About six years ago, Sarah Adams-Cornell and Kendra Wilson-Clements were discussing issues impacting Indigenous women and children in the Oklahoma City metro amidst an outbreak of suicide among Native youth. Mothers, aunts and members of the Choctaw Nation, the two women didn’t know then that their conversation about the unique needs of their community would evolve into a nonprofit organization that continues to grow, serve and inspire.
Matriarch was founded in November 2015 to empower Indigenous women, Two-Spirit and non-binary people and their children through education, community building and advocacy for positive change. Particularly in urban settings, away from their tribes of origin, there aren’t many spaces reserved specifically for Native women, shared Wilson-Clements, in which they can feel safe, learn and heal together.
“Our conversation about Indigenous mothers not having enough access to care and tools to help our children was the jumping off point,” said Adams-Cornell. “There are very learnable tools that we could have other sisters who are subject matter experts teach so we can save ourselves and help our children save themselves.”
As founders, Adams-Cornell and Wilson-Clements knew they wanted to ensure Indigenous women were teaching Matriarch’s programs. There was an immediate outpouring of women who wanted to lend their time and talents to the organization.
“I’ve been part of programs with non-Indigenous people trying to ‘save’ us without understanding what it’s like to be an Indigenous person,” said Adams-Cornell. “This has to be from our perspective and lived experience.”
Matriarch has established both an Oklahoma City and Tulsa chapter, and the groups meet twice a month to enjoy a meal and a speaker. Programs include subject matter experts presenting and discussing topics like domestic and sexual abuse education, cultural re-connection, suicide prevention, addiction recovery, financial planning, physical, mental and spiritual health education, job market preparation and healthy relationship guidance.
Occasionally instead of a speaker the programming involves an art project, like beading, making ribbon skirts or shawls, creating regalia or another culturally-relevant practice.
“This is nothing new; these are old ways, the ways of our grandmothers and great-grandmothers,” said Adams-Cornell of the structure of Matriarch’s programming. “We’re providing a space, time and organization around remembering the cultural ways that heal us.”
In connecting with other Indigenous women, Matriarch members often find healing. Wilson-Clements began her own recovery journey from alcoholism about four years ago, and she credits Matriarch with empowering her process. Continued programs and classes on addiction and recovery are integral for Matriarch members as nearly everyone in the group is affected by or knows someone dealing with substance abuse or recovery. Members are provided with solutions, resources and tools, whether substance abuse affects them or a relative.
“I understand I’m not alone,” said Wilson-Clements. “As Indigenous people we are experiencing traumas through our present differently but there is connection in generational, historical trauma.”
Another recent favorite program was about Two-Spirit relatives, led by a trans sister. Two-Spirit refers to a person who identifies as having both a masculine and a feminine spirit, and is used by some Indigenous people to describe their sexual, gender and/or spiritual identity. Matriarch members and youth asked thoughtful questions and discussed identity, all amidst the undercurrent that each is loved however they identify.
Matriarch members are encouraged to bring their children to meetings, and kids listen in to programming and participate in creative projects alongside their mothers and aunties. If a program or topic will be particularly difficult or not age-appropriate for some, the members are made aware ahead of time so each can determine whether her children will accompany her. Youth participants are encouraged to ask questions and engage in dialogue.
“We think it’s very important to make space for their voices,” said Adams-Cornell. “We don’t know what it’s like to be them and we recognize that and value them.”
By watching their elders prioritize mental health, healing and cultural connectivity, the children learn the power in finding and utilizing safe spaces and tools in their own lives. The founders hope that by disrupting patterns and course-correcting for their mothers, they are also providing children with brighter futures.
“We are watching cyclical generational trauma being broken,” said Adams-Cornell. “When mothers develop tools, that automatically trickles down to their children. We have to be diligent in making sure we have the safe space to heal and a support system through the really great, celebratory parts of life and through our struggles.”
Teaching self-advocacy has been critical for Matriarch members, including advocating on behalf of cases and legislation involving Missing Murdered Indigenous Women or People (MMIW/IP), educating themselves and others on the realities of domestic abuse
and sexual assault and prioritizing mental wellness as much as physical health.
Matriarch members were integral in making Indigenous People’s Day an official holiday in Oklahoma City. The group also seeks to create access to accurate and equitable education on Indigenous history, advocates for inclusion of Two-Spirit and LGBTQ+ community members and supports efforts to elect Indigenous and Women of Color to local, state or higher offices.
Intertribal sharing is another foundational aspect of Matriarch. One of the highest-rated programs by attendees was an Indigenous cooking class taught by Cherokee chef Nico Albert, who is also a Matriarch board member. Lively discussion ensued, with attendees sharing their tribes’ origin of food stories and learning from others. While there has been delight and enlightenment through these practices, the process has not been without challenges.
“We stubbed our toe in the beginning trying to get that intertribal piece and connection,” shared Wilson-Clements. “With 39 languages, customs, ceremonies and ways of doing things, it was a learning process in how to safely bring together and facilitate through so many unique perspectives, experiences and traditions.”
The group of women has provided each other a lot of grace as they’ve learned together. Sharing tribal stories behind animals, foods and customs has become a beautiful part of group members’ time together. Matriarch members are also keenly aware of the realities of cultural appropriation, and thus never participate in ceremonies or practices they shouldn’t by virtue of tribal rules and expectations, but rather share information respectfully and with the purpose of expanding knowledge and empathy.
“Intertribal connectivity makes us more well-rounded tribal citizens,” said Adams-Cornell. “Understanding why something is important to another people is a good life lesson to understand the value of others.”
All the individuals involved in Matriarch, from the organizers to speakers, are volunteers for the nonprofit organization. Members are selected through an annual application process. Potential members don’t have to show a Certificate Degree of Indian Blood or tribal card; the application is open to all women, Two-Spirit and non-binary people who identify as Indigenous. While organizers wish they could serve anyone interested, the application and selection process helps ensure numbers are capped to about 30 members each year based on the budget.
There is no charge to Matriarch members to participate, and the organization relies upon an annual fundraiser, grants and small donations to provide their programs and services.
“We never want finances to be a barrier to participation,” said Adams-Cornell.
What’s next for Matriarch
Adams-Cornell and Wilson-Clements have a shared vision for the future of Matriarch: to expand programming for Indigenous women in Oklahoma and throughout the country.
“We talk about a building where our elders and young ones can come hang out, even potentially residences for our ladies in transition who need a safe place,” said Wilson-Clements. “We could have classes, everyday programs, teachers and staff, educators and a heavy involvement in the community.”
And that’s just in Oklahoma. Matriarch’s founders have been approached repeatedly about starting chapters in other cities and states. They hope to soon develop a starter kit of sorts so those interested in starting their own chapters would have tips and guidelines from the Oklahoma group. The end goal is to serve as many Indigenous women across communities as possible so that the opportunities for healing, advocacy and service continue to have ripple effects.
“Matriarch is a place we can go and exhale, say a lot or say nothing, and receive love and healing,” said Wilson-Clements.
Learn more about Matriarch, how to get involved or how to make a tax-deductible donation at matriarchok.com.