The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions

The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions

by Paula Gunn Allen


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780807046012
Publisher: Beacon Press
Publication date: 09/05/1987
Pages: 328
Product dimensions: 5.91(w) x 9.06(h) x (d)

About the Author

Paula Gunn Allen (1939-2008) was a professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a Native American of Laguna Pueblo and Sioux heritage. She authored many books, including The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Tradition, and was the editor of Spider Woman’s Granddaughters: Traditional Tales and Contemporary Writing by Native American Women, which won an American Book Award in 1990.

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The Sacred Hoop

Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions

By Paula Gunn Allen


Copyright © 1992 Paula Gunn Allen
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4976-8436-2


Grandmother of the Sun: Ritual Gynocracy in Native America


There is a spirit that pervades everything, that is capable of powerful song and radiant movement, and that moves in and out of the mind. The colors of this spirit are multitudinous, a glowing, pulsing rainbow. Old Spider Woman is one name for this quintessential spirit, and Serpent Woman is another. Corn Woman is one aspect of her, and Earth Woman is another, and what they together have made is called Creation, Earth, creatures, plants, and light.

At the center of all is Woman, and no thing is sacred (cooked, ripe, as the Keres Indians of Laguna Pueblo say it) without her blessing, her thinking.

... In the beginning Tse che nako, Thought Woman finished everything, thoughts, and the names of all things. She finished also all the languages. And then our mothers, Uretsete and Naotsete said they would make names and they would make thoughts. Thus they said. Thus they did.

This spirit, this power of intelligence, has many names and many emblems. She appears on the plains, in the forests, in the great canyons, on the mesas, beneath the seas. To her we owe our very breath, and to her our prayers are sent blown on pollen, on corn meal, planted into the earth on feather-sticks, spit onto the water, burned and sent to her on the wind. Her variety and multiplicity testify to her complexity: she is the true creatrix for she is thought itself, from which all else is born. She is the necessary precondition for material creation, and she, like all of her creation, is fundamentally female—potential and primary.

She is also the spirit that informs right balance, right harmony, and these in turn order all relationships in conformity with her law.

To assign to this great being the position of "fertility goddess" is exceedingly demeaning: it trivializes the tribes and it trivializes the power of woman. Woman bears, that is true. She also destroys. That is true. She also wars and hexes and mends and breaks. She creates the power of the seeds, and she plants them. As Anthony Purley, a Laguna writer, has translated a Keres ceremonial prayer, "She is mother of us all, after Her, mother earth follows, in fertility, in holding, and taking again us back to her breast."

The Hopi account of their genatrix, Hard Beings Woman, gives the most articulate rendering of the difference between simple fertility cultism and the creative prowess of the Creatrix. Hard Beings Woman (Huruing Wuhti) is of the earth. But she lives in the worlds above where she "owns" (empowers) the moon and stars. Hard Beings Woman has solidity and hardness as her major aspects. She, like Thought Woman, does not give birth to creation or to human beings but breathes life into male and female effigies that become the parents of the Hopi—in this way she "creates" them. The male is Muingwu, the god of crops, and his sister-consort is Sand Altar Woman who is also known as Childbirth Water Woman. In Sand Altar Woman the mystical relationship between water, worship, and woman is established; she is also said to be the mother of the katsinas, those powerful messengers who relate the spirit world to the world of humankind and vice versa.

Like Thought Woman, Hard Beings Woman lived in the beginning on an island which was the only land there was. In this regard she resembles a number of Spirit Woman Beings; the Spirit genatrix of the Iroquois, Sky Woman, also lived on an island in the void which only later became the earth. On this island, Hard Beings Woman is identified with or, as they say, "owns" all hard substances—moon, stars, beads, coral, shell, and so forth. She is a sea goddess as well, the single inhabitant of the earth, that island that floats alone in the waters of space. From this meeting of woman and water, earth and her creatures were born.

