The Joys(?) of Intercultural Marriage
The Joining of Two Cultures
Unless you are part of an intercultural relationship, you probably haven't considered what it would be like. I know I never did. Until I found myself engaged to a Native American, that is. My parents raised me to be very open to all people and all cultures. That's something a lot of people will claim to believe, but it's more rare in practice. My parents grew up in southern California, surrounded by many people and cultures from all over the world. The openness they had with people became part of my life despite having grown up in a very tiny redneck town in Oregon.
Because of my upbringing, I became involved in a project where I worked closely with Native Americans to learn their culture well enough to present it at a world event. When I moved away to attend college, my family wasn't surprised when I announced my engagement to a Native American.
Most people wondered if my husband was worried about meeting my family. He had no worries and my family liked him just fine. What friends didn't know was how terrified I was to meet his family. He is full-blooded Native and I was sure they would be upset that he was marrying a white girl. Our children would be "half breeds." I was shocked at how wonderful and supportive they were when they met me and how they welcomed me into the family since I know that's not always the case with intercultural marriages.
Nobody could have talked me out of marrying my man. Even if someone had warned me about how hard an intercultural marriage would be, I wouldn't have listened. I was sure that my respect for his culture was sufficient. There was nothing peculiar about my culture (I thought), but I don't think any of us really consider that our own upbringing is different than others around us. Even within the same race, religion, or geographic location, there are differences.
My advice to those considering an intercultural marriage - DON'T!
It sounds crazy, but it is so very hard. I was not used to the extended sense of family (that one was a plus). Customs regarding children were a little more challenging. From the proper naming of the child, to sending the dried up umbilical cord home to my mother-in-law to be buried, to special handling of things like the child's first laugh....lots of new things for this girl to learn. I thought I was keeping up with all of it rather well until I made some mistakes regarding cultural taboos.
When you get married, nobody gives you a little handbook on how to be a good Native American wife. I didn't get a list of what was taboo. How was I supposed to know that you're not supposed to disturb snakes? A garden snake got into our house and I scooped it up in a container to toss it outside. My husband freaked out! Old tradition would have required us to burn our house down. Thankfully, we got to keep our house, but he made me throw away anything that had touched the snake. The snake thing is supposedly derived from showing respect to snakes, but things got even worse when we cleared some foliage around our house and discovered some snakes there. My husband figured since I was White, I should gather all of them up and dispose of them. Doesn't sound too respectful to me. The irony is that I eventually found myself experiencing the very things that their people believe happen to you if you handle snakes - smelling snakes before you see them and having nightmares of snakes. Someone brought a snake to school for "pets" day and my kids touched them. My mother-in-law paid a lot of money to have a medicine man do a special ceremony to basically make things right in the universe again for us.
Things to Consider
Before you blend cultures, here is my advice on what you should think about and discuss with your partner:
- Gender Roles - What are the husband's duties? What are the wife's duties? My husband is from a matrilinial culture. Property and everything else pass through the woman's side. Men run the government, but the women own everything (technically). Women have major responsibilities in the home (that one was tougher for me).
- Children - Who names them? What kinds of names? How will they be raised? Who disciplines them? Is education a priority? Will both cultures be taught or just one? Do the kids think of themselves as multicultural, your culture, or your spouse's culture?
- Religion - Which religion will you practice? When we first got married, my husband had recently joined the same religion that I was. It wasn't what he was raised with and his commitment to the religion faded over time. He prefers to focus on the Native American spirituality. If you both belong to different religions, which religion will your children practice? Our children practiced my religion (since my husband technically belonged to it as well) and their dad encouraged them.
- Food - What foods do each of you prefer? Or hate? Or can't have? As the wife of a Native American, I have eaten parts of animals I never considered before - heart, kidney, lungs, liver, intestine, etc. Some religions have certain food restrictions you will need to respect. Even for people marrying within their own culture, we all have our own preferences when it comes to food.
- Taboos - Are there things you shouldn't do or say, that would offend your spouse's culture? What's taboo in your culture? If I had to just sit down and make a list, I would draw a blank. This one's really hard until something is done or said that upsets things. My in-laws have a big taboo about mentioning the names of those who have passed away or making comments or plans regarding yours or a loved one's death. I discovered this taboo while trying to research our family history/genealogy and later when I made a comment about "you'll understand when your mom dies..." Ouch!
- Power - Who has the ultimate say in decisions? Don't make any assumptions with this one. I'm not sure that whole "equal power" thing exists. I've seen some pretty strong cultural beliefs where the woman has the final say and others where the man does.
This is nowhere near every possible thing to think about, but it's a start. Early in our marriage, we had some rocky times and I discovered that my children would most likely be taken from me since they are Native American (based on old federal laws that prevented White people from taking Indian babies from their families to "save" them). Sometimes there are words or phrases that are off limits. Getting both families together is also an adventure!
Not All Bad
I can't complain about everything in our mixed marriage. I really do love their sense of family and their closeness to God in everyday life. Our family has participated in powwows and educational presentations over the years. I learned to make the dance outfits for my kids and even sang behind the drum group my husband was with for awhile. I put together my own dance outfit and did quite a bit of dancing at powwows. Within our Native American group of friends, people forgot that I was white and I was often asked to be the announcer for our presentations. I can honestly say that I feel more at home in the Native American culture than in my own. When I gathered with my own family for my mother's funeral, everyone kept commenting on how "Native" I seemed. As the years go by, that change in me has created a lot of distance within my White family.
Somehow, we've made our cultural merger work for over 20 years now. My belief is that my willingness to adopt my husband's culture is what has helped us survive. I genuinely love his family, his people, and his traditions. One or both of you will have to compromise to make the relationship work. Go into it with your eyes open and you too may survive the adventure.
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