What About Cousins?

I live pretty equidistant from about three Indian reservations in three different states.  I sometimes see tribal members  at my community mental health agency.  Part of doing my work is getting a good family history.  I have noticed, over 30 years of practice,  distinct differences in how tribal members and everyone who is not a tribal member describes family relationships.  For my tribal clients, there are any number of aunties, uncles,  sisters, and brothers who are important in their lives. They  just don’t match how I, in my eurocentric  orientation, define family.

A good friend of our, a person who is an Arikara Indian,  one of the Three Affiliated Tribes from the Fort Berthold Reservation where Husband works,  posted on Facebook recently a way to navigate these family relationships.

This apparently comes from some sort of Mandan, Arikara, and Hidatsa tribal handbook. Here is how you navigate relationships. for boys. Girls are pretty much the same.

Who is my mother?

  1. My birth mother.
  2. .My mother’s sister
  3. My father’s brother’s wife
  4. My clan father’s wives (My father’s clan brothers)

Who is my father? 

  1. My birth father
  2. My father’s brothers
  3. My sister’s husband
  4. My father’s mother’s brother
  5. My clan fathers (My father’s clan brothers)
  6. My father’s sister’s son

Who is my sister?

  1. My blood sister
  2. My father’s brother’s daughter
  3. My sister’s daughters
  4. My female clan members (My mother’s clan)
  5. Female children of my father’s clan
  6. My mother’s sister’s daughter

Who is my brother?

  1. My blood brothers
  2. My father’s brother’s sons
  3. My sister’s son’s
  4. My mother’s sisters’ sons
  5. My clan male mothers
  6. Male children of my fathers’ clan
  7. My mother’s brother
  8. My mother’s mother’s brother

Who is my auntie?

  1. My father’s sisters
  2.  My father’s sister’s daughter-each generation
  3. My clan aunts (My father’s clan sisters)

Who is my grandmother?

  1. My mother’s mother
  2. My mother’s mother’s sister (Grandmother’s sister)
  3. My father’s mother
  4. My father’s mother’s sister
  5. My mother’s father’s sister-each generation

I notice that great uncles, great aunts, and cousins are defined differently here.  I also find that if I use this to define my family relationships, I have a lot more siblings, parents, and aunts and uncles. That is kind of comforting.

How do you define family? How would your definition change given the above information? 


32 thoughts on “What About Cousins?”

  1. My dad’s side of the family is pretty extensive and we were kept in touch by out late grandmother’s tireless letter writing. I joke that Facebook is now our grandma, as that’s how we keep up with each other.

    I confess to never having unsnarled the whole “second cousin once removed” thing (i’ve seen the chart, and it’s uncharacteristic of me to not be interested in quantifying this way, but i’m not). I tend to think in terms of family trees, probably because that is how the name tags at the one family reunion we have work.

    But we are geographically scattereed, so we also have “family of the heart”, the friends and their families who are here that we share in the lives of. These are the people we have on emergency contact forms, that we share our joys and woes with, who we exchange favors with so frequently the “balance sheet” was lost long ago.

    Liked by 6 people

  2. Oh man, my head hurts! I should not have tackled this post before having at least one cup of coffee. I have several questions, but they’ll have to wait until I can think straight again.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. I was scratching my head already at number three in that same category: my sister’s husband being my father. I could see considering him a brother, but father, not so much.

        Some of these make all kinds of sense to me, some not at all. I find it interesting that aunties apparently are limited to females on father’s side of the family. I’m also wondering about this one: “My clan male mothers” under who is my brother. I can’t figure out who that refers to.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. I didn’t put in the list for girls’ relative structure because I was too tired to type it all last night I believe. Aunties are also on the mother’s side of the family. You are correct, though, it is confusing./

          Liked by 1 person

  3. The complexity of relationships Renee presents reminds me (strongly) of the song: “I’m my own grampa.”

    “Family” was radically simple for my family. My parents used that word to mean themselves, my sister and me. Nobody else. I was confused later when I realized “family” meant something vastly more complex for many folks.

    I’ve been trying to understand this. My dad loved his mom but disliked–maybe hated–his dad. He had two brothers, one who had beaten him while he was alive, and one he liked but didn’t see often. My mother had tensions with both of her parents, plus a brother she REALLY avoided. By contrast, my parents were absolutely devoted to and dependent on each other. In our family, “family” referred to just four people.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. My parents were somewhat similar to this, in that we were given to know that you absolutely did not ask for help outside the immediate family (and given the judgement doled out when you asked for help there, you didn’t much ask for help at all). We were expected to dutifully show up for the big family gatherings, but it would have been unthinkable to reach out to that group for assistance (although paradoxically, my dad is very connected to both siblings and cousins and has no problem expecting things from them).

      I was amazed once I was off on my own at college to discover that this is not how most of the world operates and that many people have families that cheerfully squish together to make room for someone brought in from the “outside”.

      I did not learn until I was an adult that in fact this is also how all the families of cousins I have operate too. I really don’t know why we were so different.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. My extended family was very important to me and my parents. As an only child I viewed my cousins like siblings. I also think that because my mom’s family had immigrated to the US around the time of the First World War, they were closer than other families who had immigrated earlier. My maternal grandfather immigrated to the US with his mother and 7 teenage/young adult siblings and they all lived within 20 miles of one another in Pipestone county. after they married and started their new lives. My maternal grandmother immigrated with her parents and sister in 1914, and they all lived in Pipestone county, too. They stuck together for survival at first, then out of familiarity and a shared history after that. My mother still had cousins’ reunions when she was well into her 80’s.

