Recently I took a class at the University of Maine on Gender and Religion, which helped me to better understand why women are so angry about the past. I learned that the women born into the “religions of the books (the Bible, the Q’uran, the Torah) have clearly suffered more over the years as a consequence of religion than have the indigenous women of North America. This was certainly the case in China and India, as well. Pre-Christian North American indigenous society was more flexible in gender relations than these other cultures. Women had more choices. There was not necessarily only one right way to do things.
Contemporary aboriginal women are remembering the power and knowledge of their maternal ancestors. For example, the words of a song, “Okisikôwak,” written and performed by the indigenous women’s music trio, Asani, enunciates these memories:
Those very same hands stroke the face of a child
Warrior within, not meek or mild
Every step that she takes is clearing the way
Inspiring a change, for generations today.
Women were seen as warriors, every bit as much as men. During the worst periods of government oppression of aboriginal people, Shalin Jobin tells how the women kept their knowledge and power alive through the stories they carried and passed to future generations (see Chapter 2, written about her Cree ancestors in Kermoal, N., Altamirano-Jiménez, I., & Altamirano-Jimenez, I. (2016). Living on the land: Indigenous women's understanding of place. Edmonton, CA: Athabasca University Press). Jobin writes how the residential school system aimed to create a “double consciousness” in which the indigenous person could not help but look at himself or herself through the eyes of the colonizers and that her ancestors resisted this double consciousness through their commitment to the stories.
Raymond Bucko's book, The Lakota Sweat Lodge was his Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Nebraska, where he currently (unless he has recently moved) teaches (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2004). Bucko’s book also speaks to the flexibility and lack of a hierarchy of North American indigenous spirituality. Each family does things differently and it’s always correct for those who do it that way in the place where it’s done. However, were he to write this book today, he would need a new title. Elders tell us that we should not refer to this ceremony as a “sweat lodge.” The word in Lakota is inipikaga, which is best translated as “revitalization ceremony.” We hear that the Jesuits called this ceremony a “sweat lodge” because they saw sweat. For the Lakota, this was not sweat, but was toxins exiting the body in its process of revitalization. In Bucko’s book, he discovered that no right way to do a sweat lodge exists. He discovered that no central authority existed to say what should be done and that each family does things a little differently, though some basic similarities are present. He similarly writes that no central authority exists for deciding what Native American spirituality is. Felix Cohen is correct, I believe, in saying that Native Americans in the United States are at the bottom of the pecking order. What happens to Native Americans will happen to other minorities eventually. Bucko makes the point that this insanity of the governmental imposition of Christianity began at least as early as the time of Thomas Jefferson's presidency. It actually began much earlier. An infamous community in Massachusetts began to hang Indians who weren't Christians around 1640.
Bucko made another point that hit home -- that the contemporary pan-Indian identity arose as a shared opposition to the European invasion. The shared reality of the oppression eventually led to a shared response, though not until the 20th century. In the 19th century, tribes were still working against each other with one tribe serving as scouts or helpers to the U.S. Army in attacking their traditional enemies.
Before the Blood Quantum Act of 1904, no concept of being half-Indian existed. One was either a member of the Nation or not. During the time of the forced march of the Cherokee to Oklahoma (The Trail of Tears and Death), the head chief of the Cherokee, John Ross, would have been only 1/8 Cherokee by today's standards. By the standards of that time, he was 100% Cherokee. In 1904, the U.S. Congress invented Native Americans as a separate breed in the same way that horses or dogs are considered as half this or half that. The goal of the blood quantum system was to eventually eliminate the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Here's how it works. If a Lakota person marries a Cree person, then their children are only half Lakota. They are also half Cree, but that doesn't make them 100% Indian. It leaves them half-Indian. Then if the child marries a Crow person, their children are only 25% Lakota. One more marriage to a non-Lakota and this person is removed from the BIA roles, even though they have only married other Native Americans. It actually doesn't matter if they marry a non-Indian; anyone outside the tribe counts toward diluting the percent Indian. What is amazing is that the numbers of Native Americans are growing anyway. This is because of young women having multiple children. Bucko quotes Marshall Sahlin as describing the extended kinship Native American family, which is inclusive of everyone. That seemed entirely accurate to me, though he left out the dogs.
O'Brien calls attention to the tremendous abuses of the Franciscans, which virtually destroyed the tribes of California. Schooled by the Spanish Inquisition, the methods of the Franciscans were brutal. The Jesuits were more subtle, but ultimately equally destructive, for they engaged in epistemological genocide, the destruction of people's ways of seeing the world. The New England Protestants created towns for indigenous people to shed all of their culture and religion and completely embrace the ways of the colonizers.
