Read an Excerpt
Every Day Is a Good Day
Reflections by Contemporary Indigenous Women
By Wilma Mankiller
Fulcrum PublishingCopyright © 2011 Wilma P. Mankiller
All rights reserved.
The medicine man arrived at our rural Oklahoma home on a cool fall day during that soft time just before dusk. As he busied himself gathering material for the evening ceremony in the woods surrounding our house, the Maple led the trees in a final burst of yellow and orange. Soon the nourishing rains would come to wash the leaves to the earth as part of an endless cycle of renewal. It was a good time for ceremony: a time of changing seasons, transition, and new beginnings. A time once called Harvest Moon, when Cherokee people gathered for ceremonies to mark the end of the growing seasons and the beginning of a new year.
When the Sun settled in the west, my family, friends, and I quieted our minds, opened our hearts, and began the ceremony. It was called to help me recover from my own "perfect storm" of chemotherapy treatments, political strife, and family trauma and to provide me with the strength to face additional medical treatments and an uncertain future. That night of prayer, songs, and ceremony took an unexpected turn when the medicine man planted the seed for this book by giving me and my daughter Gina special medicine to enable us to help tell the stories of others.
When the ceremony was over at dawn we all faced east to greet the new morning with a sense of renewal in our hearts, and the secrets we whispered during the ceremony safely tucked away. Besides my immediate family, two extraordinary women joined me for the ceremony, Debra LaFountaine, an Ojibway woman who always leads with heart, and Roberta Manuelito, who learned traditional Navajo ways from her beloved grandfather. By the time everyone began their journey home with their spirits still warmly wrapped in the ceremonial songs of the previous night, I was thinking about ways to share the experiences of women such as Roberta and Debra who get up every morning and stand for something larger than themselves.
Besides Debra and Roberta, many incredible women have danced in and out of my life. They are grandmothers, mothers, daughters, aunts, lovers, friends, sisters, and partners. Some have buried husbands and children, faced racism, confronted daunting health problems, and dealt with a staggering set of problems caused by extreme economic poverty, yet they lead their nations, their families, and their communities with dignity, strength, and optimism. Justine Buckskin was such a woman. She came to mind when I heard the Mohawk proverb, "It is hard to see the future with tears in your eyes." She faced great hardship in her life but didn't have time for despair. She kept a steady gaze toward the future. When I was an impressionable eleven-year-old, Justine invited me into her life by offering a babysitting job. I took the job, and we remained friends for the next four decades. Justine served on every board even remotely connected to the San Francisco Bay Area Native American community. She was a one-woman social service agency, the most relentlessly positive woman I have ever met. Even when she was down on her luck, she found a way to help others who were in worse circumstances. She had a gift for focusing on the positive attributes of people in difficult situations. When others saw only rough edges on me and the other youth who frequented the San Francisco Indian Center, Justine saw potential leaders and professionals. It was Justine who encouraged me to go to college and then accompanied me to campus to make sure I enrolled. Sadly, Justine was so busy taking care of other people that she did not always take care of herself. She developed diabetes. And when her kidneys failed she had to undergo dialysis, and then poor circulation caused the amputation of an arm. When I last saw her in San Francisco in the winter of 1990, she was quite frail, yet she spoke passionately about her work in the community and as a volunteer at Highland Hospital in Oakland, where she was helping other amputees learn how to live independently, as she always had. When people ask me what women influenced me, I always talk about Justine. Someone once told me that the Earth will always remember people as long as we continue to say their name. I often say Justine Buckskin's name.
Audrey Shenandoah, an Onondaga Clan Mother, also comes to mind. Her powerful message of peace and hope has inspired thousands of people throughout the world. Out of love, respect, and concern for her people, she teaches the Onondaga language and the ways of the Haudenosaunee (People of the Longhouse) to children and members of her community. As a Clan Mother she is responsible for the welfare and social harmony of the clan. She gives traditional Onondaga names to people of the clan and has an important role in the installation and removal of male chiefs, who are considered Caretakers of the Peace.
Mary and Carrie Dann represent the personification of indigenous womanhood — beautiful, strong, loving, free women who live full, rich lives with their children and grandchildren while waging a forty-year battle to keep the U.S. government from impounding their horses and cattle and evicting them from their land. Now grandmothers themselves, they learned traditional Western Shoshone ways and values from their own grandmother, who would have been so proud to know her granddaughters would stare down the United States government for more than four decades to protect Shoshone lands.
