Adult Reading Level

GRANDMOTHERS OF THE LIGHT: A MEDICINE WOMAN'S SOURCE BOOK, Paula Gunn Allen, Beacon Press: 25 Beacon Street, Boston 02108. Available from The Mail Order Book Catalog, 800-695-2241. 1991 paperback, 246 pages, bibliography, glossary, postscript of vry short summary-descriptions of many tribes. $14. 0-8070-8103-5

This starts with a long essay by Allen, a Laguna Pueblo writer of some Lakota ancestry and (at the time she wrote this) a professor of English at University of California, Los Angeles, on the living reality of the medicine world. The rest of the book consists of legends, traditional stories, and knowledg that Allen herself has rewritten. Most of these have ben collected by anthros and others, some quite long ago. Allen rformulates the prose so it is graceful and smooth reading. However, she has an ideological agenda: Cosmogyny, the Goddes (rather new age-y) that causes me to distrust what she may have done to the stories she knows (in traditions I do not). Because I can see what she's done to one -- Anishinaabe -- that I have learned quite a bit about.

This is the story-section called "The Adeventurers", and it links together a number of different stories about Matchikwewis and Oshkikwe. She calls them heronies in stories women tell, demigoddesses, etc. But thse two female figures are not at all what she says. "matchi" (in various spellings) means "bad", with a context range from really evil, demonic, devilish, to just rotten like rotten food. The other parts of the older sister's name (kwe, wis) mean she is older and she's a grown woman. Oshkikwe, thee younger sister, has a name (oshki) that means both "young" with connotations of new and original, since there's a kwe identifying her as a grown woman,

Far from being stories about woman's powers or medicine or that sort of thing, stories of these sisters are cautionary tales about what's proper and what's not for women's behavior and personalities. Matchikwewis is BAD. That's what her name means in Anishinaabemowin: Bad Woman. She is pushy, egotistical, slatternly, lazy, mouthy, greedy, rash, sexually deviant. (She is after her younger sister sexually. While some Native soceties had social roles for a very small number of male homosexuals, the concept of lesbianism scarcely existed, and there was no such tolerated niche. Too, this is violative of the incest taboo, which was necessarily very strong in small, close communities that lived in tight, small winter quarters.)

The story-models that Allen rewrote were told by Delia Ogoshay (Lac Courte Oreilles) and Julia Badger (Lac du Flambeau) Wisconsin in 1942-44. These were published by the University of Wisconsin Press in 1977 (Victor Barnow editor), and have remained in print in paperback since. This source is in her bibliography, but neither for these or any other stories-as-rewritten is there a link to published sources. I found this one because I happen to know the stories in Victor Barnow's collection and happen to have the book, and have heard the stories told (and explained) by a generation by others, too.

Matchikwewis is pretty much wholly BAD. She's the cautionary model of all that Ojibwe women are not supposed to be. Oshkikwe isn't wholly GOOD, but she tends to be modest, persistent, is not rash to jump in blind, and is more often in trouble that her BAD sister has caused. These stories do not "instruct in spiritual development." These stories tell young women to be good, be quiet, don't push yourself forward, don't be mouthy, don't be greedy or lazy. More than anything else, they remind me of European fairy-type stories about little girls who get in trouble because they are too active, too pushy, not sweet, clean, nice. And the purpose of those stories is the same as of the Ojibwe ones: NOT sacred powers or spiritual development or anything like it, but teaching girls to be the right kind of women (that male dominated societies want, and men if they can get away with it prefer). You can even tell this from their names, if you know a little Anishinaabemowin. Also although the two particular versions Allen found in Barnow's collection were in fact told by women, Oshkikwe and Matchikwewis stories as joke or sexual humor (cautionary) tales are or were within my own lifetime told by men, similarly to seixst jokes that put down women, keep us in what is thought to be our proper place, are told by white men.

Most of Allen's rewritten stories are from the southwest, where I know the cultures only from spotty reading, the languages not at all, or from Meso American sources. Without a great deal of trouble, since she does not identify sources she rewrote, I would not be able to determine if a similar ideological agenda: women's power, women's rituals, women's medicine, goddesses, women's thology -- has been applied to stories which in their original and their actual cultural context cannot support such an interpretation.

The stories are still good ones, and Allen's rewritings of the ones I do have original source materials for are not drastic. I think you have to pretty much ignore all she says about female power and spirituality lessons from most of them though, or at least I must do so. When I find one I know about that has been wrenched about to fit an idological theory, I won't trust the contexts given others whose originals I don't know.I've always been attracted to the idea of the Keresan Thought Woman creatrix, the Hopi Spider grandmother, but I've also always been aware that men control Pueblo religion, and these are men's stories. Feminism can probably do no more with those ideologically than it can do with Catholic Mariolatry (Tonantzin -- made over by the Catholics into Mary, shows up here incidentally.) . I think if Native American women want a feminist theology, goddesses, etc., they are going to have to invent the religion for it, not claim they have found it, that it was there in the religious traditions. Yes, there are some female deities (generally of agriculture) but the Boss God Guys seem to be male. More important, for non-southwest religions, at least, there is a mysterious spirit or spirits that animates everything, the entire cosmos is alive and it's not a person (god, goddess) at all. This doesn't mean the book is non-recommended. I disagree with most of the theory/interpretation, but it's an interesting idea of re-interpretation. Much of it on a par, though, I'm afraid, with claims that Jesus was really a woman. Reviewed by Paula Giese

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Last Updated: Thursday, April 04, 1996 - 10:09:21 AM