Tribal Wisdom

A Native American view of male and female

One of the articles in Gender (IC#16)
Originally published in Spring 1987 on page 14
Copyright (c)1987, 1997 by Context Institute

This is part of a very extensive interview with Harley Swiftdeer by Richard Peacock, Associate Professor of Cinema at Palomar College in California and author of Learning to Leave. Much of the longer interview deals with Native American wisdom about sexual relations between men and women and thus is somewhat off our focus here of the inner feminine and masculine journeys. But, in my view, it is extraordinarily insightful and practically useful. Anyone wishing to read the interview in its entirety may send $2 for copying & postage to Richard at 636 Leucadia Blvd., Encinitas, CA 92024.

– Lila Forest

HARLEY SWIFTDEER REAGAN IS, in some ways, the consummate American. That is, he is a man of contradictions. Of mixed blood – Cherokee Indian and Irish stock – he is a distant relative of the current President; a decorated Marine Corps veteran discharged because he opposed the Vietnam War; a national jujitsu champion; father of five sons; a self-made man with Ph.D’s in Humanistic Psychology and Comparative Religions; an internationally recognized spokesman for American Indian customs and causes; a man who spent a year in Yuma State prison for killing a man in self-defense. The "Billy Jack" films were inspired by and depicted some of his experiences.

Above all of this, Swiftdeer is a medicine man. There is simply no equivalent to that inscrutable title in the white culture. The role of a medicine person combines the powers and skills of a leader, doctor, magician, lawyer, healer, priest, psychologist, teacher, and father/mother. Obviously, a person doesn’t become that overnight.

Swiftdeer began his medicine apprenticeship at the age of eight with his Cherokee grandmother, Spotted Fawn, on a reservation in Texas/Oklahoma. After Vietnam, he continued his study with the medicine chief of the Navajo nation, Tom "Two Bears" Wilson. Two Bears’ remarkable powers were revealed by Carlos Castaneda in his series of books in which he portrayed Two Bears as Don Gennaro. Swiftdeer studied with this teacher for 15 years, until Two Bears died. Later, he continued working with Hyemeyohst Storm, a Cheyenne and author of Seven Arrows.

Richard: Harley, what is American Indian spiritual sexuality and why haven’t we heard of it?

Swiftdeer: When the first white men came to this country, they had no idea of the depth or extent of the great metaphysical knowledge, indeed the scientific knowledge, the alchemy, and the tremendous amount of inner, spiritual truth that the American Indian carried.

My people are called the Chuluakui Ononoguia, which actually means the "People of the Ancient Language". So we referred to ourselves as "the people". We felt this land was the place of sacredness; it was a place where people would walk in beauty, walk in harmony with the earth and come into alignment with the mineral, the plant, the animal, the human, and the ancestral worlds of spirit. They could follow their visions, their sacred dreams. Most importantly, our people lived by two laws: everything is born of woman, and nothing should be done to hurt the children. And that was the basic premise of everything that followed. Those two laws are usually not kept or even looked at in most of the organized religions of today.

Richard: What comes out of this idea that everything is born of woman; what does that mean to you?

Swiftdeer: First of all, the Great Spirit cannot be male, because a male has never given birth to anything. The male is a seed, he is the action, he is the conception, but without the reception and without the creativity, there can be no birth. And so we see the Great Spirit as Wah-Kawhuan and Ss- Kawhuan, Great Grandmother and Great Grandfather, and we see that as the very beginning of the spiritual sexuality teachings. So in the Great Void, we don’t mean that there was nothing; there was the Chuluakui, that pure love light, energy in mental form, and from that, breath, inhale, inclusion, Wah-Kawhuan, Great Grandmother, the female, the egg, the receptive, the creative. And then the exhale, explosion, the seed, the active, the conceptive, Ss-Kawhuan. The Great Spirit saw itself in its two sides and made love and out of that, it created itself in all forms and all things.

Richard: So a sexual metaphor is really your central teaching?

Swiftdeer: Absolutely.

Richard: How were you brought up differently from me, from an average American in terms of sexuality?

Swiftdeer: Well, for one thing, I was taught self-pleasuring. Not "masturbation", which means to abuse the self, but self-pleasuring which I was taught by other men, by the warriors, uncles, grandfathers.

Richard: How old were you?

Swiftdeer: That started at around four and continued until I was around eight. When I was twelve, I went through my rites of passage, my puberty ceremony. Part of that ceremony involves a traditional vision quest: that is, going up to the mountain in the morning and coming into alignment with Grandfather Sun. It includes a sweat and purification; it includes, particularly in my tribe, the Cherokee, having the wrist cut and then going out for three days and three nights with no food or water. When a young boy comes back from there, he must become a man. And so he goes with a woman who is called a Fire Woman, a Phoenix Woman. She teaches him, initiates him into the beauties and the powers and the energy of that which is born of woman. She teaches him his woman side.

Richard: How do you define the woman side of men?

Swiftdeer: Inside all of us there is a male and a female energy. I think that’s pretty well accepted, even in science today. Our people say that we have a "dream mind body", beach ball-like spheres of light that are an energy part of our essence, our personality. Inside you and me is a little boy and a man, and we frequently can act in either one or both. But there’s also a woman and a little girl. And the woman side of us is our magic. It’s our ability to be totally in the now. It’s our ability to be clear and wise. It’s our ability to operate with change without being at the effect of it. Our little girl is like our illumination, our enlightenment. It’s that part of our being that sees the collective dream of the planet and is doing something about it, giving to it. That’s our little girl. Now for the sisters, it’s the opposite. Everything I’ve just said about our woman would be the sisters’ man shield, and what is our little girl would be their little boy shield.

