Female Powers and Places in Indian North America

Max Dashu

I encountered the book I’m about to discuss here while searching for more information on the Winnemem Wintu medicine women. I had learned of religious and land rights struggles that this north California people was going through (more on this below) and a web search turned up an excellent discussion in Peter Nabokov’s Where the Lightning Strikes: the Lives of American Indian Sacred Places, Peter Nabokov, 2006.

This isn’t exactly a book review, but I want to share some excellent information that the book provides about sacred place and story in North American Indian culture / religion. I’ll jump off from some of the information about American Indian women’s culture, female spirits and sacred sites, and medicine women, and supplement them with additional information from other sources.

Mandan and Hidatsa heritages
The Mandan were already living along the Missouri river by 700 ce, farming corn, beans, squash, sunflowers and tobacco. Archaeologists have found their black pottery, garden tools, and remains of earthen lodges clustered around plazas. Natcompasahah, “heart of the world,” is their name for the place where the Heart river joins the Missouri. This great river had a male bank and a female bank. “The women weeded and hybridized crops, sang to their gardens, raised children, molded pottery, wove burden baskets and participated in the female-only religious societies.” Men had their own religious groups, hunted and fished.

Hidatsa earthen roundhouse, North Dakota

The Hidatsa came along later and became neighbors, learning to build earthen lodges like the Mandan. (A wooden post from one of these houses has been dated to 875 ce.) The oral histories recount how they learned to farm corn from the Mandan, and loved it. “We thought our fields sacred,” said Waheenee-wea, Buffalo Bird Woman. No one dreamed of trying to take another’s field, lest some misfortune befall them. “We cared for our corn in those days as we would care for a child; for we Indian people loved our gardens, just as a mother loves her children; and we thought that our growing corn liked to hear us sing, just as children like to hear their mother sing to them.”

Wonderful! I looked up Buffalo Bird Woman and found that some of her oral history is available online. It contains a true wealth of information on Hidatsa women’s farming wisdom, from clearing and planting to harvesting, cooking, and storing food. Her descriptions show how much work was involved in preparing and tilling the fields, parching, shelling or stringing corn, slicing and smoking squash, in digging and lining the storage pits, and in preparing green corn cakes and other delicacies. The women built underground food caches for corn and squash that they had dried, just as they built fences and platforms for resting from labor and for guarding the growing corn.

Tilling with bone hoe

…there was a garden and in the middle of the garden was a tree. There was a platform under the tree made of trunks and slabs; and there those two girls sat to watch the garden and sing watch-garden songs. They did this to make the garden grow, just as people sing to a baby to make it be quiet and feel good. In old times we sang to a garden for a like reason, to make the garden feel good and grow. This custom was one used in every garden. Sometimes one or two women sang… The singing was begun in the spring and continued until the corn was ripe…This resting stage we used to rest on after working in the garden; and to sing here the songs that we sang at this season of the year, and which I have called watch-garden songs.

Some of these songs were directed at the boys who happened by, hunting, and were teasing songs. The girls also teased each other, especially their ikupa’ or best friends. I highly recommend reading this account of Hidatsa women’s work, especially if you are interested in raising your own food and in ways of storing it naturally. It provides fascinating and useful knowledge from an expert farmer, born in 1839, and a Plains women’s history known to very few people today. (In this online text, Buffalo Bird Woman’s name is given as Maxi’diwiac, not Waheeneewea as above.) Its photos show Hidatsa women working with horn rakes, slicing squash with bone knives for drying, and their garden plots and planting patterns.

Another source highlights women as builders and lodge owners:

When a lodge became crowded, one of the daughters would build her own lodge and move there with husband and children. The lodge was the property of the women who lived in it. They also owned the household furniture, the tipi, the corn scaffolds, cache pits, dogs, and gardening equipment. [“The History and Culture of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Sahnish”]

They owned these things because they made them, including the buildings.

