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January 2002

Quotes and pictures from:
Women in American Indian Society
Rayna Green
National Museum of American History – Smithsonian Institution
Frank W. Porter III, General Editor
Copyright: 1992 – Chelsea House Publishers


       Certainly it can be safely said that there are areas and areas, and yet even more areas with regard to the Native American that are without qualification, misunderstood, deliberately fabricated, ignorantly being received and ignorantly passed on by others. First, by the initial “discoverers” of Turtle Island and from there to succeeding generations of Euros either trepidatiously stepping forth upon this continent, or remaining home doing whatever Euros did while sucking up those age’s versions of Science Fiction and Fantasy.

     The true nature and role of the Native American woman, it could be argued, is surely amid the largest of these misconceptions. Now, on the one hand, I can understand if not accept, the ignorance of the non-Native American; however, as I have grown older I have found that in more and more within ensuing generations of Native Americans are coming to less and less knowledge of their own heritage and history.Especially with regard to Honor, Respect, and, quite necessary, Role of the Native American woman within the fabric of Native American societies.

    In some small way, this article/page is here to perhaps, educate some, remind others, and just flat out set a few facts straight.

Joy Harjo-Creek

"The Blanket Around Her"

maybe it is her birth
which she holds close to herself
or her death
which is just as inseparable
and the white wind
that encircles her is a part
just as
the blue sky
hanging in turquoise from her neck
oh woman
remember who you are
woman
it is the whole earth

Lizzie Cayuse, Nez Perce, prominent tribal woman; accompanied Chief Joseph to the St. Louis Fair in 1904; picture taken 1903.  

Lizzie Cayuse, Nez Perce, prominent tribal woman; accompanied Chief Joseph to the St. Louis Fair in 1904; picture taken 1903.  

Paula Gunn Allen-Laguna/Sioux/Lebanese

"Grandmother"

Out of her own body she pushed
silver thread, light, air
and carried it carefully on the dark, flying
where nothing moved.

Out of her body she extruded
shining wire, life, and wove the light
on the void.

From beyond time,
beyond oak trees and bright clear water flow,
she was given the work of weaving the strands
into creation, and the gift of having created,
to disappear.

After her,
the women and the men, weave blankets into tales of life
memories of light and ladders,
infinity-eyes, and rain.
After her I sit on my laddered rain-bearing rug
and mend the tear with string.

     A fine insight into just how exaggerated and sensationalized the women were portrayed, and in viewing the picture shown below, I should not have to say just plain wrongly depicted, is this engraving done around 1595 by Adrien Collaert II after a work by Martin de vos. It is called: Personification of America and depicts a so-called Native American Queen. This work was originally done from reports by returning explorers and the like and not the on-the-scene witness, that is, the painter.Even so, I wonder what was really in the pipes they smoked while relating their experiences or envisioning what had been reported.

Personification of America

Personification of America

     Still, this basic idea of a Native American Queen endured for more than 200 years! All the background stuff disappeared, in time, and she became thinner, certainly bronze beauty of the skin of the Native American became…ah, whiter. As well, she eventually was metamorphosized into the Greek Goddess Minerva complete with tiara, or Diana, the goddess of liberty and war….either way, as has been proven over and over again: what was once Native American, be it right or wrong, is eventually supplanted by European ideals and if truth gets lost in the doing so, so what?

     Basically, these times boiled down to this: The vast majority of the first “new comers” were men, and as such were far more interested in making big bucks; and being the way they were, completely dismissed any notion that another people just might not view women in the same manner they and their own ancestors did. In short, without checking into it, or caring really, they simply transferred their home views and experiences onto the Native American women. How much in error, for the Ponca Leader, Standing Bear spoke with regard to his mother, Pretty Face: “…in her humble way, helped to make the history of her race. For it is the mothers, not her warriors, who create a people and guide her destiny.”

     The fact is, that while Native American women have been shown as "caretakers", be it of the family or the family's home-keeping, so-to-speak, they have far and away to long rarely been shown in their tribal life continuing roles of traders, farmers, artisans, and healers.

     And - at least in one documented case, entitled to wear a war bonnet. This instance was in the case of Minnie Hollow Wood, Sioux and is said to be at one time the only woman of her tribe so entitled. This came from taking part in combat against the U.S. Calvary. The picture below was taken in 1927.

Minnie Hollow Wood

Minnie Hollow Wood

"Long Division – A Tribal History"

Our skin loosely lies
across grass borders;
stones loading up
are loaded down with placement sticks,
a great tearing
and appearance of holes.

We are brought and divided
into clay pots; we die
on granite scaffolding
on the shape of the Sierras
and lie down with lips open
thrusting songs on the world.

Who are we and do we
still live?  The doctor
asleep, says no.

