Thomas Hoepker - Magnum Photos / Trunk Archive

The Sacred Women of the World

Words by Ruth H. Hopkins

During Women’s History Month, we honor the Indigenous women land defenders who have been leading the way in protecting and defending our first mother: Planet Earth.

It’s been said that Mother Earth was the first Indigenous woman. After all, she is the original life giver, the first ancestor of us all—from microscopic single-celled organisms, to colossal prehistoric dinosaurs and the fabled leviathan of the deep. Her blood, our fresh water, flows along her surfaces like so many veins and capillaries, forming rivers and tributaries that sustain us. We evolved to exist in unison, forever linked and connected as relations. We are a part of her, stardust children of the Sky and Earth. She is the divine feminine, Creator and Mother. There is no humanity without her.


Perhaps this is why Indigenous women from ancient matriarchal societies have been and continue to be her primary defenders.


Scores of Indigenous women have fought and died to protect the sacred and Mother Earth over the ages. Patriarchal, white-washed colonial history has failed to acknowledge them. While their names and deeds should be recognized, know that none of these brave souls assumed the role of land defender and water protector for fame and fortune. Nay, they felt the call in their bones and followed their hearts, like those who had gone before them, no matter the cost. Their spirits were born from an unconquerable love that could not be diminished in the face of all-consuming greed, hatred, and a profane emptiness that denies its own.


Mary and Carrie Dann were sisters from the Western Shoshone Nation. In 1962, the Indian Claims Commission decided that their People had lost any claim to their ancestral territory because of settler encroachment. The Tribe stood on the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley. Within the binding contractual agreement, the United States government admitted that 60 million acres of land in present day California, Idaho, Nevada, and Utah belonged to the Western Shoshone.


The tribe took their claim to court. Upon appeal, they were awarded $26 million in compensation for the wrongful taking of their land, but they would not accept the money. The ancestral home of the Western Shoshone was not for sale.

It’s been said that Mother Earth was the first Indigenous woman. After all, she is the original life giver, the first ancestor of us all.

Ruth H. Hopkins

The Dann sisters would not relent, either. They stood by their ancestral claim, on their family’s 800-acre ranch. They refused to pay grazing fees to the government. They were raided by dozens of agents who arrived via helicopter, just 20 years ago. They took 232 of the Dann’s cattle and sold them. The government would continue to punish the sisters for defending their people’s lands, but the sisters kept fighting. Carrie Dann went on to speak out against a gold mining project on Mount Tenabo, the site of Western Shoshone creation stories.


Both the Dann sisters now walk to spirit road, but they remained staunch land defenders until the bitter end, occupying their ancestral territory, breaking horses and raising animals well into their eighties.

Indigenous women throughout the globe are bold protectors of Mother Earth, not just those living in North America.


Liz Chicaje Churay, a member of the Bora Indigenous community from northeastern Peru, launched an incredible effort to protect land sacred to her people. Thanks to her selfless diligence, Peru’s Yaguas National Park was created. It is about the size of Yellowstone National Park in the U.S. and protects more than 200 million acres of Amazon rainforest. While uninhabited by humans, 3,000 species of plants, over 500 species of birds, and 550 species of fish are now safe within the park’s boundaries.


The granddaughter of revered Indigenous matriarch Alma Thorpe, Lidia Thorpe, became the first Indigenous person to be elected to parliament in the state of Victoria in Australia in 2017. Thorpe has been a devoted advocate of Aboriginal rights. She’s been instrumental in bringing the issue of treaties, or lack thereof, to the forefront in recent years. Unlike in Canada and New Zealand, Britain did not forge treaties with Indigenous peoples living in Australia—even though for more than 60,000 years, over 500 Indigenous Nations had called the continent home. Instead, the British declared Australia terra nullius—nobody’s land.


Lidia, Djab Wurrung, has also been a prominent voice in demanding that the birthing trees of her people be protected. Birthing trees are a part of Aboriginal cultural tradition and are considered sacred. The trees themselves are centuries old. For time immemorial, Indigenous women would travel to these trees to give birth, and bury their placentas on site. So far, Indigenous peoples have negotiated with the Victorian government to protect a dozen or so of the birthing trees, but more are still being bulldozed and felled for development. The land where the birthing trees are located is a sacred site that Lidia and others say is a crucial part of their spiritual and cultural identity. Defenders have been attempting to save the trees by camping beside them and climbing into them when the trees are in danger of being clear-cut.

Many stories of the valiant battles Native women have waged to protect the land have been lost, especially those that happened during the early days of colonialism.

Ruth H. Hopkins

Many stories of the valiant battles Native women have waged to protect the land have been lost, especially those that happened during the early days of colonialism and assimilation. Yet even then, there were standard bearers carrying the torch of matriarchal defiance, holding back the destruction of sacred lands.


In 1910, Eliza Conley, Wyandot (Huron), became the third woman and first Native person to argue a case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. Conley was strong-willed and fiercely independent. She became a lawyer and was admitted to the Missouri bar before women even had the right to vote.


Eliza made her historic appearance in front of the highest court in the land for one reason: to protect her ancestral burial grounds. At the time, the historic Huron Indian Cemetery was located in downtown Kansas City, Kansas, which grew around it. Naturally, the municipality wanted to move the graves of hundreds of Lidia’s fellow tribesmen, as well as her own mother, so they could develop it as real estate. Congress granted the city the ability to move the remains of the Wyandot and sell the land. Eliza wouldn’t have it. Her and her sister built a rudimentary structure in front of the burial grounds and called it Fort Conley. There, they kept watch, around the clock, guarding the burial sites with their lives, and a shotgun.


The Supreme Court of the United States ruled against Lidia, but she persisted. She was arrested a number of times while protecting the land from city officials and spent 10 days in jail for trespassing in her family’s own cemetery. Eventually, the state of Kansas would pass a law to protect the Wyandot burial grounds from development. Conley was killed in 1946, but her life’s work inspired others to insure that the burial grounds would remain protected for generations to come. In 1971, the Huron Indian Cemetery was added to the National Register of Historic Places and in 2017, it became a National Historic Landmark. Eliza now rests eternally in the Huron Indian Cemetery with her family and over 600 other Wyandot, never to be disturbed.


During Women’s History Month, it is important that we remember the call in our blood, the sacred nature of womanhood. As we honor these women, these Indigenous land defenders, let us join them in taking up the mantle of protecting our first mother…Planet Earth.

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