About a month back Claire Jozan-Meisel who is sponsoring my workshops in France this spring asked me to write a short piece describing what a clan mother is and does. Because this is such an important and often misunderstood topic, I spent weeks working on it in my mind. Then I remembered I had written about this in my spiritual memoir Woman of the Dawn. I read through parts of the book and realized the best way I can define a “clan mother” is by telling some of the stories from that book.
I had the good fortune to have a number of clan mothers for teachers. The first one, Joan, was a Caucasian woman who ran an informal Indian Center in Los Angeles with her Blackfoot nation husband from the 1950s until she passed on in the 1980s. Joan taught me about generosity, hospitality and true compassion, which often has an element of “tough love”. She showed me how much strength of spirit it takes to be a true servant of the people. Joan never complained about having to put together her twelfth or thirtieth meal of the day. She truly enjoyed being able to feed her people, physically, emotionally and spiritually. She would have given you the blouse off her back, and the skirt and slip to go with it – not out of any sense of guilt but because she liked to share what she had. Joan was a willing servant, but was not in any way a martyr. She did what she liked in her life, and she liked what she did. Joan gave me a view of womanhood in which the traditional female role could be fulfilled out of choice, and with a dignity, grace and sense of fulfillment I had not believed possible. Without Joan’s gentle example, my feminist prejudice against “traditional roles” would have kept me from being able to understand deeply the matriarchal foundations of Native culture. She began to show me what it means to care for your people for this generation, and all generations to come.
Ruth, a clan mother from an eastern tribe, reinforced Joan’s lessons, particularly those about feminine strength. I would consider Ruth a medicine woman, although I never heard her refer to herself in that way. She was gratified to have been chosen a clan mother, a position given only to women who have proven to have stability, compassion, fairness, deep love, and a fierce sense of protectiveness toward their people. Ruth had all these qualities, along with physical and spiritual beauty, grace, courage and directness. You never had to guess where you stood with Ruth.
When she first met me, she accurately thought I was in pretty sorry shape. It was obvious to her that I was sincere about wanting to do well in my new life, but that I had little idea of what I was supposed to be doing. She was right. I was suffering from a severe case of culture shock, and I was also deadly serious about getting things right. After watching me flounder she said, “Little sister, you seem like you’re having problems. I’m going to help you.” Beginning then Ruth took me under her powerful wing. I felt as if I had a kind aunt watching out for me – sometimes. To say Ruth could be formidable is an understatement. She was a powerhouse, and widely respected. I was smart enough to know that being with her was a situation in which I should shut my mouth, open my heart, do a lot of dishes and try to anticipate ways to be helpful.
Over time she showed me the difference between being subservient and serving; between being passive and receptive. In the former cases you see yourself in an inferior position; in the latter, in an equal but different position. As my education went on, she made it clear my responsibility was to take care of as much of the earthly, physical level of business of Sun Bear’s tribal vision as possible. That would leave Sun Bear free to work with his medicine.
She did not see women as inferior beings in any way, nor did she see the task I had as demeaning. She believed life worked better when mothers took care of the family and clan mothers took care of the tribe. That, she assured me, was how things had worked on Turtle Island for many thousands of years before that “Columbus guy took a wrong turn”.
If Sun Bear was going to build a new tribe, Ruth was determined his female medicine helper was going to know what a clan mother was, and how she should act. She could be sweet as syrup one minute and hard as nails the next – both attributes, she assured me, of all clan mothers. She was especially tough with those of the hippie bent who wanted to learn about Native culture but still thought anything was okay as long as they were “going with the flow.”
I remember one time when some young mothers decided it would be fine to let their toddlers play without supervision, while the mothers sunbathed (sans shirts) by a river. Ruth found one of the babies wandering close to the riverbank, retrieved her, and purposefully set out to find the mother. She let loose and gave that woman and her friends a necessary earful about their lax ideas of motherhood, and about the bad examples they were setting for their men, and for their children. I doubt any of them has ever forgotten what she said.
Ruth definitely did not need as assertiveness training course to know that clan mothers have the sacred responsibility to speak out for all life – mineral, plant, animal, human and spirit – and especially for children, for the elders, the sick, the helpless ones, and for the earth. She, along with my other teachers, has succeeded in instilling me with that responsibility. I pray that, through my writing and teaching, I can pass on these lessons to my younger sisters and to the brothers who need to support and respect them.
Portrait painted by unknown.
Sculpture created by Marlise Wabun Wind.
Wooden stature carved by Northwestern coastal resident.