Where are your women?” That’s what our Native American leaders asked the European settlers as they gathered around the council fires trying to negotiate peace terms. “How can we possibly talk to you about peace if your women aren’t here?” This profound question sums up the enormity of the culture clash between the hierarchical patriarchy of the Europeans and the cooperative and matrifocal practices predominating on the northeastern coast of the Americas before the Europeans arrived.
The Europeans were just as shocked at the question. “How can we possibly trust the counsel of a woman if women are cursed by the temptation of Eve?” they wondered. Europeans did not trust the intellectual capacity of women, especially in deciding anything as important as war and peace. The Natives’ trust in their women was even used as further justification by the Europeans for their periodic policies of genocide against the Natives. Europeans were brought up to believe that anyone who allowed themselves to be ruled by women, especially in spiritual matters, must be allied with the devil.
We looked at some of the mothering aspects of the Statue of Liberty. The title of “Mother” is the highest honorific Indigenous People can assign to anyone. First Nations People all over this continent honored the strength and wisdom of their women and valued their life-giving powers with respect. Among the Iroquois or Haudenosaunee, the Native culture we are most familiar with, women were assumed as absolutely necessary for balance in all tribal relations. Contrast these beliefs of inclusiveness and respect for their elder women or Clan Mothers as the wisest of counselors to the status of mothers in the United States today, wherein mothers are one of the groups discriminated against the most, especially single mothers and elderly widows.
Although the colonists borrowed extensively from the Native culture and governing practices, they ignored this key element of gender balance when constructing their new government, leaving Euro-American women struggling for centuries to gain a seat at the liberty table. The United States government today lags the rest of the world in terms of the percentage of women in power. Only 19 to 20 percent of the U.S. Congress is led by women, ranking the United States at number 71 on a list of 190 countries comparing the percentage of women in government around the world today.
The Love Hormone
When we heard that chemical differences between male and female brains were being used in the argument to include more women in positions of power, we were determined to learn more. The more we learned, unfortunately, the more disappointed we became about finding a simple neurochemical argument for gender parity. The popular press is dangerously oversimplifying the data on the actions of oxytocin on the hormone system, which is naturally produced in both men and women; and reporting on the new field of scientific inquiry around this hormone, has the tendency to stray into hyperbole. This is especially true when translating the data into conclusions about oxytocin’s role in learning to trust and bond and feel safe.
It was formerly believed that only women used the hormone oxytocin because it had been identified as being responsible for the physical and chemical changes related to pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding. When we sought out the leading researcher on oxytocin and social bonding, we learned how far the research has come in the last few decades. It is now clear that oxytocin is produced equally in both genders during times of stress to assist humans in reaching states of calmness and connection. The curious point is that the hormone estrogen increases a woman’s ability to receive more oxytocin in times of stress than can men, and this is being extrapolated into social science studies including those showing how men and women excel at different types of problem-solving.
Nevertheless, twentieth century neurochemistry is beginning to validate what Native Americans practiced instinctively: men and women approach solutions differently, and the best results for all are gained when both genders are included in the decision-making process. When the sexes are balanced in the boardroom and in government, solutions that are more creative and productive and long lasting are reached. As we learned from cultural historian Riane Eisler, we need to expand the discussion beyond simply increasing the numbers of women on boards of directors and in political office. It’s not so much about adding nurturing policies into the workplace to enable women to work and tend their families at the same time. It’s more about adding nurturing policies, into the workplace so that all humans can work more productively together and care for their families at the same time.
Companies in the United States are losing out by not having the input of women. No matter that more college graduates are women, the numbers reaching the top leadership positions remain in the single digits. Capable women drop out of the workforce all the time, even when they are on track for prestigious and influential executive posts, because they are making the decision to take care of their families instead. Companies that realize this and have implemented policy changes to allow flexibility in schedules, and expectations, have discovered the results are that both men and women feel encouraged to value their nurturing side, and everyone benefits. Health improves, creativity increases, and the corporation’s profit margin goes up.
Female Governesses Beg Leave to Speak
The cultural norm of honoring the female was not exclusive to the Iroquois. From the Cherokee people, or Aniyunwiya, we have the accounts of an individual known as Attakullakulla and his niece Beloved Woman or Nanyehi, both leaders from the mid-1700s. Cherokee women were fierce warriors as well as key participants in negotiations, and any nation that presented itself without women was immediately suspected as being violent and out of balance. Attakullakulla is the one recorded as saying to the Europeans, “Where are your women?” at a peace negotiation in 1759 in the South Carolina region. When his niece took over the leadership of the Clan Mothers of the nation there are several accounts of her following the same tack.
“Beloved Woman” is actually a title of leadership, not a name, and Nanyehi is more often identified by her European name Nancy Ward. In 1781 and 1785, as white settlers began streaming into her people’s territory, she is on record as reprimanding the representatives of the new United States for not including their women in negotiations. She implored them to let their women hear her voice. She advised those listening to remember they were all sons of mothers, and she stressed the traditional roles of kinship among her people as her basis for authority. The proper approach to diplomacy was kinship, as opposed to the “white father” and “elder brother” patronizing terminology used by the Europeans.
