The Power of Oceti Sakowin Women

Courtesy University of Nebraska-Lincoln / Marcy Gilbert (left) and Madonna Thunder Hawk presented “Indigenous Women Behind and in Front of the Camera: The Making of ‘Warrior Women’” at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2015.

Sarah S. Manning

Oceti Sakowin women continue to be committed to the land, their relatives and traditions.

The Oceti Sakowin (Seven Councils Fires) is comprised of seven distinct yet related bands of Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota people. The traditional territory of the Oceti Sakowin spans the Northern Plains of the United States, and stretches from the Great Lakes to the headwaters of the Missouri River in present-day Montana. Settler colonists later dubbed the Oceti Sakowin “The Great Sioux Nation.”

Like many tribes, the Oceti Sakowin operated and thrived as an egalitarian society, where both women and men occupied esteemed roles in the community. Women of the Oceti Sakowin were affirmed through creation stories, ceremonies, and daily activities. Stories centered on female figures, like that of Pte Sa Win, the White Buffalo Calf Woman, informed the Oceti Sakowin of foundational cultural teachings, including how and why women must be respected.

Today, winyan (women) of the Oceti Sakowin continue to live out their commitment to tradition, to the land, and to their relatives. They adapt to changing times, and stand strong to retain the cherished lifeways that sustained their people for millennia.

Winyan: Keepers of Tradition

Faith Spotted Eagle, Ihanktonwan Nakota elder, said that to be a woman is a beautiful thing. “In the path of life, as you relish what it means to be a woman, we understand that it’s not like you have to be a woman, it’s that you get to be a woman.”

Spotted Eagle, who also descends from the Sicangu Lakota, Hunkpati, and Mdewakanton Dakota, has led efforts to reclaim traditional teachings of Oceti Sakowin women by establishing the Brave Heart Societyin 1994.

“Many of our women’s teachings were destroyed,” Spotted Eagle said. “A large part of my life has been devoted to bringing back the framework of those teachings that existed in the old days, which were fragmented by boarding schools and other government policies.”

During the first two years of the Brave Heart Society, Spotted Eagle and other Oceti Sakowin women began by interviewing elders to assist in reviving the women’s society, traditional women’s teachings, and women’s ceremonies. Many of those teachings came from the late Ella Deloria, Dakota ethnographer and author of the novel, Waterlily.

“Okodakiciye, or women’s society, literally means a special group of sisters,” Spotted Eagle said. “It was a bundle of teachings that taught you to be a good relative as a woman, to not try to be better or more powerful than any other gender, to have compassion, and to be in relationship with your surroundings, which included nature.”

With the establishment of the Brave Heart Society, a number of traditional women’s ceremonies have been revived, including the coming of age ceremony, where young women are instructed on their roles, their power, and their responsibilities as women.

“There is such a need for the ceremony today,” Spotted Eagle told ICMN. “In the old days, the coming of age ceremony was done individually with families, but because families are so fragmented today, we do the ceremony in larger groups in a camp setting.”

To date, 141 women have gone through the coming of age ceremony with the Brave Heart Society, which occurs annually in White Swan, South Dakota, along the Missouri River. The Brave Heart Society has also assisted other Oceti Sakowin communities with reviving coming of age ceremonies.

“When you go through this road of life, and through ceremony, it taps into your cell memory. When the girls go through their coming of age, they remember who they used to be as a people, and they get lonesome for who we once were. They say, ‘I want to be like this all the time.’ I tell them, ‘you can.’”

A variety of ceremonies accompanying womanhood have also been central to the existence of the Oceti Sakowin, from girlhood, to womanhood, to entrance into the age of courtship, motherhood, and all the way to the esteemed position of becoming an elder.

“These important ceremonies make you a force to be reckoned with, and in a good way,” Spotted Eagle said. “You know how to claim your space. When you enter a room, people will respect you, and you don’t have to holler.”

The Brave Heart Society continues their work mentoring women long after ceremony, taking them to cultural events and gatherings, like the Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipeline resistance camps, which were centered on asserting indigenous rights to land and water. “There is a silent assurance you get when you live through this cultural knowledge. You just know there is always going to be a way to make change or make things good.”

Winyan: Defenders of Land and Life

“The stability of our people has always been with the women, regardless of what disease has come along, whether it has been religion, or federal Indian policy,” said Madonna Thunder Hawk, Lakota and Dakota grandmother. “I look at these things as diseases, because that’s how they affected us.”

As a long-time indigenous rights activist, Thunder Hawk was propelled into activism in the 1960s as a young woman, and has been committed ever since.

“I grew up along the Missouri River, and I saw that land go when it was flooded,” Thunder Hawk told ICMN. “I’ve never been able to take my children or grandchildren to where I grew up. That was probably one of the major events that put me on the road to activism.”

Thunder Hawk later participated in the 1969-1971 occupation of Alcatraz, where a collection of men, women, and their children established themselves as the Indians of All Tribes, and occupied the island in the name of indigenous treaty rights. In 1971, the occupation ended, and occupants were removed from the island by federal agents.

“Being there, I learned about treaty rights and land rights. That’s what sustained me all of these years, and I’m still at it,” said Thunder Hawk. “For our ancestors, there was no giving up, no moving on or retiring. That’s not for us. For Indian country, you make a commitment. This work becomes your life story,” Thunder Hawk told ICMN.

After the Alcatraz occupation, a wave of activism spread throughout Indian country. Thunder Hawk became involved with the American Indian Movement (AIM) in the 1970s, the occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973, and in 1974, co-founded the Women of All Red Nations (WARN), an organization that championed indigenous rights and indigenous women’s issues.

“As women, we’ve never had to fight for our position. We don’t need to prove ourselves to anyone,” Thunder Hawk said. “We don’t need to be looking at ourselves through the dominant society filter. We know who we are.”

In more recent times, Thunder Hawk co-founded the Lakota People’s Law Project, an organization born out of investigating violations of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). Today, the Law Project works to reclaim ancestral lands, and defend Lakota lands and resources.

Thunder Hawk, like many other committed women of the Oceti Sakowin, continues to show up for her people and their cherished homelands.

“If there are enough of us women that are going to hold things down, and hold down our identity, and I say that in broad terms, then there is hope that we’re going to survive as a people,” Thunder Hawk said. “It’s up to us as older ones and those of us who are clean and sober, it’s up to us to pull it through. We have to. It’s not our choice.”