Jaguar by Michelle Garcia

Sacred Mothers

Stacy Peters-Walters

In Native American mythology, the woman plays the central role in the creation of the people and the people's culture. To the ancient Native Americans, the woman's role as mother to the people was vital to the well-being of the clan and the tribe, both physically and spiritually. The importance of women is described in this quote by a Lakota elder: "It is well to be good to women in the strength of our manhood, because we must sit under their hands at both ends of our life."

The fertility of women was considered sacred by ancient Native American people. This sacredness is reflected in their creation myths and their ancient roles. In the creation myths, women are the bringers of life, both physically and spiritually. Their ancient roles as nurturers is demonstrated by their roles as both mothers and agriculturists. Women are the bringers of life: human and plant. Both of these are vital for survival to the ancient Native American people. A Keres ceremonial prayer begins with a blessing about women's sacred fertility, "She is the mother of all, in fertility, in holding, in taking us again back to her breast."

The woman is celebrated in ancient Native American creation myths. In many of these stories, it is a female power who creates the Earth and all creatures. Sometimes this female power has the help of the Great Spirit, who is neither male nor female yet both male and female.

In some myths, the people are trapped underground and are searching for their way to the surface. They must travel through several caves before they reach the surface. These underground caves are considered the wombs of Mother Earth. Mother Earth is the female power of fertility and growth. In some ancient Native mythology her partner is Father Sky. She is one of the six directions which are considered sacred in many ancient Native American religions.

Not only was the woman's fertility celebrated in ancient Native American creation myths, but also the sacrifices and unconditional love that they gave to their people and their children were celebrated. This is demonstrated by the creation myth of the Thompson Indians of the Pacific Northwest.

"At first Kujum-Chantu, the earth, was like a human being; she had a head, and arms and legs, and an enormous fat belly. The original human beings lived on the surface of her belly.

"One day it occurred to Kujum-Chantu that if she ever got up and walked about, everyone would fall off and be killed, so she herself died of her own accord. Her head became the snow-covered mountains; the bones of her back turned into smaller hills. Her chest was the valley where the Apa-Tanis live. From her neck came the north country of the Tagins. Her buttocks turned into the Assam plain. For just as the buttocks are full of fat, Assam has fat rich soil. Kujum-Chantu's eyes became the Sun and the Moon. From her mouth was born Kujum-Popi, who sent the Sun and Moon to shine in the sky."

For many ancient Native American people, there were not only creation myths that celebrated the people's origin but also myths that celebrated the origin of their culture or religion. The Navajo and Apache creation myth is focused around Changing Woman who is born of darkness and dawn. Changing Woman goes through a puberty ceremony, which is still practiced today by some Apache and Navajo young women, to become fertile. Sometime after the puberty ceremony she created corn, which is sacred to most native tribes. She cut pieces of her flesh to create the First People. Not only did she give the Navajo and Apache life and the puberty ceremony, but also the highly sacred Blessingway ceremony, which is sung to bring healing.

The Lakota were given five of their seven sacred rituals by White Buffalo Calf Woman. The myth goes that White Buffalo Calf Woman appeared on the Great Plains as a beautiful maiden dressed in white buckskin. She met two Lakota hunters. One of the hunters had bad (sexual/desirous) thoughts toward her and told his companion. His companion told him not to think like that because she was obviously a sacred person. When the woman approached the two men, she first looked at the evil man. The evil man was suddenly enshrouded in clouds. When the cloud dissipated, there was a stack of human bones lying on the ground with snakes slithering through them. She told the other young man to return to his village and tell the people that she would be arriving the next day to speak to them from the Great Spirit. The young man went back to his tribe and told them about what happened. The people erected a tipi and awaited for White Buffalo Calf Woman's arrival. When she arrived the next day, she was carrying the first sacred pipe. She explained that the pipe has two parts: the stem which represents man and the bowl which represents woman, or the earth. She told the people that whoever prayed with the sacred pipe would be in harmony with the universe. She also related many of the sacred rites and rituals for the Lakota people. Two of the seven rites were already being practiced by the Lakota: Inipi (Sweat Lodge) and Hanbleceya (Crying for a Vision). Along with the pipe ceremony she added Wanagi Gluhapi (The Keeping of the Soul), Isna Ti Ca Lowan (First Menses), Hunkapi (Making Relatives), Wiwanyag Wachapi (Sun Dance) and Tapa Wanka Yap (Throwing of the Ball).