Here’s another account that fleshes out the story of Grandmother Who Never Dies and describes the Corn ceremonies that women elders held to honor her:

The Mandans and Minnitarees [Hidatsa] of North America used to hold a festival in spring which they called the corn-medicine festival of the women. They thought that a certain Old Woman who Never Dies made the crops to grow, and that, living somewhere in the south, she sent the migratory waterfowl in spring as her tokens and representatives. Each sort of bird represented a special kind of crop cultivated by the Indians: the wild goose stood for the maize, the wild swan for the gourds, and the wild duck for the beans. So when the feathered messengers of the Old Woman began to arrive in spring the Indians celebrated the corn-medicine festival of the women. Scaffolds were set up, on which the people hung dried meat and other things by way of offerings to the Old Woman; and on a certain day the old women of the tribe, as representatives of the Old Woman who Never Dies, assembled at the scaffolds each bearing in her hand an ear of maize fastened to a stick. They first planted these sticks in the ground, then danced round the scaffolds, and finally took up the sticks again in their arms. Meanwhile old men beat drums and shook rattles as a musical accompaniment to the performance of the old women.

Further, young women came and put dried flesh into the mouths of the old women, for which they received in return a grain of the consecrated maize to eat. Three or four grains of the holy corn were also placed in the dishes of the young women, to be afterwards carefully mixed with the seed-corn, which they were supposed to fertilise. The dried flesh hung on the scaffold belonged to the old women, because they represented the Old Woman who Never Dies. A similar corn-medicine festival was held in autumn for the purpose of attracting the herds of buffaloes and securing a supply of meat. At that time every woman carried in her arms an uprooted plant of maize.

They gave the name of the Old Woman who Never Dies both to the maize and to those birds which they regarded as symbols of the fruits of the earth, and they prayed to them in autumn saying, “Mother, have pity on us! send us not the bitter cold too soon, lest we have not meat enough! let not all the game depart, that we may have something for the winter!” In autumn, when the birds were flying south, the Indians thought that they were going home to the Old Woman and taking to her the offerings that had been hung up on the scaffolds, especially the dried meat, which she ate. Here then we have the spirit or divinity of the corn conceived as an Old Woman and represented in bodily form by old women, who in their capacity of representatives receive some at least of the offerings which are intended for her. [Frazer, Golden Bough: The Corn Mother in Many Lands, Vol VII, 1922 p 204]

Grandmother Who Never Dies had her own fields farmed by mice and moles, and protected by deer and blackbirds, as Nabokov explains: “She taught the Hidatsa how to ‘open’ their gardens when the migrating swans, geese and ducks swept up the Texas-to-Canada flyway, accompanied by the corn spirits, and how to ‘close’ them at harvest time when the flocks flew back south.” She lived in an earth lodge near the present-day Four Bears Bridge in North Dakota, and next to it was a sacred rock that her grandson threw down from the heavens.

The Hidatsa carried this holy stone with them when white built the Garrison dam in 1956 and flooded their ancestral lands. They kept on revering and bringing offerings to it. But somehow it fell into the hands of the North Dakota Historical Society. When Nabokov went to Bismarck to see it, the curators were embarrassed to admit that they could not find it. The Hidatsa also remember a sacred “baby” place in Bismarck, where women left offerings to bring children.

Drying corn on platform

White intrusion brought deadly smallpox that nearly wiped out the Mandan. “Before they came, we lived at the center and thought with our hearts.” The Hidatsa fared little better in the epidemic. However, some of them migrated to Montana and became the Crow Nation. They returned to hunting but never forgot their Missouri river origins. They returned periodically to trade and to visit the lodge of Old Woman Who Never Dies. They also continued to grow one crop, a rare form of tobacco that is used for sacrament only. According to Nabokov, “Only in Tobacco Society ceremonies did women share with men the rights to sacred medicine bundles and participate as equals.” Then he tells an amazing story. An old woman got seeds of this tobacco from a medicine bundle acquired by a white collector. She planted them and was able to revive the strain of ancestral tobacco.

Paha Sapa and Washu Niya

The Lakota had a phrase obleyaya dosho, “the wideness of the world.” In the center of it all is Paha Sapa, the Black Hills, with their dark cover of evergreen trees. They are wamakaognaka e’cantge, “the heart of everything that is.” A sandstone ridge sets Paha Sapa off from the surrounding prairie. Lakota lore identifies a valley between the ridge and the Hills as the Race Track, where the winged and four-legged animals held a contest in primeval times. An opening in this enclosure was called Pte Tali Yapa, Buffalo Gap, and was the gateway to the Black Hills, through which people and animals approached them.

