AK Reader: The Grandmothers’ Dance (1986)

This essay from 30 years ago, which illustrates, through story and metaphysical understanding, the the vast gulf between Native American and Western European immigrant cultures, includes my description/critique of Jackson Hole way back in 1986. How much has it changed since I lived there (1983-3002)? Not even sure I would want to visit, much less live there again.

Not that life here in the midwest isn’t also indicative of just how much we have devolved into bloated materialism. For example, when I moved here, in 2002, there were no McMansions. Now these bloated, poorly built and designed monstrosities, surrounded by manicured lawns, occupy what used to be farm fields at the edge of suburban Bloomington, Indiana. Beyond the McMansions, fields of soy beans and GMO corn. On the other hand, there’s still plenty of hardwood forest, lots of (only mildly polluted?) water, and an increasing presence of small, local permaculture and other organic rural and urban farms, CSAs, farmer’s markets, farm to table restaurants, and so on.

 

THE GRANDMOTHERS’ DANCE (1986)

by Ann Kreilkamp

1989 Introduction

The essay that follows is devoted to understanding, embracing, and ultimately transcending certain contradictions I notice within both myself and others who live within the shadow of the Grand Tetons in western Wyoming. This essay was first published in early 1987 in the journal Welcome to Planet Earth.

Since that time the contradictions have magnified. Now, in July, 1989, the monetary value of open land in this area has more than doubled within the past six months. What we call “highenders” are moving in from cities, parking their Lear jets at the tiny local airport, building enormous homes and shopping at new local shops — one sells expensive furs, another is an outlet for Polo, Ralph Lauren.

Just last week I heard that the current issue of the glossy coffee table magazine Town and Country has a 22-page spread on Jackson and other parts of Wyoming with the message to rich urbanites, how about buying a nice little ranch in Wyoming?

Both Wal-Mart and K-Mart plan to plop enormous square or rectangular buildings in the middle of vast parking lots, burying under concrete yet more wild land.

Jackson has been discovered. There is no “slack” season anymore. Giant “Suburban” wagons cruise the town all year round.

Note: Since I am a professional astrologer, it is natural for me to pepper my language with astrological symbols. In this essay I used the symbols Saturn and Uranus, which were then traveling together through the sign of Sagittarius, to help me illuminate the contradictions both within and without. I hope the reader will not be offended by the astrological metaphor; indeed, I encourage the reader to embrace the symbolic possibilities within this most ancient, sacred language.

 

 

The Grandmother’s Dance

A woman kneels in the center of a room on a dark cloth spread out on a polished, hardwood floor. Silent, utterly absorbed, she removes tiny objects — stones, feathers, crystals, flowers — from leather and velvet pouches and arranges them on the cloth in a semi-circle around her. Directly in front of her lies an enormous phallic crystal, facing North, lined up with the Tetons. I am sitting on the floor with 30 other women in a circle around her. Our backs lean against blue walls. We are talking quietly among ourselves and watching Brooke Medicine Eagle, beautiful, with high cheekbones and a hooked nose and long black braided hair. I notice her hands. Big, strong, expressive, intimate, these hands bond her energy to the energy of anything they reach for. With utmost concentration, she is slowly and carefully placing each object in relation to others on the cloth according to some hidden inner order.

The altar is completed. Brooke looks up, smiles widely, begins to speak. There is much she has to tell us this evening, she says, her energy uncoiling to a standing position, those hands punctuating each word.

Can you remember old pictures of signing ceremonies between white soldiers and Indians? she asks. On one side stands the general surrounded by his officers, lined up in a row. On the other side stands the row of braves, flanking their chief. And behind the row of Indian men, she continues, her voice growing stronger, stands a row of white haired women. The grandmothers. Female elders of the tribe. They were not there to negotiate. Rather, their continuous silent presence was to remind Indian men: any treaty you make with the white man must be such as to not harm any living thing.

The grandmothers, Brooke tells us, carried the wisdom of the tribe. They no longer menstruated; they “held their blood” — and because they did their power was great.

The younger women, during their menstrual flow, would retire to the “moon lodge,” to rest and to dream. This time coincided with the new moon, a time of new beginning and of cleansing, when the veil between the visible and invisible thins to the point where the women could easily pass beyond. During these few days each month they would enter the spirit world through the center of their beings, their wombs. In their dreaming together they set in motion whatever was to happen during the coming moon cycle. Through their wombs they attuned to the Great Mother, Earth, and learned her ways.

