Saturday, September 8, 2012

Who Is Your Mother? Red Roots of White Feminism

From Charles Lemert, Social Theory, Westview, 1993.

Paula Gunn Allen (1939- ) was born on the Cubero land grant in
New Mexico into Laguna, Sioux, Pueblo, and Chicano family
cultures.  Although she holds a Ph.D. and has taught at Berkeley,
Allen is principally known for her many writings about native
American life.  Among her five books of poetry are The Blind Lion
(1974), A Cannon Between My Knees (1981), and Shadow Country
(1982).  Her fiction includes The Woman Who Owns the Shadows
(1983), and her principal nonfiction publications are The Sacred
Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions
(1986) and Grandmothers of the Light: A Medicine Woman's Source
Book (1991).

Who Is Your Mother?  Red Roots of White Feminism

Paula Gunn Allen (1986)
At Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico, "Who is your mother?" is an 
important question.  At Laguna, one of several of the ancient
Keres gynocratic societies of the region, your mother's identity
is the key to your own identity.  Among the Keres, every
individual has a place within the universe-human and nonhuman-and
that place is defined by clan membership.  In turn, clan
membership is dependent on matrilineal descent.  Of course, your
mother is not only that woman whose womb formed and 
released you-the term refers in every individual case to an entire generation
of women whose psychic, and consequently physical, "shape" made
the psychic existence of the following generation possible.  But
naming your own mother (or her equivalent) enables people to
place you precisely within the universal web of your life, in
each of its dimensions: cultural, spiritual, personal, and
         Among the Keres, "context" and "matrix" are equivalent terms,
and both refer to approximately the same thing as knowing your
derivation and place.  Failure to know your mother, that is, your
position and its attendant traditions, history, and place in the
scheme of things, is failure to 'remember your significance, your
reality, your right relationship to earth and society.  It is the
same thing as being lost, isolated, abandoned, , self-estranged,
and alienated from your own life.  This importance of tradition
in the life of every member of the community is not confined to
Keres Indians; all American Indian Nations place great value on
   The Native American sense of the importance of continuity with
one's cultural origins runs counter to contemporary American
ideas: in many instances, the immigrants to America have been
eager to cast off cultural ties, often seeing their antecedents
as backward, restrictive, even shameful.  Rejection of tradition
constitutes one'of the major features of American life, an
attitude that reaches far back into American colonial history and
that now is validated by virtually every cultural institution in
the country.  Feminist practice, at least in the cultural
artifacts the community values most, follows this cultural trend
as well.
         The American idea that the best and the brightest should
willingly reject and repudiate their origins leads to an allied
idea-that history, like everything in the past, is of little
value and should be forgotten as quickly as possible.  This all
too often causes us to reinvent the wheel continually.  We find
ourselves discovering our collective pasts over and over, having
to retake ground already covered by women in the preceding
decades and centuries.  The Native American view, which highly
values maintenance of traditional customs, values, and
perspectives, might result in slower societal change and in quite
a bit less social upheaval, but it has the advantage of providing
a solid sense of identity and lowered levels of psychological and
interpersonal conflict.
  Contemporary Indian communities value individual members who are
deeply connected to the traditional ways of their people, even
after centuries of concerted and brutal effort on the part of the
American government, the churches, and the corporate system to
break the connections between individuals and their tribal world. 
In fact, in the view of the traditionals, rejection of one's
culture-one's traditions, language, people-is the result of
colonial oppression and is hardly to be applauded.  They believe
that the roots of oppression are to be found in the loss of tra-
dition and memory because that loss is always accompanied by a
loss of positive sense of self.  In short, Indians think it is
important to remember, while Americans believe it is important to
         The traditional Indians' view can have a significant impact if
it is expanded to mean that the sources of social, political, and
philosophical thought in the Americas not only should be
recognized and honored by Native Americans but should be embraced
by American society.  If American society judiciously modeled the
traditions of the various Native Nations, the place of women in
society would become central,the distribution of goods and power
would be egalitarian, the elderly would be respected, honored,
and protected as a primary social and cultural resource, the
ideals of physical beauty would be considerably enlarged (to
include "fat)" strong-featured women, gray-haired, and wrinkled
individuals, and others who in contemporary American culture are
viewed as "ugly").  Additionally, the destruction of the biota,
the life sphere, and the natural resources of the planet would be
curtailed, and the spiritual nature of human and nonhuman life
would become a primary organizing principle of human society. 
And if the traditional tribal systems that are emulated included
pacifist ones, war would cease to be a major method of human
problem solving.