Richard: Why are men so afraid of their woman shield?

Swiftdeer: Because they consider it to be a weakness. So they are starting right out with a basic illusion: that is, that the woman is weak. If a woman is so weak, I’d like to see just one man bear a child. I think he would probably fall apart at the seams. Can you name me anything that’s stronger than Mother Earth?

That’s strength, but strength through gentleness. There’s no weakness there; there’s simply a different type of energy. The human male has got the concept that that is somehow a weakness, and he’s afraid to be weak. He’s afraid to be gentle. One of our great chiefs says that the warrior is the man who walks in beauty because he knows that his strength is the gentleness to hold the child in his arms. I like that.

Richard: If that is, in a sense, man’s problem, what is woman’s problem as you see it in our culture?

Swiftdeer: The women’s problem, to me, is in taking back the power of what they really are, and that’s to be women. Unfortunately, what has happened is that in an attempt to gain back that which they gave away, and which was taken from them, which is their beauty, they began the feminist movement. Some in the feminist movement went out and put on coveralls, combat boots, chopped off their hair, put cigars in their mouths, and started walking around talking about the powers of woman. Unfortunately, that’s about as far from the powers of woman as anything I can imagine. That’s the imitation of man. And so they were imitating men. The sun and earth do not compete; they are opposites. When we look around us in nature, at natural law, we see that opposition creates the greater whole, harmony. Competition destroys. So the sisters’ problem is that they’ve got to stop competing with us. They must understand that their power as women means they can be sensual, sexual, lusty, passionate, even wanton, and that does not make them an object for you and me. In fact, it is their power that gives birth to all things: emotion, mind, body, spirit, and sexuality.

Richard: How do women work this out in the workplace nowadays? I mean, they are competing with men.

Swiftdeer: But see, there’s no need to compete with the tyrant; you just need to know that that’s the opposition. Learn to stalk the tyrant. You have to become a warrior, and what I do is teach women to become warriors.

Richard: What do you mean by warriors?

Swiftdeer: Warriors are people who seek alignment with things around them, with the world around them, who reach out for knowledge, for the pure pleasure and beauty of doing so. A warrior is, in essence, someone who is never at the effect of anyone or anything, anywhere, any time, in any way. Warriors stand in their own freedom circles. They don’t give their power away to the tyrants, and that includes bosses. The tyrant is there as a teacher. But they don’t give their power away to the tyrant, male, female, or situational. The warrior’s way of walking life is in beauty. You simply don’t get your buttons pushed – that’s what it boils down to. Women get their buttons pushed out of their illusions about what is male and what is female, and so do the brothers.

Richard: There seems to be a very strong place, a center for women in the Cherokee tradition.

Swiftdeer: Yes. The power of the tribe was held by the women. These teachings I’m sharing were held and kept by the Grandmother of Medicine Societies and by the Women’s Society. For example, in our political structure, all the men holding offices of power did so only because they were voted on by women. Men could not vote for them. So the women constantly kept the power. If we chose to go to war, the women’s councils had to sit down and vote unanimously to go to war. If we went to war, we would never hurt the women and children of the people we were fighting. But we would kill every last soldier, every last male warrior on their side, if we chose to go to war. The only way that war could be stopped was if their women came to our women and said, "Don’t kill our sons." Consequently, the Cherokees had 6000 years of peace. It worked.

Richard: It seems very balanced.

Swiftdeer: I think that’s what’s missing in our society and culture and context today: balance.

Richard: In your own way, you sound like a spokesperson for women’s – I don’t want to say liberation – power.

Swiftdeer: Yes. Because I know that everything is born of woman. I don’t believe it; I know it. I see it everywhere, in mineral, plant, animal, human, and spirit. And I’m a warrior and a magician; I have to go by what I know, not by something I would arbitrarily like to believe in. For example, 60% of all my apprentices are women. In the ways of our people, when I get ready to choose my death, when I get ready to go back to the Great Round, I’ll do a ceremonial teaching thing for about three years prior to my death, just like Grandfather did with me. I will pass on all of my knowledge that I’ve learned in the ceremonial way, in the magical way, to one man and five women, so it’s obvious where the power’s going to go. Now what’s interesting is that the one man will do more outward teaching than the five women. Men are fire beings, sun beings; we go out. The women go in and keep. It’s not that the women don’t go out and teach, just that it is not as much their way. They’re Earth beings. Men are Sun beings.

Richard: What direction would you like to see men and women going, and what do they need to do to get together?

Swiftdeer: I think what I would like to see happen is that we have to stop the war between us. Men have got to learn about that essence which our people call the woman and the little girl. And the sisters have got to learn about the man and the little boy that’s inside their beingness. Then, we have to start communicating to each other, opening, heart-to-heart, with full honesty. We have to begin to "speak the unspeakable".

The Pear Orchard

by James Bertolino

This morning her limbs
take her
into a pear orchard
where the primitive form is waiting

her fingers find
in the shaft and sphere

she knows in the yellow and green
the intelligence
of Eden,
and in the wet white flesh
the spirit that resides

and does not fall