A Clan Mother story for the twenty-first century, Sacred Wilderness explores the lives of four women of different eras and backgrounds who come together to restore foundation to a mixed-up, mixed-blood womana woman who had been living the American dream, and found it a great maw of emptiness. These Clan Mothers may be wisdom-keepers, but they are anything but stern and aloofthey are women of joy and grief, risking their hearts and sometimes their lives for those they love. The novel swirls through time, from present-day Minnesota to the Mohawk territory of the 1620s, to the ancient biblical world, brought to life by an indigenous woman who would come to be known as the Virgin Mary. The Clan Mothers reveal secrets, the insights of prophecy, and stories that are by turns comic, so painful they can break your heart, and perhaps even powerful enough to save the world. In lyrical, lushly imagined prose, Sacred Wilderness is a novel of unprecedented necessity.
About the Author
Susan Power is an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Her first novel, Grass Dancer, received the PEN/Hemingway award for best new fiction. She lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
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By Susan Power
Michigan State University PressCopyright © 2014 Susan Power
All rights reserved.
The Visitation of Gladys Swan
The city of Saint Paul was named for a man of extremes, Paul of Tarsus, the Pharisee who became a Christian martyr. His Cathedral rises majestically near the mouth of Summit Avenue—the Victorian-era jewel that runs from east to west through the city like a river of material abundance. Mansions stare at one another across the wide road, some of them red-bricked and haughty, some of them a fairy-tale dream of wood lace trim and turrets.
Gladys had never lived in such a fancy neighborhood. She'd spent most of her life on a reservation in northern Minnesota and later years in a small Minneapolis apartment. But she wasn't unduly impressed by the display of wealth. She viewed the avenue from the passenger seat of her daughter's car and saw the generous lots and governor's mansion through her grandfather's eyes. She could just imagine his reaction: "Look at you, Noozis. Now you really are Queen of the Heavens, moving into some Minnesota castle! Watch out—they always say rich people are crazy. Me, I wouldn't know for sure since I never knew any, so give them a chance. But don't take any nonsense off them. Remember, you are Ojibwe, Anishinaabe, and that means you are good enough for anyone. You are one of the Original People." She smiled to recall his warm voice, always crackling with mischief, and his habit of making a judgment and then backtracking a bit as if he could mend the trail he'd just broken.
"Your great-great-Grandpa would've been crazy about you," she told her granddaughter, Ava, who was buckled into the back seat, holding a squirming bundle in her small lap. She had just turned five, a summer-baby Leo with thick black hair that laid down flat and shiny like the mane of a horse. She had warm brown eyes, round as the moon when she was happy, and wore glasses with rectangular frames that made her look grown up.
"The Great One," Ava said in a dreamy voice. This ancestor was one of her favorite characters in Gladys's stories, though she couldn't quite pronounce all the "greats" of his title, clumped so closely together, so she shortened it to the brief honorific.
"See, just you calling him that would've made him puff up with satisfaction and then brag on it to everybody. A good man, he was. A smart man."
A muffled sound of misery—part moan and part growl—filled the small car.
"How're you doing back there?" Gladys's daughter, Binah, checked the rearview mirror to glance at Ava.
"Fine. He's just scared. Don't be scared, Zhigaag. No one's gonna hurt you." Ava crooned to the unhappy cat in what she considered to be a mother's voice.
"He better not scratch her. I don't know why I let her hold him." Binah noticed the impatience of the driver in the Hummer behind her, riding the tail of her car, so she reduced her speed in response.
"He won't," Ava protested. "He's all wrapped up like a mummy in the towel and can't move his hands."
"You should have a carrier, Mama," Binah told Gladys in a clipped voice that sounded to the older woman like scissors. Gladys shrugged, unperturbed, but Ava jumped to her defense.
"He doesn't like carriers. Grandma told you. Makes him feel like he's in jail."
"So a straitjacket's better?" Binah rumbled under her breath. Now she sounds like the cat, Gladys thought.
Ava was singing to Zhigaag in a soft, soothing voice: "Giizhenaamin, Zhigaag. Giizhenaamin, Zhigaag."
"How can she love that cat when he never lets her touch him?"
