Niethamme Daughters of the Earth

ISBN 13: 9780025885806

Daughters of the Earth

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9780025885806: Daughters of the Earth

She was both guardian of the hearth and, on occasion, ruler and warrior, leading men into battle, managing the affairs of her people, sporting war paint as well as necklaces and earrings.

She built houses and ground corn, wove blankets and painted pottery, played field hockey and rode racehorses.

Frequently she enjoyed an open and joyous sexuality before marriage; if her marriage didn't work out she could divorce her husband by the mere act of returning to her parents. She mourned her dead by tearing her clothes and covering herself with ashes, and when she herself died was often shrouded in her wedding dress.

She was our native sister, the American Indian woman, and it is of her life and lore that Carolyn Niethammer writes in this rich tapestry of America's past and present.

Here, as it unfolded, is the chronology of the native American woman's life. Here are the birth rites of Caddo women from the Mississippi-Arkansas border, who bore their children alone by the banks of rivers and then immersed themselves and their babies in river water; here are Apache puberty ceremonies that are still carried on today, when the cost for the celebrations can run anywhere from one to six thousand dollars. Here are songs from the Night Dances of the Sioux, where girls clustered on one side of the lodge and boys congregated on the other; here is the Shawnee legend of the Corn Person and of Our Grandmother, the two female deities who ruled the earth. Far from the submissive, downtrodden "squaw" of popular myth, the native American woman emerges as a proud, sometimes stoic, always human individual from whom those who came after can learn much.

At a time when many contemporary American women are seeking alternatives to a life-style and role they have outgrown, Daughters of the Earth offers us an absorbing -- and illuminating -- legacy of dignity and purpose.

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About the Author:

Carolyn Niethammer, writer and student of Native American life, has drawn on interviews with modern Indian women and early anthropologists' writings, as well as old songs, legends, and ceremonies in her research for Daughters of the Earth. Author also of Macmillan's American Indian Food & Lore, she lives in Tucson, Arizona.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1

The Dawn of Life

CHILDBIRTH IN NATIVE AMERICA

When the North American continent was younger and wild animals and dark mysteries still inhabited the woods and the plains and the mountains, women usually gathered unto themselves for the ritual of birth. For unusually difficult labors or when the time was right for certain necessary ceremonies, a medicine man might be called to render his special potions or incant powerful prayers, but, in general, males were infrequent participants in such business. It was the women who performed the practical and ceremonial duties that readied the infant for life and gave it status as an individual. These tasks were performed so often as to be commonplace, yet they were heavy with meaning at each new birth, for such rituals were elemental to the existence of women in early America.

Being a mother and rearing a healthy family were the ultimate achievements for a woman in the North American Indian societies. There was no confusion about the role of a woman and very few other acceptable patterns for feminine existence. Many Indian women attained distinction as craftswomen or medical practitioners, but this in no way affected their role as bearers and raisers of children.

Women's lives flowed into what they saw as the natural order of the universe. Mother Earth was fecund and constantly replenishing herself in the ongoing cycle of birth, growth, maturity, death, and rebirth. The primitive women of our continent considered themselves an integral part of these ever-recurrent patterns and accepted a role in which they were an extension of the spirit mother and the key to the continuation of their race. Not separate from, but part of, these deeply religious feelings was the practical consideration that many children were needed to help with the work and to take care of the parents as they grew older. In those simpler days, children were a couple's savings account and insurance.

SEX AND PREGNANCY

Women in most Native American cultures knew pretty clearly how they got pregnant, although even here beliefs varied when it came to the details.

The Gros Ventres of Montana and the Chiricahua Apaches of southern Arizona were among those groups believing that pregnancy could not occur as the result of a single sex act. One Apache explained that if a couple had intercourse three times a week they could have a baby started in about two or three months. But the informant also said, "I know a girl who had intercourse with a man many times in one night. If a girl did it at that rate, it wouldn't take any time at all to get a child started." As another Apache related, "When a man has intercourse with a woman some of his blood (semen) enters her. But just a little goes in the first time and not as much as the woman has in there. The child does not begin to develop yet because the woman's blood struggles against it. The woman's blood is against having the child; the man's blood is for it. When enough collects, the man's blood forces the baby to come."

Although many sexual encounters were believed necessary to create a child, as soon as an Apache woman noticed the first signs of pregnancy, she ceased her sexual activity to prevent injury to the baby growing within her.

The Hopi of northern Arizona, on the other hand, were convinced that continued sex was good for both the prospective mother and the baby; a woman slept with her husband all through her pregnancy so that their continued intercourse could make the child grow. It was likened by one Hopi to irrigating a crop -- if a man started to make a baby and then stopped, his wife would have a hard time.

The Kaska Indians of northwestern Canada also maintained that repeated sex during early pregnancy developed the embryo, but warned that too much indulgence would produce twins. As soon as a Kaska woman felt the stirrings of life in her womb, she was warned to discontinue her sexual life. Mothers advised their pregnant daughters to use their own blankets and to sleep facing away from their husbands to avoid temptation.

