This is part 3 of our 3-part series sharing stories from a few groups of indigenous peoples around the world who still potty their babies and do not use diapers.
Today we are going to cover some of the indigenous peoples of Arctica and the Americas.
I get asked this question all the time: do people do “elimination communication” in indigenous communities, or is it altogether something different?
Okay so let’s get on with today’s stories! I’ve hand-picked my faves from Laurie Boucke’s encyclopedic book, Infant Potty Training: a gentle and primeval method adapted to modern living. If you haven’t read it - do it this week!
I comment along with and read directly from Laurie’s book, specifically Part 4, Cross-cultural Studies - definitely get a copy of her book if you want to read the longer stories and even more from this trailblazing EC expert. She also has a shorter ebook available on Kindle - Infant Potty Basics.
Here we go! Please enjoy listening as you do the dishes or fold some laundry. :)
Infant Potty Training with the Inuit
Observations in Babies Celebrated note that the Inuit use a deep and warm hood as a baby bag. When the mother "feels that her baby has to urinate, she takes the child out of the hood, often with the help of another woman." On long trips, "she slips lichen or rabbit skin into her anorak to serve as a diaper. There is not one specific material that is always used - mothers take what they find, according to the season. In spite of the restrictions of the region, each woman is inventive enough to improvise solutions, which are then repeated if they work well. However, the baby is not always put into the mother's hood - in some areas in the East Asian Arctic, when the weather is nice and the women sit outside to sew or just talk, they slip their babies into their large waders. With only his or her head sticking out of these seven-league boots, the little one begins to discover the world."
Infant Potty Training in Canada - the Utku Eskimos
"The toilet training that is considered such a critical experience in the life of a kapluna [Caucasian] child does not appear to be a crisis for the Utku child, who from the time he is born is held over a can at appropriate moments: when he wakes, after (and sometimes while) he eats, before he goes to sleep, and in general whenever he shows signs of discharging. I did not observe the transition from this stage to the next, in which the child learns to call attention to his need for the can. Allaq told me that children learn a verbal signal by themselves, by imitating slightly older children."
Infant Potty Training in Bolivia - the Siriono
If a mother hears her infant fart or feels that he is about to defecate on her, she holds him away from her body so as not to be soiled, but about the only punishment that an infant is subjected to by defecating on her is that of being set aside for a while until she cleans up the mess. Children who are able to walk, however, soon learn by imitation, and with assistance of their parents, not to defecate near the hammock. When they are old enough to indicate their needs, the mother gradually leads them further and further away from the hammock to urinate and defecate.
Contact with urine is not regarded as harmful, and I frequently observed mothers who did not even move when babies on their laps urinated. Since no clothes are worn by either the mother or the child, the urine soon dries or can readily be washed off.
Infant Potty Training in Bolivia + Brazil - the Chácobos and the Matis
The information I'm providing on infant toilet training applies mainly to the Matis in Brazil and somewhat to the Chácobos in Bolivia. My impression is that the Amerindian method of toilet training is very casual, mainly a matter of handling the situation until a child can walk and take care of business on his own. Mothers are relaxed about elimination. "If a baby 'goes' inside the house, the mother simply cleans up after the child. As far as I know, women are the only ones who clean up after children. I have never seen fathers help in this regard. I do not recall seeing a mother get angry at a baby about elimination. Also consider that in the tropics, people tend to get diarrhea, so even adults often have little choice as to where they will go. Diarrhea is so prevalent that the Matis sing magic chants to prevent children from getting it. They chant special verses while slapping a child's buttocks with a grub. A typical chant invokes the child in question by name followed by, 'Show me your back so I can beat your rear end so you won't have diarrhea.'
Outdoors with the climate, bugs, etc., waste material all disappears in a matter of hours so there is no outdoor mess to worry about. Dogs also help clean up the excrement. This is reminiscent of Haudricourt's theory that dogs were domesticated because of their usefulness as scavengers and house-cleaners.
Children are visually exposed to excretion at an early age in forest-dwelling societies. One point to consider is that toddlers have more opportunities of seeing their mothers in action than in societies such as ours where people lock themselves in the bathroom and don;t take their babies along. Of course, women will sometimes hand their baby to someone in order to have privacy, but this is not always possible.
