I found myself today reading over this essay from Crone Chronicles, Spring 1995, an issue that featured the theme “Visions and Voices of Women.” It speaks of an experience with Native American elderwomen at a conference in Washington, D.C. The synchronicity of having just been to the Ann Arbor conference was interesting enough, but even more interesting was the fact that in 1994, as well as a few days ago, I found myself even more drawn to something seemingly ancillary to the conference than to the conference itself: In the car, on the way to and from the Ann Arbor conference, the depth of our female conversations; at the end of that D.C. conference so long ago, holding and being held, by an old woman’s hand.
I also have to laugh at this “me” back then, 24 years ago, who was so earnestly trying to glean wisdom from Native American female elders, and who was instead, being masterfully played by coyote women.
COYOTE WOMEN, SOFTLY SNORING: A Personal Story
by Ann Kreilkamp
There were 12 Native American female elders who were brought in for the conference [the first Visions and Voices Conference, held in Washington, DC in October, 1994], and I thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful to interview some of them? I told Suzanne [the friend with whom I had gone to the conference] this, and she immediately introduced me to the man who accompanied them on the trip. He, in turn, immediately whisked me away to the faculty dining room where the elders were all sitting at a long table eating lunch. The meeting was duly arranged, for 15 minutes hence, in the room where the elders would be resting. Meanwhile, I had left my backpack with my wallet, plane tickets, precious notes for both conferences, etc., back in the main ballroom with Suzanne, where 400 women still sat, listening to speeches. I tried to find her. No luck.
Feeling out of balance, my identity lost, in disarray, I ran to my room to grab the tape recorder and then ran to knock on the door where the women were said to be resting—and waiting for “the interview.” I tiptoed in to the sounds of four old women softly snoring, three of them on the double bed, another tiny one spread out on three straight-backed chairs. Two others were sitting up, apparently waiting for me.
I stood in front of them, looking down, and then sat, at their feet (there was not another chair in the room), meanwhile telling them about Crone Chronicles, a magazine that seeks to return value to elders. I said that I would like to speak with them because theirs is the only culture on this continent that still values its elders.
All the while I had been running around trying to locate my backpack and then running to get the tape recorder, I had been also wondering what on earth I could ask these women, regretting that I didn’t have more time to pull myself together, to think about what I really wanted from them . . .
Gail Russell [who runs a program called “Adopt a Grandmother” and who works with them] had told me that what she does is to ask them to pretend that she is one of their grandchildren, and then ask them to speak to her of what she will need to know about life.
So I did this. Then there was a silence, accompanied all the while by the soft snoring, while I tried to rearrange myself on the floor. Finally, one of them spoke up. “Eat wild things,” she suggested, and then went on to say that that’s what her ancestors did, and that’s what her grandmother told her to do if she wanted to stay healthy. She was speaking very softly. I said, “Would you please speak up?”—at which point the other woman told me that traditional peoples speak very softly; that she herself, however, had learned to speak up, because she worked in the educational system.
This was my first inkling that I was in a situation which I didn’t understand at all, and that no matter how many words came out of these women’s mouths, their “wisdom” probably had more to do with who they were, how they lived, than with any “answers” they could give me.
The “interview” lasted about 25 minutes. Afterwards, the little one who had been softly snoring on the three chairs opened her eyes and looked at me. Had she been awake all along?
I felt uncomfortable. What was going on? I had gone to these women hungry for their wisdom, and I was feeling vaguely foolish. Down in the lobby outside the ballroom I ran into Gail Russell. She asked, how did it go? and seeing my discomfited look, pointed out two more elders, talking softly to each other in a corner of the room. “Go to them,” she suggested. “Maybe they’ll talk to you.”
So I walked up to them, and brashly interrupted their conversation. They both looked up, placid, waiting for me to say something. I began to dance in front of them with words, trying, through charm, to get them to say that they would take time out from their conversation to have me tape them as they gave me their wisdom. After I was finally done, many many words later, one of them looked directly at me, and said: “You haven’t said anything. What are you really up to? We don’t know.” I was shocked! Disturbed! And grateful—that they had seen through my dance of charm and were asking me to be real, to be simple, like them. So I calmed down and, trying to move into my own essence, said I would like to talk to them for a few minutes, etc. The other one now said that she would like specific questions in writing, that she couldn’t respond without thinking about the question. That we could not do it today, maybe tomorrow. Then the one who had talked to me first asked me who the women were that did talk to me up in the room where the others were sleeping and I told her their names. “Oh them,” she said. “You should have talked to the ones who were sleeping, they would have been better.” At this point I had to laugh. What was real here? What were they up to?
At first I ascribed the entire incident to cross-cultural misunderstanding. Later, talking with Suzanne, she recalled how, when we wanted to interview three women in the community where we live in Jackson, Wyoming — women we have long seen as elders, wonderful models for us as we grow older — that they didn’t want to talk to us any more than these Native American women did. I began to own up to the foolishness of my own behavior, to recognize that what strikes me about women who are much older than me is not so much what they have to tell me, as who they are, their presence, the quality of the force field that I feel around them.
This understanding came home to me especially on the last morning of the conference, when the elders were again up on the stage and we were told that anyone who wanted a blessing could go up on the stage and receive one. When I knelt in front of the oldest woman there, and she took my hands and prayed for me in her own language, I was struck by how she picked up my hands and held them. She didn’t grab me, as I do others. Nor did she clutch them, and quickly release them when done. Rather, my hands felt her hands gradually, slowly enclose mine, tenderly, carefully, and yet with great strength. I, my entire being, felt held, in those hands. Held, supported, secure. Those few moments of kneeling there in front of her, those moments of being held, were, for me, the highlight of the conference.