Among most of the tribes, however, pregnant women continued a moderate sex life until the later stages of their pregnancy, much as many women do today. There were a few groups where custom completely forbade intercourse during pregnancy. In the area which is now Wisconsin, Fox women abstained from sex throughout pregnancy for fear their babies would be born "filthy," and down near where the Colorado River emptied into the Gulf of California, pregnant Cocopah women slept alone lest their babies be born feet first.

A BOY -- OR A GIRL?

Most Indian mothers welcomed each baby regardless of sex and wished primarily that the child be strong and healthy. But it is universal for a woman carrying a child for nine long months to wonder whether her labor will produce a son or a daughter. Out on the Great Plains when an Omaha woman wanted to ascertain the sex of her coming child she took a bow and a burden strap to the tent of a friend who had a child who was still too young to talk. She offered the two articles to the baby. If the little child chose the bow, the unborn would be a boy; if the child paid more attention to the burden strap, the coming baby would be a daughter.

There were some societies, particularly those in the far north where life was hard, that did not welcome an abundance of daughters. But it is said that the Huron, who lived north of Lake Ontario, rejoiced more at the birth of a girl child, for girls grew into women who had more babies, and the Huron wanted many descendants to care for them in their old age and protect them from their enemies.

In the matrilineal societies of the Hopi in the Southwest, where the status of women was high, a woman wished to give birth to many girl babies, for it was through her daughters that a Hopi woman's home and clan were perpetuated. A boy was not unwelcome, for he also belonged to his mother's clan, but when he married, his children would belong to the house and clan of their own mother.

Generally the sex of the baby was left to fate, but among the Zuni, neighbors of the Hopi on the beautiful but arid and windswept deserts of the Southwest, if a couple desired a girl child they went to visit the Mother Rock near their pueblo. The base of the rock was covered with symbols of the vulva and was perforated with small excavations. The pregnant woman scraped a tiny bit of the rock into a vase and placed it in one of the cavities. Then she prayed that a daughter would be born who would be good, beautiful, and virtuous, and who would display skill in the arts of weaving and pottery-making. If by chance a boy child was born, the Mother Rock was not blamed. Instead it was believed that the heart of one of the parents was "not good."

PRENATAL HEALTH CARE

In those early days, infant mortality was alarmingly high and many women died in childbirth. Prospective mothers used every means at their disposal to ensure safe delivery and healthy children, but because medicinal procedures were so primitive, these women relied on measures which today we label "superstition" and "sympathetic magic," including a vast and varied range of taboos. Pregnant Indian women were almost universally warned against looking at or mocking a deformed, injured, or blind person for fear their babies would evidence the same defect; being in the presence of dying persons and animals was likewise unhealthy for both the mother and baby. Among the Flathead Indians of Montana neither the mother nor father could go out of the lodge backward or a breech birth would follow, nor were either of the prospective parents allowed to gaze out of a window or door. If they wanted to see what was going on outside, they were to go all the way outdoors and look around, lest the baby be stillborn.

There were also taboos on certain foods. Some typical dietary restrictions for pregnant Indian women prohibited eating the feet of an animal, to avoid having the baby born feet first; the tail of an animal, to prevent the child's getting stuck on the way out; berries, so that the baby would not carry a birthmark; and liver, which would darken the child's skin.

The Lummi Indians of what is now northwest Washington were a fairly wealthy group whose home on the productive coastlands offered them a vast variety of foods. This bounty enabled them to place taboos on many foods, including halibut, which was believed to cause white blotches on the baby's skin; steelhead salmon, which caused weak ankles; trout, which produced harelip; and seagull or crane, which would produce a crybaby. The prospective mother also had to abstain from shad or blue cod, which would induce convulsions in the child; venison, which would lead to absentmindedness; and beaver, which might cause an abnormally large head.

Among some of the groups with less abundant food resources, restrictions were limited to only certain parts of animals. Pregnant women were warned that eating tongue would cause the baby's tongue to loll, while the ingestion of an animal's tail might create problems during labor.

Though there were many foods that could not be eaten, there is some evidence that Indian women years ago, like many present-day women, did have cravings for special foods during pregnancy. The Reverend John Heckewelder, writing in the late 1700s, reported that he had witnessed what he called "a remarkable instance of the disposition of Indians to indulge their wives." Apparently, famine had struck the Iroquois in the winter of 1762, but a pregnant woman of that tribe longed for some Indian corn. Her husband, having learned that a trader at Lower Sandusky had a little of the desired commodity, set off on horseback for the one-hundred-mile trek. He brought back as much corn as filled the crown of his hat, but he returned walking and carrying his saddle, for he had had to trade his horse for the corn. Heckewelder continued, "Squirrels, ducks and other like delicacies, when most difficult to be obtained, are what women in the first stages of their pregnancy generally long for. The husband in every case will go out and spare no pains nor trouble until he has...

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