The Amazonian peoples I have lived with are very casual when it comes to mentioning excretion. No euphemisms are used such as petit coin in French. They just say something like, 'Wait a second, I'm going to shit.' If you meet someone on a trail and (s)he asks where you are going, you can answer, 'I'm going for a shit.'
The Matis live in long-houses while the Chácobo live in individual ones. The floors are either dirt or palm wood (which is full of holes). It does not matter at all if a baby eliminates in a dwelling. The Matis, like most (if not all) Amazonian peoples, bathe several times a day, perhaps another reason for not being uptight about elimination.
Supernatural beliefs play a role in toilet behavior. The most striking aspect of Amazonian toilet behavior has to do with the contrast between the extreme caution when it comes to adults and the very relaxed attitude in the case of babies. Grownups are very careful not to leave their feces lying around because it could be used against them by witches. (Some people such as the Machiguenga in Peru go as far as burying their feces). They are also very careful not to urinate on trails (even trails which are rarely ever used or miles from any house) because someone else might step on it and be harmed (their feet might itch). These considerations are important regarding adult defecation but barely come into play in the case of children.
Another ethnographic detail of interest is that during major rituals, i.e., tatooing ceremonies, the initiates are separated by gender, boys on one side and girls on the other, but each group must stick together as a unit for a while and only go out at night. One of the things they do collectively is going out for their daily defecation.
"The Cashinahua , living along the border of Brazil and Peru (mainly Peru), consider urine and feces as two of the five spirits of an individual. The other three are the eye spirit, body spirit and dream spirit. The urine and feces spirits are volatile, meaning they don't last long and certainly disappear after death."
Infant Potty Training in Canada - the Kwakiutl
"When it was old enough to talk, the mother or father would take the child out of the house and down to the beach to defecate. Somewhat earlier, it was taught to urinate in the chamber vessel, and this is said to have been readily accomplished without punishment. The child was taught the verb 'to urinate' and learned first to tell his mother his want and then go by himself. Children were not punished for wetting the bed; this, it was thought, would have had no effect since children do not know what they are doing in their sleep. They were, however, repeatedly asked to wake up in the night if they wanted to use the chamber vessel."
Infant Potty Training in Colombia - the Kogi
"Defecation, urination and breaking wind rather cause hilarity among the adults and older children, not with the object of ridiculing the baby, but rather because these acts are regarded as improprieties, which in the case of a baby who 'does not yet know,' are not of great importance. If the baby is outside the pouch and naked, frequently the mother gently massages his genital region. It is very common for babies to defecate or urinate while nursing. In this case, the mother nearly always gets up quickly and holds the baby at some distance in the air so that his secretions will not dirty her clothing. Also on such occasions, she looks for an old rag, either to wipe herself off or to put on her thighs to seat the baby on. In any case, the act of elimination at these moments is almost always followed by hasty movements by the mother, the breast being taken away, and frequently the definitive interruption of the nursing. The babies react with shrieks, but at the age of 3 or 4 months these accidents no longer occur, and they evidently begin the secretions." The mother teaches with words and gestures that it is bad to go in the house or in the presence of others. Punishment (exclamations of displeasure, slaps with the pouch or aggressive gestures) is used for accidents after 6 months. Full control is gained around 18-20 months.
Infant Potty Training in Venezuela - the Yequana
Jean Liedloff provides a brief but colorful glimpse into the toilet training attitudes of the Yequana in her 1977 book The Continuum Concept. Yequana do not wear diapers. Elimination by a baby is almost nonevent, except for the gleeful laughter that follows on occasional soaking. "When he wets or defecates, [his mother] may laugh, and as she is seldom alone, so do her companions, and holds the infant away from her as quickly as she can until he finishes. It is sort of game to see how fast she gets the worst of it. Water sinks into the dirt floor in moments and excrement is cleared away immediately with leaves. Later, when house training takes place, the toddler is chased outside if he sullies the hut floor."
I hope you enjoyed listening to these stories as much as I enjoyed sharing them with you. A big thank you to Laurie Boucke - please get a copy of her book and enjoy reading and seeing all the photos of these lovely historic accounts of indigenous pottying habits, as well as a history of the evolution of Western potty training habits.
What is the #1 biggest thing you got from listening to or reading today’s stories? Please share it in the comments below!
PS - here’s the video version of this episode in case you prefer to YouTube it. ;)
All quotes and images in this post are (c) Laurie Boucke, Infant Potty Training