According to Lakota tradition, the female principle precedes the male. It is first, what must happen before anything else can. The female principle is the number before all numbers start. It is the womb, the starry night sky; it is the great void, the source of all possibility. Actual creation begins, she tells us, when lightning pierces the night sky. From this union, does all that manifests flow.

If, she continues, I were to spear you and twirl your body in the air, the exact point in which I would thrust my spear would be your womb/ this is the center of your being. This is the point where you balance heaven and earth — whether you be biologically a woman or a man.

She gets up and starts walking around the room, long soft leather moccasins treading the hardwood floor as surely as if it were a forest trail. Placing her hands to that center of herself, she outlines a triangle. We need to walk with this part of us leading, she tells us. Our wombs link us to our mother, and receive what she wants us to know. Instead, we tend to walk like the absent-minded professor! Brooke laughs, bends over, and walks head first, tottering from side to side. We laugh too, seeing ourselves in this reflection.

Brooke stands up straight. Alert, balanced, again she walks steadily around the inside of our circle. Her eyes seek each of ours in turn. “We have moved from the center of our beings to the head, the forebrain,” she says, slowly, quietly: “we have severed our bonds with all living things.”

Brooke asks us to stand and form a circle with our arms around each other. She starts drumming, softly, to the four-beat rhythm of a human heartbeat. “Press your left foot into the floor with each dominant beat,” she says. “Your left foot links to your left side, the female side. As you press that foot to the floor you are making contact with mother earth, and she is pressing back. Now start moving in a circle, an inch at a time, still emphasizing that beat with the left foot.”

We begin to dance, slowly round and round, hearts and feet entraining to the drumming, thirty women in a circle, arms around each other, no beginning, no ending, left foot, left foot, left foot, entering our left sides, thinning that veil between the visible and the invisible, entranced.

“Now look at each woman in the circle, how beautiful she is, how individual . . . And now soften your eyes, let them lose focus, concentration, and see this woman circle as a circle of women everywhere, women anywhere, anytime. Become your mother dancing this heartbeat, become her mother, and hers. Go back through your foremothers, back to the first two-legged mother, beyond her to the four-leggeds, the winged creatures, beyond them to the tree people, the plant people, the rocks, the waters. Become the great mother, feel her wisdom, feel her pain.”

Next Day, Out Walking

It is Saturday morning, the day after the grandmothers’ dance. I sit curled in my easy chair, tensed, head down, concentrating. Frowning, I turn page after page of a thick, blue paperback book, Alice Bailey’s Esoteric Astrology.

No use. Can’t seem to read today. My eyes keep losing focus, bouncing off the page. My head feels light, constricted. And my body is growing increasingly restless, wants to move! I subdue it, forcefully, no! You must sit here, stay still, and read this! You still haven’t mastered Alice Bailey. What’s wrong with you? Are you lazy? Stupid?

Suddenly, without thinking, I close the book, get up, bundle up, start out on my daily walk. Today I walk even faster than usual, head first, body striving to keep pace with the debate raging inside. Once again I feel that war between the two ways I’m learning, the two roads I travel . . . the metaphysical and the aboriginal . . . so different, so opposed! Going up and down at once . . . up with my head, down with my body . . . Will I break in two? (Oh my god, is this the meaning of the dream I had last night? When my car broke into two separate pieces, front and back? And I knew it was due to my carelessness. . . Oh wow, there’s Saturn and Uranus operating again, in my dream. The car breaks — negative Uranus; my inattention — negative Saturn.) Hey! Stop thinking! You are walking now. Walk on. Pound those ideas from the brain through the body into the ground. Release that brain, let go let go . . . breathe . . . in . . . out . . . in . . . out . . . Be the walking, be the breathing, left right, in, out. Forget! Forget yourself. Become empty, become the air flowing through you, allow each in-breath to replenish you, each out-breath to clear out old ideas, cares, worry . . .

I have followed this same routine for 27 years, walking long distances, balancing, getting head to join with body for that one hour each day. “It keeps me out of the psychiatrist’s office,” I joke to those who ask — and laugh, ruefully, knowing just how true that is. My training has been left-brained, male, rational. I am the perfect example of Descartes’ mind/body split. I think, therefore I am. Therefore only my thinking is me! For Descartes, the body and mind, though separate, worked in unison; they “paralleled” each other, he said. For me, they seem utterly opposed, body wanting to continually move and express, mind wanting to capture each movement, to fix it in place.