The waters of space are also crucial in the Sky Woman story of the Seneca. Sky Woman is catapulted into the void by her angry, jealous, and fearful husband, who tricks her into peering into the abyss he has revealed by uprooting the tree of light (which embodies the power of woman) that grows near his lodge. Her terrible fall is broken by the Water Fowl who live in that watery void, and they safely deposit Sky Woman on the back of Grandmother Turtle, who also inhabits the void. On the body of Grandmother Turtle earth-island is formed. Interestingly, the shell of the turtle is one of the Hard Substances connected to Hard Beings Woman.

Contemporary Indian tales suggest that the creatures are born from the mating of sky father and earth mother, but that seems to be a recent interpolation of the original sacred texts. The revision may have occurred since the Christianizing influence on even the arcane traditions, or it may have predated Christianity. But the older, more secret texts suggest that it is a revision. It may be that the revision appears only in popular versions of the old mythic cycles on which ceremony and ritual are based; this would accord with the penchant in the old oral tradition for shaping tales to reflect present social realities, making the rearing and education of children possible even within the divergent worlds of the United States of America and the tribes.

According to the older texts (which are sacred, that is, power-engendering), Thought Woman is not a passive personage: her potentiality is dynamic and unimaginably powerful. She brought corn and agriculture, potting, weaving, social systems, religion, ceremony, ritual, building, memory, intuition, and their expressions in language, creativity, dance, human-to-animal relations, and she gave these offerings power and authority and blessed the people with the ability to provide for themselves and their progeny.

Thought Woman is not limited to a female role in the total theology of the Keres people. Since she is the supreme Spirit, she is both Mother and Father to all people and to all creatures. She is the only creator of thought, and thought precedes creation.

Central to Keres theology is the basic idea of the Creatrix as She Who Thinks rather than She Who Bears, of woman as creation thinker and female thought as origin of material and nonmaterial reality. In this epistemology, the perception of female power as confined to maternity is a limit on the power inherent in femininity. But "she is the supreme Spirit, ... both Mother and Father to all people and to all creatures."

In the nineteenth century, Fr. Noël Dumarest reported from another Keres Pueblo, Cochiti, on Spider Woman (Thought Woman, although he does not mention her by this name). In his account, when the "Indian sister" made stars, she could not get them to shine, so "she consulted Spider, the creator." He characterized the goddess-sisters as living "with Spider Woman, their mother, at shipapu, under the waters of the lake, in the second world." It should be mentioned that while she is here characterized as the sisters' mother, the Cochiti, like the other Keres, are not so much referring to biological birth as to sacred or ritual birth. To address a person as "mother" is to pay the highest ritual respect.

In Keres theology the creation does not take place through copulation. In the beginning existed Thought Woman and her dormant sisters, and Thought Woman thinks creation and sings her two sisters into life. After they are vital she instructs them to sing over the items in their baskets (medicine bundles) in such a way that those items will have life. After that crucial task is accomplished, the creatures thus vitalized take on the power to regenerate themselves—that is, they can reproduce others of their kind. But they are not in and of themselves self-sufficient; they depend for their being on the medicine power of the three great Witch creatrixes, Thought Woman, Uretsete, and Naotsete. The sisters are not related by virtue of having parents in common; that is, they are not alive because anyone bore them. Thought Woman turns up, so to speak, first as Creatrix and then as a personage who is acting out someone else's "dream." But there is no time when she did not exist. She has two bundles in her power, and these bundles contain Uretsete and Naotsete, who are not viewed as her daughters but as her sisters, her coequals who possess the medicine power to vitalize the creatures that will inhabit the earth. They also have the power to create the firmament, the skies, the galaxies, and the seas, which they do through the use of ritual magic.

