Indigenous culture reasserts women’s power through dance

The colonial legacy of patriarchy undergirds a long, entrenched history of abuse of Native women.

Image Credit: YES! Magazine

Native American women and girls are two and a half 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.

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 effects 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 police officer 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 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 nuns’ 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 among 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.

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.

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 history of 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.


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