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Understanding Indigenous Culture in North Dakota Series: Indigenous Family Kinship

Kinship is at the heart of Indigenous society. The notion of family in Indigenous culture is closely tied to the theme of kinship and connectedness. Irrespective of culture, family is the foundation from which one gains emotional and psychological support. This is true of Indigenous communities, with family standing as a form of spiritual, cultural and emotional guidance through life. It is therefore pivotal to the wellbeing of Indigenous people.

In the kinship setting, family structures are pivotal to identity formation, understanding one’s own spiritual and cultural belonging, and assist in establishing strong links with community. Ultimately, family and kinship are a cohesive force that bind Indigenous people together. The kinship system determines how indigenous people relate to each other, as well as their roles, responsibilities and obligations to one another, the universe, ceremony, land, animals, plants and additional natural resources. Indigenous kinship requires that the dynamic between child and parent is one of equality, understanding and truth. Kinship is not typical of non-Aboriginal families, as kinship rejects the notion of the nuclear family. Traditional kinship structures remain important in many Indigenous communities today.

Attachments, kinship, and family tell us who we are and where we come from. They give us a sense of dignity, a sense of belonging, right from birth. In Indigenous cultures, family units go beyond the traditional nuclear family living together in one house. Families are extensive networks of strong, connective kinship; they are often entire communities. If a child is orphaned or if their biological parents are unable to care for them, the broader family takes over the primary rearing of that child. Instead of having one mother, the child could have several maternal figures. But if a child is taken away from their parents, their extended family, their community, they suffer multiple losses.

Tribal nations, including those within North Dakota, are often made up of clan groups, and within these clan groups are family groups that often share a kinship system and common language (based on either patrilineal or matrilineal lines of decent). Traditionally, indigenous families were made up of a collaboration of clan groups, however in today’s terms this is known as ‘extended family’.

“Who’s your mob” or “Who’s your clan?”, this is a typical line of questioning to inquire where do you belong and who your family is. This enables each to place the other and to learn what to expect.

Red Basket, Dr. Kathy Froelich, an MHA elder and CREA Indigenous Culture Coordinator suggests this classroom activity to educators: “We are more alike than we are different.”

Goal: Students will think about the question, What is family? and create drawings of their own family structures using images only.

The teacher will use the classroom promethium board/Smart Board to show images of families (multigenerational) and talk about their family. Using post-it notes, students will write one thing that makes their family unique.

The teacher will provide markers, crayons, and paper. Students will make family drawings. Teachers will encourage students to compare how families are different and similar.

SS-1-OSEU-4-Kinship-Terms.pdf (

· A nation of families: traditional indigenous kinship, the foundation for Cheyenne sovereignty

· How Kinship Instills Character and Values in Indigenous Families

· Aboriginal Culture: Kinship

· (Teacher information)

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