The idea that Woman is possessed of great medicine power is elaborated in the Lakota myth of White Buffalo Woman. She brought the Sacred Pipe to the Lakota, and it is through the agency of this pipe that the ceremonies and rituals of the Lakota are empowered. Without the pipe, no ritual magic can occur. According to one story about White Buffalo Woman, she lives in a cave where she presides over the Four Winds. In Lakota ceremonies, the four wind directions are always acknowledged, usually by offering a pipe to them. The pipe is ceremonial, modeled after the Sacred Pipe given the people by the Sacred Woman. The Four Winds are very powerful beings themselves, but they can function only at the bidding of White Buffalo Woman. The Lakota are connected to her still, partly because some still keep to the ways she taught them and partly because her pipe still resides with them.

The pipe of the Sacred Woman is analogous in function to the ear of corn left with the people by Iyatiku, Corn Woman, the mother goddess of the Keres. Iyatiku, who is called the mother of the people, is in a ceremonial sense another aspect of Thought Woman. She presently resides in Shipap from whence she sends counsel to the people and greets them when they enter the spirit world of the dead. Her representative, Irriaku (Corn Mother), maintains the connection between individuals in the tribe as well as the connection between the nonhuman supernaturals and the tribe. It is through the agency of the Irriaku that the religious leaders of the tribe, called Yaya and Hotchin, or hochin in some spellings of the word, (Mother and leader or chief), are empowered to govern.

The Irriaku, like the Sacred Pipe, is the heart of the people as it is the heart of Iyatiku. In the form of the perfect ear of corn, Naiya Iyatiku (Mother, Chief) is present at every ceremony. Without the presence of her power, no ceremony can produce the power it is designed to create or release. These uses of the feminine testify that primary power—the power to make and to relate—belongs to the preponderantly feminine powers of the universe.

According to one story my great-grandmother told me, in time immemorial when the people lived in the White Village or Kush Katret, Iyatiku lived with them. There came a drought, and since many normal activities had to be suspended and since the people were hungry and worried because of the scarcity of food from the drought, Iyatiku gave them a gambling game to while away the time. It was meant to distract them from their troubles. But the men became obsessed and began to gamble everything away. When the women scolded them and demanded that they stop gambling and act responsibly toward their families, the men got mad and went into the kivas.

Now, since the kivas were the men's space, the women didn't go there except for ritual reasons. The men continued to gamble, neglecting their ritual duties and losing all their possessions of value. Because they didn't do the dances or make the offerings as they were supposed to, the drought continued and serious famine ensued. Finally one old man who was also a priest, or cheani, became very concerned. He sought the advice of a shaman nearby, but it was too late. Iyatiku had left Kush Katret in anger at her foolish people. She went back to Shipap where she lives now and keeps an eye on the people. The people were forced to abandon the village, which was inundated by floods brought on by the angry lake spirits. So the beautiful village was destroyed and the people were forced to build a new one elsewhere and to live without the Mother of Corn. But she left with them her power, Irriaku, and told them that it was her heart she left in their keeping. She charged them always to share the fruits of her body with one another, for they were all related, and she told them that they must ever remain at peace in their hearts and their relationships.

The rains come only to peaceful people, or so the Keres say. As a result of this belief, the Keres abhor violence or hostility. They are very careful to contain their emotions and to put a smooth face on things, for rain is essential to the very life of their villages. Without it the crops can't grow, the livestock will starve, there will be no water for drinking or bathing—in short, all life, physical and ceremonial, will come to a halt. For ceremonies depend on corn and corn pollen and birds and water; without these they are not likely to be efficacious, if they can be held at all.


There is an old tradition among numerous tribes of a two-sided, complementary social structure. In the American Southeast this tradition was worked out in terms of the red chief and the white chief, positions held by women and by men and corresponding to internal affairs and external affairs. They were both spiritual and ritualistic, but the white chief or internal chief functioned in harmony-effective ways. This chief maintained peace and harmony among the people of the band, village, or tribe and administered domestic affairs. The red chief, also known as the war chief, presided over relations with other tribes and officiated over events that took people away from the village. Among the Pueblo of the American Southwest are two notable traditional offices: that of the cacique (a Spanish term for the Tiamuni Hotchin or traditional leader), who was charged with maintaining internal harmony, and that of the hotchin or "war captain," whose office was concerned with mediating between the tribe and outsiders, implementing foreign policy, and, if necessary, calling for defensive or retaliatory forays. This hotchin, whose title is usually translated "country chief" or "outside chief," was first authorized by Iyatiku when she still lived among the people. At that time there was no "inside" chief other than the Mother herself and the clan mothers whom she instructed in the proper ritual ways as each clan came into being. Since Iyatiku was in residence, an inside chief or cacique was unnecessary. The present-day caciques continue even now to act as her representatives and gain their power directly from her.

