I am only one drop of blood Cherokee, 1/16th to be exact, not enough to claim membership in the Eastern or Western Band and most would say, not enough to matter. But, underestimate the power of the blood of the fire people and you do so at your own risk. Like a small dash of red pepper mixed up in a dish of otherwise bland food, that fire within has a way of capturing one’s imagination even in the smallest of doses, until the whole of your very self takes on its finest properties, particularly when it comes to the story of Cherokee women.
It’s a story that we all kind of know in fragments and pieces, like the story of Moses or Paul Revere or Sacajawea, it’s woven into the DNA of the body collectively called nation. But although the plot, like framework, makes up our history, we seem to have lost our connection to the larger story. Somewhere along the way we became convinced that the characters we’ve become are not connected one to the other in the grand web of life, and, as mythologist Michael Meade so beautifully states, “we’ve fallen out of the story.”
He’s talking about the big story, the story told in museums through timelines that read in sequence, “Paleo, Archaic, Woodland, Mississippian,” stretching from 11,000 BC into the modern day. Much like the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee, NC that holds, seemingly benign artifacts, evidence that things were not always like they seem to us today. Strangely comforting and explosive evidence like the giant molar and vertebrae of a mastadon found with a mate, not too far from my hometown in West Tennessee, revealed, one day, as the mud receded on island number 35 of the Mississippi River. Explosive evidence presented calmly in small, neatly produced, sage green placards set beautifully in recessed lighting against a clay red backdrop that reads “The Role of Cherokee Women” with statements such as these (in paraphrase):
The role of women in Cherokee society changed greatly as a result of European contact. In the traditional matrilineal kinship system… clan was passed from mother to child. When a woman married, it was her decision, marriage was a partnership of equals and while there was a ceremony, there was no lifetime commitment.
A Cherokee woman decided when and with whom to mate, she had the same sexual freedom as men. Cherokee women were not dependant on men, women owned the crops, the property, the land. When British traders wanted corn or food, they were surprised to find themselves dealing with women. The British were amazed that elder or honored women could represent their clans in council meetings, while the British referred to these women as a “petticoat government” the Cherokee called them “Beloved Women.”
Recently, I made my way to this museum tucked in the heart of the land known as the Qualla boundary in the Appalachian Range of North Carolina, commonly called the Cherokee Reservation. Getting the package deal, I attended the outdoor, historical drama, walked through the living history village, the museum, had a flat tire and so spent some time in the local tire and auto shop reading the local paper, Cherokee One Feather, where I learned from the page 2 spread that the rate of domestic violence and sexual abuse toward women on the Cherokee reservation, a place that some approximately 8000 plus Cherokee occupy, is 2.5 times the national rate. Whatever ideas the museum puts in your head become quickly filtered through the lens of reality. But, things were not always this way. It is a mantra that bears repeating, one that even the bones will cry out if we remain silent.
In the fragments of the bones of the past in the living history village of the Cherokee, our young, 20 something male tour guides seemed to be captivated by this message as well. Often as an aside, while standing in front of some strange mask with a long stinger or holding up the turtle shells that women would wear attached to leather ties under their long skirts to hide them in forbidden rituals, they would say unscripted things, things they seemed to be proud of, seemingly to ancient spirits they were trying to conjure from the bone piles and ashes of the past.
“The men dress up to attract the women, we don’t expect women to dress up for us, we think they are beautiful the way they are because they have the power to give life.”
And “there weren’t gender specific roles, women could hunt or become warriors just as men could learn to weave baskets if they desired, no one thought much about it, we didn’t have those kinds of rules for men and women before America became America.”
Like the mud receding from the bones of the mastadon on island 35, the times they are a changin’. As major paradigm shifts in our world uncover the bones of the past, we discover that just because the past no longer roams the land in physical form doesn’t mean it is without voice, the bones can speak from silence and reconstitute in our world, it has happened before, in the valley of dry bones, it can happen again.
The bones of the past are revealing themselves and pointing us to a new future, one that refuses to suppress, dominate or limit the freedom of the other, if we can only grasp it. A future that embraces all beings, particularly the feminine and all those formerly oppressed as sacred. Perhaps this is the true new world Columbus was seeking when he first encountered the strange tribes who let their women roam free.
Europeans were astonished to see that Cherokee women were the equals of men—politically, economically and theologically. “Women had autonomy and sexual freedom, could obtain divorce easily, rarely experienced rape or domestic violence, worked as producers/farmers, owned their own homes and fields, possessed a cosmology that contains female supernatural figures, and had significant political and economic power,” Carolyn Johnston writes. “Cherokee women’s close association with nature, as mothers and producers, served as a basis of their power within the tribe, not as a basis of oppression. Their position as ‘the other’ led to gender equivalence, not hierarchy.” (Indian Country Today Media Network, 1/10/2011, The Power of Cherokee Women)
Perhaps it is the women of the fire people who can lead us to a true New World and teach us to conjure the phoenix from the ashes and the bones.