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The Sacred Power of Indigenous Women Threatened

By Ruth Broyde Sharone


We were about to begin a workshop entitled “The Sacred Power of Women” at the Dialogo Multicultural Universal in Guadalajara, Mexico last month. I had been asked to facilitate a panel of four accomplished, powerful women. Laura, an American-Samoan Latter Day Saint, is a businesswoman and philanthropist. Yonina, an Argentinean writer and publisher, was a Hindu nun for nine years. Evelina is an Ecuadorian anthropologist, lawyer, and historian. And Patti, a local Indigenous leader of Irish-Mexican heritage, is a teacher and performer of sacred ritual dance.

Unexpectedly, Carlos, one of the Dialogo’s principal leaders, entered our workshop and made an unusual request, which sounded more like a plea.

Women were at the front of the Indigenous Caminata, the sacred march, as it arrived in Guadalajara’s city-center. – Photo: TIO

Women were at the front of the Indigenous Caminata, the sacred march, as it arrived in Guadalajara’s city-center. – Photo: TIO

“Would you mind canceling your workshop and coming downstairs instead to join the Indigenous women who arrived yesterday from the Caminata, the sacred march?” He was referring to some 150 Indigenous people from multiple tribes who walked from El Salvador to Guatemala and then to Guadalajara to participate in the Dialogo.

“The women are feeling isolated and want to share their stories with all of you,” he explained. “You could make them feel more welcome if you came.”

We looked at each other and around the room and agreed. In fact we were eager to join and hear from the Indigenous women who had bravely marched – some for as many as 40 days – camping along the way. By all accounts, it was arduous. Later I learned that one of the women, pregnant at the time, miscarried during the Caminata.  She didn’t turn back. The fetus was cremated and she arrived carrying the ashes, a somber metaphor for those still struggling for survival and recognition of their rights in the countries where they live.

We went downstairs and squeezed into the conference room.  Soon every chair was occupied. No men were allowed to enter at the beginning, though later one of the chiefs did join the group with the women’s approval.

From their stories, it soon became clear that the sacred power of these Indigenous women was in jeopardy.  Their power has been co-opted and repressed, denied and belittled.

One after another their stories tumbled out.  Irma, our main translator, adroitly handled the Spanish to English translation. Several of the women needed additional translation from Quechua to Spanish and then to English. But the translators did not get in the way of the stories.  Every woman in the room was keenly aware of what was being discussed, and we were all visibly moved.

Indigenous women share their stories. – Photo: RBS

Indigenous women share their stories. – Photo: RBS

The women who marched did most of the sharing, wearing their bright-colored, hand-embroidered dresses, with shawls wrapped around their shoulders.  Some wore braids, some had loose hair. Others had their hair tied behind their head or wore a hat.  Most were small boned and copper-skinned. In spite of their hardships, their faces revealed little emotion, even when they shared the most painful part of their histories. Their stoicism must have been acquired over many years.


Disrespected at Every Layer of Life

One woman told about her father rejecting her at birth because she was not a boy. Her grandmother took her in and raised her. Another told how she was forced to marry while still in puberty. She managed to escape that marriage. Sixteen years later, remarried, now a mother with eight children, somehow she had figured out a way to educate herself.  Her fierce courage burned brightly in the cramped room.

Another battle-weary woman described in detail the layers of challenges Indigenous women face throughout Central and South America on every front: society, community, marriage, and motherhood.  Aside from the government not treating Indigenous people well in general, many men in their communities also treat them disrespectfully. Women’s previous authority and status as healers has been usurped by the introduction of Western medicine.

Even more upsetting, their own children are questioning their formidable knowledge of plants. Technology, they lamented, seduces their children, and the younger generation doesn’t seem to mind that the wisdom of their own culture is being lost. Young women, they said, now prefer to go to the hospital to deliver their babies rather than birth them naturally at home.

Sister Shirley and her translator listen to the stories of Indigenous women. – Photo: RBS

Sister Shirley and her translator listen to the stories of Indigenous women. – Photo: RBS

Sister Shirley, an American-born Indigenous leader and healer with silver hair and a powerful presence, listened for a long while but could not be contained. She spoke out suddenly, passionately. She described her travails as she pursued her own Shamanic path in the U.S., often at great emotional cost.  Her voice trembling with emotion, she encouraged the Indigenous women present to be strong and to continue to tell their stories, because the Earth is in peril and their wisdom is precious. “Don’t stop telling your stories,” she exhorted them.

Laura, one of the four original panelists from the workshop we had postponed, in solidarity with the Indigenous women told her own story as an American-Samoan, now fighting to protect the people and lands of the Pacific Islands.

“Governments in South America and in the U.S. and Europe have used our islands for target practice,” she charged.  “They have claimed it was for modernization, but it has caused only illness and degradation of nature, of culture, and of family.”  Science and technology and greed have rendered their once pristine water impure, and many islanders had subsequently been diagnosed with cancer, she reported. 

Ruth and a new friend after the workshop – Photo: TIO

Ruth and a new friend after the workshop – Photo: TIO

A heaviness had fallen in the room. The truth exposed, the women present understood only too well what was at stake. The difficult questions hung in the air. What responsibility did we all have – wherever we live – to stand with these women in transforming their reality? What has modernization achieved? What will become of the ancient Indigenous wisdom and the way of life that once upon a time honored the land and its inhabitants, if many in their own Indigenous nations no longer seem to care, especially the younger generation?

Women with light skin and light eyes. Women with dark skin and dark eyes.  Women in blue jeans and women in embroidered native dresses.  Highly-educated women and women who are illiterate but who know extremely intimate details about every plant and tree in their environment, perhaps in greater depth than erudite biologists in the West.

Sometimes, as Shaman Shirley emphasized at the end, women being witnesses to the loss and pain of our sisters is the most important thing we can do. As bearers of life and messengers of compassion, perhaps that is the true source of our sacred power. “No matter what the struggles or what the sacrifices that you have to make . . . pass on what you know, because our ways will not die.  Live your life in a big way and keep your word.  And in whatever way Spirit provides, walk the path of your people.”