    My paternal grandfather had 12 siblings, and they all stayed in touch and knew each other’s children and spouses and their families. They didn’t always get along, but it was important for them to know that the others were up to and what they were doing. Most of them lived within 30 miles of one another in North West Iowa, around Rock Rapids. A few moved to North Dakota and Northern Minnesota. Great Uncle Herman may have argued with Great Uncle Albert over money and tried to shoot him, but they still talked on the phone and sent Christmas cards after Uncle Albert moved to Baudette and Uncle Herman had moved to the Twin Cities.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Ever since reading Vonnegut’s word “karass” in Cat’s Cradle, I have had a name for all the “family” beyond our blood relatives. Others have said it well above, but for me, these connections are as important as my bloodline, which, it seems, dies out with my sister and me – her son is adopted, mine is on the other side, and left no heirs. I’ve had to think a bit about this, and have concluded that if it were important in the cosmic scheme of things for this particular bloodline (combined genes of the Norwegian Britsons and the Swedish/Welsh Sterlings) to surivive – it would have. Mysteriously, it did not.

    The Hassing side survives through my step-son Mario. I wonder what would happen if we tried plugging step-relatives into the chart above!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. My best friend, who has been my best friend since we were in Grade One, is the closest thing to a sister I have. We have all decided that she will live with us when we are all retired and finally settled wherever we will land. I have no sisters and she has no other family to whom she is close and nothing to retire on despite working hard all her life, so we will find a workable situation that gives us as much privacy as possible while providing mutual support and companionship.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Because of dad being an adopted child, I didn’t grow up surrounded by his blood relatives. Mom’s family, of course, was in Ireland and England, so despite the fact that there were numerous aunts, uncles, and cousins, we didn’t really know them, but we definitely considered them family, although we rarely saw them.

    Nevertheless, we had all kinds of honorary aunts and uncles to whom we were not related by blood. Dad’s three “brothers” all had the title of uncle, and his “sister” Randi, for whom my sister is named, was auntie. Their mother, Petra, we always called farmor. In addition we had any number of other aunts and uncles. I think we called them that paired with their first names because that seemed more personal than addressing them as Mr and Mrs. followed by their last names, which is how most children addressed adults to whom they were not related in those days.

    I like mig’s “family of the heart” concept. Realistically people you spend time with and who are there for you in times of need and celebration, are the important relationships in your life. I have a couple of female friends who feel more like sisters to me than my sister.

    One of my friends is a black woman. She refers to practically all of her friends as brothers and sisters. I found this very confusing in the beginning, especially when she’d turn around and refer to her uncle Gordon. Why was Gordon only an uncle? I wondered. Turns out Gordon is actually her father’s brother, so hence, an actual uncle. All of these other brothers and sisters are “family of the heart,” and the brother/sister designation is to show solidarity. This practice is much more common among Blacks and Indians, in my experience.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Come to think of it, some of my folks’ college friends we called Aunt and Uncle, and we saw them often enough that their kids really feel like Cousins.

      Is “farmor” a common Danish title, or something else?


      1. Danes use a variety of words for grandparents. Bedstefar and bedstemor are two terms that a comparable to the English grandfather and grandmother; they don’t tell you which side of the family the grands belong to. It’s useful when you’re talking about grandparents in general. Farfar and farmor, and morfar and mormor, on the other hand tell you whether you’re talking about dad’s parents or mom’s parents. Far means dad, mor means mom.

        I have a Danish friend here whose family has that concept all screwed up. My friend is the mother of an adult son and daughter, who are both married and have one child each. Because the daughter was to first to have a child, that grandchild calls my friend mormor. When a couple of years later the second grandchild came along, the American spouse of the son, taught her child to call my friend mormor, which she’s obviously not. she’s that child’s farmor. It’s really pretty simple, I think, but something has been lost in translation in that family.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Our son and DIL have decided, with our consent, that I am Oma and Husband is Opa for our grandson. Son feels strongly about preserving our German heritage.

          Liked by 2 people

        2. My farmor was pretty great, and I’m sure you’d make a great one, Renee. On the other hand, I think you also have the potential to be a great mormor.

          Liked by 1 person

        3. Daughter insists she will never have children because of all the difficult children she works with. She is only 24, so she has lots of time to change her mind. Perhaps I may be a mormor, but only time will tell.


        4. That very much depends on the individual who holds that title, often one person holds both titles. You’d be farmor to your son’s children and mormor to your daughter’s.


  7. I’ve met people–primarily farm folks–who deeply identified with their extended family. When Europeans migrated to the US Midwest, they often came in groups including family groups. Extended family was extremely important, especially if they settled down near other such families. They had so much in common: a language, a religion, a job, the immigrant experience and an old-world culture. With extended farm families, the assumption was that their social life would mostly consist of sharing time with other members of their family. And since farmers used to have large families, family functions dominated the little spare time they had. If your family is sizable, every weekend will have a baptism, funeral, graduation or wedding. And some families celebrated family reunions that were amazingly large and carefully planned.

    Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.