Reflections on Indigenous Womanhood: Beyond the Body Politic
6/24/2013 10:50 AM
Author: Dr. Winona Wynn
As we ponder, negotiate, and question the words of our visiting scholars for this National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) curriculum development project, we are challenged to discover and rethink hidden dimensions of our own identities, as well as those that have been defined for us through culture, governmental policy, religion, and what Iranian scholar Hamedraza Kohzadi terms, “overtly individualized western culture.”
Kate Shanley, in her talk titled, “Finding the Right Words: Studying Indigenous ‘Gender’ Through an Indigenous Method of Inquiry” tells a traditional Crow Indian story of Ihkawaleische (Hand Star) and by so doing, she identifies “storytelling” as an indigenous method of inquiry. Shanley complicates predictable constructions of “woman” as the creator and preserver of life and culture when she recounts the acts of Red Woman who upon destroying the pregnant mother of twins, reaches into the sacred womb where life and culture are preserved, and flings one pre-natal child behind the teepee lining, and the other into a spring (Thrown behind the Teepee Lining and Thrown into the Spring are their names from that point on in the story).
Through this telling, she also brings us a specific cosmic explanation (ethos) of an important constellation in Crow Indian culture, one that represents “hope” and the last moments of consciousness. Traditional indigenous Crow knowledge explains that when a person raises their hand to the stars, the “roots of the sky,” they are desperate----this is the plight of Red Woman when the twin boys, avenging their mother’s death, cut off her hand so that she cannot use the stars to pull herself up into the heavens. Although, she is not preserved in this story, her hand remains in the sky and serves as a lesson so that others may not travel her path.
In my thinking, the early details in the story of “Hand Star” clearly depict a non-romanticized and balanced view of “womanhood.” In the beginning, the father leaves his pregnant wife to go hunting; she cannot deny food to the visiting Red woman whom she does not suspect embodies the cruelty lurking within all of human nature to varying degrees---however deeply buried or unacknowledged.
Shanley’s sharing of this traditional Crow Indian story was compelling, running us over and back the “gender continuum” in different directions all at once, bringing us to the realization or reminder that “womanhood” is complicated, but then so is “manhood.” The twins took on the role of hunters, trackers, avengers, when they discovered that each had been isolated from the other (Thrown Behind the Teepee and Thrown Into the Spring), due to an absent father and a trusting and vulnerable mother, but also due to the “mercy” (?) of Red Woman, who did not overtly kill them. They do not kill her in the end of the story, instead they remove her from the hope of reunion and connection (as she did them).
Reciprocity? “Finding the Right Words” (the first part of Shanley’s title) implies a journey that takes us to history and back in an attempt to reframe the language of western culture. It demands moving beyond what has already been defined in binary terms. Scholar, Kim Anderson describes Native womanhood as “an ongoing exercise that involves mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional elements of our being.”
May we all be able to first locate, and then be reminded of the lesson of the “Hand Star” constellation---of lessons to be learned, of hope, family unity, the paradox of womanhood and subsequently manhood.