Sunday, June 4, 2023

The Untamed Earth Mother

Long ago, our histories, our stories were passed on through oral tradition. The people would gather around and listen intently to the great tales of myth and lore, especially when the weather was uninviting or threatening. Our peoples connected with what was and learned how to move into what will be with vision and wisdom through the examples of the Ancestors and the Deities of the tribes—through stories. Storytelling was the modality for learning. The primary listeners were children and the storytellers were most often the grandmothers. The children’s jobs were to learn and grow, taking in as much knowledge and gaining as much experience as possible. When they became parents, they made sure the children had safe places to learn and to grow and taught them to sit at the feet of the grandmothers and listen. As their children grew and became parents, they became the grandparents, and their job was to tell the grandchildren about all they had learned and experienced in a never-ending breath of life across the generations. 

 We grew up hearing the creation myth of our time: the story of Adam and Eve. Eve, who ate of the fruit of the land after listening to the council of a land serpent—a being who existed long before her new species evolved—and she was thrown out to make her living through toil and taking. This is a very different story than the narrative that lived in these mountains and plains before our ancestors came here and colonized them. The native peoples have their own creation myths, several of which have been lost or “Christianized” into variations of the Adam and Eve story. Today, I want to tell you about the Oneida tale of Sky Woman as I heard it from Robin Wall Kimmerer in her book, Braiding Sweetgrass

In the beginning, the Skyworld existed above the dark waters. One day, a hole appeared above the waters. It is through this hole at Skywoman fell, bringing the light with her, shining in her wake. Hurtling downward, she saw only dark water below, endless and roiling. But in that emptiness, there were many eyes gazing up at the sudden shaft of light created by her passing. From far beneath, these eyes saw a small object, a mere dust mote falling in the beam. As it grew closer, they could see that it was a woman, arms outstretched, long black hair billowing behind as she spiraled toward them. The geese nodded at one another and rose together from the water in a wave of goose music. She felt the beat of their wings as they flew beneath to break her fall. Far from the only home she’d ever known, she caught her breath at the warm embrace of soft feathers as they gently carried her downward. 

The geese could not hold the woman above the water for much longer, so they called a council to decide what to do. Resting on their wings, she saw them all gather: loons, otters, swans, beavers, fish of all kinds. A great turtle floated in their midst and offered his back for her to rest upon. Gratefully, she stepped from the goose wings onto the dome of his shell. The others understood that she needed land for her home and discussed how they might serve her need. The deep divers among them had heard of mud at the bottom of the water and agreed to go find some. Loon dove first, but the distance was too far and after a long while he surfaced with nothing to show for his efforts. One by one, the other animals offered to help—Otter, Beaver, Sturgeon—but the depth, the darkness, and the pressures were too great for even the strongest of swimmers. They returned gasping for air with their heads ringing. Some did not return at all. 

Soon only little Muskrat was left, the weakest diver of all. He volunteered to go while the others looked on doubtfully. His small legs flailed as he worked his way downward and he was gone a very long time. They waited and waited for him to return, fearing the worst for their relative, and, before long, a stream of bubbles rose with the small, limp body of the muskrat. He had given his life to aid this helpless human. But then the others noticed that his paw was tightly clenched and, when they opened it, there was a small handful of mud. Turtle said, “Here, put it on my back and I will hold it.” Skywoman bent and spread the mud with her hands across the shell of the turtle. Moved by the extraordinary gifts of the animals, she sang in thanksgiving and then began to dance, her feet caressing the earth. The land grew and grew as she danced her thanks, from the dab of mud on Turtle’s back until the whole earth was made. Not by Skywoman alone, but from the alchemy of all the animals’ gifts coupled with her deep gratitude. Together they formed what we know today as Turtle Island, our home. 

Like any good guest, Skywoman had not come empty-handed. A bundle was clutched in her hand. When she toppled from the hole in the Skyworld, she had reached out to grab onto the Tree of Life that grew there. In her grasp were branches—fruits and seeds of all kinds of plants. These she scattered onto the new ground and carefully tended each one until the world turned from brown to green. Sunlight streamed through the hole above the Skyworld, allowing the seeds to flourish. Wild grasses, flowers, trees, and medicines spread everywhere. And now the animals, too, had plenty to eat, and the bounty drew others to her, living together on Turtle Island. 

Sky Woman built a land for us with love and in harmony with those around her, a place for us to learn and live and grow and experience together. It was untamed and wild. Our modern tales tell us this wild “wilderness” is dangerous because it is untamed, but they do not know the grasses and streams. They do not know the trees and birds and rabbits and elk. They think all things untamed are unsafe. They think all things uncontrolled by human hands and human order are feral. When they hear untamed, they mean ungovernable, because taming is about power-over others. Sky Woman brought with her a handful of life-seeds from the Great World Tree itself to ensure those who came after her would live in abundance and receive the blessings of her work and love. 

I asked a group of people,  "How many of you are native Coloradans?" “Native” status is something those born here take very seriously, so much so that those born here have bumper stickers and t0shirts declaring their status as Colorado born-and-raised. How long have the rest of us been here? A year, a decade, a lifetime? As pagans, we do our best to be environmentally conscious. We strive to recycle and buy the greenest products and live outside capitalist ideals as much as we can in this day and age. But, we still consider ourselves guests in this land, as set apart, as outside of the land we inhabit.

Decolonizing ourselves has become a buzzword as a priority we hold dear, and I think we have lost our way. We treat ourselves as guests in this land, because it was stolen from the Indigenous Peoples who lived here before us (because it was). We tread lightly and speak words of apology and do the work of giving back to the precious few remaining indigenous tribal nations (which is important). AND, I am here to tell you that until we recognize that we, too, are part of this landscape; that we, too, are part of this habitat; that we, too, are members of this community of beings that make up the front range, we will continue to be throwing solutions into the wind to land like seeds upon asphalt and nothing will grow between us. 

We want to preserve the untamed and wild places by deeming them unsafe and feral while we stay within our walls of structure and order. The wild is “out there,” and we are civilized “in here.” I leave you with this: If we want to do the work to repair what was long ago broken, we must un-tame ourselves, not just decolonize our minds. We must un-tame our bodies and dance in the rain. We must un-tame our hearts and free our spirits to connect with the rest of native Colorado—because we are here, too. The only way out is through, and the only way forward is together.

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