Sacagawea was the epitome of a caring mother, carrying her newborn on a cradle board across half the country while traveling with Lewis and Clark 200 years ago.
Now another Shoshone woman is teaching Idaho State University students and the community how her tribe and other cultures nurture their infants in a “traditional indigenous parenting” class.
The customs are far different from the American approach of baby showers and day care.
“In today’s society, many of us are working and separated from the child from the beginning,” anthropology professor Drusilla Gould said. “They’re raised with the baby sitter. They could be neglected all day. We wouldn’t know.”
Gould said portraying the historic pattern of Shoshone parenting was important in her native community these days. She hopes that more young women will get involved.
“What brought this all about, we had problems earlier with babies found along roadsides,” she said. “We had young females who didn’t want to have babies. There was fear. We finally said something needs to be done. In our culture, we say babies are a blessing.”
Gould team-teaches the class with associate professor Maria Glowacka, a native of Poland. Glowacka said the instruction touched on the social importance of child-rearing as well as the biomedical aspects of those traditions.
Gould believes that social workers should learn more about tribal customs as they work with clients. Although the class now mostly attracts university students, she hopes to reach young mothers in the community.
The class dwells on “Deniwape,” a Shoshone word with no English equivalent but meaning a way of living in the natural order of the land.
“It’s all in the manner of how children are nurtured or raised. You are forming and shaping, being respectful of them,” Gould said.
Leading up to the birth, the mother’s maternal grandmother steps in to teach her about parenting.
“This is teaching at its finest,” Gould said. “The grandmother tells why things are done. The young lady is always learning. It’s the passing of knowledge from one generation to another.”
After the birth, the mother goes on a 30-day postpartum retreat overseen by the grandmother. The mother follows a strict diet to restore her physical and emotional balance.
“In our community, you have the mother and child together for the first 30 days,” Gould said. “Someday, this daughter will do the same thing.”
“Speech is different. We don’t have the ‘goo goo gah gah’ baby talk. We talk to them as adults, caress them with our words.”
Before and after the birth, the father is instructed in his responsibility for his family, Gould said.
Gould also includes a workshop on cradle boards, which are slung on a mother’s back. The mothers then lace the baby in, similar to a boot.
“It’s an extension of the mother’s womb. We see it as that,” she said. “Each time, the child is put on the board and then laced in. When the lace goes through each loop, there’s a prayer for the child. They are protected by those prayers.”
In the reading list for participants in the parenting class is the book “A World of Babies: Imagined Childcare Guides for Seven Societies” by professors Judy DeLoache and Alma Gottlieb at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
They detail the exotic parenting of seven cultures. In Bali, for example, many Balinese babies are not allowed to touch the ground until they’re 8 months old.
Closer to home, the Puritans treated their colicky babies with a broth made of the boiled entrails and skin of a wolf. They teethed their babies with a mix of hare brains, honey and butter.
While others’ parenting customs may sound bizarre to mainstream Americans, they generally address the infants’ needs, Gould said.
“We want to teach young people when they go through these times, they have to control their thoughts and emotions, which can affect the baby in a positive or negative way,” she said. “They’re teaching the baby to survive the obstacles.”