What We Can Learn from Indigenous Cultures: An Interview with Laine Cunningham
By Randy Peyser for Awareness Magazine
Laine Cunningham is the author of The Family Made of Dust, a very suspenseful novel set in the Outback of Australia. In the book, Gabriel Branch faces a murderous Pitjantjatjara shaman and the Aboriginal heritage he lost long ago.
The Family Made of Dust is the winner of two prestigious national awards, the Hackney Literary Award and the James Jones Literary Society's Fellowship for a first novel. By receiving the Hackney award, Laine has been ranked alongside Pulitzer Prize-winning authors like William Styron and Horton Foote. An expert in Native American and Aboriginal cultures, in this interview Laine talks about how ancient indigenous cultures can help us to cope with everyday issues, especially in regards to gender roles and relationships.
Randy: What were the roles of native women in their tribes?
Laine Cunningham: In most cultures worldwide, with some exceptions, many of the tribal societies were almost always matrilineal. Women held the powerbase. They made the decisions and the men held other important roles. The misunderstanding that usually happens with Native American culture is that almost always there was a gender role division.
The women were responsible for the internal workings of the tribe, their societal measures, and for decisions as to what to do and when. However, if an outsider approached the tribe, the men almost always were the ones to protect the entire tribe; they were the warriors. The men served as the liaisons between the internal and the external world.
Unfortunately, when the European male-centric society came to America, they talked only to the men and never even saw the women. They wrong-fully assumed that the men held the power in their tribes. This phenomenon has occurred in many tribal societies that used to be matrilineal.
In the Native American tribes, one tribe would push against another tribe as they got pushed out themselves. For example, the Lakota were mainly woodland Indians, but most people know them as Plains Indians. When the settlers reached the northern portions of the Great Lakes where the Lakota lived and then came down around the southern Great Lakes coastal regions, the Chippewa pushed the Lakota further west.
The Lakota had to become a Plains tribe, and their society almost self-destructed because they lost their ability to gather food or live the way they used to live. They were suddenly in an area with no trees, and they had to change their entire hunting mechanisms.
The White Buffalo Calf Pipewoman story comes out of this timeline. The story goes that the Lakota people were starving and they didn't know how to hunt buffalo or to pray. Then this sacred woman appeared to them and brought them the pipe. She taught them how to pray. She is often paralleled with Christ's role as the person who came and taught people how to pray. She didn't just teach the Lakota, because the pipe was picked up by most tribes.
Each time they were pushed out and had to move, the women knew they were losing their power because they had no way to contribute substantially to the tribe or to their families. The men had to pick up the role of hunting the big meat. If that is all you know how to hunt, then the power is going to reside more heavily on the male side.
The Lakota made sure their hunt was structured so both women and men had an equal role in the hunt. The men would stay mounted and shoot as many buffalo as they could, while the women would walk behind them. The women had the right to skin any buffalo their man killed and to keep that meat. The women were the owners of the skins, the bones, everything that would be useful to them over the long term, even when the meat was gone.
So that is how the women recaptured their power. They found this new balance where there could be an equal division of power between the men and women. It lasted for quite some time until the reservations came along. Then everybody lost their power. The men were no longer able to maintain their powerbase by having interrelationships with external sources.
The Indian agents, the white people who were elected by the government to talk to the Native peoples, were the ones who held the power. They would only talk to the men. But the men suddenly had nothing to do, and nowhere to go. They had nothing to contribute. And because of that, the women also lost their power.
Their way of life was gone, so nobody had a way to maintain their roles within their community. The other part of the problem was that, over time, the idea of a male-centric society became so entrenched that women were no longer able to regain their power within the culture.
Nowadays, what we see in America is that when men lose their power, women lose their power as well. It's like a domino effect. So when we look at poverty-laden households, or even middle-class households that are struggling to maintain their footing in society... when the man loses his job or is downsized or underemployed, if he was the main breadwinner, domestic violence can occur. Or the man might do something else to bring the woman down, because that is the only way for him to feel powerful.
This is one of the central issues when we talk about relationships between men and women today. In every free society around the world, if we look at this one example and understand the history of exactly what happened in regards to the social and cultural changes that have occurred with our Native societies over time, we will see that when there is a downfall where one gender loses their power, the other gender will automatically lose their power as well.
Women can lose their power first, which causes the men to fall, but more often we see the opposite happening where the men lose their power, then break the women down. Similarly, when a neighbor on your street is not treating a family member well, the entire community can be affected. First, the word gets around, and then people are less willing to reach out to one another because they are concerned about what might happen if they were to get involved.
Randy: What were the relationships like between men and women in ancient Native American culture?
Laine: A man's status was (and still is) determined by how beloved he is of women. That can easily translate to today. For a modern example of a man being judged by how beloved he is of women, look no further than the White House. Much has been made in the media that America has a president in office who actually loves his wife. . . and a wife who clearly loves him. Our society is judging him through the eyes of women. Hurray for us!
Here is another interesting fact about ancient cultures: If a man had an affair, he was never allowed to run away from his wife if she wanted to smack him a few times. If he did, he was ridiculed by the entire tribe. The tribe recognized that the woman had to get her anger out so they could continue with their marriage.