Gladys shrugged again. She knew her daughter was angry with her for other reasons and was trying to pick a fight. Better not to engage. Her daughter was in a mood where she was just like one of those exploding firecrackers that can take off your hand if you hold it too long. But Ava was fearless and charged ahead in defense of her grandmother and the cat.
"He does let me pet him when he feels like it. He just doesn't usually feel like it. He's Grandma's cat. He's a one-person person," she said with great dignity, like an ancient sage.
Binah snorted. "He's not a person, he's a cat."
"Yes, he is," Ava said urgently, distressed. "He's both. And you're hurting his feelings. Don't listen to her, Zhigaag. You are a person, I know it."
"I smell your influence all over this," Binah hissed at Gladys.
"Probably," was all she said.
They'd reached Ramsey Hill, and for a few moments it looked as if they would drive straight into the sprawling University Club perched at the top of the hill, where F. Scott Fitzgerald had tossed back frothy champagne and danced in optimistic wildness. Then a curving lane appeared, and Binah nosed the car to the left, ready to turn.
"There's Lookout Park," Gladys spoke on impulse. "Let's pull over there. I want to see that bird."
"What? What bird?" Binah turned left, following Summit Avenue as it curved past the hill and continued on—the mansions would only get larger from this point.
Despite Binah's irritation she did as her mother requested and parked near a wedge of grass that overlooked the expanse containing downtown Saint Paul, Lowertown, and the High Bridge that stretched across the Mississippi River.
Ava struggled to unbuckle herself and still keep hold of the wriggling cat. "I'll take him for a while," Gladys told her. "You've done a good job with this rascal." She opened the back door and reached for the cat who was barely visible in the mound of beach towel. His black-masked face looked fearful. As soon as he saw Gladys he cried as if his heart were breaking.
"Oh, hush," she said with tender affection. "So dramatic. No one's torturing you. You're just fine." Zhigaag seemed to sense that further protest was useless, so he closed his eyes and fell asleep in her arms. Gladys led the others to a sign that told the story of Lookout Point and explained the presence of a bronze eagle, poised at the edge of the hill, its wings beginning to open.
"This is the eagle that once stood atop a building in New York City," she told her granddaughter as she read the plaque. "The New York Life Building. So, this isn't one of ours, a Minnesota eagle, this is one that flew all the way from Iroquois country."
"Iroquois?" Ava asked, wrinkling her brow in concentration and pushing her stylish glasses further up the bridge of her nose.
"Yes. They're the Six Nations Confederacy—that means six tribes came together and agreed to be allies and stop fighting."
"This is a Mama eagle," Ava said in a determined voice, sounding like a school teacher. "See, she's guarding her babies from that big snake."
Ava looked to her mother for confirmation. Binah shrugged. Undiscouraged, Ava made a wringing motion with her hands as if she herself were battling the snake. Victory. She pressed her palms against the stone pedestal and stared at the eagle's face with awe. "Could we off er her some tobacco?" she whispered, as if she didn't want the bird to hear in case the answer was "no."
"Of course," Gladys said. "Just what I was thinking. You read my mind, Noozis."
Binah snorted, which woke Zhigaag. He sent a warning noise in her direction. "Oh, pipe down," she told him. "Mama, why on earth are you off ering tobacco to a statue? It isn't alive. It's a man-made object, no, a white-made object that perched over a commercial enterprise which no doubt ripped off a lot of people in its day."
Gladys sighed. She kissed Zhigaag's forehead, where the black mask edged against blinding white fur. "Everything is alive. Everything is moving. Don't even scientists say that? Haven't they figured out what we knew all along? They call it 'matter,' the tiny, wiggling movement of matter. So, I say, all matter matters! How's that?" She looked to Ava, and the girl nodded with great solemnity.
"Fine." Binah pulled a pouch of fragrant tobacco from her purse and held it open. Ava reached in and extracted a small pinch. She held the tobacco in her palm and closed her eyes in prayer.
"What are you praying, Noozis?" Gladys asked, aft er waiting a respectful minute in silence.
"I'm praying that if this eagle talks to other ones here in Minnesota, she'll tell them that we don't want them to starve, but please leave Zhigaag alone when he's outside."