              Re-membering Connections and Histories

         The belief that rejection of tradition and of history is a
useful response to life is reflected in America's amazing loss of
memory concerning its origins in the matrix and context of Native
America.  America does not seem to remember that it derived its
wealth, its values, its food, much of its medicine, and a large
part of its "dream" from Native America.  It is ignorant of the
genesis of its culture in this Native American land, and that
ignorance helps to perpetuate the long-standing European and
Middle Eastern monotheistic, hierarchical, patriarchal cultures'
oppression of women, gays, and lesbians, people of color, working
class, unemployed people, and the elderly.  Hardly anyone in
America speculates that the constitutional system of government
might be as much a product of American Indian ideas and practices
as of colonial American and Anglo-European revolutionary fervor.
          Even though Indians are officially and informally ignored as
intellectual movers and shapers in the United States, Britain,
and Europe, they are peoples with ancient tenure on this soil. 
During the ages when tribal societies existed in the Americas
largely untouched by patriarchal oppression, they developed
elaborate systems of thought that included science, philosophy,
and government based on a belief in the central importance of
female energies, autonomy of individuals, cooperation, human
dignity, human freedom, and egalitarian distribution of status,
goods, and services.  Respect for others, reverence for life, and
as a by-product, pacifism as a way of life; importance of kinship
ties in the customary ordering social interaction; a sense of the
sacredness and mystery of existence; balance and harmony in
relationships both sacred and secular were all features of life
among the tribal confederacies and nations.  And in,those that
lived by the largest number of these principles, gynarchy was the
norm rather than the exception.  Those systems are as yet
unmatched in any contemporary industrial, agrarian, or
postindustrial society on earth.
         There are many female gods recognized and honored by the
tribes and Nations.  Femaleness was highly valued, both respected
and feared, and all social institutions reflected this attitude. 
Even modern sayings, such as the Cheyenne statement that a people
is not conquered until the hearts of the women are on the ground,
express the Indians' understanding that without the power of
woman the people will not live, but with it, they will endure and
         Indians did not confine this belief in the central importance of
female energy to matters of worship.  Among many of the tribes
(perhaps as many as 70 percent of them in North America alone),
this belief was reflected in all of their social institutions. 
The Iroquois Constitution or White Roots of Peace, also called
the Great Law of the Iroquois, codified the Matrons' decision-making 
and economic power:

The lineal descent of the people of the Five Fires (the Iroquois
Nations) shau run in the female line.  Women shall be considered
the progenitors of the Nation.  They shall own the land and the
soil.  Men and women shaltfollow the status of their mothers.
(Article 44)
The women heirs of the chieftainship titles of the League shall
be called Oiner or Otinner [Noble] for all time to come. (Article
If a disobedient chief persists in his disobedience after three
warnings [by his female relatives, by his male relatives, and by
one of his fellow council members, in that order], the matter
shall go to the council of War Chiefs.  The Chiefs shall then
take way the title of the erring chief by order of the women in
whom the title is vested.  When the chief is deposed, the women
shall notify the chiefs of the League ... and the chiefs of the
League shall sanction the act.  The women will then select
another of their sons as a candidate and the chiefs shall elect
him. (Article 19) (Emphasis mine)

