Uncle Silverback

Artwork by Calvin McCluskie

Artwork by Calvin McCluskie

Uncles are important in my family.

My mother had two brothers and my father had four, and uncles would hang out at our house, bringing doughnuts and helping with weekend chores.

In the Osage language the word for father is the same for uncle (in-dat-say). Meaning in language becomes an ant-hill: a bastion full of secret passages.

Uncles—and aunties—are important: with grave nuance they teach us how to respect our traditions.

As kids and budding adults we looked to our relatives to learn about our ways.

Now that my husband and I are both Silverbacks, folks in our workplaces look to each of us for wise counsel.

Our platinum locks suggest sagacity I feel I haven’t yet earned.

And it’s not the same as being a parent.

Having children makes you a parent—like it or not. Philosopher Louis Althusser would say that the social forces that create a family interpellate you as parent—just like a television advertisement interpellates you as consumer.

As my uncles and aunties intuitively knew, you sense when there are teaching moments.

But as a Silverback at work, I am surprised when someone asks my advice or wants to hear my thoughts.

I wasn’t paying attention the day I became worthy of offering exhortation. One of my students asked me this week to threaten her so she would feel compelled to complete her project.

Others have been generous in letting me know they remember something I once mentioned. A student I taught more than a decade ago recently emailed me:

It’s not often that an undergraduate student gets the chance to reach back to an influential professor. You may not remember me but you taught theory and my life has been theory every since.

I love hearing from former students and sometimes I hear from their partners:

It is clear you are a role model for her as an academic, and also as an advocate for Native American rights. Thank you for influencing the person I love in a positive way.

I guess I prefer a more nuanced approach.

So if you ask my advice, here it is:


And bring doughnuts.

The image of the gorilla is the work of artist Calvin McCluskie, and is from his father’s blog.



About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in american indian, communication, family values, Indian, native american and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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