Collective Care

By Martha Joy Rose

Collective Care by Pamela J. Downe is a significant and impactful read for those looking to expand their knowledge of kinship systems of care, as well as for those who aim to increase their understanding of Indigenous populations, and parenting traditions in Canada. Based on a five-year ethnological study, Downe elucidates the stories of thirty women struggling with healthcare issues and racial inequity. The book analyzes perspectives on motherhood, fatherhood, loss, love, and survival comparing Indigenous concepts with Westernized ideals.

According to Downe, interest in the Saskatchewan population featured in her work has been ongoing. News media and other sources have been drawn to the area, as the rate of HIV/AIDS is exponentially high. This problematic statistic is coupled with a difficult history of Euro-Canadian dominance, a tired tale of regulation, alien-imposed cultural norms (such as forcing children to adhere to Westernized language, clothing, and behaviors), and trauma that is repeated through subsequent generations. 

According to Downe’s analysis of ‘Syndemic Connections’– the kind of structural violence endemic to the Saskatchewan people’s experience– is the result of being generationally dominated. The population studied, has endured hundreds of years of impoverishment and colonialism. The circumstances surrounding their lived experiences has made them statistically more susceptible to illness, morbidity, prison time, and drug use, among other things.

Throughout the interviews Downe conducts, a picture emerges of women who struggle mightily for even the most basic balance in their lives while simultaneously facilitating each other as they raise their children. The hierarchical concept of the ‘mother who does it all’ is clearly an imposed value within this culture. As one of the interviewees explains in a moving passage, “Its not like we’re all the same. But we’re not that different, neither. And, when it comes to looking after our kids, we all know that we’re in it together” (P. 23). The nature of the kinship bond is that it supersedes bloodlines.

The definition of mother that emerges through the book is, ‘a mother is a woman who mothers.’ This inclusivity allows for individuals who may or may not have birthed the children they care for. Other identities and actions explored throughout the text include some historical analysis of kinship, and its importance; issues of assimilation along with the manner in which Westernized definitions and actions constrict family roles, as well as a stunning assessment of ‘Intensive Mothering’ in affluent Western American culture.

The book synthesizes a great number of both anthropological concepts and traditions and explores them from a Western as well as an Indigenous perspective. In many cases, the Western traditions appear, at least to me, problematic in multiple ways.

This book was not what I expected. I thought it would be a highly academic text about Indigenous populations and HIV/AIDS. While it is that, it is also a deeply moving account of the struggles of the people involved in Downe’s study, juxtaposed with the inspiration they impart.

There are pointed summaries of the social construction of motherhood that I found both illustrative and helpful. I highly recommend this book for both academics and laypeople interested in further exploring the concept of kinship systems as well as those who are looking to improve their understanding of cultural oppression and systemic bias in healthcare.

Collective Care: Indigenous Motherhood, Family, and HIV/AIDS. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. ISBN: 978-1-4875-8763-5 

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