‘It Wasn’t Always This Way’: An Indigenous Reflection on Women’s History Month

Photo courtesy Sarah Sunshine Manning / My mother holding my big sister, Dawn Day Woman, circa 1980.

All March long, it is Women’s History Month. Surely, indigenous women are a part of this devoted month as well.

Although it may seem trite to say, the fact that any demographic in society is given a month for “recognition” is immediately indicative of a historical marginalization so deeply rooted, that a special month is necessary for society to even theoretically attempt to level the playing field (i.e. Native American Heritage Month, Black History Month, etc.).

Nonetheless for this very special month, we remember the strength and timeless spirit of women. We devote this month to them.

​My mother, holding my big sister, Dawn Day Woman, circa 1980.

Let us remember and acknowledge all of the women upon our Mother Earth, for the indispensable roles they have played since our creation.

As for indigenous women, it is often said that today we are the most invisible of the invisible, being far more marginalized than our American counterparts. It is worthwhile, though, to give pause and reflection to the ever changing condition and status of Indian women in our own communities, from pre-contact to today.

Though we once held the most revered and protected statuses in traditional tribal societies, Indian women have suffered tragically at the hands of colonization. Without question, we did not suffer in this manner in our communities before. Today, Indian women are among the most relegated women in America. Today, Indian women struggle to overcome staggering rates of abuse, domestic violence, sexual assault, and single-parenthood.

It wasn’t always this way.

In this month may we recognize and remember who we once were as indigenous women. Let us honor the memory of the many remarkable indigenous women who came before us as mothers, grandmothers, sisters, and aunties, as nurturers, artisans, warrior women, preparers of love-filled meals, keepers of tradition, and so on. May we channel their strength, and evoke memories of a time when indigenous women were so highly revered as life-givers, and protected with a communal force so strong that every Indian woman was nurtured to her highest potential, and accordingly, she nurtured her children to their greatest potential too.

Through the many generations of elegant indigenous mastery, the women who came before us collectively wove the basket mold of what it is to be an Indian woman. That same treasured standard is still written in the collective memories of our DNA. With our ever present genetic memory, we possess the ability to bring back the spirit of the Indian women whose blood courses through our veins. Their stories of strength are all around us.

Reflecting on this special month, I was drawn to remember not just the most well-known female figures in Native American history, but the beautiful strength of my own mother and grandmothers. Beyond question, there are countless numbers of amazing Indian women who highlight all of our family histories. This is their month.

The women in my lineage continue to humble and inspire me without end. Their stories of love, resilience, and indigenous grace motivate me to be a better woman each and every day.

Reveling in my own mother’s strength, I often recall a time when I was struggling in my second run at college as a single mother. In some of my weakest moments, the only thing that kept me from quitting was remembering the strength of my mom. While I was facing the challenge of raising just one child alone in school, I often wondered, “How in the world did my mom finish college on her own with four kids?” If my mom persevered given those circumstances, I knew I could, too. Her strength was my strength.

She tells me a story of when she was first considering college as a mother of four. One especially memorable conversation was with the grandmother who raised her. It is a memory that stuck with her forever. Her grandmother, my great grandmother (who I remember as my Tzo’o), so lovingly told her in our Paiute language, “OK, well that’s good you want to go. If that’s what you choose to do, then finish it. You persevere.”

In my mom’s second year in college, Tzo’o passed away. Heartbroken, my mom wanted to quit school and return home. But it was the powerful words from her beloved grandmother that brought her determination back to life. “Mawa queu doi,” she told my mother, “You persevere.” She knew she had to finish.

My Tzo’o, was completely blind, yet still succeeded at raising many children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. Even despite her total lack of eye sight, she made traditional baby baskets and cradleboards, braided rugs, sewed quilts on an old-time trundle sewing machine, cooked and cleaned, planted trees, dug wild roots, harvested traditional foods and medicines, and gave thanks every morning with a long prayer over cedar and water. She persevered, and no limitation was ever too great. I cherish each tender memory of my Tzo’o. Remembering my spirited Tzo’o, it is no wonder how my mother became so strong.

Grandmother to my great grandmother, my Tzo’o, was my great, great, GREAT grandmother, Sound of Willows. She was the last generation of women in my family to know total freedom before white settlement, and the last generation of my lineage to have only a Paiute name. I imagine in total awe and wonder, just how strong and beautiful she must have been. Yet I know for sure, that the women in our lineage are still just as strong as all of our grandmothers once were. We just need to remember them, and by doing so, we remember our own strength.

​My Great Grandmother (Tzo’o), Marjorie Sam Kelly, with her children, circa 1930.

My courageous mother was the first in her family to ever attempt and acquire a college degree. Although her and my dad weren’t separated, he stayed back home on the reservation a good 125 miles away and continued to work for the tribe. Weekend after weekend, my mom drove us all back home to be together with our dad and reconnect with the land. Aside from our weekends with both parents, our mom raised us primarily alone during those five years, even still managing to ground us in prayer, read to us and tuck us in at night, feed us the best commod-recipes, clothe us in a mish-mash of home-made, second-hand and brand new clothes, and still keep smiles on our silly faces.

Without question, if my strength is from my mother’s strength, and her strength from her mother’s and her grandmother’s, we must all possess the spirit of our ancestral matriarchs. The indigenous women who we all descend from were so firmly grounded in traditional teachings, and a tenacity to be remembered forever. Their strength lives within all of us. In my most challenging moments, I remember them all.

As the time-honored saying goes, all indigenous women together form the backbone of our nations. We need look no further than our own mothers and grandmothers for that timeless indigenous strength and gentle wisdom to reinvigorate us in our most difficult life circumstances.

The strength of the indigenous woman endures. Embedded in the history of each Indian woman lies the means to bringing back the ways of honoring ourselves first, so that our nations can become strong again. If we truly wish to reclaim our rightful place as honored matriarchs within our tribal societies once more, let us start by connecting and reconnecting with our mothers and grandmothers. In honor of all Native women, we remember them.

​Sarah Sunshine Manning

Sarah Sunshine Manning (Shoshone-Paiute, Chippewa-Cree) is a mother, educator, activist, and an advocate for youth.

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