As usual, within one mile, hip and pelvic tension relax and my stride lengthens to the usual fast rhythmic Sagittarian pace so few of my friends can keep up with. I’m glad. I need this aloneness. Need this discipline. Feel very Saturnine today. Uptight. Can’t let my mind go. How to integrate Alice Bailey with Brooke Medicine Eagle? How to reconcile such an esoteric scholastic hierarchy with the elemental Lakota way of being in the world?

It seems to me Alice Bailey deals from on high with what is here below. In order to read her, I must forget my body, deny its restless existence, and become pure thought, unadulterated by emotion, by concern, by anything but the processing of rarified ideas.

Much of what I read in astrology has that same character, if less extreme. I include here even the revered mentor of us humanistic and transpersonal astrologers, Dane Rudhyar. While there is a certain spare celestial beauty to his ever enlarging and looping rhythms, I must admit, I find his tone dry, abstract, bloodless — with no concrete examples, nothing to bond it with what really happens here below. Pure thought. No passion. No life!

And there’s the other extreme too, an astrology which focuses too narrowly on mundane events, where the result is either gossipy or full of staccato data. Here, in the intellectual polarity between the bloodless abstract and the trivialized concrete, is that same mind/body duality reflected. First, mind splits off from body; next, mind itself splits into two kinds of thinking, and neither one feels alive.

As I walk, I look across four miles of snow covered sage to the west, and am, as ever, awed by the sight of the snowy Tetons rising precipitiously from the valley floor. Boiling silver clouds play peek-a-boo with the frozen north face of the Grand Teton. So high, so remote, cold stone and ice . . . and so indifferent to the play of human passion rippling out from each of us, linking us together, no matter how alone some of us may feel, down here below.

Mountains have always been metaphors for both solitude and lofty thought. Asian monks leave householding behind to sit on them and commune with the gods — sometimes forever. Tourists stop their cars and try to capture the scene with camera or video. At their next restaurant meal they may discuss what they saw out there for a few moments, fumbling for words, eyes taking on that misty faraway look humans are prey to. This longing, a yearning, but for what? what? — is what separates us from our wild animal friends.

Painters try to represent what mountains evoke in them. The Tetons have been painted and postcarded so many millions of times that their actual presence sometimes seems clichéd. Grandiose, two-dimensional Valhallian mountain scenes in ornate carved wooden frames dominate public walls in banks and law offices, they hang over massive living room mantelpieces and king size beds . . . As we go about our daily business such paintings sometimes catch our busy eyes. They remind us of our more exalted possibilities . . . they numb us by the very familiarity of what is or should be so rare.

Some of us choose to place ourselves where such glory will be the constant vibrant background to our every heartbeat. It is precisely the extraordinary beauty of this still pristine land that draws us here in the first place. But how many of us acknowledge this place in the manner of Brooke Medicine Eagle, as a tiny but sacred spot on the skin of mother earth? And how many of us feel her, in our wombs?

But wait, wait . . . remember that day when I walked down out of Death Canyon, tired and alone. So tired that my mind slipped into my body, and gave my feet the lead. Remember the cool breeze, tunneling through the canyon, picking up the creek’s tumbling rush, rising and falling, caressing my ears with its music? And remember that one extraordinary moment when, for some unknown reason, I suddenly stopped walking, turned around, and looked up to the exact spot where an eagle soared high over a spired ridge?

Yes. And remember another time, that soft spring afternoon, sitting on a rounded hillside of Shadow Mountain, looking out across three miles of valley to the Grand Teton? Remember lying back in that field of yellow flowered balsam root, watching clouds scud by? And remember turning over, my hands clutching plants, sticks, seeds, stones, body caressing full length the soil in its yearly awakening? Remember bursting into tears? And feeling so full, so alive, so sensual . . . yielding to the earth as my beloved.

Times such as these are the exception. They are so intimate, so strange, so haunting . . . Like certain dreams at night, which pass into other dimensions altogether, these experiences in nature are so foreign to my usual waking dream that I have trouble even remembering them, much less putting them into words for others. And even if I could I would be too embarrassed . . . until, last night, that is, when Brooke reminded me of their value.

I speak of nature as my lover. Not poetically, not lyrically, but in reality. Encountering her in this manner I see/feel her utterly differently than usual. She is not something to be viewed, classified, evaluated, and, in some way, used. Rather, she is someone to be cherished, held, surrendered to. In opening to her we drink her in, and are charged by her presence; she is overwhelmingly real and alive.