Paha Sapa, the Black Hills

Other sites include Old Woman’s Hill, Bears Lodge Medicine Pipe Mountain, Sun Dance River. And Washu Niya, Breathing Place, which gave off vapors in winter. It was the portal of emergence from the world below, through which humans and buffalo both ascended. Here the book brings forward a theme developed by Patricia Albers, a scholar of Black Hills history, and Linea Sundstrom, a rock art scholar who was born in the area and made its archaeology her life’s work. (More about her work in the preceding post on this blog.)

The two women “simultaneously were struck by the important connection in Lakota consciousness ‘between winter, bison, and breath’.” Albers found that Lakota philosophy saw caves as “birthing chambers or wombs of the earth,” and that buffalo existed in the underworld as tiny beings before coming up through the sacred Breathing Cave. They themselves symbolized the breath of life, and the feminine principle.

Nabokov revisits the history of the 1868 treaty with its recognition of Lakota rights to South Dakota, including the Black Hills, and recounts how only five years later, Congress prepared to abrogate it by sending then-Lieutenant Colonel Custer to reconnoiter those very lands. He documents, too, the racist pronouncements of manifest destiny, predicting that “the hives of industry will take the place of dirty wigwams” and Christian churches displace “places of heathen mythology.” And follows up with the shameful story of Congress repeatedly offering to buy the Black Hills, interspersed with threats, meanwhile opening them up to white homesteaders, whose descendants hold huge chunks of the land even today.

A core point of Where the Lightning Strikes is the importance of oral histories and the strong interweaving  of cultural tradition with local place, sacred places each with their names, stories, meanings, essences. Nabokov details how the U.S. government systematically discounted all this when Indians filed suit in court to retain rights over sacred lands like the Black Hills which were integral to their spiritual practice.

Bear Lodge Butte

In Wyoming, Bear Lodge Butte is sacred to the Kiowa, who remember it as the place from which they migrated south, and to the Cheyenne and Lakota. All these peoples share a story of seven sisters who were playing with her brother when he turned into a huge bear and attacked them. Running for their lives, they climbed on a stump or rock, which ascended into the sky. Trying to reach them, the bear ripped deep fissures in the rock with his claws. The sisters went into the sky and became the Pleiades, or the Big Dipper as the Kiowa have it. This story has much in common with other world traditions of the Pleiades as Seven Sisters, from Australia to Japan to Greece. In southern California, they were sisters who married a group of brothers. Their husbands did not bring home meat they hunted, all but one of them. So the women rose to the sky, followed by the one man who was a good provider. [A.L. Kroeber, Handbook of the Indians of California, 1925/1976: 624]

Euro-settlers renamed this great rock pillar as “Devil’s Tower,” and know it today primarily through the sci-fi movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Nabokov describes rock-climbers’ refusal to honor Indian calls to stay off the mountain for one month a year, so that ceremonies could go forward without inference. Even more moving is his account of the battle over Bear Butte, Indians versus the state and a crassly exploitative tourist industry. South Dakota banned gathering of sage, sweat lodges, and demanded purchase of permits to fast and pray. The Religious Freedom Act suit that followed was turned down by one court after another, including the Supreme Court. [More here.]

The Great Mounds

The peoples of the Mississippi and Ohio basins built mound temples, which are found from Georgia to Oklahoma, and from Louisiana to Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Emerald Mound of the Natchez, built around 1300, was “the third largest religious structure in North America.” Two smaller mounds faced each other at opposite ends of its high platform. Neighbors of the Natchez saw them as “a race of wizards and conjurors.”

The sacred mound of the Choctaw is Nanih Waiya, which they consider their Great Mother. This is where the People arrived after a migration from the northwest, led by the shaman Chahta who every night placed his staff in the ground. When they arrived at this place, the staff rooted itself deep in the ground as a omen that here the Choctaw would settle and build their mound and homes. (This story resonates with Quechua stories of foundational ancestors who also founded settlements where a staff—thrown in these accounts—sank itself in the earth.) A town with walls, moats, plazas and mound temples grew up around Nanih Waiya, surrounded by farms. Another story tells of a different Nanih Waiya, this time a womb-cave out of which the Choctaw emerged after the formation of the landscape. From the hilltop above this cave-mound, they first saw the sun.

