Culture ShiftNative Culture Reasserts Women’s Powerscroll down arrow

Illustrations by Fran Murphy


The Hupa Girls Are Dancing Again, as Native Culture Reasserts Women’s Power

Illustration by Fran Murphy

Illustration by Fran Murphy

NNative American women and girls are 2.5 times more likely to experience sexual violence compared to other races. The truth is, however, that it’s been open season on Native women and girls’ sexuality for the last 500 years.

For me, this is personal. My mother, and women of her generation, survived poverty, brutal men, sexual violence, and Indian boarding schools. While many of the Ojibwe women of my youth were bitter, quick-tempered creatures, their prickly exteriors camouflaged a capacity for deep love of family and culture and tenderness as soft as a mouse’s belly.

We Are Dancing for You Cutcha Risling Baldy
We Are Dancing for You Cutcha Risling Baldy

That deep love is now driving revitalization of women-centered ceremonies, such as the Hoopa Valley Tribe’s Flower Dance. While genocide and federal policies designed to eradicate Native people and cultures have had a particular impact on Native women, these celebrations represent a means of healing from the impacts of this historical trauma.

My mother would often tell me about an episode from her youth. Late one night, she and my Auntie Lucille sat waiting for their train in a deserted city depot. A group of drunken men stumbled into the building. Noticing the pretty young women, one man sat down close to my mother. He made obscene suggestions and began pawing at her with impunity.

Abruptly she stiffened and brushed her sleeve with her hand as though shaking off dirt that had landed on her white blouse.

“Keep your goddamned filthy White man’s hands offa me!” she declared curtly with an assurance that must have enraged him.

“Who the hell do you think you are, anyway? You’re just a dirty Indian!” he laughed.

My auntie, fearing a scene, tried to shush her. “Don’t make trouble, Bernice!”

“I don’t care! I made up my mind. We don’t have to let them treat us like this!”

Eventually a cop walked into the depot. Although he failed to intervene, his presence was enough to defuse the situation.

Like many Native people from her generation, she was raised in a boarding school. Although the school was located on her reservation, it was as though she lived a thousand miles away from her community. The nuns there ensured the children had little contact with their culture or language.

Despite years at the school, the nun’s shaming of her culture, and the sexual assault she endured, my mother retained her sacredness as an Ojibwe woman. She did this by remembering that she was one of those who take care of the water. The most important and essential element of life, water encircles our young in the womb and influences all life on Earth — and this knowledge is something she passed on to me.

Reading We Are Dancing for You: Native Feminisms and the Revitalization of Women’s Coming-of-Age Ceremonies by Cutcha Risling Baldy reminded me of the resilience and pride of Ojibwe women like my mother.

In her book, Baldy, a member of the Hoopa Valley Tribe and assistant professor of Native American studies at Humboldt State University in California, describes the growing movement among indigenous people to rejuvenate and reinvent traditional culture, language, and spirituality as a means to heal from the legacies of colonization — particularly the legacies of patriarchy and sexual violence and assault against Native women.

One of those ceremonies is the Hupa female coming-of-age ceremony, the Flower Dance.

The Flower Dance, according to Baldy, represents the foundational role that women traditionally play in Hupa community, culture, and nation-building. Since time immemorial, performing the Flower Dance has been a means of keeping the world in balance, of tying the community to the health and well-being of the Earth.

Although anthropologists might describe the Flower Dance as a coming-of-age ceremony, Baldy prefers to describe the dance as a celebration of menstruation and women’s power.

The Flower Dance, or Ch’ilwa:l, which means “they beat time with sticks,” can last several days. Hupa community members beat their rattles or sticks and sing special Ch’ilwa:l songs. The kinahldung (girl having her first Flower Dance) wears a veil of blue jay feathers covering her eyes. She runs for extended periods and bathes in special locations called tims, or lucky spots. A large feast is held at the end of the dance and the kinahldung receives gifts; she then has special power to provide blessings upon others.

Women are considered especially powerful during their first menses, according to Baldy. But for generations of Hupa, the Flower Dance was demonized and driven underground by European settlers. Revitalization of the Flower Dance and other ceremonies represents a means of healing from the impacts of this historical trauma.

