Posted by on Feb 15, 2012 in Uncategorized

What It Means to be a Native Woman

By:  Ruth Hopkins

Whenever I hear Native women discussed, mainly in non-Native circles, I’m always surprised at how many misconceptions there are out there about us.  Generally, we’re either romanticized or demonized, but stereotypes regarding Native womanhood abound.  Tawdry, hipster photographs of half-naked non-Native women in nonspecific war paint and counterfeit headdresses would have the public believe that indigenous women are merely sex kittens, meant to be degraded and objectified.  Others have placed Native women on the pedestal of martyrs as helpless, submissive, downtrodden, and doomed to be perpetual victims.  Others have accused Native women of being addicts, abusers, enablers, too stupid or too smart, too weak or too strong- you name it.  In truth, we are none of these things, and all of these things.

My father is Native, and my mother is non-Native.  I love my mom.  She taught me a lot about being a good wife, mother, and human being.  However, she could not teach me how to be a true Native woman.  By no means does this mean that I didn’t have fine examples of what it means to be a Native woman- just the opposite.  I count myself as lucky, for all of the true Native women who’ve touched my life in some way and helped shape me into who I am today.

As a teenager, I suffered from teen angst and PTSD.  I became anti-social and rebelled against any and all authority figures.  Those closest to me who knew I’d been sexually assaulted recognized why I was acting out- but my parents had no idea what was wrong with me.  Finally, they became so exasperated with their defiant daughter that they sent me to live with my Aunt Geraldine in Arizona.  Geraldine was my dad’s older sister- a strong, independent, educated, self-made Dakota woman who was the principal of a Native K-12 school.  Geraldine wouldn’t take any of my shit, and she made that clear from the get go.  She was firm, but loving.  She stayed with me around the clock.  She made me get up in the morning, and eat (her menudo was fantastic, by the way).  There would be no smoking or drinking in Geraldine’s home- heck, Geraldine’s reservation!  Auntie Geraldine was my boot camp.

The first time I realized I wanted to be like her was when she drove me to Phoenix to visit Arizona State University.  She’d decided that I should go to college.  On the way, we were stopped for speeding.  Geraldine accused the police officer of racial profiling, and she wouldn’t back down.  I admired her not because she got angry, but because she was assertive and backed up everything she said.  I’d grown up on the rez, yet that was the first time I’d seen someone stand up to a cop as a citizen, rather than a perpetrator.   She still ended up with a ticket, but from then on I saw Native women differently.  I began to see Native women as a force of nature.  By learning to respect my Aunt and other Native women like her, I started learning how to respect myself.

Another great Native woman who impacted my life was my husband’s grandmother, Stella Pretty Sounding Flute.  I clung to Stella’s wisdom because my grandmothers had passed away before I had the opportunity to meet them.  It was Stella who planted the seed for a love of enthobotany in me.

The first time I met Stella, she pulled me aside.  She said, “Don’t walk behind my grandson, you walk beside him. You are his equal.”  While I hadn’t intentionally walked behind my husband, what she said stuck with me.  Her statement was an affirmation of the importance of Native women within our Tribes.  Stella, an elder, pipe carrier, and fluent Dakota speaker, also gave me my Dakota name- Cankudutawin (Red Road Woman). The name originally belonged to my husband’s great, great, great grandmother- a Dakota woman who outlived three husbands, saved her sister from imminent death at the hands of her abusive brother-n-law by rubbing him out, and took in orphaned children until her death.

From a Hidatsa friend who taught me how to make frybread, to a hunka brother’s Dakota mother who guided me through my first round of ceremonies years ago, or the astute Ojibway upperclassman who took me under her wing when I transferred from a Tribal College to a University, many Native women have guided me on my journey through womanhood and shown me the true meaning of what it is to be a Native woman.

What does it mean to be a true Native woman?  We are spiritual with a sacred purpose, like Pteskanwin (White Buffalo Calf Woman).  We are fierce, yet humble- like No Moccasins.  We are capable leaders, like Wilma Mankiller, and Cecilia Fire Thunder.  We are defenders of Mother Earth, like Saint Kateri Tekawitha.  We are scholars and intellectuals, like Ella Deloria.

Perfect in our imperfections, we are the mothers who gave you life and nursed you to health.  We’re the sisters and cousins who you wrestled and argued with when you were growing up.  We are the devoted aunts who give you shelter when everyone else turned their back.  Look at us.  We’ve survived hell on Earth and we’re still beautiful.  We are strong hands and full hearts.  We are loyal wives, and sensual lovers.  We’re graceful butterflies, dancing and singing around the drum.  We’re healers and caregivers.  We’re a bellyful of laughs, and a fistful of tears.  We are the progenitors, the life’s blood- indeed, the very root, of all red nations.  We are its heart and soul.  We are all this, and so much more.  Hold your head up and follow the true path of your ancestors, where women are equals who play essential roles in a complex, indigenous society.  Support your Native sisters.  Fulfill your purpose as a true Native woman.  Wear your long skirts proudly, and be strong for the men.  They need us much more than they let on.