  The Matrons held so much policy-making power traditionally that
once, when their position was threatened they demanded its
return, and consequently the power of women was fundamental in
shaping the Iroquois Confederation sometime in the sixteenth or
early seventeenth century.  It was women

who fought what may have been the first successful feminist
rebellion in the New World.  The year was 1600, or thereabouts,
when these tribal feminists decided that they had had enough of
unregulated warfare by their men.  Lysistratas among the Indian
women proclaimed a boycott on lovemaking and childbearing.  Until
the men conceded to them the power to decide upon war and peace,
there would be no more warriors.  Since the men believed that the
women alone knew the secret of childbirth, the rebellion was
instantly successful.
         In the Constitution of Deganawidah the founder of the Iroquois
Confederation of Nations had said: "He caused the body of our
mother, the woman, to be of great worth and honor.  He purposed
that she shall be endowed and entrusted with the birth and
upbringing of men, and that she shall have the care of all that
is planted by which life is sustained and supported and the power
to breathe is fortified: and moreover that the warriors shall be her assistants.
         The footnote of history was curiously supplied when Susan B.
Anthony began her "Votes for Women" movement two and a half
centuries later.  Unknowingly the feminists chose to hold their
founding convention of latter-day suffragettes in the town of
Seneca Falls, New York.  The site was just a stone's throw from
the old council house where the Iroquois women had plotted their
feminist rebellion. (Emphasis mine)

Beliefs, attitudes, and laws such as these became part of the
vision of American feminists and of other human liberation
movements around the world.  Yet feminists too often believe that
no one has ever experienced the kind of society that empowered
women and made that empowerment the basis of its rules of
civilization.  The price the feminist community must pay because
it is not aware of the recent presence of gynarchical societies
on this continent is unnecessary confusion, division, and much
lost time.

             The Root of Oppression Is Loss of Memory

An odd thing occurs in the minds of Americans when Indian
civilization is mentioned: little or nothing.  As I write this, I
am aware of how far removed my version of the roots of American
feminism must seem to those steeped in either mainstream or
radical versions of feminism's history.  I am keenly aware of the
lack of image Americans have about our continent's recent past. 
I am intensely conscious of popular notions of Indian women as
beasts of burden, squaws, traitors, or, at best, vanish.ed
denizens of a long-lost wilderness.  How odd, then, must my
contention seem that the gynocratic tribes of the American
continent provided the basis for all the dreams of liberation
that characterize the modern world.
  We as feminists must be aware of our history on this continent. 
We need to recognize that the same forces that devastated the
gynarchies of Britain and the Continent also devastated the
ancient African civilizations, and we must know that those same
materialistic, antispiritual forces are presently engaged in
wiping out the same gynarchical values, along with the peoples
who adhere to them, in Latin America.  I am convinced that those
wars were and continue to be about the imposition of patriarchal
civilization over the holistic, pacifist, and spirit-based
gynarchies they supplant.  To that end the wars of imperial
conquest have not been solely or even mostly waged over the land
and its resources, but they have been fought within the bodies,
minds, and hearts of the people of the earth for dominion over
them.  I think this is the reason traditionals say we must
remember our origins, our cultures, our histories, our mothers
and grandmothers, for without that memory, which implies con-
tinuance rather than nostalgia, we are doomed to engulfment by a
paradigm that is fundamentally inimical to the vitality,
autonomy, and self-empowerment essential for satisfying, 
high-quality life.
    The vision that impels feminists to action was the vision of the
Grandmothers' society, the society that was captured in the words
of the sixteenth-century explorer Peter Martyr nearly five
hundred years ago.  It is the same vision repeated over and over
by radical thinkers of Europe and America, from Francois Villon
to John Locke, from William Shakespeare to Thomas Jefferson, from
Karl Marx to Friedrich Engels,,from Benito Juarez to Martin
Luther King, from Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Judy Grahn, from
Harriet Tubman to Audre Lorde, from Emma Goldman to Bella Abzug,
from Malinalli to Cherri Moraga, and from Iyatiku to me.  That
vision as Martyr told it is of a country where there are "no
soldiers, no gendarmes or police, no nobles, kings, regents,
prefects, or judges, no prisons, no lawsuits ... All are equal
and free' " or so Friedrich Engels recounts Martyr's words.

