRILLIANTLY!! Your sisters and female cousins agree with me especially with their first born sons! Give us time and our lives, all our lives, wiil be quality as we decolonize our Mamma voices and allow our inherent, indigenous selves and be the Mammas you were always meant to enjoy.

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
This is a wonderful article, Gyasi and in spite of the absence of scientific "credibility" you deserve praise for writing about something we all take for granted too often. My own mother was Mexican (my father was N'Dee) and while she did everything to support me and my siblings she didn't buy into the Mexican notion of "macho" and taught my brothers and I to cook and clean. Of course we were the brunt of a LOT of teen (and later adult) ribbing. Our forced knowledge did have the added advantage of making us popular with the ladies. All too often, in TOO MANY cultures the woman carries the weight of the entire family. Our casual male attitudes regarding child care and "women's work" have almost no place in the modern world where we're no longer counted upon to protect the family from dangerous animals or invasions by foreigners. I may just be a half-breed, but a man isn't a man unless he's doing EVERYTHING he possibly can to help his family. I'm not less of a man for changing my granddaughter's diaper while my wife takes care of an elderly relative. Of course, I still do the hunting.

sheniecelane's picture
Submitted by sheniecelane on
This was a very well-said article! Thank you for increased awareness for our current and future mothers! As well as our Native boys/men.

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on

your favorite Indian's picture
your favorite Indian
Submitted by your favorite Indian on
Thanks Gyasi. It feels like you reached into my mind and heart and took those words out and put them on paper for me to read at this very moment. I'm not going to lie when i say I'm not sure if that's a good thing because it made me shed a tear! But i like the way you think.

florm's picture
Submitted by florm on
Thank you for the good medicine! I always appreciate your writing and opening the doors to conversation. I recognized myself, and my family, and appreciate hearing how we can all contribute to transforming in this way for the health of all.