Nanih Waiya, Mother Mound of the Choctaw

The first mound was “the center of the Choctaw universe,” what they called “our good old mother mound.” Nabokov describes how the forced relocation of the Trail of Tears took most of the Choctaw from their lands. Those who managed to remain were pushed out by white settlers who logged out their forests. Many of the people ended up working as laborers and sharecroppers for cotton farmers. A tiny nucleus of Choctaw survivors remains in the area around Nanih Waiya.

Pawnee Sacred Places, Philosophies, Ceremonies

Another infuriating story of displacement involves the Pawnee, the farmers and star-worshippers who once lived in Nebraska and Kansas. White invaders repeatedly booted them out of their lands and broke their treaties (even though they had acted as allies in the war on the Lakotas). The Pawnee were Caddoan-speakers from the southeast, who built domed earth lodges entered through long hallways. Pawnee women farmed and men hunted. (Nabokov’s description implies an all-male priesthood, which seems borne out by recorded accounts of the Hako ceremonies.) Each village had its medicine bundle with an origin story.

Villages were laid out in relation to constellations. “Ideally, farthest north lay the village in charge of the North Star Bundle, the female star ‘which doesn’t move,’ whose gardens always had green corn and larders of fresh buffalo meat.” The Evening Star would be the village to the west, with her helper the Moon, and the god Tirawa; and the Morning Star village would be the village of the East and his helper the Sun. Nabokov observes that each direction had “its own tree, animal, weather condition and color,” which were reflected in the four great lodge pillars. The back of every lodge was the designated place for the Evening Star and home altar, “the place for the wonderful things.”

One of the Pawnee sacred places was Pahaku, “Mound on the Water”: a cave in the bluffs along the Platte river. It was said to be an Animal Lodge where the kingfisher appealed to the other animals to resurrect a murdered boy. The Lakota and Omaha revered this place under similar names, and it was a place of pilgrimage, as it is even today.

Pawnee sacred chants of the Hako (calumet pipe) were narrated and explained by Pawnee elder Tahiriissawichi, with the help of a literate Pawnee, James Murie, and recorded by Alice Fletcher in the 1930s. James 11 Murie (You can read the full text online.) These beautiful and profound litanies repeatedly call on Mother Corn as h Atira, “mother giving forth life,” imploring her to lead the people. As Tahiriissawichi explained, “power was given her to lead the spirits of all things in the air and to command the birds and the animals connected with the Hako. Endowed with power from Tira wahut above and from h Uraru (Mother Earth) below, Mother Corn leads and we must follow her, our spirits must follow her spirit.”

The ear of corn is a part of h Uraru, Mother Earth, the mother of all things, so we call the ear of corn Mother Corn; and because she supports our life through food, we speak of her as h Atira, “mother giving forth life.”

The songs belong to a series of complex ceremonies enacted by Pawnee priests. Songs calling Mother Earth to awaken at dawn are very reminiscent of the Kemetic songs of awakening to Auset or other Neteru, or the Ashtakam sung to deities at dawn in the temples of India:

Mother Earth is the first to be called to awake, that she may receive the breath of the new day.  Mother Earth hears the call; she moves, she awakes, she arises, she feels the breath of the new-born Dawn. The leaves and the grass stir; all things move with the breath of the new day; everywhere lifeis renewed. This is very mysterious; we are speaking of something very sacred, although it happens every day.

The Hako ceremony often refers to the brown eagle Kawas as a messenger:

The eagle soars in the skies and can communicate with the powers that are above; so the eagle represents these powers. As we stand facing the east the white-eagle feathered stem, on the right, toward the south, represents brightness, the light, the day, the sun, and it is the male. It is for defense and is carried on the side farthest from the people. The brown-eagle feathered stem, Kawas, is to the left, toward the north; it represents darkness, the night, the moon, and is the female. Kawas is carried nearest the people. Kawas has the right to make the nest and to seek help from Tira wa for the Children.

