A couple days ago, I posted about the Indigenous Thought course I took this fall semester (I’m doing a master’s in cultural studies at Trent University here in Ontario). I discussed how many of the most pressing social issues confronting Westerners right now—in particular the state of the environment and of spirituality vis-à-vis our secular overculture—are robustly addressed in Indigenous knowledge traditions, and have been for hundreds and hundreds of years. In addition to ecology and spirituality, the exalted status of women was another area which made me aware of the ignorance of white/Western feminist perspectives, which have struggled just to have women’s personhood and basic political rights acknowledged. By contrast, in many Indigenous cultures, we see a worldiew that not only positions women as equal to men, but sacred in their own right. In addition, their sacredness is arguably foundational to teachings about the sacredness of the land and all life itself.
For this entry, I thought I’d share an excerpt from Vanessa Watt’s 2013 article on Indigenous place-thought. In it, she recounts Haudenosaunee and Anishnaabe creation stories and explains how they reflect this concept of “place-thought” which, broadly, refers to the interconnectedness between human thinking and the land. Watts suggests there is an inherent agency to both; as she puts it, the land is “alive and thinking” and that “humans and non-humans derive agency through the extensions of these thoughts.” Although her article is dedicated to a discussion of this intersection between land and thinking, in Haudenosaunee and Anishnaabe cosmologies, there are explicit associations made between women and the origin of thought, most obviously in the figure of Sky Woman. In fact, thinking itself is configured as a feminine act; what an enormous contrast between this idea and white patriarchal ideology which has historically denied that woman have the capacity to think at all. Also illuminating is the contrast between the biblical creation story and these Haudenosaunee/Anishnaabe stories, which Watts discusses as well. This summary doesn’t do justice to the gynocentric nature of these creation accounts, but my hope is that this excerpt will provide a starting point for white feminist allies to become more familiar with Indigenous cosmologies that elevate Indigenous women.
According to Haudenosaunee, Sky Woman fell from a hole in the sky. John Mohawk (2005) writes of her journey towards the waters below. On her descent, Sky Woman fell through the clouds and air towards water below. During her descent, birds could see this falling creature and saw she could not fly. They came to her and helped to lower her slowly to waters beneath her. The birds told Turtle that she must need a place to land, as she possessed no water legs. Turtle rose up, breaking through the surface so that Sky Woman could land on Turtle’s back. Once landed, Sky Woman and Turtle began to form the earth, the land becoming an extension of their bodies.
Amongst the Anishnaabe, a similar history is shared. Leanne Simpson (2011) retells the Anishnaabe Creation Story, within the historical framework of the Seven Fires of Creation. The two fires that I would like to relate to this idea of Place-Thought, is the Fifth and Sixth Fire. In the Fifth Fire, Gizhe-Mnidoo (the Creator) placed his/her thoughts into seeds. In the Sixth Fire, Gizhe-Mnidoo created First Woman (Earth), a place where these seeds could root and grow.
Before continuing, I would like to emphasize that these two events took place. They were not imagined or fantasized. This is not lore, myth or legend. These histories are not longer versions of “and the moral of the story is….”. This is what happened.
These Creation histories can sometimes take days to describe. For the purposes of this article, I would like to focus on a common historical understanding of the origin of the human species—the spiritual and the feminine. These historical accounts, two of many, speak to the common intersections of the female, animals, the spirit world, and the mineral and plant world. What constitutes “society” from these perspectives revolves around interactions between these worlds rather than solely interactions amongst human beings. Both of these accounts describe a theoretical understanding of the world via a physical embodiment – Place-Thought. Place- Thought is the non-distinctive space where place and thought were never separated because they never could or can be separated. Place-Thought is based upon the premise that land is alive and thinking and that humans and non-humans derive agency through the extensions of these thoughts…
To be animate goes beyond being alive or acting, it is to be full of thought, desire, contemplation and will. It is the literal embodiment of the feminine, of First Woman, by which many Indigenous origin stories find their inception. When Sky Woman falls from the sky and lies on the back of a turtle, she is not only able to create land but becomes territory itself. Therefore, Place-Thought is an extension of her circumstance, desire, and communication with the water and animals—her agency. Through this communication she is able to become the basis by which all future societies will be built upon—land.