Thus the Pueblos are organized—as are most gynocratic tribes—into a moiety system (as anthropologists dub it) that reflects their understanding of ritual empowerment as dialogic. This dyadic structure, which emphasizes complementarity rather than opposition, is analogous to the external fire/internal fire relationship of sun and earth. That is, the core/womb of the earth is inward fire as the heart of heaven, the sun, is external fire. The Cherokee and their northern cousins the Iroquois acknowledge the femaleness of both fires: the sun is female to them both, as is the earth. Among the Keres, Shipap, which is in the earth, is white, as was the isolated house Iyatiku dwelt in before she left the mortal plane entirely for Shipap. The color of Shipap is white. The Hopi see Spider Woman as Grandmother of the sun and as the great Medicine Power who sang the people into this fourth world we live in now.

The understanding of universal functioning as relationship between the inner and the outer is reflected in the social systems of those tribal groups that are based on clan systems. It is reflected in ritual systems, as seen in the widespread incidence of legends about the Little War Twins among the Pueblos or the Sacred Twins among other tribes and Nations. The Sacred Twins embody the power of dual creative forces. The potency of their relationship is as strong as that of the negative and positive charges on magnetic fields. It is on their complementariness and their relationship that both destructive and creative ritual power rests.

Among the western Keres, the war captains are the analogues of the Little War Twins, Ma'sewe and O'yo'yo'we. Their prototype appears to be those puzzling twin sisters of the Keres pantheon, Uretsete and Naotsete, who were sung into life by Thought Woman before the creation of the world. These sisters appear and reappear in Pueblo stories in various guises and various names. One of them, Uretsete, becomes male at some point in the creation story of the Keres. Transformation of this kind is common in American Indian lore, and the transformation processes embedded in the tales about the spirit beings and their alternative aspects point to the regenerative powers embodied in their diversity.


Excerpted from The Sacred Hoop by Paula Gunn Allen. Copyright © 1992 Paula Gunn Allen. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Preface to the 1992 Edition,
The Ways of Our Grandmothers,
Grandmother of the Sun: Ritual Gynocracy in Native America,
When Women Throw Down Bundles: Strong Women Make Strong Nations,
Where I Come from Is Like This,
The Word Warriors,
The Sacred Hoop: A Contemporary Perspective,
Whose Dream Is This Anyway? Remythologizing and Self-definition in Contemporary American Indian Fiction,
Something Sacred Going on Out There: Myth and Vision in American Indian Literature,
The Feminine Landscape of Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony,
A Stranger in My Own Life: Alienation in American Indian Poetry and Prose,
The Ceremonial Motion of Indian Time: Long Ago, So Far,
Answering the Deer: Genocide and Continuance in the Poetry of American Indian Women,
This Wilderness in My Blood: Spiritual Foundations of the Poetry of Five American Indian Women,
Pushing Up the Sky,
Angry Women Are Building: Issues and Struggles Facing American Indian Women Today,
How the West Was Really Won,
Who Is Your Mother? Red Roots of White Feminism,
Kochinnenako in Academe: Three Approaches to Interpreting a Keres Indian Tale,
Hwame, Koshkalaka, and the Rest: Lesbians in American Indian Cultures,
Stealing the Thunder: Future Visions for American Indian Women, Tribes, and Literary Studies,
Selected Bibliography,
Permissions Acknowledgments,
About the Author,

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