In Medicine Woman Country

Karuk Julian Lang asked his grandmother “Who did the old Indians say was God?”
She answered, “Why, the Earth! Ever’thin. The rocks, the leaves, the mountains.”

Winnemem Wintun means the Middle Water people. They live along the McCloud river north of Mount Shasta, or as they knew it, Bulyum Puyuik: the Great Mountain. This northern part of California is a country notable for its medicine women, from the Wintun to the Karok and Yurok and Hupa to their west. One of the Wintu medicine women was Kate Luckie. You may have read her words before, as they are often quoted without identifying their source. The Mohawk journal Akwesasne Notes published them on one of their beautiful posters in the 1970s.

In 1925 Kate Luckie prophesied to the anthropologist Cora DuBois that “this world will stay as long as Indians live”:

When the Indians all die, then God will let the water come down from the north. Everyone will drown. That is because the white people never cared for land or deer or bear. When we kill meat, we eat it all up. When we dig roots, we make little holes. When we build houses, we don’t ruin things. We shake down acorns and pine nuts. We don’t chop down the trees. We use only dead wood. But the white people plow up the ground, pull up the trees, kill everything. The tree says, ‘Don’t. I am sore. Don’t hurt me.’ But they chop it down and cut it up. The spirit of the land hates them. The Indians never hurt anything, but the white people destroy all. They blast rocks and scatter them on the earth. The rock says, ‘Don’t! You are hurting me.’ But the white people pay no attention. When the Indians use rocks, they take little round ones for their cooking. The white people dig deep tunnels. They make roads. They dig as much as they wish. They don’t care how much the ground cries out. How can the spirit of the Earth like the white man? That is why God upset the world—because it is sore all over. Everywhere the white man has touched it, it is sore. It looks sick. So it gets even by killing him when he blasts. But eventually the water will come.

Nabokov describes a line of Wintun medicine women descended from a man who managed to escape a treacherous feast where whites invited Indian guests in order to massacre them. (Such killings were the rule, not the exception, in the Anglo invasion of California.) The survivor’s daughter is here identified only as “Judy, a noted medicine woman.” Her own daughter, Jennie Curl, was a healer who prophesied that the world would be destroyed by floods in evil times so that the Earth could be reborn. And her daughter was Florence Jones, who was born in 1908 in the aftermath of settler genocide, when less than 400 Wintu survived. By that time California Indian people had suffered massacres, decimating European diseases, enslavement, land seizure and displacement.

Florence Jones, Winnemem Wintu holy woman

Yet the Wintu kept their religion, and Florence was chosen to go to Dekkas Rock and other sacred springs and mountains where Wintun doctors learned their arts. She practiced her medicine for many decades. In the 1980s she emerged into wider view as the defender of Bulyum Puyuik against developers who wanted to cut ski runs and lifts into Mount Shasta. They were also pushing to build three resorts in one of the most sacred areas of the mountain. This was Panther Meadows, where Florence herself had been taken to learn the medicine ways in her youth. She fought the Forest Service in 1988, warning them of disaster if Bulyum Puyuik was desecrated in this way. And she prevailed.

A similar battle was going on at the same time in Karok/Yurok country to the west of the Winnemem. The government wanted to cut a new road through the mountain sanctuary that included holy places like Doctor Rock, where the Karok eem (female shamans) went to fast, pray, and be initiated, and Chimney Rock. I remember the struggle against the Gasket-Orleans road, or GO-road well. The Indians lost the court cases in which they challenged this intrusion, which would have brought logging through, but they won the spiritual battle, because the road was never built.

Following in the footsteps of Florence Jones is the current Winnemem medicine woman, Caleen Sisk-Franco, her student. She explains that the Panther Meadows spring is called Sauwel Mem. “Sauwel means a place that has sacredness about it, like it’s the beginning of something, or it’s the life form of something. And mem is water. So, this is the life-giving water and it runs all the way through our land…It all comes from this life-giving force. When you recognize that, it’s kind of like your mother. That’s your life-giver that brought you into this world. Without this spring, nothing else would be.”

