The Auntie Effect

Do you have an Auntie? Someone who is there for you in a way that other family members are not? A person you can confide in and ask for wisdom from because they are living life differently than your parents? I am Auntie to 32,000 nieces and nephews who have adopted me on Instagram. I’m not sure exactly how the community grew to be what it is, but I have accepted it and feel honored that so many look to me in this light. Most people reading would be shocked and surprised, or say something along the lines of, “She must not be their real Auntie.” Culturally, though, yes, I am their “real” Auntie.


I am a mixed race Indigenous woman from the Mohawk and Lakota Nations. I was born and raised in the Bay Area of California, and eventually moved to where I reside currently, the Rosebud Reservation in Mission, South Dakota. While I am not from Rosebud, my partner and I have established our family in the community among our Lakota relatives. We live here on a small 10-acre ranch in a trailer home we have made very comfortable, with our two kids and nephews. I take a lot of pride in the fact that I have made my home into the main spot for my kids and nephews to feel at peace, where they bring their friends to, and where they come for large meals at a community table. We have become the home base for our family, and for me, that ties very deeply to our cultural understandings of being an Auntie to the community.


In both my Mohawk and Lakota cultures, the term Auntie, or “Tunwin,” is not a matter of blood per se. It’s a cultural responsibility to help raise, love, and parent a child or youth in the community. When I tell someone that I am their Auntie, I am telling them that I will be a module of tough love, teasing, and trustworthiness to them. I am Auntie to so many people because they follow me through the social media platforms of Instagram and TikTok. I have 32,000 people who follow me on Instagram and 88,000 who follow me on Tiktok. They’re there with me for multiple reasons; they are learning, they are seen, affirmed, and recognized in their cultures, and they are finding a sense of community and family in the posts, stories, and interactions with the community on my pages. What was most surprising to me, though, was how apparent it was that calling myself their “Auntie” held a great deal of weight and meaning for them. This applies to both my Indigenous and non-Indigenous followers. They feel a responsibility to me and I feel a responsibility to them.

 

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Corrine Rice-Grey Cloud and her son, Hunter, and daughter, Emma. Photo by Corrine Rice-Grey Cloud.


On any given day, my messages, texts, and kitchen table are filled with nieces or nephews who seek that loving guidance and attention from a mother-like figure they respect. Some mornings I have as many as 130 messages to respond to, each of them important. Indigenous youth face unique disparities, more so than any other racial demographic, with issues like eating disorders, depression, drug addiction, and suicide. This is often caused by a lack of programs or proper support in their communities, and these cases have been amplified by the pandemic. Therefore, many youth turn to social media to find support. While I am not a therapist and do not pretend to be, I am experienced enough in life that I feel comfortable being there to listen to and validate the feelings of many of these young people who call me Auntie.


The traditional responsibilities of Aunties in our communities are not much different: offering support and a shoulder to young ones, and assisting in intimate ways with raising the children in the clan, or Tiyospaye. I often feel a sense of sadness when I see that in some non-Indigenous communities, some Aunties have been cast aside or are seen as a burden, rather than a gift. So much knowledge and experience live in their souls, and I wish they could be honored and listened to within their own families and communities the way we do traditionally.


There is much that goes into being an Auntie and the responsibility is great. Mohawk communities are matrilineal, and culturally we view our women as our leaders. Matriarchs in our communities are highly respected and looked up to, and we have the loving responsibility to be there for our communities in return. It is joked about that our youth will often take the advice or guidance of an Auntie over the advice or guidance of a parent, and so, some parents send that Auntie to the youth because they know her word will be taken more seriously and given more weight.

 

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Corrine Rice-Grey Cloud standing fierce in her regalia, a silver fox fur and Parfleche belt made of rawhide and hand painted by Greg Grey Cloud. Photo by Corrine Rice-Grey Cloud.


I take this into consideration when I am interacting with my own Aunties. I can recount the many times they have told me something I’m sure my own parents have said before, but here I was taking it more seriously and listening more intently. Once when I was younger, maybe 16 or so, one of my loving Aunties noticed that I was worrying very deeply about what my friends were saying about me. I had done something that hurt a close friend and was feeling the weight of guilt after having apologized multiple times for my wrongdoing. This Auntie saw me sulking at the dinner table at a family event and asked me what was wrong. I told her, and how I had apologized many times but was still punishing myself for what I had done. I expected her to console me, or to reassure me that I had done the right and proper thing to mend that relationship. Instead, she asked, “Have you changed your behavior?” I looked up. “What?” She folded her hands on her lap and looked down at me through her glasses. “Have you changed your behavior? Words mean nothing, Corinne. Show them you’re going to do better. You’ve broken trust, it will take work to mend it. Until then, shoulder that guilt. It’s part of your work to feel it.” I was taken aback. She was right, of course. I had apologized, but had centered my own pain instead of changing my behavior. My own mother had attempted to say something similar to me, but I was defensive. So why, when my Auntie said it, did I take it more seriously? It’s that Auntie effect.


Aunties teach us far more about ourselves than anyone else can, and they humble us mercilessly. I feel a sense of protectiveness over these Aunties in my life, and so I honor them and care for them at community events or family gatherings. I make sure they are fed first and that they are comfortable, and check in often to be sure they are laughing and enjoying themselves. They care for me, and I care for them. I learned how to be a good Auntie from watching them, from learning from the women who have taught me my language and have cooked for me. My mother showed me how to be a strong, independent woman at any phase of life. My grandmother taught me how to speak loudly and confidently. My sisters rally in support of each other at all times. Indigenous women give and breathe so much power, resilience, and wisdom, and these women in my life have made me the fearless Indigenous woman and Auntie I am today.

 

— Corinne Rice-Grey Cloud (Mohawk and Lakota) is the CEO of Rice Consulting LLC, and a social media influencer, journalist, and educator on Native issues. She has been published in the Huffington Post, Al Jazeera Plus, the Gucci zine Chime for Change, and has appeared in PopSugar’s Top 20 Parent Influencers, BuzzFeed’s Bad Ass Single Moms, and Parade Magazine’s 25 Inspiring Indigenous American Activists. Follow Rice-Grey Cloud on Instagram and TikTok @misscorinne86.

 

Top photo: Left: Corinne Rice-Grey Cloud (left) and her cousins at Red Lake, MN, on the Red Lake Indian Reservation. Photo by Nedahness Rose Greene.
 

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