By reasserting these community ceremonies, Baldy writes, the Hupa are also reasserting their foundational cultural beliefs about women, gender, and sexuality. In this way, Baldy writes, indigenous people are “(re)writing, (re)righting, and (re)riteing” their histories and ceremonies.

left double quoteThe ceremonies, the language, the songs, the dances are not lost. We are lost; they are where they have always been, just waiting to be recalled.” — Melodie George-Moore, Hoopa tribal member, Karuk, Cherokee, Whilkut

Indeed, after generations of failed social services administered by federal agencies, Indian Country is turning to the power of traditional ways to heal and recover from the devastation of colonization. Baldy describes the painful history of California tribes: European genocide and ongoing White male hegemony that legitimized the murderous brutalization of Native women.

Among California tribes, early settlers found societies in which women held leadership positions. As Baldy writes, these women leaders were “the embodiment of the relations that configure order to the community, the community’s relationship to the Earth and to life.”

Early European settlers, mostly men, came from societies in which patriarchy was the norm and gender roles were narrowly defined. Men were strong, capable, and wise; women were weak, naive, and too incompetent to own land or property.

Women from Native societies in which women played leadership roles, on the other hand, had personal agency. And where women’s life-giving powers were celebrated through ceremonies such as the Flower Dance, these rituals were viewed as abnormal and primitive by settlers. The strength of Native women was a direct threat and challenge to colonization.

The colonial legacy of patriarchy undergirds a long, entrenched history of abuse of Native women. And so denigrating the power of Native women became the key to taming, conquering, and exploiting indigenous land and resources.

Although learning the historyof colonization and its reliance on violence against Native women is painful, it has helped me gain a measure of authority over the basis of shame and trauma that has often poisoned our communities.

This knowledge also reinforces the legitimacy of our traditional ceremonies and our right to claim them as a means to heal and restore us.

When my children and I dance, speak our language, and participate in our ceremonies, I think of my mother and her fierce pride. Although she wasn’t allowed to participate in our ceremonies, she instilled in me the knowledge that in Ojibwe culture, spirituality is the bedrock of life; women play a central role.

My friend Babette Sandman, Ojibwe from White Earth, once remarked:

“Sometimes I wonder where Ojibwe women’s strength comes from. How is it we’ve survived and kept our ways and identity even when the federal government outlawed our religion? Then I remember that the ancestors taught us that there is some kind of energy that comes right out of the Earth, into our feet and into our hearts, if we take time to put down our tobacco and listen.”

Near the end of the final chapter, Baldy writes, “We are not sad, dying Indians, and this documentation of our revitalizations is not of a dying culture, but instead of a culture that has always envisioned an indigenous future.”

Indeed, our resilience and determination to know who we are and how to pray and make ceremony — and to pass this knowledge along to our children and community — this is our enduring strength.

Mary Annette Pember

Mister Rogers, Neighborhood Nonviolence Radical



Kids have it really hard right now. Many adults have forgotten that a world where children are safe and cared for with dignity is not a utopian vision, but a necessity.

Take Ben, for example, who happened to be sitting in my office recently. I told him about a paid internship opportunity for high school youth at a local nonviolence organization, wondering if he would be interested in pursuing it. But he liked violence, he asserted, with a certain confidence, a wry smile on his face and a mesh of hair falling across his serious brown eyes.

“I’m not very peaceful.”

“That could make you the ideal candidate,” I replied. “You might actually have the courage it takes to practice nonviolence.”

Ben is 17 and had been expelled from school a few days before because he’d threatened, not for the first time, to fight another student. “Just go,” responded the school administrator. It was the end of the school year and they were kicking him out for the rest of the year. That evening the other kid sent him threats on Snapchat, ready to pick up the fight now that they were off campus.

“But I swallowed my pride and talked him out of it. I told him I didn’t want to fight him,” said Ben. He went back to his school administrators to tell them that he and the other guy were “cool now” and there wouldn’t be any more trouble, but to no avail. They wouldn’t revoke the expulsion. He was not worth their while — he was not worthwhile. “I have one friend who really understands this, too,” he told me quietly later in our conversation. “Nothing matters. Life really doesn’t matter.”

Won't You Be My Neighbor?
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Something in what he’d said caught my attention. And it wasn’t his violence.

“Wait, you mean, you figured out how to reconcile with this other kid even though a few hours before the two of you were ready to take each other on? You sound like someone who’s done this before.”

And sure enough, he told me about another time when he’d not only broken up a fight between two friends, but helped them forgive each other and even reconcile.