Now the Winnemem Wintun are fighting new battles, including a proposal to flood their remaining sacred sites by raising the Shasta Dam level. [Info here. ]After white yahoos disrespectfully intruded on their Womanhood Ceremony, they have been trying to get the McCloud river closed off to recreational boaters for the one week a year when the ceremony is celebrated. This place is called Kokospom or Puberty Rock, where the Winnemem have held ceremonies for thousands of years:

The Baɬas Chonas represents the coming of age for our teenage girls who symbolically transition into womanhood by swimming across the McCloud Arm of Shasta Lake on the last day. During the 2006 Baɬas Chonas, the Forest Service refused to close the small stretch of the McCloud we needed for the ceremony, instead only applying a “voluntary closure.” Several boaters, some of whom were drunk, didn’t heed the closure …and interfered with the ceremony. One group parked their houseboat a stone’s throw from the cedar bark hut where Marine stayed during the ceremony, while another group of boaters drunkenly yelled obscenities and told us “It’s our river too, dude”. One woman on the boat flashed her breasts at us.

This video shows the offensive incident. A goodhearted ranger tried to stop the intruders, but couldn’t reach their powerboat in his kayak. This is why boats must be interdicted for this and all future ceremonies.

Caleen Sisk-Franco, who is a chief as well as medicine woman, tells the history of the Winnemem Wintu, or Middle River people. “We didn’t travel to any other country to find freedom. We had it here.” She describes how while Indian men were off fighting in WWII and the women were working in war industry, the government flooded their treaty lands to create a recreational lake, depriving these Middle River People of their homelands. Now the US govt refuses to close off their ceremonial grounds for their Baɬas Chonas, only allowing a “voluntary” closure. This means that disrespectful whites are free to horn in, drinking, hooting, staring, and riding their noisy jet skis past while the sing is going on.

This is not just past history, it is today. You can sign a petition to support the rights of the Winnemem Wintu to hold their Balas Chonas ceremony without insults, noise, and drunken intrusions from white boaters. Please sign and share the link far and wide. What is at stake here? These gorgeous photos show the Balas Chonas, the womanhood ceremonies of the Winnemem Wintu of McCloud River.

On Cultural Appropriation

In Where the Lightning Strikes, Nabokov rightly criticizes another kind of intrusion on Indian sacred sites, by New Agers who cavort around in Panther Meadows, or attempt “half-baked imitation” of Native symbols and ceremonies. But here and elsewhere in the book, he singles out women in particular. “Some advocates for ‘deep’ wildnerness experiences that integrate women into land-based mysticism or restore grasslands and old forests have sought the gravity of ritual obligation and the mystery of symbolic manipulation.” He then says that “a few have enlisted American Indian examples for this task.”

I’ve seen this. Midwives who name their invented ceremonies as Blessing Way, whites who use Zuni or Haida symbols to make drums or “shields,” the notorious Lynn Andrews phenomenon. I believe cultural appropriation by descendants of colonizers is wrong, and have written articles to educate whites about why it is wrong, how it adds insult to injury, and have spoken out on it numerous times. But it is not just women, or feminists, who do this appropriation; it is Euro-settlers in general. We need to educate ourselves, and each other, about these patterns. But taking an arrogant tone of superiority is not the way to do it. That “land-based mysticism” that Nabokov decries is at root what Florence Jones advocated:

Go back to Nature– the most important thing for a human being is to go back to Nature. The Nature takes care of your mind and heart and soul. [“Florence Jones”: don’t miss the wonderful short video about her at this link]

In a narrative that is heavily focused on the masculine (which I’ll expand on in a moment) this negative zeroing in on women’s spiritual search rubbed me the wrong way. Nabokov conflates all attempts to reclaim ceremony in Nature with those involving appropriation of Indian traditions. He implies that all women’s reclamation of ceremonies in wilderness places are illegitimate, or at a minimum, pitiful: “A certain timidity accompanies these knockoffs, an uncertainty about how deeply their designers truly want the symbols to work, or the degree to which they believe they truly possess the power to turn back the clock.”

