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Reclaiming Native American Feminism Through Ceremonies

Dr. Cutcha Risling Baldy is helping her people and other California Indians reclaim Native American feminism through ceremonies.

Dr. Cutcha Risling Baldy recalls calling her mother distraught one night to reveal that she had made a decision to leave her violent boyfriend. Her mother reassured her that she was doing the right thing. “I was crying, and I told my mother that I was worth nothing. My mother responded, ‘Oh Cutcha. We should have danced for you.’”

Dr. Baldy’s mother was referring to the Flower Dance, a Hupa women’s coming-of-age ceremony.

“The Flower Dance is an act of revival and an act of survival. It confronts the colonized version of women's roles in society and starts the process of rebuilding by encouraging the community voice to sing out together, effectively breaking the silence through dance, through song, through ceremony,” wrote Baldy in her blog.

Baldy was born and raised in Humboldt County; she is of Hupa, Yurok and Karuk heritage and is enrolled in the Hoopa Valley Tribe in Northern California. An Assistant Professor of Native American Studies at Humboldt State University, Baldy’s research explores themes of Native American feminism, revitalization of women’s coming-of-age ceremonies and California Indians. Baldy comes from a family with a strong emphasis on education; her great uncle, David Risling, co-founded the Native American Studies program at University of California, Davis. Risling is considered the “father of Indian education,” who advocated tirelessly for higher education opportunities for Native American students.


Baldy received her B.A. in Psychology from Stanford University, and her Ph.D. in Native American Studies with an emphasis in feminist theory from UC Davis. Her vibrant journey in education includes being a 2011 Ford Foundation Pre-doctoral Fellow and an American Indian Graduate Center Fellow. Dr. Baldy’s first book, “no:'olchwin-ding, no:'olchwin-te (To Grow Old In A Good Way): The Revitalization of Women���s Coming of Age Ceremonies as Decolonizing Praxis,” is under contract with the University of Washington Press.

ICMN spoke with Dr. Baldy about her educational journey and her research on Native American feminism.

Dr. Cutcha Risling Baldy is researching Native American feminism and how it relates to women’s ceremonies.

Dr. Cutcha Risling Baldy believes that Native American feminism is essential for indigenous women to heal and move forward.

How did your heritage and childhood shape your path in education and research?

I have a strong cultural heritage of basket weaving, making regalia, where participating in community events was important to my family. I felt lucky to participate in our culture and fortunate to be born in a family that held on to its culture. Growing up, I thought everyone knew how to give offerings for plants if you use them and the importance of ceremonies and how they worked. I came to realize that not everybody has this knowledge. I remember the smells of elders, people’s houses. I could tell how a house smelled of basket weaving material, prayer roots and sage. I had a really rich experience growing up living in that culture and community. It was very important to me.

This image was taken during the “Woven with Our Roots” basket weaving retreat hosted by the Native Women’s Collective, which Dr. Cutcha Risling Baldy helped start. She is researching Native American feminism and how it relates to women’s ceremonies.

This image was taken during the “Woven with Our Roots” basket weaving retreat hosted by the Native Women’s Collective, which Dr. Cutcha Risling Baldy helped start. Dr. Cutcha Risling Baldy's research explores how Native American feminism is integral to indigenous women's self determination.

Tell us about your educational journey and your mentors and guides along the way.

I always knew I was going to college. My great uncle David Risling Jr. was a big advocate of education. He used to tell us how important college was. My mom reminded me that people had fought very hard so Indian children could go to school. I thought I would go to UC Davis, and I found out that I got accepted at Stanford as well. My dad called me while I was touring Davis and said I had received a letter from Stanford. I ended up receiving a better financial aid deal at Stanford. I wanted to go to UC Davis; there is strength in their indigenous program, and I knew Indian people who had gone there and done well after graduation. My dad was an alumnus of Davis; my mom had gone to Stanford for graduate school.

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Stanford was a great undergraduate experience. I met awesome people, other students who I am now in awe of what they are doing. I made amazing friends, and I remember when I graduated from Stanford, my great uncle called me and asked when I was going to graduate school. I told him that I was done with school. He laughed and said, “Now we gotta keep going!” My great uncle has encouraged Indian kids to dream big. I put it off for a little while and decided to get an MFA in creative writing. I wanted to write short stories, and I went and did that at San Diego State. It was an amazing experience to cultivate my voice. The more I wrote, the more I realized how my research would benefit Indian people and my community. I wanted to write good stories about Indian people.