“Ben, I’m gonna make a wild guess that you might have a real gift for peacemaking.” He became attentive now: Maybe no one had ever seen him in this light — or said so. He’d been typed as a “bad” kid, aggressive, violent; he picks a fight and is punished, but he reconciles a conflict and no one cares.

Ben was not failing school, or society. They — or rather, we — were failing him. One administrator actually told him, “You’re going to end up dead or in prison.”

“It makes me want to prove him right,” Ben said, almost imploringly.

His story made me wonder:

What are we telling ourselves, and our children, about what it means to be a human being? Are we problems or are we problem-solvers? It depends on what qualities we are trained to look for.

The day before my conversation with Ben, I saw the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Morgan Neville’s appropriately complex exploration of the unconventional children’s television pioneer Fred McFeely Rogers. The messages we send to the very young were of primary concern to Rogers, who chose a career in television — in the early days of the medium — expressly to care for children. As the originator and host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Rogers celebrated dignity and kindness in a slow-paced, low-budget children’s show that was a beloved cultural institution for just over three decades.

With his inner strength hidden behind his homemade sweaters and signature blue tennis shoes, Mister Rogers modeled satyagraha in the age of mass media. Look at his boldness, how he taught children to resist mindless indignity: giving lessons on how to turn off a television set — his very own medium — when what is shown is degrading.

Giving his full attention to everyone and everything that came into his neighborhood, especially the challenges, Mister Rogers took up serious conversations normally censored from children, going right to the heart of the toughest problems the world faces: war, racism, assassination, even terrorism. He reminded us of our responsibility to look at how to understand and repair these conflicts, because — and this is the important part — all of us have the capacity to do that work.

In an interview included in the film, Rogers says that in times of “scary news,” of tragedy and disaster, his mother taught him not to focus just on destruction or violence, but to “look for the helpers,” who are everywhere. Rogers often said that he admired Mahatma Gandhi, another unassuming person with an extraordinary capacity for separating negative behaviors from the fundamental dignity of the person doing them, and then using that relationship as a basis for constructive action. Gandhi coined a special term for nonviolence that takes it out of the conceptual realm of passivity, satyagraha. Satya means what is good, what is real, what is true, and agraha means to grasp, to hold tightly.

With his inner strength hidden behind his homemade sweaters and signature blue tennis shoes, Mister Rogers modeled satyagraha in the age of mass media. Look at his boldness, how he taught children to resist mindless indignity: giving lessons on how to turn off a television set — his very own medium — when what is shown is degrading.

Giving back agency to the dehumanized mass viewer? That’s subversive. Firmly taking his industry colleagues to task for producing media that was harmful to the development of children? Courage with a capital C.

Rogers’ influence was such that he was often invited to give commencement speeches to college graduates who grew up with his show. “As human beings,” he exhorted in one of these, “our job in life is to help people realize how rare and valuable each one of us really is, that each of us has something that no one else has — or ever will have — something inside that is unique to all time. It’s our job to encourage each other to discover that uniqueness and to provide ways of developing its expression.” This is not an easy task when we’re exposed to anywhere between 500 and 10,000 brand messages a day telling us the exact opposite.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? offers a scene from the television show: The year is 1969. Officer Clemmons and Mister Rogers sit next to a wading pool, dipping their feet together for a friendly respite from the day’s heat. Officer Clemmons is Black and Mister Rogers is White. The film now flashes to news footage of a White man pouring chemicals into a swimming pool where Black and White youth are swimming as an act of nonviolent civil disobedience to segregation and the violent “Whites Only” sign on the wall. Cut back to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, where Rogers takes a towel and carefully dries Officer Clemmons’ feet. What do we see? Two people, profoundly caring about each other, as well as the other people in their neighborhood and world around them. “Pay attention to our message,” they quietly urge through their actions.

In early childhood education, as in nonviolence for that matter, there are two key principles: to dignify the child/person and model the behavior you want others to emulate. Like a master teacher, Rogers invites us into this struggle with him, imperfect as we may be now. “It’s You I Like” is the famous song he would sing to children (though we know that some grown-ups were listening, too). If we don’t love people the way they are, he would say, they can never grow. And if we don’t turn off and resist the degrading images of ourselves from commercial media, how can we love? How can we grow?

This is timeless wisdom that Rogers lived, and the challenge of a lifetime: to refuse the degradation that turns us into consumers, offer people dignity even while resisting their behavior, and, above all, love them as they are right now.


