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WOMEN'S

WISDOM
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|| Celebrating National Women's History Month ||

   

s p o t l i g h t
SONGS OF CONNECTIVITY
n a t i v e   a m e r i c a ' s   m a g i c a l   r e a l i s t   w o m e n

NATIVE AMERICAN women hold a special place in the literature of the extraordinary. Unlike contemporary American culture, which still maintains a strong connection to Northern European identity (despite what might be thought of as an increasing "Americanization" of the US through the growing populations and cultural acceptance of Latin Americans), Native American culture differs in one distinct way: its roots are matrilinear. In that world, women mattered.

By and large, Native American women through previous centuries served as primary property owners and caretakers as well as tribal caregivers and leaders. Native American scholar Laura Tohe, of Navajo lineage, explains: “In the Navajo language, we don’t have a word for feminism… The Navajo people believe in the influence, the knowledge, and the wisdom that women have. As a result, Navajo women did not have to fight for their place in society. They have always been respected as leaders of their families and community. It surrounded them constantly.”

With the White usurpation of the matrilinear social structure that came with the colonization of North America came a major flipflop in power: the patriarchal order established its enduring foothold. It meant not only the displacement, silencing and disempowerment of millions of indigenous people, but the neutering of Native America's feminine wisdom as well.

Non-native Americans know the drill. We came, we conquered, it was wrong, but what to do? To many, Native America as an authentic presence seems to have vanished from the North American landscape.

Or has it? Native America will tell you otherwise. The drive to capture and preserve their culture in the face of extinction means tribes across the American landscape have been slowly, but surely, taking back what they can. And the chief way they've accomplished this is through the umbilicus of story.

Language, as history tells us, was one of the first aspects of indigenous culture to be subverted in order for White colonists to wrest control over entire populations of native people. With language playing a critical role in chronicling memory and defining culture, its forced loss meant a significant amount of tribal identity, especially during the early years of imposed reservation life, would become either invisible, inaccessible or even ineffectual to the thousands of Native Americans who managed to survive the first strikes of White expansionism.

Fortunately, human history overflows with stories of exceptional individuals who've worked, sometimes rawly in the face of oppression, to maintain or reclaim cultural and community identity through oral tradition. As long as people have the capacity to remember and to speak, certain aspects of their "lost" identity can, and are, preserved for future generations. Native Americans pose no exception to this rule. Like so many other colonized and oppressed people throughout the world, their collective identity—indeed, their collective memory—seemed destined to "be disappeared," and yet, today, Native American cultural history is generally admired in the contemporary US thanks to a steadfast and well-received oral tradition brimming with color, power and inspiration.

Literary magical realism has become one particular way to contemporize and distribute Native American culture across the landscape. Men (think Joseph Bruchac, Sherman Alexie, N. Scott Momaday) and women alike have discovered the slippery advantage of using magical realism to retell old myths in ways that render them more broadly appreciated, while sneaking in bits and pieces of the truths their ancestors had been forbidden from sharing all these years.

When Latin American writers like Carpentier and García Márquez developed the magical realist mode, it was to achieve a break from Western thinking about realism, to redefine realism on their own terms. For this reason, some influential Native American writers and storytellers also find the mode advantageous.

Native American women claim an additional stake in all this. Not only were they, as a race of people, nearly obliterated from the terrain, but they were also, as a gender, stripped of their social status and power with the installation of a seemingly inconquerable male dominion. Telling their stories now not only preserves their racial identity, it cultivates a sisterhood intent upon reclaiming the power they'd always enjoyed in pre-Columbus times.

Themes specific to the Native American female identity correspond nicely with the goals of literary magical realism. The cyclical regeneration of life may be a common trope in women's literature worldwide, but Native American women express a particular connectivity to the universe through a variety of landscapes: the physical body and its miraculous reproductive cosmology; the temporal plane with its circular past-equals-present-equals-future motif; membership into a sisterhood intent upon recognizing and giving expression to all that had been previously buried; and the terrain of music (song and drum and dance), which might be described as the Native American voice of identity. Magical realism's truthtelling techniques offer Native American women the opportunity to give shape to their twin identities as people of color and as women. A cadre of leading female voices in Native American literature exists as the extraordinary result, their stories inspirational not only for their contemporaries, but for women and people of color in general.

The following list (however incomplete) of female magical realists highlights the broad spectrum of established and emerging Native American voices. It's our belief that there will only be more and varied contributors as time passes, as traditional expressions return and evolve within contemporary media, and as these women continue to take back what had been theirs all along: power, to create, to nurture and to lead.

Paula Gunn Allen
Tribal affiliation: Lakota and Laguna
Hanksville Home Page
Representative work: The Woman Who Owned The Shadows
"I have noticed that as soon as you have soldiers the story is called history. Before their arrival it is called myth, folktale, legend, fairy tale, oral poetry, ethnography. After the soldiers arrive, it is called history."

Louise Erdrich
Tribal affiliation: Ojibwe
Harper Collins Home Page
Representative work: The Beet Queen
"In our own beginnings, we are formed out of the body's interior landscape. For a short while, our mothers' bodies are the boundaries and personal geography which are all that we know of the world."

Edna Escamill
Tribal affiliation: Yaqui
Voices from the Gaps Feature Page
Representative work: Daughter of the Mountain, Un Cuento
Also published under the name "Kleya Forte-Escamilla," Escamill is also an accomplished artist

Joy Harjo
Tribal affiliation: Creek (Muskogee)
Home Page
Representative work: The Woman Who Fell From the Sky
"It’s important as a writer to do my art well and do it in a way that is powerful and beautiful and meaningful, so that my work regenerates the people, certainly Indian people, and the earth and the sun. And in that way we all continue forever."

Linda Hogan
Tribal affiliation: Chickasaw
Hanksville Home Page
Representative work: Solar Storms: A Novel
"There is a way that nature speaks, that land speaks. Most of the time we are simply not patient enough, quiet enough, to pay attention to the story."

Evelina Zuni Lucero
Tribal affiliation: Isleta/San Juan Pueblo
Hanksville Home Page
Representative work: Night Sky, Morning Star
"The Southwest is mystical, charming, enchanting. It is infused with spirituality, with a mysterious ambiance and varying landscapes, a combination of harsh deserts, plains, mountains, valleys, mesas and plateaus, a combination of allure, like a complex woman whose beauty goes beyond physical appearance."

Susan Power
Tribal affiliation: Standing Rock Sioux
Internet Public Library Home Page
Representative work: The Grass Dancer
From Booklist.com: "Power follows her own chronology, moving back and forth across time and generations, layering the voices of the old and young, the living and the dead."

Leslie Marmon Silko
Tribal affiliation: Laguna Pueblo
Literati Home Page
Representative work: Ceremony

"I will tell you something about stories, (he said)
They aren't just entertainment.
Don't be fooled.
They are all we have, you see,
All we have to fight off
illness and death."
Anna Lee Walters
Tribal affiliation: Otoe/Pawnee
Hanksville Home Page
Representative work: Ghost Singer: A Novel
"I remember asking (in my head) what was life for, why did anyone (or anything) live, and why did I live. At that point death to me was a word that represented very little fear. I had seen things die, animals and such, and I heard of people dying and saw evidence of it. I remember thinking that from what I could tell or see, there were only two things that were real, and the wonder of both: life and death."

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