In becoming land or territory, she becomes the designator of how living beings will organize upon her. Where waters flow and pool, where mountains rise and turn into valleys, all of these become demarcations of who will reside where, how they will live, and how their behaviours toward one another are determined. Scientists refer to this as ecosystems or habitats. However, if we accept the idea that all living things contain spirit, then this extends beyond complex structures within an ecosystem. It means that non-human beings choose how they reside, interact and develop relationships with other non-humans. So, all elements of nature possess agency, and this agency is not limited to innate action or causal relationships…
For example, in the Christian origin story, we see how the interaction between a female (Eve) and non-humans (Serpent, Tree of Knowledge, apple) led to the damnation of all future humankind (Oh, that nosy woman!). It also meant that the garden, in which they were able to reside, quickly became a place where humans were cast out. They were no longer of their surroundings, but outside of them. The result has many consequences, but two significant ones for this purpose emerged.
Firstly, humans were positioned into a world in which they were able to reside over nature. Secondly, and interdependently, humans resolved that communication with nature held disastrous effects (Tree of Knowledge, the Serpent) and so inter-species communication became quite limited if not profane. In this worldview, agency became associated with human-human interactions. Societies were built upon domination over nature because of a perception that human arrangements with the animal world were unnecessary, if not dangerous. From an Indigenous perspective, though, the same interaction between a female and non-human has different results. For many Indigenous peoples, being aligned with the animal world was a position that was treated with respect and honour (Sioui, 1992). This relational paradox created a point of devastation, where our most sacred elements (land and women) were violently corrupted with a false profanity.
Conversely, in many Indigenous origin stories the idea that humans were the last species to arrive on earth was central; it also meant that humans arrived in a state of dependence on an already-functioning society with particular values, ethics, etc. (Benton-Benai, 2010).The inclusion of humans into this society meant that certain agreements, arrangements, etc. had to be made with the animal world, plant world, sky world, mineral world and other non-human species.Therefore, being associated with animals, whether it be through clan systems, ceremonies, or beings that acted as advisors, transpired from a place of reverence. In the Haudenosaunee origin story, Sky Woman becomes curious and falls through a hole in the sky and she is safely brought down to earth by different birds who land her on the back of a turtle. With the help of other animals, they are able to create territory, and the beginning of humankind…
Both the story of Genesis and the story of Sky Woman tell of a world that existed before humans. Both tell of a woman and non-humans interacting to create significant changes in creation as well as for humankind. In the latter, the relationship between animals and this female is regarded as sacred and ritualized over generations. This relationship also becomes the foundation for future clan systems, ethics, governance, ceremonies, etc. In the former, the female becomes responsible for all the pain of childbirth and resentment for being cast out of paradise. The interaction of Eve and the Serpent results in shame and excommunication from nature. Additionally, future dialogue and communication with animals becomes taboo and a source of witchcraft. It is at this point of conflict where thought, perception, and action are separated from the supposed inertia of nature.
If we begin from the premise that land is female and further, that she thinks—then she is alive. If the most elemental female is conceived of as being responsible for pain, shame and excommunication, then doing destruction upon her does not seem that bad. In fact, maybe she even deserves to have violence done to her. After all, her curious nature compromised the life human beings could have had, but cannot experience because of her irresponsible actions—thus the basis for resentment. Any obligation to be empathic towards her is no longer necessary because this dominant worldview instructs that the feminine is synonymous with disappointment and stupidity. It is no surprise then, that amidst a Euro-Christian construct, land and its designations are silenced. Many Indigenous peoples wonder at how much destruction has persisted throughout the decades by the colonizer without any significant attempt at stopping. If you belong to a structure where land and the feminine are not only less-than, but knowingly irresponsible, violations against her would seem warranted.¹
The full article is available online through the University of Toronto library. For a comprehensive list on how you can support Indigenous cultural awareness efforts, visit the Creative Spirits website here.