So outside of eternity
we struggle until our blood has spread off our bodies
and frayed the sunset edges.

It’s our blood that gives you
those southwestern skies.
year after year we give,
harpooned with hope, only to fall
bouncing through the canyons,
our songs decreasing
with distance.

I suckle coyotes
and grieve.

Helen Goes Ahead, Crow, time period unknown.

Helen Goes Ahead, Crow, time period unknown.

     Within the varied tribes of Native American peoples, their origin stories relate how it is the female figure that is or was responsible for the creating of human life, and in many cases to include animal life as well.All things are not exclusive nor inclusive, so it has to be said that there were Native American peoples whose tribal direction was centered around the male. Once this is realized, you can then see that the degree to which various tribes held or did not hold their women in respect and honor is quite often dependent on the degree of honor and respect given to "The Woman" in their varied creation stories.

      Still, the majority of Native American peoples held and hold the woman in high regard, believing as well that the female, as well as spirits, are central to everyday life and viewed in positive light. If you stop and think about it, you will realize that this overall view is in direct contrast to Judeo-Christian views, where the male is basically the end all - be all of a people and the the woman, Eve, was the one who listened to the evil serpent and thus exposed man to evil.And so, while the Native American handed down through countless generations the right, need and worth to hold the woman in great regard, the opposite has been true for the Judeo-Christians, their offshoots as well as many other "religions" around the world.

"The female figures in Indian creation stories are many and varied. yes">& The Cherokee say they came from Corn Mother, or Selu, who cut open her breast so that corn could spring forth, giving life to the people.For the Tewa Pueblo people, the first mothers were known as Blue Corn Woman, the Summer Mother, and White Corn Maiden, The Winter Mother. The Iroquois believe that they were born into this world from the mud on the back of the Earth, known as Grandmother Turtle. The essentials of life - corn, beans, and squash - were given to them by the Three Sisters.The Iroquois refer to the Three Sisters when giving thanks for food in every day prayers.The Apaches believe that they are descendants of Child of the Water, who was kept safe by his mother, White-Painted Woman, so that he could slay all the monsters and make the world safe for the Apache people. They pray to both White-Painted Woman and Child of the Water. For the Sioux, White Buffalo Calf Woman gave the people the gift of the Pipe, and thus a gift of Truth."

     Continuing on in the story, Napi makes many decisions which of course affect both the men and the women, but the chief of the women spoke not against any of them, and thus by doing so show that women are more skillful than men. Napi then made a decision that men and women be separated but the chief of the women decided that they should live together.

"Now at that time men were living real pitiful lives. The clothes they were wearing were made from stiff furs and hides.They couldn't make moccasins or lodges and they couldn't even keep themselves clean. The were nearly starved….they were very anxious to join the women."

       It is interesting to note that while some male-oriented peoples did hold women in high esteem, it was the peoples who practiced female-oriented "religions" who not only revered their women and treated them with respect, they also placed a huge amount of tribal responsibility and survival in their hands.

Arapaho women performing the Ghost Dance, ca.1893

Arapaho women performing the Ghost Dance, ca.1893

Paula Gunn Allen -Laguna/Sioux/Lebanese

"Womans Work"

Some make potteries
some weave and spin
remember
the Woman/celebrate
webs and making out of own flesh
earth
bowl and urn
to hold water
and ground corn
balanced on heads
and springs lifted
and rivers in our eyes
brown hands shaping
earth into earth
food for bodies
water for fields
they use
old pots
broken
fragments
castaway
bits
to make new
|mixed with clay
it makes strong
bowls, jars
new
she
brought
light
we remember this
as we make the water bowl
broken
marks the grandmother’s grave
so she will shape water
for bowls
for food growing
for bodies
eating
at drink
thank her.

Untitled, from series Coming into Power by Wolf Clan Cherokee artist, Shan

Untitled, from series Coming into Power by Wolf Clan Cherokee artist, Shan Goshorn 

Linda Hogan -Chickasaw

"Calling Myself Home"

There were old women who live on amber.
Their dark hands
laced the shells of turtles
together, pebbles inside
and they danced
with rattles strong on their legs.

There is a dry river
between the mandus.
its banks divide up our land.
Its bed was the road
I walked to return.
We are plodding creatures
like the turtle
Born of an old people.
We are nearly stone
turning slow as the earth.
Our mountains are underground
they are so old.
This land is the house we have always lived in.
The women,
their bones are holding up the earth.
The red tail of a hawk
cuts open the sky
and the sun
brings their faces back
with the new grass.

Dust from yarrow
is in the air,
the yellow sun.
Insects are clicking again.
I come back to say good-bye
to the turtle
to those bones
to the shells locked together
on his back,
gold atoms dancing underground.