However, indigenous North Americans had difficulty relating to the religious ideas of Europeans. The idea of a collection of rules that determined one's afterlife seemed absurd. In all the traditions I know, everyone goes to the spirit world and no punishment is inflicted there. Whatever evil one accumulates in this life is left behind. We are all so much better in the Spirit World. The conflicts and disharmonies of this world are left behind. The emphasis on eternal punishment would not fit within the Native American world view. I can remember my grandmother telling me, if there were a hell, it would be here on earth. The Creator wouldn't make such a thing, she said. The idea of a limited number of spirits seemed strange as well. Everything has a spirit. The Visibles have spirits and the Invisibles are spirits. The idea of limiting eligibility to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost seemed bizarre. Also, the idea that one needed a priestly intercessor to speak to the spirits for one would have seemed equally bizarre. However, many people converted out of necessity and continued their indigenous spirituality while tolerating the religion of the colonizers. Others were so hopeless and distraught that they accepted the beliefs of the conquerors entirely.
The Indian Civilization Fund Act of 1819 provided money for Christian clergy to proselytize indigenous people and to create boarding schools to teach Native children English, the Christian faith, and European methods of farming. Here was the government violating its own principals of keeping church and state separate. O'Brien describes Major John Chivington of the U.S. Army, who orchestrated the Sand Hill Massacre, in which he killed almost 400 Cheyenne, mostly women, and children, and then mutilated their sexual organs and scalped them to display to cheering crowds in Denver. He was chided by the Army but not punished. The Chief of the Cheyenne was in favor of peace and was flying an American flag at the time he was killed.
The Cherokee had tried to emulate the Europeans in every way but giving up their sovereignty, even to the point of changing their gender relationships and becoming patriarchal, though this strategy did not succeed in preventing the forced relocation to Oklahoma.
The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 established a large reservation for the Lakota, which was progressively whittled down, especially with the discovery of gold in the Black Hills. Gold was the worst-case scenario for indigenous people in North America. Once discovered, the rest is downhill.
In the indigenous cultures of North America with which I am familiar, Creator is genderless. Gender only enters later in the process of elaboration of creation. Some versions of the Maine creation stories have a male creator, but these have clearly been shown to be revisionist stories influenced by Christianity. Some people think that the Lakota have a male creator, because of the use of the word tunkashila, which means grandfather. However, elders have explained to us that the elders of the time of first contacts were trying to explain their concepts to the Europeans and actually said, "your creator loves you as a grandfather would love his grandchildren," which is a powerful concept in Lakota kinship systems. They didn't mean to say that the creator was a grandfather. They abandoned this attempt at an explanation when the Europeans misinterpreted them. Now the word Dakuskanskan is used, which is the proper term. Literally, it means that (plural) which is the whitest. The best interpretation of this is the spirit which is higher than the highest of the sky spirits. Similar, some people misstate rocks as grandfathers. We hear people talking about bringing the grandfathers into the inipi ceremony (the hot stones). They are not actually grandfathers, either, for the proper word is inyan, which means stone. Stones are considered to be masculine and are the oldest inhabitants of our world, which is why perhaps the ancients thought to explain to the Europeans that they were like grandfathers. The Europeans didn’t understand that the Lakota were using metaphors, perhaps because they couldn’t step away from their assumption that indigenous people were primitive and stupid.
While rocks are male, the earth is considered feminine. However, in Lakota, Dakuskanskan, has a male messenger Tate, or the wind, and a female messenger, Wohpe, or the White Buffalo Calf Woman. In a famous story about the creation of the four directions and time itself, Wohpe is sent to the earth to tell Tate that it is time to create the four directions because people are coming, and they will need time and direction.
There is a famous women's song associated contemporarily with Sissy Goodheart of Yates, North Dakota, that tells how women are sacred for they give birth to the Nation through their hearts, minds, bodies, and souls. The song says that they are the heart of the Nation and are asked, therefore, to bring their highest selves to their task of being the heart and soul of the people.
Paula Gunn has written about the respect which women received and the sacredness of menstruation and of the power of menstrual blood. In the Lakota language, one word is used to refer to things of power and mystery, which is wakan. This word can be translated as holy, sacred, or mysterious. There really isn't a word that corresponds to the usage of the English word "taboo." The word wogluze refers to something sacred or forbidden, a spiritual taboo or ceremonial restriction (as a certain animal or animal part that cannot be eaten because of a vision one has received or things that are forbidden to do during a pipe ceremony). The other word is wahtani, which means to fail to perform a vow or to violate a tribal law. However, in my experience wogluze is never absolute, but always subject to exceptions and alterations.
Problems are rampant in European translations of indigenous languages as in North Dakota, where a word that meant "lake of the spirits," was translated as "Devil's Lake," which is the current name of that town and that lake. The general understanding is that one doesn't mess with things or beings that are wakan, unless one has a full understanding of how to use that medicine or power. The word for power and the word for medicine are the same also. I know women elders who have the power to work with menstrual blood and women with menstrual disorders, and I know male elders who stand in awe of that power.