What led you to focus your research on Native women’s coming of age ceremonies?

When I finished my MFA, my community was involved in the revitalization of the Flower Dance, which is a women’s coming of age ceremony in my tribe. It was a big moment to bring back this dance that we had not done for a while. They [the colonizers] had made us feel this was not a good dance for women to celebrate the first menstruation. But our women felt we needed this dance, and it’s important to us.

I was in an abusive relationship with a man when I was in my 20s; it was a difficult time, and I wasn’t sure how I would leave. I had grown up with very strong women. They said, “You don’t stay with a man that treats you badly.” I decided to leave because it was getting dangerous. I called my mom to let her know my decision. I told her, “He’s right. I am nothing without him.” She said, “Oh Cutcha. We should have danced for you.” She saw the power of this ceremony and dance to help young women feel strong and important. There was an epistemology to how we did things that valued gender balance and feminism. The moment I heard the desperation in her voice that she should have done this dance for me, that’s when I realized that I could focus my research on why this dance is important.

After that, I went home for a while. I kept thinking about the importance of this dance and wrote short pieces about it. It’s hard to express why ceremony is important to everything we do for Hoopa people. How do you testify to the power of that healing for women and how that’s integral to our sovereignty and self-determination? To build our nation, we have to build our communities. I wanted to put that into words and decided to do my Ph.D. and focus my research on revitalization of ceremonies, decolonization and our futures as Indian people. I only applied to UC Davis—to the program that was founded by my great grand uncle.

What did this research inquiry into your culture look like?

I was able to put theory to what I was sharing in our communities. People would say, “Why do you want to interview these girls?” I said, “Our stories are knowledge. What we embody in our ceremonies, that’s what we carry with us. There is a value in that.” I always knew that I wanted to be a teacher. The academic side of me is really fun. When you find your place, you are excited, and I love what I do. I meet great people who are thinkers and doers in our communities. I went into Native studies specifically because I saw how I could be an active academic in my community and support Native knowledge and ideas and push back on settler colonization and how we learn. I saw that in Native Studies, I could use my embodied knowledge to build better futures for Indigenous Peoples.

You co-founded Native Women’s Collective to promote indigenous arts and culture. Tell us more about that.

This was a group of strong Native women that I knew. We talked about how we could support Native artists, and how our community could benefit from understanding arts from an indigenous context—as part of our knowledge systems and ideas that are important for our balance and healing. We worked on different projects that positioned Indian people as modern, visible, creative thinkers, who are living and breathing. We focus mostly on Northern California. Art is important to our health and how we love ourselves and see ourselves. We did a basket weaving retreat, where women came together for a weekend. Our basket weaving teacher was very clear that we weave by a river, and we did that. We did projects on artists themselves: why they do the artwork that they do, how is this connected to Native survival? Carving and basket weaving can also be contemporary and modern that speaks to our tradition. We did a project of women’s regalia pieces, and wrote why this is important. Weaving a basket is not just what indigenous women did in the past; this is how we engage in our culture today. One of our exhibits on the Klamath River explored how women talk about environmental justice, ceremonially and culturally.

This image was taken during the Me’Dil Institute Bark Skirt Making Workshop hosted by the Native Women’s Collective, which Dr. Cutcha Risling Baldy helped start. She is researching Native American feminism and how it relates to women’s ceremonies.

This image was taken during the Me’Dil Institute Bark Skirt Making Workshop hosted by the Native Women’s Collective, which Dr. Cutcha Risling Baldy helped start.

What is your research revealing in terms of the interconnectedness between decolonization and revitalization of women’s coming of age ceremonies?

It’s really about how women’s ceremonies are addressing issues introduced during colonization and how ceremonies speak to foundational ideas about how we as Indigenous Peoples push for decolonization in our community. We can’t move forward until we heal the gender imbalance. We have to focus on Native American feminism, and the way our cultures and communities are built with Native American feminism. We are finding a way to heal, build and look to the future.

This also gives young women an opportunity to talk to other women in my community who went through the dance. What they remember about that experience is how to be strong indigenous women in this contemporary age. Ceremony is a part of our old culture, which helps us to be strong, centered individuals in a contemporary world and look inward to see what decolonization looks like. It empowers women to become central part of our communities within our cultures.