► Contextualizing Native Cultural Experiences of Spiritual Death, the Damnation of Native American Women and Sobriety

Written By Karyn Denny

In Gerald Vizenor’s chapter called, The Shaman and Terminal Creeds, the author the author examined Cora Katherine Sheppo, a Native American woman who confessed to smothering her grandchild because she believed that he was a child possessed by the devil (146).  By examining Sheppe, Vizenor compared spiritual healers and people with mental disorders and stated that shamanism was “uncommon” and a shaman was someone who is connected to the spirit world and who “established an ecstatic relationship with the spirit world” (146).  Shamans were referred as medicine men who used “music, herbs, dreams, ceremonies, and visions” to heal someone (146).  Vizenor stated that shamans who experienced “symbolic death” and who can “dissolve time” and “visit the dead,” were spiritually powerful and could heal a person who has lost their soul (146).

Vizenor discussed Ake Hultkrantzs’ (a religious scholar) assertion that a person can be “struck by enchantment or sorcery.”  In Sheppo’s case, Vizenor stated that Sheppo was not a shaman and she was not a healer too, but was “diagnosed with schizophrenia” and Vizenor implied that her mental illness was comparable to “those experiences associated with traditional tribal shamans,” who can evoke and meddle with spirits (148).  Vizenor stated that Sheppo told psychiatrists in various incidents that she heard voices and that she felt that she was dealing with evil spirits.  Sheppo also stated in another incident that she believed she was overcome with the feeling death, but the doctors didn’t understand what she really meant.

Vizenor asserted that Sheppo’s experience can be analyzed from a Native American cultural perspective.  Sheppo’s experience from this perspective was a sacred experience.  Vizenor stated that Sheppo’s mental illness as an uncommon gift that only shamans had and only a shaman could’ve helped Sheppo learn to control her spiritual experiences.  And then maybe she would’ve known that her grandson was not possessed by the devil and she would not have killed her grandson.

Vizenor stated that shamans can dissolve time and experience like that of a spiritual death and are capable of traveling through time to save lost souls (148).  Vizenor saw Sheppo as a lost soul who needed the help of a shaman in order to rescue her grandson from his unfortunate death.

In the introduction in Paula Gunn’s book, The Sacred Hoop, she stated tribes are gynocratic, which means tribes are socially constructed where the women have dominant roles in leadership, authority, and in decision making (3).  In a gynocratic society, women are highly valued and to support her views, Gunn used many tribal oral stories that look at American Indian women as respected leaders and as a blessing because they carried sacred knowledge.  Gunn stated that the Keres Laguna Indians believed American Indian women were at “the center” and that “nothing is sacred without her blessing, her thinking” (13).  In another Keres Laguna creation story, Gunn discussed how native women were also responsible for inventing intelligence and the story goes on to say that, “Thought Woman was a holy person who finished everything, thoughts, and the names of all things.  She even finished the languages” (13).

The same oral story regarded intelligence as spirits with “many names and many emblems” (13).  The oral story abstractly progresses into a philosophical view that an Indian women are “potential and primary” and referring to a native women’s intelligence and exalting her to be everywhere and in everything (14).  The oral story advances and says, “She appears on the plains, in the forests, in the great canyons, on the mesas, beneath the seas” (13-14).  And “Her variety and multiplicity testify to her complexity: she is the true creatrix for she is thought itself, from which all else is born.  She is the necessary precondition for material creation, and she, like all of her creation, is fundamentally female – potential and primary” (13-14).

In today’s society, the Westernized can never succumb to this level of thinking because it goes against their non-native and paternalistic values.  Gunn stated that long ago Colonizers saw this view as a threat to their society and that “Colonizers knew that as long an Indian women were regarded in this way of “unquestioned power of such magnitude,” there endeavors of “total conquest” would fail (3).

In the chapter called, “When Women Throw Down Bundles: Strong Women Make Strong Nations,” Gunn stated that the status of tribal women have “declined for centuries” by white dominance (31).  This break down is the result of colonization and happened over a period of many generations and is now apparent in “tribal communities” (30-31).  It is also apparent in white patriarchal literature and material about tribes and Gunn calls works written about the “Montagnais-Naskapi, Keres, Navajo, Crow, and Hopi” tribes to name a few rarely discussed women (32).  This lack of regard for tribal women only furthers underestimating tribal women by devaluing them.

In Beatrice Medicine’s book, Drinking and Sobriety among the Lakota Sioux, the author attempts to examine the drinking styles of Lakota men and women and how they vary in social situations (53).  In the chapter, “Everyone Drinks!” Drinking Behavior Among Contemporary Lakota (Sioux) Indians,” Beatrice Medicine noted Whitaker’s (1962) findings that there were generational differences in drinking among Indian women, in which Whitaker found that 55% of Indian female respondents drank, but only 20% of their mother’s drank (64-65).

Medicine discovered that drinking rose in the 1970’s for Indian women who had children.  Beatrice used that term, “If you can’t lick them, join them,” which was implied after Medicine found that Indian women started drinking with their husbands after remaining abstinent from alcohol for many years and also trying (unsuccessfully) to get their husbands to quit as well (65).  So here, it is evident that Lakota women stopped drinking during their child birthing years and frequently when they were younger and stopped when they started to have a family.

Medicine stated the Lakota men viewed drinking as a rite of passage to being a man and joining into a friendship group called kola-hood (67).  Beatrice also stated that Lakota men saw drinking and “participating in daring exploits” are a “validation of manhood” (69).

In contextualizing drinking among Lakota men and women, Medicine stated that sobriety was viewed negatively and also in many variations.  Medicine stated that when a Lakota did not drink, others viewed it as something like, “You think you’re too good to drink with us,” or “I didn’t know you’re a washichu (white person)” (82).  So, here Medicine is suggesting that someone who did not drink was something like a party pooper and looked down upon by their peers.  It also seems like a form of bullying and social pressure to get a non-drinker to start drinking.  It also seems that non-drinkers were intimidating to those who did drink and it so a sense of pride for drinking was shattered or looked down upon.  In order to make up for what drinkers lacked, they resorted to bullying.

Beatrice Medicine also noted that sobriety was looked as taking a break from drinking or that it was just temporary.  Medicine notes Waddell and Everett (1980) study that showed that natives who were abstinent from alcohol did it for many reasons and it was because they couldn’t afford to drink, there were not living near places or around people where alcohol was readily available, they were incarcerated, and/or they were in mourning for someone (84).

Medicine also stated that full sobriety also mean a conversion to Mormonism and to a religious way of life (80).   Medicine recalled a study where they were older women who were between the ages of 35-80 years old, who drank when they were young, but stopped when they got older and converted to Mormonism (80).  Thus following the “nonalcoholic code of their new faith” (80).  Medicine also stated that sobriety (overall) can be viewed as an “enhanced awareness of self and society,” but that usually happened when one advances to elderly status because sobriety was more common in older people than it was in young adults.

Bibliography:

Vizenor, Gerald Robert. The People Named the Chippewa: Narrative Histories. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1984. Print.

Allen, Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon, 1986. Print.

Medicine, Beatrice. Drinking and Sobriety among the Lakota Sioux. Lanham: Altamira, 2007. Print.

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