The Haudenosaunee are also on record expressing their concern to the Europeans about lack of female representation during peace talks, believing as they did that the presence of women would ensure the peaceful intentions of the other. Oneida Chief Good Peter is quoted in a 1788 speech as saying, “Brothers, our ancestors considered it great offense to reject the counsels of their women, particularly of the female governesses. They were esteemed the mistresses of the soil. Who, said our forefathers, bring us into being?… The female governesses beg leave to speak with the freedom allowed to women, and agreeably to the spirit of our ancestors… they are the life of the nation.”
Before 1800, many treaties were signed by both male and female sachems, but still Europeans probably didn’t realize the power that women wielded behind the scenes. The Native Americans tended to assign the role of public speaker to men, and wise counselor to women, so more often Europeans were speaking only with the men. Iroquois men acted as the elected public leaders, but women controlled the election process. One way of looking at it would be to say that the men spoke in public what the women told them to say in private. The founders of the United States of America incorporated much of what they learned from the Iroquois Confederacy into their own republican experiment, but they had blinders on when it came to understanding that the key to the Iroquois success was balance between the genders.
The Mother and Creation Stories
The wide expanse between the different notions of women in political power starts at the very beginning with two very different notions of the creation of humankind. We talked to two Iroquois, Mohawk Douglas George-Kanentiio and Oneida Joanne Shenandoah, about their ancestral being known as Skywoman from whose daughter the Mother Earth and the Grandmother Moon are formed. We hesitate venturing any further into retelling Native American mythology at the risk of disrespecting them by misinterpretation. Their sacred teachings are meant to be handed down orally in the appropriately ritualized settings; and rather than presume, we instead recommend you to Kanentiio and Shenandoah’s books Skywoman, and Iroquois Culture and Commentary. What seems logical to assume, however, is that growing up with a tradition that a female guiding spirit created the world and that male and female humanity were created in balance would result in a self-governing system based on balance between the genders.
The Europeans’ opinions of women were likewise the result of generations of conditioning. English colonists grew up with a tradition that a male guiding spirit created the world and that male humanity was created first, with female humanity created to serve him. Centuries of this training explain why they were so surprised by the Natives suggesting that they honor their women. It also explains why Native American spiritual practices were so poorly translated, filtered as they were through the Europeans’ own very different beliefs.
For example, the concepts of balance in Native American teachings were often mistranslated into the Christian concept of duality between good and evil. Common among many Native American myths is the tale of a divine woman or ancestral spirit who is the mother of twins. According to Seneca Barbara Alice Mann, these twins described balance. “Male and female were but one of a series of bonded pairs evident everywhere in the culture,” she said in her book, Iroquoian Women: The Gantowisas. Skywoman’s daughter, Gusts of Wind, is one example of an ancestral spirit who bore male twins. The tale of these Iroquois twins was translated by the Christian missionaries as a reference to good and evil, but Kanentiio said the “evil” twin was really more of a mischievous spirit, and the countering balance of dark to the “good” twin’s light. “He introduces even greater tension on this planet,” said Kanentiio, “the conflict, the tension, the ignition that produces other forms of life… It is from him that the Earth, the mother, is given the specific form.”
Native American traditions often honor a female ancestral spirit together with a male counterpart as balance. For example, the Sky, the West Wind, and Thunderstorm are often portrayed as male in balance to the Earth as female. The Sun as male and Moon as female are often paired; and in the west of the Americas, the stem of the peace pipe is paired with the bowl of the sacred pipe as male and female. “You find these male and female counterparts all over the world,” said history and comparative religion professor Jordan Paper, “not just in the Americas.” Archaeologist Marija Gimbutas showed the prevalence of this same partnership in the goddess-worshipping cultures of Old Europe, where evidence points to an Earth Mother paired with a male consort or son.
Indigenous people assign the title “Mother” to the spirits that guard their most sustaining food source. In her essay “Meanings of Goddess,” historian Max Dash lists page after page of mother essences from South America, as in mothers of waters, mothers of animals, and mothers of sacred places. Mother spirits range up to the Far North where “the Inuit speak of the Sea Mother, who created the great ocean mammals, and the Caribou Mother,” Dash writes. “These Mothers are old women, like the primary female spirit of the Cheyenne, Old Woman.” The Sioux creation myth tells of White Buffalo Calf Woman bearing a pipe representing the covenant between the Sioux and the buffalo, with instructions on how to live. Indigenous people in Africa are also full of mother veneration. “The Yoruba speak of awon iya wa, ‘our mothers,’” reports Dash, “or a collective term for female ancestors, female deities, and for older living women, whose power over the reproductive capacities of all women is held in awe by Yoruba men… They are called the owners of the world.”
All along the East Coast of North America, the indigenous people traced their family through the women. Suffragist historian Matilda Joslyn Gage discovered this with surprise in the mid-1800s as she prepared her multivolume History of Woman Suffrage and was searching for examples of nations where women were not oppressed. She recorded observing how many of the Native American nations living around her in upstate New York assigned to women, “almost the whole legislative authority, and in others a prominent share.” No lands sale was valid without consent of what she called “the Council of Matrons” that elected the chiefs and settled all disputes. She reported Mohawk Clan Mothers forbade young braves to go on the warpath, and she found treaties “among the State Archives at Albany, New York, signed by the ‘Sachems and Principal Women of the Six Nations.’”
The above is as edited excerpt from the authors’ new book, The Secret Life of Lady Liberty, Goddess in the New World, (Inner Traditions). Published here with the publisher’s permission.
July/August2018 – #130