Connectivity, Essay

Reimagining Native Motherhood

Lia Pa’apa’a

Apr 15, 2024

The Luiseño lands of Southern California have never been a place I have called home, but to teach my two children what it means to be Indigenous I first had to explore what it is to be a Luiseño mother living far away from my homelands on Yidinji lands in Australia. During this process I reclaimed, revitalized, and reimagined what it is to be a contemporary Luiseño mother. The reimagining was particularly powerful as it opened up creative license to explore and situate my experiences living in diaspora, and what that means to hold grief for connections lost or never formed. 

After I established a solid enough foundation for myself, I then wanted to support other Luiseño mothers during the most important stage of development for a baby and such a crucial time for mothers’ wellbeing: According to researchers Sarah Cusick and Michael Georgieff, the “first 1,000 days of life…is a unique period of opportunity when the foundations of optimum health, growth, and neurodevelopment across the lifespan are established. Along with my sister Olivia Chilcote, I decided to create a culturally specific online space for Luiseño mamas during those first 1,000 days. 

“There are times when I think Western practices contradict instincts, which exist for good reasons, so exploring, connecting, and occasionally redefining was really comforting.” 
Leah Valdivia

Together we researched ancestral practices that could help support our motherhood journeys and invited Luiseño mothers via social media. Four other mothers joined us. All of us were living outside of Luiseño territory and these monthly online gatherings quickly became a sacred space for connections to one another and to our culture. 

“The group helped me feel connected during a time of extreme isolation, not only to my Indigenous roots but also to other mothers,” describes Alejandra Martinez, an online participant and mother of two. “I feel like I learned a lot, especially about our culture that I was so detached from.”

The online meetings gave direction for research into Luiseño culture, including creation stories, cosmology, rock arts, motifs, and design. We found links to traditional cultural practices and our contemporary motherhood journeys in a space that didn’t judge us for not already knowing, living off-country, or not being connected in a way that we would like to be. 

A baby lying on a bed looks at a children's book being held by an adult hand.

Courtesy the author.

“I loved having an opportunity to explore motherhood through a non-Western lens,” says Leah Valdivia. “There are times when I think Western practices contradict instincts, which exist for good reasons, so exploring, connecting, and occasionally redefining was really comforting.” 

We met monthly over six months on Zoom for two hours, leading creative workshops coupled with research that linked the activity to ancestral and motherhood practices. These included appliqué, weaving, embroidery, and making mobiles. 

“One of the best things about the online format is that it allowed us to connect across such vast distances, which is probably more and more necessary to keep these cultural practices alive as time goes on,” Leah explains.

Including arts and cultural practices in our parenting journeys has had positive impacts on both mother and baby. 

“The group provided a support network where I could build relationships around exploring what it means to be a Luiseño mother through culturally relevant art-based practices,” says Olivia.

Alejandra agrees.

“It gave me an opportunity to be artistic and incorporate my children into my art which was super beneficial for my mental health,” she says.

Research has shown how the creative experience can serve as a catalyst for the expression of mothers’ issues, fostering an awareness of their situation and needs as well as serving for the exploration of attachment patterns and family dynamics, in a process that moves participants towards self- knowledge, mutual knowledge, and the development of autonomy and empowerment by questioning hegemonic norms of motherhood.

“Our group reinforced that being immersed in Luiseño culture at every life stage can empower and uplift us as Indigenous women.”
Olivia Chilcote

Arts and culture is the missing link in a holistic-health model for motherhood that often asks us to leave who we are at the door. It gives us the ability to reimagine what we need for ourselves and our children. My personal arts practice sits within the community arts and cultural development or community-engaged practice. This means at the heart of my work is collaboration, it is something that we do with and for communities, not to communities. It means that the art is also in the process and the community that is created and the relationships are the project.

Olivia and I mailed packages with all the necessary materials to each participant. We understood the exhaustion of having small babies and didn’t want to have any barriers to participation. All workshops were free and babies and children were welcomed.

“Our group inspired me to think differently and in new ways about Luiseño culture,” Olivia says. “It provided the opportunity to reflect deeply on my values as a Luiseño woman committed to raising the next generation of tribal leaders. Our group reinforced that being immersed in Luiseño culture at every life stage can empower and uplift us as Indigenous women.”

A baby leaning against a pillow looks at a card with a black fish drawing pictured on it.

Courtesy the author.

Having other contemporary Native mothers to connect with allowed us to talk, laugh, and cry together. 

“A sense of connection to other Native moms made a big difference for me as I navigated life as a new parent,” Olivia explains. “Since I was pregnant and became a mother during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, my matrescence experience was very isolating. Learning and creating together transformed isolation into community.”

As we came to the end of our 1,000 days the regular gatherings ended and we have all stayed in touch via social media. We all recognize that there is a continued need to meet again as we move out of the all-consuming baby stage and into childhood. My dream is to have the funding to gather face-to-face, where our children can play, and we can share a meal. Until then, the online space worked for us to create community during the hardest times of early motherhood.


Lucía Hervás Hermida, eds Ephrat Huss and Eltje Bos. “Arts-based methods to support and reveal new mothers’ and families’ experiences: a positive parenting and feminist approach.” Social Work Research Using Arts-Based Methods. Cambridge University Press, October 13, 2022.

Lia Pa’apa’a is a mama, textile artist, and creative producer who works within a community-engaged practice. Lia serves her communities by creating culturally and creative safe spaces for people to tell stories, learn, be empowered and build capacity and to explore creative and cultural practice. Lia also creates programming and content across a wide range of mediums including as an exhibiting artist, public speaker, and workshop facilitator.

Lia’s current work is focussed on supporting mothers and babies during the sacred time of the first 1000 days (from conception to age two). Lia is the co-creator of For Mothers that delivers community workshops and festival installations in the Cairns region of Australia.

Lia’s ancestors hail from Samoa and the Luiseño Nation of Southern California and her practice is informed by this. She seeks to revitalize, reclaim, and reimagine her culture for her and her children as a contemporary artist, community practitioner, and mama. She is committed to nourishing people through food, arts, culture and community.

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