In the Cheyenne tribal culture, there is a saying: "A nation is not defeated until the hearts of its women are on the ground."
Defeat has crept close at times within the American Indian community. Hearts have sunk perilously low. But women now are coming together in a new movement they believe has been foretold by ancient prophecy. Women in Wellbriety aims to help women support each other, but also to repair and reconstruct the larger Indian community. No one can say why it's taken this long, but now may be the time.
"You feel the urgency," said Sharyl WhiteHawk, who leads Women in Wellbriety training around the country, including the first such session in Minneapolis earlier this month.
Here's how it works: Women come together as a circle, which includes an elder who offers guidance. While the actual work revolves around "real world" issues such as domestic violence, parenting, alcoholism and discipline, WhiteHawk said that work is possible because of a circle's spiritual underpinnings.
"To us, the unseen world is just as real as the seen world, and that gives us our strength," she said, explaining that several prophecies foretold this "awakening," such as the birth of white buffalo calves.
Wellbriety is a coined word, melding wellness and sobriety. The movement is part of WhiteBison.org, a national organization based in Colorado that offers sobriety, recovery, addiction prevention and wellness resources to Indians. Women in Wellbriety was launched last Mother's Day and is growing quickly, with almost 1,000 members on its Facebook page.
Many of those involved have their own stories of recovery. WhiteHawk, a member of the Lac Courte Orielles tribe in Rice Lake, Wis., is a survivor of childhood abuse, domestic violence and rape, and has been in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction for 31 years.
It's a sobering accounting, yet not uncommon. "We realize our women are strong, but we don't realize how wounded they were," she said.
How did this happen?
Boarding schools undercut families
The unraveling of the Indian culture didn't happen all at once, but many point to fallout from the boarding school system when Indian children were taken from their homes, sometimes forcibly, to assimilate them into white culture. The intention was perversely sincere.
"A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one," said Richard Pratt, an Army officer who founded the first school in 1879. "In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man."
Not only did little education occur, but generations of children emerged with no idea of what a healthy home life looked like, and lacked the skills to raise a family.
"You can't give away what you don't have," said WhiteHawk. "There is a generational disparity that is beyond unforgivable."
Many within the Wellbriety movement draw upon their own struggles to aid others, which is why the role of elders is so important.
Mary Lyons of Lakeville is one such elder, and believes her participation also was foretold. "My grandfather told me, 'When the awakening happens, you're going to be on the front lines.'"
Lyons has been through her own addiction recovery and now is known for her work with children with fetal alcohol syndrome. She speaks eloquently about nurturing a healing forest. "In the aspen groves, all the roots are connected, so if there is a diseased tree in its midst, all are harmed," said Lyons, who is Ojibwe. "Even if just two women are brought together, you have your healing forest started."
As to whether this movement will succeed where others have struggled, WhiteHawk acknowledges the challenge, but believes that a crucial shift in focus will make a difference. Instead of devoting most of their energy and resources to young people, as has been the understandable model, Wellbriety works more with the older generations of people, whom they call the First Teachers. Those teachers -- mothers, grandmothers, aunts -- are in the best place to create change within families.
"In hindsight, we should have helped the mothers before," WhiteHawk said. "We've learned that our community will heal in the same proportions that our women will heal."
Both Lyons and Whitehawk stress that Women in Wellbriety is open to all women, which also is fulfillment of prophecy that all nations will come together.
"Everyone was tribal once," Whitehawk said, smiling.
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185