Number of Fleeing Refugees — a New Measure of Climate Change



Before 2005, when Oxford ecologist Norman Myers announced that there would be 25 million climate-fleeing migrants by 2012, there wasn’t the research to back it up. There was a steadily increasing stream of reports, sure, but according to what Koko Warner of the United Nations University and lead writer of several of those reports told me, there wasn’t “the scientific methodological research that there is today.”

Today’s research confirms that massive migration — combined, as always, with a multitude of other effects — will be an inevitable consequence of global warming. Glacier melts are going to affect water flows and impact food production and migration. Heat and drought will also impact food production and migration. Environmental disasters are a major driver of short-term displacement and migration (though other studies have found that it is the gradual environmental degradation that causes movement in the long term). Saltwater intrusions, inundations, storm surges, and erosion from sea-level rise — all issues facing northern Honduras — will continue to impel ever larger numbers of people to move. “There is strong evidence that the impacts of climate change will devastate subsistence and commercial agriculture on many small islands.” Warner et al. report that the Ganges, Mekong, and Nile River Delta are places where sea-level rise of one meter could affect 235 million people and reduce landmass by 1.5 million hectares. An additional 10.8 million people would be directly impacted by two meters of sea-level rise, which climate models now have to contemplate, given recent reports about feedback triggers and the accelerating disintegration of polar ice sheets. They report that “millions of people will leave their homes” in the years ahead.

Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security
Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security

Serious impacts of climate change are already happening and can be projected into the future with certainty. There is now a lot of empirical research that melds climate with migration. In Satkhira, the coastal district of Bangladesh, 81 percent of the people reported a high level of salinity in their soil in 2012, compared to just 2 percent two decades earlier. Farmers planted a saline-resistant variety of rice when Cyclone Aila surged in 2009, but the increase of salt in the soil has been drastic. “Almost all farmers lost their complete harvests that year.” According to the United Nations University Loss and Damage report, while many farmers kept to salt-tolerant varieties, 29 percent decided to migrate. Remember, if they dare cross into India, they encounter a steel barrier and Indian border guards who have shot and killed more than 1,000 Bangladeshi people. In Kenya, researchers arrived after the 2011 floods, which followed a pattern of increased precipitation over past decades, washing crops away, drowning livestock, severely damaging houses, and causing an outbreak of waterborne diseases. Aid came, but it was not enough. Sixty-four percent of people migrated or moved to camps. The drought in the north bank of Gambia in 2011 affected 98 percent of 373 households interviewed, many of which lost entire harvests. People also attempted to find alternative income to buy food. They sold things in the informal economy, and borrowed money. Still, displacement or migration impacted 23 percent of the region’s inhabitants. And although many people prefer to stay close to home after displacement and do not cross an international border, the tales of people from many countries in Africa facing the European border enforcement regime, often referred to as Fortress Europe, are virtually endless.

Current estimates for climate refugees are wide-ranging, and go as high as 1 billion people displaced by 2050. No matter what the final number may be, it is worth remembering that most of those making projections say that human migration in the 21st century will be “staggering.” The International Organization on Migration keeps their estimate around 200 million. The American Association for the Advancement of Science foresees 50 million mobilizing to escape their environment by 2020. As things stand, Honduras, and many countries in the global South, will contribute to those numbers significantly.

Harsha Walia wrote that “patterns of displacement and migration reveal the unequal relations between rich and poor, between North and South, between whiteness and racialized others.” And while visiting a refugee-occupied school in Germany in May 2015, renowned human rights advocate Angela Y. Davis said that “the refugee movement is the movement of the 21st century. It’s the movement that is challenging the effects of global capitalism, and it’s the movement that is calling for civil rights for all human beings.” And it is, dare I add, the movement that will challenge fossil fuel consumption and its contamination of the living biosphere. It may be in refugees, and their experience, where the answer lies.

Michael Gerrard of Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law told climate journalist Eric Holthaus: “I think the countries of the world need to start thinking seriously about how many people they’re going to take in. The current horrific situation in Europe is a fraction of what’s going to be caused by climate change.” Gerrard argued in an op-ed for the Washington Post that countries should take in people in proportion to the greenhouse gas emissions they pollute. For example, since between 1850 and 2011 the United States was responsible for 27 percent of the world’s total carbon dioxide emissions, the European Union 25 percent, China 11 percent, Russia 8 percent — so each country should be obligated to take in an equal percentage of climate refugees.

Instead, these are the places with the largest military budgets. And these are the countries that today are erecting towering border walls.

Small Works

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Serenity Now

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