That's why so many divorces today turn bitter . . . both spouses have to get out their built-up anger! Women should not hold in their anger, as they've been taught to do. Instead, they should find an appropriate outlet to work it through.
Another interesting phenomenon was that when the Native American men went to war or to hunt and were gone for too long a time, sometimes Kokopele, who was known as the "bachelor spirit," would visit. If the man returned to find his wife mysteriously pregnant, everyone wrote it off to the spirit's visit, which was another mechanism for allowing the marriage to continue.
I'm not advocating for women to seek out their neighborhood Kokopele; instead women should know that if their needs are not being met because the man is working too much or spending too much time with his buddies or the TV, the relationship has to strike a new balance so they can be fulfilled.
Randy: Tell me about your connection to Australia. How did you get interested in that culture?
Laine: I was working in the corporate world and knew I had to make a change. So I decided to go to England, and spent a year preparing for my trip. I then started to dream about kangaroos and a red desert. The dreams kept coming and they became intense and vivid. Finally, I realized I just had to go to Australia. I knew I was getting a signal and that I had to follow that signal, even though I had no idea why.
When I arrived, I bought a 20-year-old Ford sedan. I packed my tent, sleeping bag, camping stove and some water. Then I bought some clothes at the local Thrift store and took off into the Outback.
Randy: Did you have a map?
Laine: I had a map that came from the middle of a National Geographic. It was about 24 inches by 18 inches, and it was the map I used the entire time I was there.
Randy: How long were you out there?
Laine: Six months. During the first week I lost my watch. That was very cool because I learned to live more authentically. I had to ask myself questions like: Am I hungry? Am I sleepy? It was one of the best things that happened to me. It put me in a natural cycle right away. I didn't have to think about time schedules. If I pulled into a place that was closed, I would throw my sleeping bag on the ground and set up camp there until it opened the next morning.
Randy: Did you experience any racial tension along your travels?
Laine: The racial tension was much higher in the south than in the north because of the higher population of Aboriginal people in the north. In the northern territory, I was able to talk with people and have them open up to me. Some of the people also lived on outstations.
Randy: What is an outstation?
Laine: The land claims were given back to the Aboriginal people, whereby no one was allowed on that land except tribal members unless they had a permit from the government. When the land claims got too noisy or crowded, the outstations were formed. Outstations are very remote. The only electricity they have is generated by solar power.
The community might own just one truck communally that someone drives into town once every two weeks to pick up supplies for everybody. People who move to the outstations value their time. They want time to perform the old rituals and they don't want to rush to do anything.
Randy: What kind of rituals?
Laine: There are hundreds of ceremonies that vary by tribe. Some of the most common are called a corraboree, which is a party on a Saturday night. Traditionally, a corraboree meant one tribe would invite a neighboring tribe over and they'd have a big feast and hold a dance that would go on for several days. This would help create interrelationships with one's neighbors, just as block parties serve a somewhat similar purpose today.
Both the boys and girls undergo initiation ceremonies. The boys are between the ages of 8 and 12. For boys, the initiation often involved circumcision or some other kind of feat that involves suffering and pain. Some tribes knock out a tooth, while others use scarification. Others use nettles or a whipping with thorns.
The purpose is to put these boys into a trance state so they can transcend their normal state of consciousness and know that they are no longer boys, and are no longer going to be cared for by their mothers. When they return, they will not be doing what they used to do. When the boys leave, the mothers grieve their deaths because when they return, the boys are dead, and who returns is a man. He is an entirely new person when he comes back.
All of these ceremonies are meant to put the boys in that altered state of consciousness so they can really understand that they have to put their selfish or self-centered childhood thoughts away and come back to live for the tribe and for the responsibility they will have toward the woman they marry and the children they have. They say that a girl's body knows when to become a woman, but a boy has to be taught how to become a man. That is why the boys are taken away and undergo these trials.
The girl's initiation happens when she has her first menses. She is removed from the tribe and her aunties talk to her about what it means to be a woman. They share the women's knowledge, women's songs and women's stories. They share all that is sacred and perform different ceremonies. In very few tribes have I ever found the same kind of physical ordeals that the boys had to go through because the menses itself is considered the ordeal.
One very beautiful way to honor girls in our society nowadays is to hold a private ceremony for the girl where you bring in the elder women in her life, such as her mother, aunt or other older women with whom she has a special relationship or shares a special bond.
Invite them to a ceremony where the girl will be celebrated for the fact that she is becoming a woman. She can be given a special piece of jewelry or a family heirloom so she will recognize she is being handed some responsibilities as a woman and is being honored as well.
It will also give her a circle of women that she knows she can turn to if she ever has a problem. These relationships will be with her for decades. It's really important because we all know there are times when a teenager doesn't want to go to her mom, but now she will have all these aunts or other significant women in her life to whom she can turn.
Traditional cultures might be thousands of years old but their wisdom rings true even today. Although people today send messages by texting instead of human runners, the issues they face about getting along with one another and solving problems are the same. By looking back to discover just what has worked for centuries, I believe we can make our lives better today.