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A Death in the Family Anoints a New Matriarch: Me


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A Death in the Family Anoints a New Matriarch: Me

Commentary by Becky Tallent | FāVS News

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It hit me the other day: With my mother’s death, I am now the senior woman in my family.

In Native cultures, that is a massive deal. Aunties are all-powerful, they are the wise women, the matriarchs who carry traditions forward. For the woman, it is actually a very strange combination of respect and familiarity with family members.

How did this happen? I’m not ready to be a wise woman, there is still too much to learn.

In all honesty, I subconsciously felt the shift during Mom’s memorial service: All my relatives were suddenly being deferential. The minister paid attention to me over my brothers, giving me first option of choices in the order of service. One of my nephews suddenly started calling me “ma’am.”

But the status change didn’t hit me until a couple of days later.

Not that I mind my age, but in the words of Spiderman: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Also, the sudden deference and automatic respect is a bit unnerving. I’ve always just been one of the “knuckleheaded kids”; not so much now.

Taking a breath. The upside is I now get to be the family storyteller. I get to remind us of who we are, where we originated plus tribal stories of creation and history. That part is cool.

Another nice part is I get held in respect by the family members who follow tradition, who reverence our history and elders. I also get to help family members who were not raised traditionally to discover our history, our past and why we do the things we do. Bringing a family member back into the fold is an exciting experience.

Settling disputes and helping people make life decisions, er — not so much. But it is part of the package.

Like all families, we have our disagreements. We have some who were raised or rediscovered our culture while others have ignored or denied it. We have some people who want material things and others who are much more concerned with the spiritual. It is a difficult tightrope to walk between the different sides. It is not something I look forward to in the years ahead.

Perhaps the best part of this new status is I know the term “auntie” is also (significantly) a term of endearment. There can be a true fondness associated with the person. I have many aunties in my past whom I have loved dearly as they taught me the things I must now teach younger generations.

It makes me realize even my fearsome Auntie, who we all respected, but who terrified us, must have felt when she became the matriarch. For better or worse, I felt myself channeling that particular Auntie when explaining something to a niece the other day.

A new discovery: you may or may not become your parents, but in Native cultures you can become your auntie.

What will be some of the lessons? Primarily one of respect. Now I realize why it was stressed so much to me that we respect other people, even those with whom we disagree. Civility and respect go a long way to solving many problems and bringing peace.

Also, patience, a lesson from my great-grandmother. Sometimes we simply need to wait, not rush for an answer. As a younger woman, I wanted answers “now!,” not realizing the fullness of time often brings much more clarity and understanding.

Neither of these will be popular with the younger generation, at least at first. But hopefully they will understand that, like them, I am new at this status and need time (like they do) to adjust.

In the meantime, wrapping my head around this new status is very strange. I just hope I can eventually adjust to being called “ma’am.”

Becky Tallent
Becky Tallent
An award-winning journalist and public relation professional, Rebecca "Becky" Tallent was a journalism faculty member at the University of Idaho for 13 years before her retirement in 2019. Tallent earned her B.A. and M.Ed. degrees in journalism from the University of Central Oklahoma and her Educational Doctorate in Mass Communications from Oklahoma State University. She is of Cherokee descent and is a member of both the Indigenous Journalists Association and the Society of Professional Journalists. She and her husband, Roger Saunders, live in Moscow, Idaho, with their two cats.




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Lynn Kaylor

Your words ring so so true. I suspect that you’re not just a leader for your family because of your new senior position. You’ve demonstrated your wisdom here at FaVS again and again. Blessings.

Becky Tallent

Thank you so much!

Charles McGlocklin

I have taken the role of patriarch very seriously for the past 2 decades, not because it was tradition but because I remembered my grandfather and my respect for him. I am also blessed with a wife that defines what a matriarch is.
It is a 2nd marriage for both of us. She brought 3 sons to add with my 2 sons. Both of my wives are Filipina.
Neither her or I differentiate between sons. It is only when someone asks why the last names differ that it is ever mentioned that they are step. The brothers, sisters and cousins are all one family.
The same for our 5 daughters, 3 white, 1 Filipina and 1 hispanic. They are daughters, not daughter-in-laws.
Every one of our sons and daughters have lived with us as married adults except the oldest who didn’t get married until he was 44. I was honored to officiate the wedding. I emphasized that it was a uniting of 2 families, her daughters were equal to our grandchildren.

As matriarch and patriarch, we set the tone.
We babysit, help with home and yardwork, display an attitude of service and sharing to others. Our home is the one our daughters families love to come to. Since we own the house between 2 of our sons, 2 daughters and 4 grandchildren live, and the other 3 families less than 15 minutes away, it is our love and respect for each other that draws even neighbors and the fact that we are a multi generational, multi-cultural family that even naghbors and their children find welcoming.

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