In the early summer of 2019, Amanda Cobb-Greetham gathered for a potluck with several Native American women of Norman to discuss forming a fundraising group to help feed children in need.
The group called themselves the “Auntie Project,” hoping to be just that for children in need: aunties. The Auntie Project’s first initiative is to raise money to feed children affected by the conflict at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“Our first meeting was on a Tuesday. We were a 501(c)(3) by Friday afternoon at 5 o'clock with a bank account. People said that was impossible — it is not impossible,” said Cobb-Greetham, president of the Auntie Project, member of the Chickasaw Nation, OU professor and department chair of Native American Studies.
Although it varies by tribe, aunties play a specific role in the lives of Native American children. They do all the things a mother does, as far as raising and mentoring their families, feeding them, mentoring them and loving them.
“They are present, and they're a presence,” Cobb-Greetham said. “They're women in my life who have provided mentorship, but they're just mostly there. They give you that feeling of security that there are these people in the world who love you.”
The issue that brought the women together was a jarring development regarding the treatment of immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.
A few weeks before the Auntie Project formed, the Department of Health and Human Services announced that over 1,000 unaccompanied migrant children would be transported to Fort Sill Army Base in Lawton, Oklahoma.
This announcement was all too familiar for Native Americans in Oklahoma, said Gloria Tallbull, research scientist at OU’s Center for Applied Social Research and a member of the Cheyenne Nation.
“For Native communities, Fort Sill is very negative to us,” Tallbull said.
This negativity stems from Fort Sill’s history as a location for the forced assimilation of indigenous children and as an internment camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II. It was a Native American boarding school beginning in 1891, and thus a site of immeasurable loss of Native culture, Cobb-Greetham said. Children there were prohibited from speaking their native languages and were culturally distanced from their parents and traditions.
Fort Sill is also located on the ancestral land of the Apache, Kiowa and Comanche people.
“It touches your heart because you know the history there,” Tallbull said.
Knowing the painful effects of generational trauma, Tallbull, Cobb-Greetham and Native American women from various Oklahoma tribes wanted to do something tangible to aid these children, Tallbull said.
“One of the aunties is a veteran and was stationed at Fort Sill,” Cobb-Greetham said. “And the general feeling was family separation leads to generational trauma. That is something that Native communities have experienced over and over again.”
These women had something in common with the children at the border: first-hand accounts of the suffering caused by separated families, boarding schools, forced removal and relocation.
“We felt that if these children were going to be at Fort Sill, if Fort Sill was going to be used in this way again ... wouldn't it have been nice, in our own histories, if our ancestors and relatives and family members who were in places like that ... had some aunties nearby looking out for them?” Cobb-Greetham said.
The deep connection between aunties and Native American children makes the trauma that migrant children are currently experiencing painfully relevant for the women involved in the Auntie Project. This connection is what drives them to make change in migrant children’s lives.
“In my tribe, we don’t have a word for auntie ... they just call me 'Mom,'” Tallbull said. “Aunties are your second mom.”
Trinity Guido, president of OU’s chapter of the Native American sorority Gamma Delta Pi, knows first-hand the importance of the support aunties provide.
“If it wasn’t for the love they gave me, I wouldn’t be here at this school today,” Guido said. “I would probably be on the streets somewhere or dead because of the cyclic dysfunction that I come from.”
Guido is a member of the Delaware Nation of Oklahoma and is also Kiowa, Comanche, Caddo and Fort Sill Apache. She was raised by her grandmother after her mother passed away when she was 7, and after her grandmother died, her aunt stepped in to continue raising her.
A mother herself, Guido relies on her best friends and sisters to serve as aunties for her two sons.
“If something were to happen to me, I know they’d be there for my kids,” Guido said.
For the women of the Auntie Project, being an auntie is a vital facet of their respective tribal cultures, and in this crisis it means fundraising to bring hope to migrant children through feeding them.
Since a recent drop in the number of migrant children caused the facility to be put on hold, no children are being held at Fort Sill currently, but the facility is still prepared to hold them if needed, Tallbull said.
The Auntie Project, in partnership with the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, is fundraising this year to supply food to migrant children at the border and, if need be, at Fort Sill.
The organization hoped to work with the Department of Health and Human Services, but Tallbull said the department was not interested.
“Battles over policy are long, but in the meantime, children have immediate and material needs,” according to the Auntie Project’s website.
Immigration reform is a hot issue in politics right now, but not one that has been conducive to quick legislative conclusion.
This is precisely why the organization opted not to align itself with any political or religious organizations. Avoiding institutional partnership, aside from other service groups like the food bank, is what the group hopes will reduce barriers between them and positive change for immigrants, Tallbull said.
“Any other type of affiliation or identity diminishes or detracts or distracts from our mission: serving children in need, period. Kids first,” Cobb-Greetham said. “Any time you're attached to something else, people get tangled up with it. They can't hear what it is that you're doing, or why. And this is about the mission. It’s about being human in the world.”
It’s a strong priority to these women that they maintain the true purpose of being an auntie, as Cobb-Greetham said, by “being a presence.”
While these women are not senators, representatives or wealthy beneficiaries, and they are not physically with the children at the border, the power they hold is love — and lots of it.
“Aunties all over the world have been reaching out to us, predominantly from North America, but then some others who just read about it,” Cobb-Greetham said. “And they’re like, ‘I understand this, I feel this, I resonate with this, I’m an auntie, too.’”
The Auntie Project has been official for less than six months, and it has already raised $10,000 toward its first initiative, Cobb-Greetham said. But the organization hopes to create more initiatives for children in their communities or elsewhere who are in need of an auntie.
“The auntie perspective is: The whole world is our backyard, right?” Cobb-Greetham said. “A child in need is a child in need.”