"Good thinking. May I add something?" Ava nodded. "I'd like to welcome this eagle to the territory of the Ojibwe and Dakota people. Well, given where we're standing right now, I should reverse that order. Okay. Dakota and Ojibwe territory. We're glad you were saved when they pulled down your building and hope you like our view here. All the trees. Please watch out for us since you can see so much farther than we can. May we share some of your remarkable vision."
Ava waited until she was certain her grandmother had finished speaking, then she placed the tobacco at the base of the statue. A sudden gust of wind curled around their legs, but the clump of tobacco remained intact, as if the small flakes were magnetic filings.
"It's been accepted," Gladys said, and the three trooped back to the car.
Two weeks earlier, Gladys had received a call from the director of the Native American Journalists Association, a young Ojibwe writer named Marcus. He sounded sheepish, reluctant to say why he was calling. Aft er a few exchanges of pleasantries he sighed, took a sip of coff ee, and got to the point: "Gladys, here's the deal. There's some society lady who's been calling all the Indian organizations in town—the Indian Center, even Birchbark Books—saying she's looking for an Indian housekeeper. I know, I know—" he hurried along as if anticipating an eruption from the older woman. "God, she's so hopelessly politically incorrect you almost got to wonder if it's an act, some kind of schtick put on by a writer for The Onion. Anyway, we've taken a few calls from her, and she's annoying my assistant. Fern's about ready to take that lady out. So I thought I'd pass the message along. Not that you'd be interested. Just trying to get this woman off our backs. Says she lives over in Saint Paul, on Summit Ave, and could off er a spacious carriage house to whoever. Oh, and she's looking for an Indian because supposedly she's part Mohawk. Well, you know how that is," he finished, skeptically.
Gladys heard him sigh again, this time in relief, and take another sip of coff ee. The brief silence made him nervous, so he rushed to fill it. "The Indians around here, geez, you know how we are, pushed to the last nerve with ignorant crap like this. Oh, sorry, my bad."
Gladys rescued the young writer with a warm chuckle. "Don't worry. You've come to the right place. I've been a little antsy lately, feeling there's something I should be doing, but what? I'm sure she means well, this lady, just doesn't know how to go about things. Lost in a time warp! Maybe she's lonesome for Indians. What's her name, anyway?"
"Candace. Candace Jenssen."
"A good Mohawk name," Gladys said with gravity. The two erupted in laughter, and Marcus spit coffee all over his desk blotter that was really a calendar from 1997, twelve years earlier.
"Shit, I got to clean this up. Oops, sorry. I'm a potty mouth today."
"Don't worry, Marcus, you take care. Oh, but what's her number?"
When Gladys phoned her daughters, Binah and Grace, to tell them she was going to be a housekeeper living in a carriage house on Summit Avenue, their reactions were typically different.
Grace had said: "Well, if you really want to do this, Mama, at least you'll be closer to us. We don't see you enough. Wait 'til I tell Dylan, he'll be so excited!"
Grace was a visual artist who specialized in landscape paintings that were constructed of a swarming galaxy of minutiae—small objects and creatures that swirled together to create the impression of a single, larger view. She lived now in an artists' cooperative in Saint Paul with her thirteen-year-old son, Dylan, who was still, even at this fractious age of growing pains and abject self-consciousness, an unabashed fan of his grandmother.
Binah, on the other hand, had torn into a blistering lecture upon hearing her mother's news, the kind that made Gladys retreat into what she thought of as "Peanuts mode." She'd always loved how the Peanuts gang of kids—Lucy, Linus, and Charlie Brown—never heard what adults were saying beyond a tinny hash of noise: "wha wha wha wha wha wha."
Well, she listened to her daughter's outrage for a while: "Do you really want to be reduced to some kind of throwback stereotype from the Dark Ages? Honestly! A maid for some rich lady in a mansion? Beyond the ludicrousness of her search for an ethnic specimen to do her dirty work, there's this to consider. You're seventy-four years old. Have you thought how much work it will be to clean a massive house? You could keel over and then what would we do?"