    Sarah Winnemucca was of the Paiute people. She was very intelligent and was well received on the so-called Lecture Circuit, where she ever fought for Paiute Restoration. She was somewhat successful in bringing the American public's attention to the Paiute's problems, and thereby to a somewhat lesser extent the Native American's in general, however, showing the the political beast ever remains true to its nature, the U.S. Government refused to act on their behalf.Sarah Winnemucca died in 1891.

"The women know as much as the men do, and their advice is often asked…. The council-tent is our Congress, and anybody can speak who has anything to say, women and all. They are always interested in what their husbands are doing and thinking about.And they take some part even in the wars. They are always near at hand when fighting is going on, ready to snatch up their husbands and carry them off if wounded or killed…. If women could go into your Congress, I think justice would soon be done to the Indians."

 SARAH WINNEMUCCA 

Sarah Winnemuca 

Wendy Rose -Hopi/Miwok

“The Parts of a Poet”

Loving
the pottery goodness
of my body
settled down on floers
pulling gollen in great
handfuls; full and ready
parts of me are pinned
to earth, parts of me
undermine song, parts
of me spread on the water,
parts of me form a rainbow
bridge, parts of me follow
the sandfish, parts of me
are a woman who judges.

     Omaha tribal woman, Susan (Insta Theumba/Bright Eyes) LaFlesche, daughter of an Omaha chief Joseph LaFlesche (Iron Eyes), trained at the Hampton Institute and graduated from the Woman's Medical College in Philadelphia and was the first female Native American Physician.

      She fought extensively for Native American rights, and even though increasing ill health, she continued against incompetence and corruption of the government as well as against those laws that contributed to the dependency and demoralization of the Native American. She also spoke out plainly over the theft of Indian Lands and corrupt government agents.

Susan Laflesche (center) on Graduation Day, Hampton Institute, in 1886. To her left: George Gushotter (Sioux, Lower Brule) and Anna Dawson (Arikara); to her right: are Rebecca Mazaute (Sioux, Crow Creek) and Charles Picotee (Sioux, Yankton).  

Susan Laflesche (center) on Graduation Day, Hampton Institute, in 1886. To her left: George Gushotter (Sioux,Lower Brule) and Anna Dawson (Arikara); to her right: are Rebecca Mazaute (Sioux, Crow Creek) and Charles Picotee (Sioux, Yankton).  

"In American Indian societies on the whole, women may have had many rights withheld from them by the mainstream society, but they also perceived that even white females in America had been denied their rights. Thus, Indian women lobbied for reforms that benefited not only Indians but all races of women as well. It is no wonder that Indians became, in many ways, a central symbol for some reforms.

Suffragists such as Matilda Gage, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Alice Fletcher (another ethnologist who gained much of her knowledge from the La Flesche family) noted how the life enjoyed by Indian women differed from that of European and American women."

Emily Pauline Johnson; writer, artist and activist during the 18-1900's.

Emily Pauline Johnson; writer, artist and activist during the 18-1900's.

Paula Gunn Allen -Laguna/Sioux/Lebanese

“Madonna of the Hills”
She kept finding arrowheads
when she walked to Flower Mountain
and shards of ancient pottery
drawn with brown and black designs - -
cloud ladders, lightning stars and rainbirds.

One day
she took a shovel when she walked that way
and unburied fist-axes, manos, scrapers,
stone knives and some human bones
which she kept in her collection
on display in her garden.

She said it gave her
a sense of peace to dig and remember
the women who had cooked and scrubbed
and yelled at their husbands
just like her. She like, she said,
to go the spot where she’d found
those things and remember the women
buried there.

It was restful, she said,
and she needed rest . . .
from her husband’s quiet alcohol
and her son who walked around dead.

     Alice Fletcher spoke, in 1888, before the International Council of Women, noting that an Indian wife never submits "entirely" to her husband:

 

"Her kindred have a prior right and can use that right to separate her from him or protect her from him, should he mistreat her….not only does the woman (under our white nation) lose her independent hold on her property and herself, but there are offenses and injuries which…would be avenged and punished by her relatives under tribal law, but which have no penalty or recognition under our lawas… At the present time, all property is personal…a wife is as independent in the uses of her possessions as is the most independent man in our midst….While I was living with the Indians, my hostess one day gave away a very fine horse….I asked, ,will your husband like to have you give the horse away?….I tried to explain how a white woman would act, but laughter and contempt met my explanation of the white man's hold upon his wife's property….As I have tried to explain our statutes to Indian women, I have met with one response. They have said, "As an Indian woman, I was free, I owned my home, my person, the work of my hands, and my children could never forget me.I was better as an Indian woman than under white law."

