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Life Stages and Reciprocity Within a Social System

Anderson’s description of the life stages of Native11 women yields a picture of social arrangements in which each life stage has a purpose. She depicts these life stages with a diagram consisting of a set of concentric circles, in which infants and children are at the center, surrounded by elders, then women, and then men (2011, 99). The idea of life stages is linked to the roles and types of work that community members perform. The resultant patterns of care, which are society-wide distributions that track ascriptive identity groups, may be understood in terms of broadly based trends and patterns by gender, generational status, and community roles. An internal principle that structures the care practices Anderson describes is a principle of reciprocity between youth and elders in which the care takes place within a relationship:

One of the most important teachings shared between grandparents and their grandchildren was the principle of reciprocity in relationships. Youngsters were not simply passive recipients of care and teaching. They were often helpers to their grandparents and were given tasks and responsibilities that facilitated their learning.

(Anderson 2011, 73)

For instance, oral history participant Gertie explains that her grandmother was responsible for the tanning of hides. Gertie’s grandmother would call the children over to stretch the hide, thereby teaching them this vital skill.

Like Gertie, Maria pointed out that her great-grandmother supervised all manner of chores and tasks, but “most of the time it was us that did the work.” Maria also often acted as a “runner’Vhelper to her grandmother, and she learned a lot from this experience.

Children thus learned how to do vital work, which included but was not limited to direct forms of dependency care, where dependency care is the intensive hands-on care without which a person will not survive (Bhandary 2020, 2).

Maria said, “In the case of my Cheechum, I was also her eyes and sometimes I chewed her meat for her. Her name for me was Ni cheechee, which means ‘my hand’” (Anderson 2011, 74). Making food digestible so that it can nourish an aging person is a form of dependency care because it sustains the basic functions of that person’s life. Thus, the grandchild cared for her grandmother while her grandmother taught her.

In addition, the interviews reveal a grandchild-and-grandparent relationship that was not limited to biological relationships, for the idea of the grandparent extended beyond the biological parents of one’s own biological parents to include many elders within the community. Anderson writes that interviewee Elsie had a grandchild-grandparent relationship with many elders “and this meant that as the recipient of their care she was accountable to them” (71). The idea of reciprocity Anderson intimates here encompasses hands-on caregiving and moral development through interpersonal accountability.12 Children learn to be responsible in virtue of being held accountable for their actions by the particular elders who care for them.13 Furthermore, care practices are embedded in the transfer of knowledge, education, and relationships. Anderson writes, “Childcare on the part of grandparents suited the labour requirements of land-based societies, but this arrangement was also important because it facilitated traditional education” (72). Therefore, it appears from Anderson’s descriptions that dependency care was rarely rendered or received as an isolated good - for identity and accountability were also cultivated through relational interactions. Dependency care and the material and emotional caregiving people supply others who are not in stages of physical dependency, such as support to a friend during a difficult time, are prime moments for strengthening relationships and teaching lessons based on a community’s norms and values.

The intertwined system of childcare and eldercare described by Anderson includes a form of reciprocity that is linked to specific people in one’s life. It also includes the expectation that everyone should contribute to society, where the contributions and particular responsibilities are structured by particular practices. Finally, care needs are met through practices that entwine care with other types of necessary labor.

Function, Meaning, and Justification

According to Anderson, the meaning and purpose of practices of care are not simply about “looking after the health of the infant, they were also about life force” (63). Children are considered joyful members of the community. She writes,

If we look at the Anishinaabe teachings of Mosom Danny, Basil Johnston, and others, it becomes clear that infants and toddlers were seen as bringing hope, happiness, and a sense of potential to families and communities. The teachings tell us that new life was cherished, and at one time pregnant women, infants, and toddlers were nurtured and cared for in that spirit.


In addition, community members care for new mothers and pregnant women in recognition of their vital roles caring for infants. In addition, the continuation of a line of ancestors has metaphysical importance serving as a component of the justification of the practice. Consequently, it is plausible to claim that one of the Native justifications to care for children is based on the value of the family line.

I am not claiming, here, that the function can be separated from meaning in the Native community, but rather that the function some of the practices provide is a caregiving function, among other things, and liberal societies should look to them as a possibly better way to arrange care. Although some may argue that doing so commits the error of incommensurability (Welch 2013, 205), individuals with multiple cultural backgrounds frequently combine aspects of different cultures in ways that may be intimately tied to our very identities. A society structured by Rawlsian liberalism that learns from other cultures will not necessarily import the meanings that are associated with these forms of care. Instead, the meanings that are connected to practices in liberal societies will blend with new practices of care.

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