That hesitance has real historical causes, given where women stand in Euro-American cultural history. It’s patriarchal religion, authoritarian and anti-body, anti-sexual doctrines, weigh heavily on women, who are still not perceived as having any cultural authority of their own in this dominance based culture. Most women have not had the privilege of driving to sacred sites around North America as this white male author has, and as exceptional as he seems to believe he is, his entitlement shows through. As he hikes up to an Indian sacred site, a rural white woman calls out to him that the Indians “don’t want none up in ‘ere.” He writes condescendingly that maybe “they” are finally learning. But he keeps going up to the sanctuary, because clearly her warning does not apply to him.

The book is written in overwhelmingly masculine-default language, using “man” or “a man” as the generic human: “At every critical turn in a man’s life,” etc., etc. [57] At one point the author refers to exchanges of “non-material goods: symbols, ritual communications, or wives.” [40] Needless to say, women are not goods, least of all in Native North America.

Vulva Stone Sanctuaries of the Kumeyaay

The feminist-negative attitude is repeated in the chapter “Beyond the Goddess,” in which Nabokov rebukes non-Indian women’s excitement to find that sacred places full of rock vulvas exist east of San Diego. These are sacred grounds of the Kumeyaay people, used for womanhood initiation and other ceremonies. He sees them as being “sought after as a resource on female-dominated religions”—a phrase that is objectionable in itself, and unwarranted. According to him, these women are claiming that the vulva stones originated in “a fertility goddess… during Europe’s late Paleolithic period.” He is completely unaware that spiritual feminists are critical of the very concept of “fertility goddess,” reductionist and limiting as it is—and still the term of choice among archaeologists and many anthropologists. That these tiresome accusations of “goddess monotheism” are a dime a dozen doesn’t make his misrepresentation any less unfair.

Nabokov sarcastically dismisses feminist critiques of priesthoods that bar women, and of male scholars who ignore the patriarchy in European civilization and who project it out onto other societies. He completely misses the fact that the Kumeyaay vulva stones have counterparts in nearly every world region. Certainly theirs are larger, more striking and numerous than most others. It’s not necessary to claim that all the vulva stones have the same cultural meaning, or ceremonial use. Even just in California, to say nothing of the Sahara or Australia or Hawaii, some vulva stones figure in rainmaking ceremony, others in conception rituals, like the Pomo “Baby Rocks.”

This author has failed to recognize that the cultural movement of women’s spiritual renewal is one of searching, exploring, learning in an attempt to recover what has been lost. It is not, as he claims, pegged to some monolithic interpretation of a single, European-based goddess. He says, “But these sites never quite fit the theory.” For him there is only one “theory,” a cariacatured stereotype. So with the vulva stones, he  attempts to disprove a monotheism that is not being claimed: “For one thing, there were just too many of them—a scattering of local female entities across hundreds of miles rather than a single female substitute for a male High God.” [249] He doesn’t even try to substantiate this “single female substitute” claim.

He then goes on to point out, triumphantly, that all of these sacred sites were associated with male shamans in Kumeyaay tradition. In other words, they have nothing to do with sacred female power. I very much doubt that all the Kumeyaay sacred stories of place are, as this writer implies, masculine, and I know for a fact that some of their kuseyaay (shamans, healers) were women. The tribal website refers to them in relation to the important Bird, Wildcat, Salt,” and Funeral song cycles:

Each of these would be sung and led by a specialist Kuseyaay (one of a council of male and female priests, doctors and scientists to the Kwaaypaay, leader), and danced by those in the clan who embraced their meaning. The Kuseyaay underwent special ceremonies to prepare for their work. [“Customs and Traditions”]

These Kumeyaay medicine women are still around. Jane Dumas “is revered for her vast knowledge of plants, herbs and ancient remedies. Most of her knowledge was passed down by her mother, Isabel Thing, a great cha’ak kuseyaay or medicine woman in southern California.” [“Jane Dumas, Respected Native American Elder”]

Nabokov minimizes the importance of female initiation ceremonies, taking pains to state that they are not a manifestation of “this female dominance” since boys have ceremonies too. He’s misunderstanding something fundamental here; feminists do not assert “female dominance” as he claims. Protesting male dominance, and female erasure, is an entirely different matter. It was veneration of the feminine principle, something lacking in recent European culture, that struck a chord, not “fodder for a goddess ideology imported from old Europe.”