Columbus wrote:

Nor have I been able to learn whether they [the inhabitants of
the islands he visited on his first journey to the New World]
held personal property, for it seemed to me that whatever one
had, they all took shares of... They are so ingenuous and free
with all they have, that no one would believe it who has not seen
it; of anything that they possess, if it be asked of them, they
never say no; on the contrary, they invite you to share it and
show as much love as if their hearts went with it.                
At least that's how the Native Caribbean people acted when the
whites first came among them; American Indians are the despair of
social workers, bosses, and missionaries even now because of
their deeply ingrained tendency to spend all they have, mostly on
others.  In any case, as the historian William Brandon notes,

the Indian seemed free, to European eyes, gloriously free, to the
European soul shaped by centuries of toil and tyranny, and this
impression operated profoundly on the process of history
and the development of America.  Something in the peculiar
character of the Indian world gave an impression of
classlessness, of propertylessness, and that in tum led to an
impression, as H. H. Bancroft put it, of "humanity
unrestrained... in the exercise of liberty absolute."

                        A Feminist Heroine

   Early in the women's suffrage movement, Eva Emery Dye, an
Oregon suffragette, went looking for a heroine to embody her
vision of feminism.  She wanted a historical figure whose life
would symbolize the strengthened power of women.  She found
Sacagawea (or Sacajawea) buried in the journals of Lewis and
Clark.  The Shoshoni teenager had traveled with the Lewis and
Clark expedition, carrying her infant son, and on a small number
of occasions acted as translator.
         Dye declared that Sacagawea, whose name is thought to mean
Bird Woman, had been the guide to the historic expedition, and
through Dye's work Sacagawea became enshrined in American memory
as a moving force and friend of the whites, leading them in the
settlement of western North America.
         But Native American roots of white feminism reach back
beyond Sacagawea.  The earliest white women on this continent
were well acquainted with tribal women.  They were neighbors to a
number of tribes and often shared food, information, child care,
and health care.  Of course little is made of these encounters in
official histories of colonial America, the period from the
Revolution to the Civil War, or on the ever moving frontier. 
Nor, to my knowledge, has either the significance or incidence of
intermarriage between Indian and white or between Indian and
Black been explored.  By and large, the study of Indian-white
relations has been focused on government and treaty relations,
warfare, missionization, and education.  It has been almost
entirely documented in terms of formal white Christian
patriarchal impacts and assaults on Native Americans, though they
are not often characterized as assaults but as "civilizing the
savages." Particularly in organs of popular culture and
miseducation, the focus has been on what whites imagine to be
degradation of Indian women ("squaws"), their equally imagined
love of white government and white conquest ("princesses"), and
the horrifyingly misleading, fanciful tales of "bloodthirsty,
backward primitives" assaulting white Christian settlers who were
looking for life, liberty, and happiness in their chosen land.
         But, regardless of official versions of relations between
Indians and whites or other segments of the American population,
the fact remains that great numbers of apparently "white" or
"Black" Americans carry notable degrees of Indian blood.  With
that blood has come the culture of the Indians, informing the
lifestyles, attitudes, and values of their descendants. 
Somewhere along the line-and often quite recently-an Indian woman
was giving birth to and raising the children of a family both
officially and informally designated as white or Black-not
Indian.  In view of this, it should be evident that one of the
major enterprises of Indian women in America has been the
transfer of Indian values and culture to as large and influential
a segment of American immigrant populations as possible.  Their
success in this endeavor is amply demonstrated in the Indian
values and social styles that increasingly characterize American
life.  Among these must be included "permissive" childrearing
practices, for imprisoning, torturing, caning, strapping,
starving, or verbally abusing children was considered outrageous
behavior.  Native Americans did not believe that physical or
psychological abuse of children would result in their
edification.  They did not believe that children are born in sin,
are congenitally pre. disposed to evil, or that a good parent who
wishes the child to gain salvation, achieve success, or earn the
respect of her or his fellows can be helped to those ends by
physical or emotional torture.
         The early Americans saw the strongly protective attitude of
the Indian people as a mark of their "savagery"-as they saw the
Indian's habit of bathing frequently, their sexual openness,
their liking for scant clothing, their raucous laughter at most
things, their suspicion and derision of authoritarian structures,
their quick pride, their genuine courtesy, their willingness to
share what they had with others less fortunate than they, their
egalitarianism, their ability to act as if various lifestyles
were a normal part of living, and their granting that women were
of equal or, in individual cases, of greater value than men.
         Yet the very qualities that marked Indian life in the
sixteenth century have, over the centuries since contact between
the two worlds occurred, come to mark much of contemporary
American life.  And those qualities, which I believe have passed
into white culture from Indian culture, are the very ones that
fundamentalists, immigrants from Europe, the Middle East, and
Asia often find the most reprehensible.  Third- and 
fourth-generation Americans indulge in growing nudity, informality in
social relations, egalitarianism, and the rearing of women who
value autonomy, strength, freedom, and personal dignity-and who
are often derided by European, Asian, and Middle Eastern men for
those qualities.  Contemporary Americans value leisure almost as
much as tribal people do.  They find themselves increasingly
unable to accept child abuse as a reasonable way to nurture. 
They bathe more than any other industrial people on earth-much to
the scorn of their white cousins across the Atlantic, and they
sometimes enjoy a good laugh even at their own expense (though
they still have a less developed sense of the ridiculous than one
might wish).
         Contemporary Americans find themselves more and more likely
to adopt a "live and let live" attitude in matters of personal
sexual and social styles.  Two-thirds of their diet and a large
share of their medications and medical treatments mirror or are
directly derived from Native American sources.  Indianization is
not a simple concept, to be sure, and it is one that Americans
often find themselves resisting; but it is a process that has
taken place, regardless of American resistance to recognizing the
source of many if not most of American's vaunted freedoms in our
personal, family, social, and political arenas.
         This is not to say that Americans have become Indian in
every attitude, value, or social institution.  Unfortunately,
Americans have a way to go in learning how to live in the world
in ways that improve the quality of life for each individual
while doing minimal damage to the biota, but they have adapted
certain basic qualities of perception and certain attitudes that
are moving them in that direction.