Speaking of nature in this manner throws me outside the society I grew up in. Certainly it is alien to my usual ways of walking on this planet, even now, now that I’m “new age.” And I’d bet that very few of even the more sensitive ones who live in this extraordinary mountain valley — who say they “love” this land, they “love it here” — really, in any full sense of that word, do. How often do we interact with nature as our lover? Aren’t we usually relating to her more with an eye as to how she can fulfill our individual desires?

Take the intense loner athlete, for example, who scales these mountains. He climbs straight up sheer rock — or ice — walls, mind over matter, to the top, where he overlooks everything, having conquered both gravity and his own body’s natural fear and pain. Most athletes here are equipment freaks as well; they blend a single-minded desire to get to the top with an exacting hi-tech attention to precisely which climbing shoes will offer most frictional advantage, which materials in their clothing will “wick” sweat away.

Mind over matter. Brain over body. Tone that machine. Tune it up, make sure it’s hard — to go the distance, to scale the heights, to ski straight down steep powder slopes. Even athletes, seemingly most in tune with their bodies — obey the cultural command. Rather than flowing with nature and her ways, these bodies are designed and continually retooled to meet their owners’ rigid specifications. Nature’s extremes are viewed as challenges, to be conquered, dominated, controlled. Not just eggheads move with their heads first.

I think of the legends surrounding these jagged peaks, how they are likened to giant crystals, magnifying everything that goes on here. Of the great crystal caves rumored to lie somewhere inside the Grand Teton. Of the Great White Brotherhood which, it is whispered, meets here each year in spirit form, on the fourth of July. I think of all the high spiritual books, including Alice Bailey’s, which this brotherhood is said to have inspired.

I think of one man in particular, he is here precisely because of these legends. Richard is so abstracted, so wrapped up in his mind, that he ignores his body altogether, noticing neither what it is wearing or the ground upon which it walks. His body, reflecting that lack of concern, is puffy, shapeless. (Like so many tourists’ bodies. During August especially, I notice that fully one out of every ten people walking the streets of Jackson is seriously obese.)

Athletes only seem to be body oriented. Actually, most of them are mental, wanting total control over their bodies, treating them like machines. Some metaphysical people ignore their bodies, they are more obviously mental in orientation. The point is, neither of them feel nature, in their wombs. They would laugh at Brooke’s aboriginal point of view.

Then there are those who came here to use nature in blatant ways — to use her up. They carve up hills and river bottom land into “real” estate, and sell it, for profit. They build huge houses on five-acre tracts, or cluster condomaximums at river’s edge, and think of eco-nomics as if it is restricted to money.

This valley is crawling with real estate agents and others who obey the dictates of “progress.” What keeps them in check are the efforts of the Jackson Hole Alliance and the Jackson Hole Land Trust, whose members do seem to genuinely care about preserving wild lands. Unfortunately, they must spend an inordinate amount of time fighting not only human greed, but also the legalities of state, federal and corporate claims for oil, mineral, grazing and deforestation “rights.” One cannot do battle with bureaucrats without, in some sense, becoming one. I watch this happen now, as the environmental movement comes of age, and pulls up its backpacking grassroots for the move to Washington, D.C.

Of related concern is the fate of the Great Bear, which during the past several years has come to national attention. As once vast tracts of true wilderness shrink to early nothing, as what is left gets carved into tiny bureaucratic fiefdoms with no common agenda, the grizzly’s normally wide-ranging habitat is so seriously disturbed that, as of 1986, only 34 breeding sows live in Yellowstone Park. Yellowstone and Glacier Park are the only areas left in the contiguous 48 states still viable for the grizzly. If many had their way, these wildernesses too would be gentled, made user-friendly to man by destroying what few bears remain.

The poet Robert Bly spoke of what he termed the hidden “hairy man” within each man in a now famous seminal article, “On Being A Man” (1982). Bly’s hairy man is a wild man, he has more in common with the grizzly than with either macho men or the gentle, “liberated” males escorting either feminists or each other today. We fear this hairy man, his genuine natural potency, as we fear the grizzly, and his dream partner, the legendary yeti. We fear the wildness in ourselves. We fear our feelings — the joy, the passion, the rage, the surrender to our mother and the terrible pain inflicted upon her by our unnatural forebrained habits.

These feelings arise as we plug in to our centers, our wombs. These feelings move us to change our ways and preserve life on earth. No amount of reading high spiritual — and astrological — material, no number of hours spent meditating in quiet contemplation will do it. Our minds and spirits may expand our awareness, but they do not originate anything.

