Words by Ruth H. Robertson
This Women’s History Month, Atmos columnist Ruth H. Robertson urges that it’s not too late to rewrite history, which has—more often than not—been recorded by closed colonial minds.
One of the many harms perpetuated by colonialism against Indigenous peoples has been its omission of Tribal women from the annals of history.
Little is widely known about us; about our truth, our significance, and our roles within Native Nations. What has been documented—by mostly white, christian, male, settler ethnographers—is fundamentally flawed. Colonial history’s rendering of North American Tribes is predominantly male. If you were taught anything about Native Nations in school, it was likely centered on Native men. They branded us little more than sex toys or literal beasts of burden. Nothing could be further from reality.
Perhaps they were incapable of understanding who we were. You see, Indigenous groups in precolonial times were profoundly spiritual, and the very core of that spiritual belief was derived from the Divine Feminine, that of Mother Earth. To the colonizer, spirituality was relegated to the pages of a two thousand year old book stolen from another land, or behind the doors of a church—and while some denominations deified the Virgin Mary, she was seen as a mere vessel. To them, our spirituality was devil worship. They believed theirs to be superior, to the point of outlawing our ceremonies. Such ignorance and hate prevented them from truly perceiving the Native woman. Instead, they chose the conquest of our flesh, blinding themselves with greed and lust.
To the Oceti Sakowin, women are sacred. That term has been thrown around a lot in recent years, but it is more than a catchphrase. It is central to our worldview. The Seven Sacred Rites of the Lakota Nation were gifted to us by White Buffalo Calf Woman, a Divine Feminine deity who is the spiritual embodiment of the maiden, mother and crone. Not only did she give the Lakota the canupa, the sacred pipe used in our ceremonies, and instructions on how to pray with it—she was proof that the Great Mystery, the Source that moves and binds all things in the Universe, chose the form of a human woman to transmit his power. Indeed, she said it was the work of the women’s hands and the fruit of their wombs that would keep our People alive. Her womb is a gateway to the spirit world, and she has the sacred power to initiate movement from nothingness. Women are the impetus.
Oceti Sakowin did not have a written language, but they used symbols to convey meaning. One primary symbol of Lakota spirituality is two triangles, with their points meeting at the center. This symbolizes the power of heaven and earth, the meeting of Father Sky and Mother Earth. Within this single cipher is the primary code of Universal creation, a visual representation that relies on the message: all that is above is also reflected in all that is below. God is born. Wakan (the sacred) is made real.
It is up to us to be truthseekers, and to listen to the original peoples who have been abused by the lies of the colonizer.
The turtle, kéya, is the primary symbol of feminine power used by the Lakota people. For this reason, you will often see the turtle—represented by a U-shaped motif—in Lakota beadwork, art and clothing that refers to or is worn by women. The turtle spirit is one of longevity and fortitude, and to the ancestors, epitomized Mother Earth. According to Lakota legend, turtles were crucial to the formation of the primordial soil that allowed human beings to evolve into creatures who could live on Mother Earth’s surface. As the daughters of Mother Earth who are also lifegivers, the turtle became a symbol of fertility and human female reproduction as well. The story of the turtle’s connection to women is born on its shell, which demarcates the thirteen moons. The shell’s edge further reveals the lunar cycle of 28 days. This same cycle is carried within the womb of the human women, who re-energize their power of creation every 28 days. We are all connected.
The symbol of a turtle is so powerful it may be worn as an amulet of protection. After a baby is born, their umbilical cord can be dried and sewn into a pouch. A baby girl’s pouch is in the shape of a turtle. The turtle served as a charm and protected its bearer, ensuring her a long life and imbuing her with the power of Mother Earth from infancy until death. A baby boy may be gifted with a pouch in the shape of a lizard.
But feminine power was not consigned to one’s ability to reproduce. It is not commonly known that Oceti Sakowin women were actually the ones who accumulated and dispensed power as well as cultural knowledge. For this reason, it was known among Indigenous peoples that Tribes were only as strong as their women.
It was within the rights of an Oceti Sakowin woman to choose a path traditionally taken by their male counterparts as well. Among the Dakota, there were winoxtca, or female soldiers. They had their own society, and were every bit as skilled as warriors who defended their people and way of life as the men. They achieved great war honors, and some were bestowed with war bonnets for their valor.
There were also medicine women among the Oceti Sakowin. Medicine women often specialized in Native plant use. All manner of Native plants were prepared in ways that would treat injury, illness, and promote good health. They even prescribed abortifacients. There were also witches who harnessed power they could use for good, or evil. It was said that women had the unique ability to manipulate the power of color and were able to conjure and beseech certain deities for assistance. These deities would only interact with the feminine.
This Women’s History Month, realize that what you’ve been told about the women of the world has, more often than not, been recorded by closed colonial minds that have their own agenda. Their falsities have blinded us. It is up to us to be truthseekers, and to listen to the original peoples who have been abused by the lies of the colonizer. It is not too late for us to rewrite history and boost the voices of those who have been erased and subjugated for centuries. Don’t uphold negative, hostile, prejudice stereotypes or participate in the dissemination of antiquated settler ignorance. Let wowicake, truth and justice, a principal value of the Oceti Sakowin, reign supreme.