While the U.S. government was preparing to invade Iraq to "fight terrorism," the Bureau of Land Management sent military-style convoys to round up hundreds of heads of cattle and horses belonging to Mary and Carrie Dann. The Dann sisters called the raids "domestic terrorism" with good reason. The government has fined the Dann sisters more than $2 million for grazing fees, interest, and penalties on what it claims is U.S. government land. It is difficult to understand why there has not been more of a public outcry against the federal government for raiding Shoshone land to confiscate the horses and cattle, and for trying to break the spirit and resolve of two elder Shoshone women.
The Western Shoshone never lost their land in war, by congressional act, or by treaty. Yet the U.S. government has taken the incomprehensible position that the Western Shoshone lost their land in 1872 to settlers who "gradually encroached" on the land, ostensibly ending Shoshone land rights. Mary Dann says, "We've repeatedly asked the federal government for Western Shoshone land transfer documents. If our ancestors agreed to give up or sell this land, we would respect the government. But the federal agencies have never been able to show us any document giving away the land. This is still our homeland." The position of the Dann sisters has been supported by a majority of Western Shoshone Tribal Councils, the National Congress of American Indians, and the Organization of American States, as well as dozens of global organizations and thousands of individuals.
Despite the decades-long fight waged by the Western Shoshone, the U.S. Congress recently passed legislation they allege extinguishes Shoshone title to the land and opens the land up for mining. Western Shoshone lands are the third-largest gold producing area in the world. The Western Shoshone Distribution Bill, signed by President Bush on July 7, 2004, purports to take tens of millions of acres of Shoshone land for payment of $145 million, most of which will be paid to thousands of eligible tribal members. Some of the funds will be used to set up an educational fund. But even with the passage of the distribution bill, the Dann sisters and other Western Shoshone have vowed to never give up the fight to retain their homelands, and say they will join many other tribal members in refusing to accept any payment for their land. Carrie Dann says, "I'm not going to sell my dignity, my spirituality, my culture. No way. I'm looking at the future of our children. I'm looking at our birthright, which is not for sale for $20,000."
There are many other women who have had an impact on me, including all the women whose conversations are included in this book. I am privileged to have close friendships with women from many cultures and economic backgrounds with whom I share common interests, though we live very different lives. But my relationships with indigenous women, particularly those who synchronize their lives with the land and the community, are markedly different from my relationships with most of my other friends. The deep, binding connection among indigenous women can be explained in part by our common life experiences, patterns of thought, and shared values, but I also believe it can be partially explained by a more complete, whole, interconnected understanding of the world. Among these women, there is less of a tendency to organize everything into categories and segments than there is in the larger society. While many of my other friends describe objects or events in a way that detaches them from their context, my tradition-oriented indigenous friends tend to think about, describe, and view things in their totality. They conduct their work and live their lives within the context of the family, clan, community, nation, and universe. Context is everything. They also seem to have a much greater degree of tolerance for the unevenness, differences, and contradictions in life, or what Linda Aranaydo calls "life's backward- and forwardness."
Another factor that greatly contributes to a different view of the world is our identity as members of a culturally distinct group of people with whom we have reciprocal relationships. Joanne Shenandoah says, "It is a beautiful thing to be part of a collective society and community where we are safe. Ingrained in our soul are lessons about our place in the community."
Indigenous women are not only responsible for continuing time-honored traditions, they are also creators and interpreters of indigenous culture in the early twenty-first century, a time when advanced technology draws the entire world closer together and there are many attempts to homogenize world cultures. As native women work for the benefit of future generations, they are embraced by the memory of their ancestors. In the strength of that embrace, the line between the past, present, and future is not as distinct as it is in the larger society. Native women know the sacred places generations of their people have gone for renewal and for ceremony. They know where great battles were once fought and where their people held meetings to discuss momentous decisions about war and peace. They have a special relationship with the land where their ancestors sang their songs, told their stories, and were returned to the earth for burial. This is their homeland.
Outsiders are always admonishing Native women to forget about history and the past, but history is woven into the very fabric of their daily lives. History is much more than a series of abstract events. Gail Small says, "At our Northern Cheyenne homelands we look at history quite differently. Our history is the premise of who we are and how we make decisions today. Each time we hear stories about what American soldiers did to our people, especially our grandmothers, the pain and anger is fresh and raw. What we have gone through is so real, it is like it happened yesterday."