Men and women alike, we are all male and female, creative and receptive. Each of us is mind and body, and within each of these, there are creative and receptive aspects. Receptive, we open to the ground, what our mother wants to give us; creative, we reach for the stars.

Midway between our head and our toes sits our womb, our center. We are each the center of the universe, the still point of a turning world. Through our centers we link heaven to earth and balance ourselves. Saturn represents centripetal force, gravid, drawing us down. Uranus is centrifugal; spinning out like electrons, we fill the heavens with our wonder.

Finally, I am reminded of a good friend of mine, I will call him Coyote, as this most adaptive of wild creatures is his totem. Coyote is a dreamer and storyteller and music masker. His source is the waters of Boiling River at Mammoth, Montana in Yellowstone. His roots are aboriginal. Coyote feels more in common with monkey than with the straight man role his civilized conscience still sometimes forces him to play.

Coyote’s “environmentalism” is primal, pure; he doesn’t give a hoot about how to trace his way through a bureaucratic maze. Yet even he, who could teach us so much, seems confused. Coyote man! He who drums in tune with the pulsing geysers, he whose words and music soar like the thousands of pelicans that whirl in vortex formation over Yellowstone River — yet even Coyote said to me once, why worry about the planet, when we’re about to lift off the earth?

Coyote would forego his aboriginal roots for a hi-tech future. He would solve the planetary crisis the same way Tim Leary would (not to mention military industrial contractors); they look to technology to save us, and advocate peeling out of here in rockets. Born-again Christians and fundamentalist Moslems can’t wait to leave either — for their various heavens elsewhere. What care have they for preserving our creaturely nest?

Here I am, walking along head first, preoccupied; I wrestle with Alice Bailey and Brooke Medicine Eagle and wonder how the two shall join. Surrounding me are athletes and metaphysicians, artists and tourists, greedy ones and preservers, Coyote and the bureaucrats. Here we all are, living mostly in our minds, ignoring the mysterious life in our bodies, and the way they resonate with the larger body, our mother, Earth — the substance of which she is composed, the wild creatures upon her. We are in association — whether or not we know it — not just with each other, but with the trees and rocks and water and plants and soil and all the bear and deer and geese and swans and eagles and hawks and moose and elk and bison and other, more delicate and unnoticed beings inhabiting this magical land. Intense, individual, extreme, and full of contradiction, our energies are magnified by the giant crystalline Teton range. Blindly, but with hope, we grope haltingly towards a shared life in this small mountain valley, sixty miles long, twenty wide, population 10,000, on the western edge of Wyoming.

 Return to the Grandmothers’ Dance

 Uranus is the sky god, wild, electrifying, innovative; lightening piercing the night sky. Saturn is “reality,” social reality, civilized; form, in its actual manifestation. Uranus is the Grand Teton, a gigantic lightning rod. Saturn is the social roles we play down here below, who we think we are — the infamous forebrain.

Uranus above, Saturn below. Mountain above, valley below. Sky above, earth below. Mind above, body below. Alice Bailey above, Brook Medicine Eagle below. Forebrain and womb. Male and female. Light and shadow. Nature and technology. Each of these a duality, polarized.

Without duality there is nothing to balance. Polarity is a fact of consciousness, which is always, an awareness of something, a relation between self and non-self. It is only when the teetertotter crashes to the ground lopsided that the balance of priorities is disturbed, and are we, as a people, disturbed.

The mind/body teetertotter has crashed to the ground, leaving he mind high and dry. We need to balance metaphysics with aboriginal wisdom, our minds with our bodies. And we need to re-member our bodies for what they truly are, formed from the soil, continuous with mother nature and her laws.

I think back to the grandmothers’ circular dance, and remember the woman opposite me. She is the only one I see full on, rather than obliquely. She offers me the other side of the world, a direct frontal mirror. Our “opposition” constitutes one of infinitely many that could people any circle. Each of us one endpoint of a single axis. Together, the two of us define a diameter, measuring how large this particular circle happens to be. There are no dualities, nothing is really polarized, once we place it within a larger circular space — valley wide, global, and beyond.

I stand at the center, in my womb, the still point of my turning world. Circular orbits surround me, concentric. Each a cycling planetary energy, each one including, enclosing the next. There is no end to it. Space reaches out – and in — forever.

Lightning pierces the night sky. My hands reach out and up into space — forever. My feet press down, to the mother, firmly — and she presses back. Through my womb I direct the light from sky to earth and refract it, in rainbow colors to spread in each of the four directions and all points in between.

 

 

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