When she had finished giving the people their rites, she turned to the women of the tribe. She told them that being a good mother, wife, sister, neighbor or grandmother is expected first. From the book Walking in the Sacred Manner by Mark St. Pierre and Tilda Long Soldier, the White Buffalo Calf Woman is quoted as saying:

"My dear sisters, the women: you have a hard life to live in this world, yet without you this life would not be what it is. Wakantanka intends that you shall bear much sorrow, and comfort others in time of sorrow. By your hand the family moves. You have been given the knowledge of making clothing and feeding your family. Wakantanka is with you in your sorrows and joins you in your griefs [sic.]. He has given you the greatest kindness towards every living creature on earth. You he has chosen to have a feeling for the dead who are gone. He knows that you remember the dead longer than do the men. He knows that you love your children dearly."

When she left the tribe, she walked out into the plains. Four times she got down on the ground and rolled around, each time becoming a buffalo calf. The last buffalo calf was white and turned to look at the tribe before disappearing.

Two of the ceremonies that White Buffalo Calf Woman gave to the Lakota people directly involved the power of women: tapa wanka yap (the throwing of the ball) and ishna ta awi cha lowan (the preparing of a girl for womanhood). The throwing of the ball ritual is in the form of a game. The ball is made of buffalo hair and covered with buffalo hide and brightly beaded. This ball represents the universe before it was broken. The materials necessary for this ceremony are a sacred pipe, tobacco, sweet grass, a spotted eagle feather, a knife, a hatchet, a buffalo skull and the ball.

The ritual takes place in a consecrated tipi with sage scattered over the floor. The leader of the ceremony sits at the west and faces east. He burns sweet grass over a live coal and offers a prayer of gratitude to the creator. The burning of sweet grass is to purify the area. Each of the materials for the rite are brought through the smoke from the sweet grass to purify them. As the sun comes up, the leader marks a place for his ceremonial platform by burying a hatchet at each of the four points of a square in front of him. The leader than takes a knife and scrapes a pile of earth from each of the four corners. The leader takes the loose earth and scatters it over the site and spreads it evenly with the spotted eagle feather. Within the site he draws a cross: west to east, north to south. The leader places two lines of tobacco along the lines of the cross. The tobacco has been painted red. This platform represents the universe and all that is in it. While performing this, he sings a sacred song to the accompaniment of a drum.

While the leader is occupied, a young girl, chosen for her purity and innocence, is brought into the tipi by her father. They move clockwise around the tipi and sit by the leader. The girl stands and holds the ball in her left hand while raising her right hand to the heavens. As the girl holds the ball, the leader offers a prayer, thanking the creator for a loving presence in the universe and for spiritual enlightenment.

The girl leaves the tipi to begin tossing the ball. The leader follows her out. He carries a buffalo skull painted with two red lines, one around it and one from between the eyes. The buffalo skull represents the Bison People. They, through the creator and White Buffalo Calf Woman, gave this ritual to the "two-leggeds" or humans.

All of the people are gathered in a circle outside. The girl throws the ball first to the West. Whoever catches the ball is considered blessed because the ball represents the power of the creator coming down to the people. The girl then throws the ball to the north, the east and the south. Finally the girl throws the ball straight into the air and there is a great scramble to catch the ball because everyone wants to be blessed. The ball is then returned to the girl. The leader offers a prayer of dedication and the ritual is finished.

The other great ritual for women is the preparation of a girl for womanhood. This occurs when a girl has her first menstrual cycle. This was an important time in a young woman's life, the time she became a woman who could be a contributing member of the tribe by not only being fertile but also because she was now considered mature enough to be a homemaker. Menstruation was important because it demonstrated a woman's fertility, which in itself had strong power. Menstruating women were kept apart from the general population, especially the holy men. The power of their fertility was considered strong enough to disrupt the ceremonies and the rites of the holy men.