There are real conversations to be had about how we talk about the Sacred, about Spirit. But what is here dismissed as “ideology” and “fertility goddess” skips over the testimony of Paula Gunn Allen, who objected to the offensive reductionism of this academic jargon. Speaking of it being applied to the Laguna creatrix Thought Woman, she wrote, “to assign to this great being the position of ‘fertility goddess’ is exceedingly demeanin; it trivializes the tribes and it trivializes the power of woman.” [Allen, The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions, 1986: 14]

I do know this much: American Indian people are far more likely to understand what the witch hunts in Europe meant. I have heard and read them pointing to this as a persecution of medicine people, of the Old Ways. Indian seers have prophesied the return of female sovereignty. Many Indian people, men as well as women, are beginning to talk about the Old Ways as matriarchal. There’s a synthesis, a cross-pollination, going on, and its crux is to understand the interlocking systems of oppressions. The poetry of John Trudell expresses it well:

… the  Goddess gave the chalice Dominator made the blade God slew the serpent and the woman’s bed was made tethers of chains tethers of jewels economic bondage runs by those rules the laws of justice are business decisions gender and class cut with surgical precision religious definitions and the politics of Man Church and State together hand in hand there’s a shadow over Sisterland Mother Earth as Goddess is Woman meets the God of Men violent prayers rationalizing madness partnership comes to an end … there’s a shadow over Sisterland… [Shadow Over Sisterland, by John Trudell and Bad Dog]

Having rebuked the feminists, Nabokov then puts things back in what he considers their proper place, describing initiation rites of boys first, at length, and girls as an afterthought. But this is his projection. There’s much more to these traditions, so much more to be known.

There are striking stories about female spirits to be found in southern California. Some are very much spirits of place, in keeping with this book’s theme. The Mohave tell how Actionless All-Powerful Old Woman traveled the landscape in primordial times, eventually turning into a rock. Look at the creation story of the Payomkowishum (“People of the West”), dubbed Luiseños by the Spanish. They speak of a primordial pair, brother and sister, who went through successive states of transformation. They were first Kyuvish, “vacant,” and Atahvish, “empty.” Then Omai, “not alive,” and Yamai, “not in existence,” then Milky Way and Boring, Lowering; and finally Tukomit, Night Sky, and Tamayowut, Earth.

She lay with her feet to the north; he sat by her right side; and she spoke: ‘I am stretched, I am extended. I shake, I resound. I am diminished, I am earthquake. I revolve, I roll. I disappear.’ Then he answered, ‘I am night, I am inverted. I cover. I rise, I ascend. I devour, I drain. I seize, I send away. I cut, I sever.’ These attributes were not yet, but they would be.

As her brother held her and questioned her, Tamayowut named each part of her body, and they were united. She gave birth to a long litany of beings and cultural things, some of the first of which were the grasses with which the female initiatory pits were lined, and bleeding and first periods; all the first people, animals, mountains and rocks and trees, water monsters, rattlesnakes and toloache mortars. [Kroeber, 677-8] The woman speaking first is a theme that occurs in Japanese and Guaraní origin stories, where it is rebuked as improper—but not in this one. Things connected with menarche and womanhood initiations assume a prominent place in this Payomkowishum creation story.

Many people are familiar with the Nazca Lines, but don’t know that they have counterparts in southeastern California: the Yuman geoglyphs along the lower Colorado river. Yuman people created them sometime around 900 to 1200 CE. There are over 150 of these earth engravings, some more 300 feet long. There were more, but dams and power lines have oblitered some of them.

Nabokov gives an excellent account of the mission system, with its “reductions” of Indians into captivity and servitude, its exclusion of Indians from the definition of gente de razon (people of reason). Eventually the Kumeyaay, Tongva, Cupeño and other peoples were driven off their lands. Although Nabokov has just argued for exclusively male shamans, his own sources show that women were shamans too.

The Franciscan missionary Felipe Arroyo wrote of the people around the San Juan Bautista Mission, 1714: “When an Indian dies his soul would remain in their sacred places which the sorceress had for the purpose of asking pardon from the devil.” That being his own monkish interpretation, of course. In Native terms, the woman shaman carried out ceremonies so that the spirit of the deceased would go on to the Western Lands. [264]