White anthropologists and "experts" on Native Americans have written volumes about the culture of traditional indigenous people with little understanding of the degree to which tribal knowledge continues to inform contemporary Native life. Too many books about specific tribal groups have been written by people who spent fifteen minutes on a reservation and became experts. But that is changing. Native scholars such as Dr. Bea Medicine have written and lectured extensively about the need for greater understanding of indigenous cultures. She said, "White people don't understand us or the strength and diversity of aboriginal people, and they don't even try. That's why there is such racism and misunderstanding. In any kind of reconciliation movement, they expect the Indian people to reconcile with them, and not the other way around." It is almost impossible for an outsider to grasp the underlying values of the community or the culture and lifeways of the people and their relationship to the natural world. Without an intellectual and spiritual frame of reference related to community and an understanding of the extended kinship system, they tend to filter everything through their own lens of the modern nuclear family, distant from the land and often from themselves. If one has never seen a grandmother who was prohibited from speaking her own language in a government boarding school overcome with love and joy when a young child proudly says a few words in her own language, how can one understand the people? If one has never felt the powerful unifying force of an indigenous-language prayer in ceremony, how can one possibly claim to understand indigenous people? Native people who can still speak their indigenous language are well respected. Darrell Kipp, founder of the Nizipuhwahsin Language Immersion School on the Blackfeet Reservation, says, "When people relearn their language, the first thing they wish to do is pray in it."
The movement of indigenous people in and out of two often very different cultures can sometimes cause outsiders to draw erroneous conclusions about the degree of assimilation in a given community. Indigenous people have long understood how to move in and out of parallel universes and maintain their cultural values. Dr. Bea Medicine says, "It is difficult to try to compartmentalize our lives. We have learned to assess the social situation and act accordingly. And it's not schizophrenia; it's just simply a rule to discern the proper behavior in different roles of life."
The pervasive influence of American popular culture has had a dramatic impact on indigenous communities, but it would be folly to draw conclusions about the degree of assimilation in these communities based primarily on external appearances and the fact that indigenous people do not look and act as they did 300 years ago. In tradition-oriented families, young people may watch MTV and older people tune in to CNN, but they filter the information through their own view of the world, which may be quite different from their white neighbors' view. One of my favorite scenes is the family campgrounds at the annual Crow Fair Celebration and Powwow at Crow Agency, Montana, where the dancers and horses are adorned with exquisite beadwork for the parade past dozens of tipis to the powwow grounds. Young people stroll through the powwow grounds with cell phones hooked to their waistbands, and Foreman grills and DVD players sit outside some tipis. I have yet to see a satellite dish in front of a tipi, but it wouldn't surprise me. The juxtaposition of tribal traditions and pop culture sometimes confounds outsiders who seem to think one precludes the other.
Jaune Quick-to-See Smith describes the capriciousness of appearance: "In my art and life, I really strive to reverse the old adage that what you see is what you get. If I can be Coyote and practice my sneak-up, I can engage the viewers from a distance with one image and lure them in for exposure to another layer, which changes the initial view into quite a different reality. After all, that is what ethnic culture is all about — or even an ongoing relationship. What you see on the surface is never the same again once you begin to plumb the depths."
Most people know very little about indigenous women, except for a few almost mythical icons such as Sacajawea, an intelligent, resourceful Shoshone interpreter who accompanied the Lewis and Clark expedition in the early nineteenth century. This appalling lack of accurate information about indigenous women fuels negative stereotypes. Television, film, and print media often portray indigenous women as asexual drudges or innocent children of nature, while rail-thin white women are held up as idealized representations of compassion, beauty, and sexuality. In film, as in the larger society, the power, strength, and complexity of indigenous women are rarely acknowledged or recognized.
While the role of indigenous women in the family and community, now and in the past, differs from nation to nation, each of the women at this gathering stated unequivocally that there was a point in time when there was greater equity between men and women, and that balance between men and women must be restored if we are ever to have whole, healthy communities again. Lurline Wailana McGregor says, "In the past, men and women had very specific roles that complemented each other, assuring a functional and thriving community life. Although these roles are less rigid today, they are no longer balanced. Western cultures devalue women. So now we struggle for equity in the workplace and recognition in our own communities."
Navajo women once controlled the economy by owning and managing the livestock, and Ojibway women trapped small animals, dressed furs, and built canoes. In some indigenous communities, women chose lives that transcended gender roles. Historian Connie Evans described a trader's observation that a Gros Ventre woman dressed as a woman but sat on the council and ranked as the third leading warrior in a band of 180 lodges. She eventually took four wives.
Excerpted from Every Day Is a Good Day by Wilma Mankiller. Copyright © 2011 Wilma P. Mankiller. Excerpted by permission of Fulcrum Publishing.
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