The ceremony is such a significant event that the girl's parents begin preparing for it when the girl is only eight or nine years old. The parents at that time ask an old woman to start watching the girl. This woman will be with the girl until she is married. In ancient times the girl was usually twelve or thirteen when she married. In more modern times, the older woman stays with the girl until she is eighteen. The old woman watches the girl to protect her virginity. The old woman is represented by the bear, the protector of virgins.

Next her parents choose a tribal elder to perform the ceremony. As a token of their thanks, the parents must give the elder a whole buckskin outfit plus many blankets and household goods. In ancient times the elder was given horses.

The elder will spend many years going to sweat lodges or vision quests to see what kind of ceremony that he should perform for the child. He will be an advisor to the girl's parents.

During the girl's first menstruation, the girl is isolated along with other women who are menstruating. When the girl's first menstruation is finished, there is a celebration. First the girl is taken to the sweat lodge for a purification ceremony. Then the old woman sings the mato awicalowanpi song. This is a song which petitions the Bear to continue watching over the girl. The elder and the old woman give the girl advice. Afterwards the family puts on a feast for the two advisors and gives them gifts. This part of the ceremony is informal, and just for the family.

Then next part of the ceremony is for the entire community and involves giving away gifts to many people. The parents decide when to hold this ceremony.

The old woman takes the girl to the ceremony. She leads her inside a tipi where new clothes have been laid out for her. The old woman makes a fire of sage and sweet grass and runs the clothes through the smoke to purify them. She helps the girl change into her new clothes. Then the woman paints the girl's face red to symbolize her rebirth, and to symbolize the earth itself.

Four men then bring a bear robe and place the girl upon it, carrying her to the center of the ceremonial grounds, where they set her down. While the girl sits in the center of a circle of people, various community members will stand and talk about her ancestors. They will tell her whole family history. Each person who says something good about the girl will receive a gift from her family. The person can say as much as he or she wishes about the girl.

After everyone has completed speaking, the elder leader will talk about the girl's accomplishments. He will tell Creator that the girl has done all that is required of her. He will burn sage and sweet grass, holding their smoke over the girl. He will then bring her stalks of corn. This is part of the Making of Relatives ritual which she will have to perform later in life. One of the people who has spoken about the girl will pin the white plume from the breast of a spotted eagle to the girl's hair. The giver has prepared himself for this moment by going to a sweat lodge and praying for the girl. This eagle plume is the confirmation that the girl has committed herself to the service of the people. It symbolizes her intention to practice the virtues of kindness, generosity and truthfulness. She will then hear her honor song for the first time. Her honor song is unique to her. It is sung any time that she deserves recognition. It is sung for the last time on the day she is buried.

The eagle plume is the only feather that a virgin is allowed to wear. Once she loses her virginity, she will put the eagle feather aside for another woman in her family.

These rituals are sacred to the Native American people. To practice a Native American ritual without the proper guidance from a holy man or woman is to commit a sin. Without a holy person's help, the people performing the ritual will insult those that truly follow the rituals and the Creator. True holy men and women are hard to find. They know the ancient stories and rituals as they were before the arrival of the Europeans. They are usually living far away from anything modern.

Many of Native American creation myths and rites have been Europeanized. Because their traditions were oral, it is hard to discern between a truly ancient ritual or myth or an Europeanized ritual or myth. For the most part, if a researcher can draw a concrete parallel between a Native American myth and a Christian Bible story, the myth has been Europeanized. The only Native American myth that does bear resemblance yet is still in its true form are the myths about the Great Flood.

To ancient Native Americans the fertility of women was celebrated. Women were respected because of their roles as mothers and nurturers. This respect was learned through the oral traditions of the creation myths, which teach that it is because of the sacrifices of women that people are here today.

About Stacy Peters-Walters.

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