This morning while reading Andrea Smith's great essay (PDF) "Without Bureaucracy, Beyond Inclusion: Re-centering Feminism," which notes, in part, that "if one were to develop a feminist history centering Native women, feminist history in this country would start in 1492 with the resistance to patriarchal colonization," I was reminded of a conversation I had with Iain recently, during which I recalled to him how much I loved reading stories about Native Americans when I was a kid.

When Mama Shakes would take my sister and me to the library on a Saturday morning, to pick out three books apiece, I always looked for books about "Indians"—it's quite likely I plucked Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes from the school library because the name "Sadako" sounded Native American to me—and when I got to browse the shelves at a department store for a new Little Golden Book, I looked for the ones about nature and animals, because they sometimes featured Native Americans (portrayals I preferred to cartoony stories like the Disney Little Golden Book Hiawatha, which was cringe-inducing even by my childish standards). Books about horses, which were also a favorite, had, in retrospect, an unusually high correlation with Native American protagonists—especially as I eschewed the cowboy stuff.

I begged Mama Shakes to put long braids in my dark hair "just like Pocohontas" when I read about the Powhatans, and, when we played Ewoks at recess, I chose Sacagawea as my Ewok name after reading about the Shoshones. (Years later, when we had a lesson about Sacagawea in US History, a classmate, upon hearing the name, belted out, "Hey! That was Melissa's Ewok name in fourth grade!" as if it were quite the amazing coincidence.)

Any time I got to choose a topic for a paper for social studies or history class, I would ask Papa Shakes (a now-retired US History teacher) for a suggestion about what Native American history would fit the requirements. "Trail of Tears." "Wovoka's Ghost Dance." "The Santee Sioux Courts-Martial." Any excuse to immerse myself in Native American stories.

But, I told Iain, it wasn't until I read Paula Gunn Allen's The Sacred Hoop as a young adult that I realized why it was I had always been so attracted to these stories: Because Native American women had featured so (comparatively) prominently. And given the choice between reading about Sacagawea accompanying Lewis and Clark on their exploration of the Western US, or Betsy Ross sewing a flag, I went for kayaking up the Missouri River every time.

Now, part of my choice was dictated by the editors of Early American History books, who favor (or did, at least when I was in school, and I suspect they do still) women like Betsy Ross and Dolley Madison to women like Deborah Sampson and Mum Bett. But part of my choice was also an unconscious recognition of something unique in those stories, different from the stories of "white" American history: American women of European extraction did not live the same kind of lives, did not have the same kind of freedom of choice and equality, as most American women with indigenous roots did. (And it goes without saying that early "black" American History, the slave history filtered for my consumption through the mostly white eyes of book editors and educators, did not intrinsically lend itself to stories of freedom or equality, nor was it designed to highlight the exceptions of such.)

What I was drawn to, despite my inability to articulate it, or even recognize it, until I read The Sacred Hoop, was the gender-flexible gynocentrism of many Native American tribes that Paula Gunn Allen describes thusly:
[F]or millennia American Indians have based their social systems, however diverse, on ritual, spirit-centered, woman-focused world-views.

Some distinguishing features of a woman-centered social system include free and easy sexuality and wide latitude in personal style. This latitude means that a diversity of people, including gay males and lesbians, are not denied and are in fact likely to be accorded honor. Also likely to be prominent in such systems are nurturing, pacifist, and passive males (as defined by western minds) and self-defining, assertive, decisive women. In many tribes, the nurturing male constitutes the ideal adult model for boys while the decisive, self-directing female is the ideal model to which girls aspire.

The organization of individuals into a wide-ranging field of allowable styles creates the greatest possible social stability because it includes and encourages variety of personal expression for the good of the group.

In tribal gynocentric systems a multitude of personality and character types can function positively within the social order because the systems are focused on social responsibility rather than on privilege, and on the realities of the human constitution rather than on denial-based social fictions to which human beings are compelled to conform by powerful individuals within the society.
If you've been paying attention, that sounds a lot like that for which we advocate, work toward, and fervently desire, every day.

It's no wonder Native American stories held me in thrall. Their women were full human beings.

After conveying all of this to Iain, my love for the stories and history, and my later realization why, thanks to Paula Gunn Allen, and noting how I knew the names Pocohontas and Sacagawea only because they helped white men, the writers of the history I was taught, Iain said, approximately: "And isn't it amazing that Euroopean men's interactions with indigenous woomen, whoom they troosted and respected as hoonters and trackers and teachers, in a way they didn't respect 'their oon' woomen, never suggested tae them their ideas oof woomen were limited. They didn't take back any commentary oon woomen generally, oon woomen's potential, even after meeting extraordinary woomen in the New Woorld."

"Of course," I said. "Because they Othered native women. It was fine for a brown-skinned woman to ride a horse and shoot an arrow, but not their lovely, delicate white women."

Not the civilized ladies they'd worked so carefully to oppress.

I lament the tragic irony that here we are, 200 years later, women of all colors fighting for everything the women native to this place already had when Europeans arrived and decimated the social structure that celebrated their autonomy.

And I feel, quite pointedly, the need to re-center feminism, without bureaucracy and beyond inclusion.

Please read Andrea Smith's powerful essay.

[H/T to brownfemipower, via Sudy.]

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