              An Indian-focused Version of American History

American colonial ideas of self-government came as much from the
colonists' observations of tribal governments as from their
Protestant or Greco-Roman heritage.  Neither Greece nor Rome had
the kind of pluralistic democracy as that concept has been
understood in the United States since Andrew Jackson, but the
tribes, particularly the gynarchical tribal confederacies, did. 
It is true that the oligarchic form of government that colonial
Americans established was originally based on Greco-Roman systems
in a number of important ways, such as its restriction of
citizenship to propertied white males over twenty-one years of
age, but it was never a form that Americans as a whole have been
entirely comfortable with.  Politics and government in the United
States during the Federalist period also reflected the English
commonlaw system as it had evolved under patriarchal feudalism
and monarchy-hence the United States' retention of slavery and
restriction of citizenship to propertied white males.
         The Federalists did make one notable change in the feudal
system from which their political system derived on its Anglo
side.  They rejected blooded aristocracy and monarchy.  This idea
came from the Protestant Revolt to be sure, but it was at least
reinforced by colonial America's proximity to American Indian
nonfeudal confederacies and their concourse with
those,.confederacies over the two hundred years of the colonial
era.  It was this proximity and concourse that enabled the
revolutionary theorists to "dream up" a system in which all local
polities would contribute to and be protected by a central
governing body responsible for implementing policies that bore on
the common interest of all.  It should also be noted that the
Reformation followed Columbus's contact with the Americas and
that his and Martyr's reports concerning Native Americans' free
and easy egalitarianism were in circulation by the time the
Reformation took hold.
         The Iroquois federal system, like that of several in the
vicinity of the American colonies, is remarkably similar to the
organization of the federal system of the United States.  It was
made up of local, "state," and federal bodies composed of exec-
utive, legislative, and judicial branches.  The Council of
Matrons was the executive: it instituted and determined general
policy.  The village, tribal (several villages), and Confederate
councils determined and implemented policies when they did not
conflict with the broader Council's decisions or with theological
precepts that ultimately determined policy at all levels.  The
judicial was composed of the men's councils and the Matron's
council, who sat together to make decisions.  Because the matrons
were the ceremonial center of the system, they were also the
prime policymakers.
         Obviously, there are major differences between the structure
of the contemporary American government and that of the Iroquois. 
Two of those differences were and are crucial to the process of
just government.  The Iroquois system is spirit-based, while that
of the United States is secular, and the Iroquois Clan Matrons
formed the executive.  The female executive function was directly
tied to the ritual nature of the Iroquois politic, for the
executive was lodged in the hands of the Matrons of particular
clans across village, tribe, and national lines.  The executive
office was hereditary, and only sons of eligible clans could
serve, at the behest of the Matrons of their clans, on the
councils at the three levels.  Certain daughters inherited the
office of Clan Matron through their clan affiliations.  No one
could impeach or disempower a Matron, though her violation of
certain laws could result in her ineligibility for the Matron's
council.  For example, a woman who married and took her husband's
name could not hold the title Matron.
         American ideals of social justice came into sharp focus
through the commentaries of Iroquois observers who traveled in
France in the colonial period.  These observers expressed horror