As Binah made her points seven different ways, Gladys was singing, silently, in the recording studio of her mind. "We all live in a YELLOW SUBMARINE ..." she was belting into a microphone, headset covering her ears, her girls singing backup with gusto and cheer just as they had when they were little.
"Mama? Mama? Are you listening to me?" Binah's question brought Gladys back to her kitchen where she sat at the scarred wooden table where so much news had been aired—confessions made, apologies offered, tears shed, jokes performed. She patted the table and wetted her finger to press away an errant crumb.
"Yes, my girl, I hear you," she said with disciplined patience, for Binah's tears were there, too, soaked into the table. "I know you're worried for me and I'm lucky to have girls who care what happens. All I can say is that I am meant to do this. I can feel it. There's work and then there's work. This lady doesn't need a maid so much as something else. I have to go figure out what that is."
Binah was quiet for several beats, and Gladys knew her daughter was pacing angrily, chewing on her cuticles which she'd made ragged in recent months. Binah sighed, an exhalation so deep she nearly snagged the edge of a flood of tears, pooled in her chest, her heart, vast enough to wash everyone right off the map. Gladys heard her check the pain before it gushed away from her. "The only thing that could possibly make this worse would be if you were African-American. You know that horrible cliché of the ever-loving arms of Black women, Black Mamas; perennially in service to their white charges, be they children or so-called adults. As if they have no life of their own, no dreams or problems of their own as important as what happens to their beloved white employers. Ugh! That's my final word on all this, Mama. Ugh!"
Binah missed the house where Gladys would be working and living, drove right past it, so she continued on to the end of Summit Avenue and turned around in the Cathedral parking lot. This time she found the place—an imposing red-bricked structure with leaded windows, tucked into the corner of Summit and Western. Binah parked the car and turned off the motor, then sat quietly, hands in her lap, staring straight ahead as if hypnotized.
Gladys was able to look at her daughter for the first time in months. Binah was so angry these days it was hard to see past the frustration and scorn that snapped around her like a live wire. She looked older than forty-eight; silver strands of wiry hair raked through her dark brown waves, and her eyes were an empty black as if the spark of pleasure that once lit them had been snuff ed out. She was always the beautiful one. The dramatic arch of her eyebrows and long lashes, her regal nose and teasing lips that curled on one side, made people watch her when she passed them, then remain transfixed by the waterfall of hair that spilled down her back past the waist of her jeans. The loveliness was still there, just dimmed with shadows. Gladys could see her daughter's pulse jumping in her neck, beating out a fast, unhappy rhythm. Without thinking, Gladys reached out and gently touched Binah there with her finger. Binah flinched.
"You're all keyed-up," Gladys said. "I can see your heart racing." For one moment Binah looked ready to fall into her mother's arms, but she cleared her throat instead and grabbed the steering wheel with long dark fingers.
"I'm stressed about this decision of yours," was all she said. Then she shook herself as if she'd passed through a cold spot that caught her unawares. She turned to face her mother. "Answer me this. You feel you have some business here, with this woman. Okay, let's say she needs some existential help. Who doesn't? What makes her so fortunate, no, so worthy of your aid? You know as well as I do that there are kids dying on the rez every day. They need help. They need guidance. Why the—" Binah glanced into the rearview mirror and, seeing Ava, caught herself just in time. "Bleep does some rich wannabe who could purchase a legion of therapists merit a second of your time and energy? Explain it to me, please!" Silence fell heavily in the car and seemed to stop time. Gladys refused to answer until her daughter's breathing slowed and became regular again.
Excerpted from Sacred Wilderness by Susan Power. Copyright © 2014 Susan Power. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press.
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Table of Contents
The Visitation of Gladys Swan 3
The Glorious Mysteries 21
The First Supper 37
Indian Confessional 59
Queen of the Heavens 83
Stations of the Cross 95
Sacred Wilderness 117
The Confession of Ruby Two-Axe 195
The Time of the New Mind 215
The Gospel of Maryam 225
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This marvelous journey of a book examines what binds women together across faith, time, and culture. Its storyline is compelling, the characters well drawn, and the dialogue honest, Sacred Wilderness uncovers the truth for all clan mothers. Extra fun for those who live in the Twin Cities and know the people and places in the book.