     How starkly different was the treatment and view of the white women during this basic same time period? Nancy Lurie, anthropologist and adopted Winnebago wrote:

"Whether the cosseted darling of the upper class or the toil-won pioneer farm wife, the white woman was pitifully dependent through life on the whims and fortunes of one male, first a father and then a husband. Bereft of virtually any political rights, she also lacked the security of a tribe who would then be committed to care for her if she were orphaned or widowed.Traditionally the poor white woman was left with the denigrating embarrassment of accepting charity."

Suzette La Flesche, sister of Susan

Suzette La Flesche, sister of Susan

Joy Harjo -Creek

"Remember"

Remember the sky that you were born under
know each of the star's stories.
Remember the sun's birth at dawn, that is the
strongest point of time.  Remember sundown
and the giving away to night.
Remember your birth, how your mother struggled
to  give you form and breath.  You are evidence of her life, and her mother's, and hers.
Remember your father, his hands cradling
your mother's flesh, and maybe her heart, too
and maybe not.
He is your life, also.
Remember the earth whose skin you are.
Red earth yellow earth white earth brown earth
black earth we are earth.
Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their
tribes, ,their families, their histories, too. Talk to them,
listen to them.  They are live poems.
Remember the wind.  Remember her voice. She knows the
origin of this universe.
Remember that you are all people and that all people
are you.
Remember you are this universe and that this
universe is you.
Remember all is in motion, is growing, is you.
Remember language comes from this.
Remember the dance that language is, that life is.
Remember
to remember.

     First came the Society of American Indians, founded by Doctors Charles Eastman and Carlos Montezuma. It is true that this particular organization was male dominated; however,women took many active roles within it as well. These women were just as intelligent and educated as the two doctors mentioned above.Some of these women included: Nora McFarland (Carlisle Indian School), Rose La Flesche (Omaha Indian family), Alice Denomie (Chippewa) and Marie Baldwin (attorney and suffragette). However Gertrude Bonnin was the first woman to appear on the society's board of editors.This Society ultimately failed.Was the failure due to the male dominated leadership, who can say? However, it was Gertrude Bonnin who founded the National Council of American Indians.

Representatives of the National Council of American Indians around 1926 - Gertrude Bonnin is the third woman from the right.

Representatives of the National Council of American Indians around 1926 - Gertrude Bonnin is the third woman from the right.

     It is a sad commentary, that somewhere along the line, as in many cases, Native Americans have absorbed some of the lesser qualities of non-Indians. In this case, males have eventually supplanted the leadership of this organization to great if not all extent, and to the point that now it would seem that like America's own political houses, they seem more intent on arguing self-interests and defeating any proposal that does not stem from their own origination whether it be good for the overall welfare of Native American peoples or not. It has gotten so bad, that many will not admit, or even downright deny that the organization was founded by "a woman" or was ever headed by one. I find this deplorable, as well as gravely in error, for the exclusion of the Native American women's abilities in leadership is one of the most debilitating actions that have kept the Native Americans "down", and "down" is where they will remain until "she" again recognized and invested as Native American history shows her rightful place to be.

      It can be argued until hell freezes over, that other race classes in America have risen and they are male dominated; however, that does not wash in this laundry.Those other race classes came from a history of such…Native Americans do not.As well, if you look, you will see that even they in this modern day have awoken to the fact that "their women" are in fact a necessary ingredient to the raising of their races fortunes as well as how a country perceives them.

Sue Williams, Sioux, first Native American woman to argue a case before the United States Supreme Court, 1988.

Sue Williams, Sioux, first Native American woman to argue a case before the United States Supreme Court, 1988.

Ohoyo, American Indian Women's Advocacy Organization; Advisory Board Members in 1983 - seated left to right: Ruth Arrington (Creek), Delores Two Hatchet (Comanche), Joy Hanley (Navajo), and Shjrley Hill Witt (Mohawk).  Standing left to right: Ethel Krepps (Kiowa), Rayna Green (Cherokee), Owanah Anderson (Choctaw), Jackie Delahunt (Sioux), Ada Deer (Menominee), Marjoire Bear Don't Walk (Salish-Chippewa), and Betty Crouse (Seneca).

Ohoyo, American Indian Women's Advocacy
Organization; Advisory Board Members in 1983 - seated left to right: Ruth Arrington (Creek), Delores Two Hatchet (Comanche), Joy Hanley (Navajo), and Shjrley Hill Witt (Mohawk). Standing left to right: Ethel Krepps (Kiowa), Rayna Green (Cherokee), Owanah Anderson (Choctaw), Jackie Delahunt (Sioux), Ada Deer (Menominee), Marjoire Bear Don't Walk (Salish-Chippewa), and Betty Crouse (Seneca).

Diane Burns (Chemehuevi/Ojibwa), poet.

 

Diane Burns (Chemehuevi/Ojibwa), poet.

 

HEYA!

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