at the great gap between the lifestyles of the wealthy and the
poor, remarking to the French philosopher Montaigne, who, would
heavily influence the radical communities of Europe, England, and
America, that "they had noticed that in Europe there seemed to be
two moities, consisting of the'rich 'full gorged' with     wealth,
and the poor, starving 'and bare with need and povertie.' The
Indian tourists not only marveled at the division, but marveled
that the poor endured 'such an injustice, and that they took not
the others by the throte, or set fire on their house."' It must
be noted that the urban poor eventually did just that in the
French Revolution.  The writings of Montaigne and of those he
influenced provided the theoretical' framework and the vision
that propelled the struggle for liberty, justice, and equality on
the Continent and later throughout the British empire.
   The feminist idea of power as it ideally accrues to women stems
from tribal sources.  The central importance of the clan Matrons
in the formulation and determination of domestic and foreign
policy as well as in their primary role in the ritual and
ceremonial life of their respective Nations was the single most
important attribute of the Iroquois, as of the Cherokee and
Muskogee, who traditionally inhabited the southern Atlantic
region.  The latter peoples were removed to what is now Oklahoma
during the Jackson administration, but prior to the American
Revolution they had regular and frequent communication with and
impact on both the British colonizers and later the American
people, including the African peoples brought here as slaves.
   Ethnographer Lewis Henry Morgan wrote an account of Iroquoian
matriarchal culture, published in 1877, that heavily influenced
Marx and the development of communism, particularly lending it
the idea of the liberation of women from patriarchal dominance. 
The early socialists in Europe, especially in Russia, saw women's
liberation as a central aspect of the socialist revolution. 
Indeed, the basic ideas of socialism, the egalitarian
distribution of goods and power, the peaceful ordering of so-
ciety, and the right of every member of society to participate in
the work and benefits of that society, are ideas that pervade
American Indian political thought and action' And it is through
various channels-the informal but deeply effective Indianization
of Europeans, and christianizing Africans, the social and
political theory of the confederacies feuding and then
intertwining with European dreams of liberty and justice, and,
more recently, the work of Morgan and the writings of Marx and
Engels-that the age-old gynarchical systems of egalitarian
government found their way into contemporary feminist theory.
   When Eva Emery Dye discovered Sacagawea and honored her as the
guiding spirit of American womanhood, she may have been wrong in
bare historical fact, but she was quite accurate in terms of
deeper truth.  The statues that have been erected depicting
Sacagawea as a Matron in her prime signify an understanding in
the American mind, however unconscious, that the source of just
government, of right ordering of social relationships, the dream
of "liberty and justice for all" can be gained only by following
the Indian Matrons' guidance.  For, as Dr. Anna Howard S.haw said
of Sacagawea at, the National American Woman's Suffrage
Association in 1905:

Forerunner of civilization, great leader of men, patient and
motherly woman, we bow our hearts to do you honor! ... May we the
daughters of an alien race ... learn the lessons of calm
endurance, of patient persistence and unfaltering courage
exemplified in your life, in our efforts to lead men through the
Pass of justice, which goes over the mountains of prejudice and
conservatism to the broad land of the perfect freedom of a true
republic; one in which men and women together shall in perfect
equality solve the problems of a nation that knows no caste, no
race- no sex in opportunity, in responsibility or in justice! 
May 'the eternal womanly' ever lead us on!+

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