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Tribal Wisdom

A Native American view of male and female

An Interview with Harley Swiftdeer Reagan, by
Richard Peacock
One of the articles in Gender (IC#16)
Spring 1987, Page 14
Copyright (c)1987, 1997 by Context Institute | To order
this issue ...
This is part of a very extensive interview with Harley
Swiftdeer by Richard Peacock, Associate Professor of
Cinema at Palomar College in California and author of
Learning to Leave. Much of the longer interview deals with
Native American wisdom about sexual relations between
men and women and thus is somewhat off our focus here of
the inner feminine and masculine journeys. But, in my
view, it is extraordinarily insightful and practically useful.
Anyone wishing to read the interview in its entirety may
send $2 for copying & postage to Richard at 636 Leucadia
Blvd., Encinitas, CA 92024.
- Lila Forest
consummate American. That is, he is a man of
contradictions. Of mixed blood - Cherokee Indian and Irish
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stock - he is a distant relative of the current President; a
decorated Marine Corps veteran discharged because he
opposed the Vietnam War; a national jujitsu champion;
father of five sons; a self-made man with Ph.D's in
Humanistic Psychology and Comparative Religions; an
internationally recognized spokesman for American Indian
customs and causes; a man who spent a year in Yuma State
prison for killing a man in self-defense. The "Billy Jack"
films were inspired by and depicted some of his
Above all of this, Swiftdeer is a medicine man. There is
simply no equivalent to that inscrutable title in the white
culture. The role of a medicine person combines the
powers and skills of a leader, doctor, magician, lawyer,
healer, priest, psychologist, teacher, and father/mother.
Obviously, a person doesn't become that overnight.
Swiftdeer began his medicine apprenticeship at the age of
eight with his Cherokee grandmother, Spotted Fawn, on a
reservation in Texas/Oklahoma. After Vietnam, he
continued his study with the medicine chief of the Navajo
nation, Tom "Two Bears" Wilson. Two Bears' remarkable
powers were revealed by Carlos Castaneda in his series of
books in which he portrayed Two Bears as Don Gennaro.
Swiftdeer studied with this teacher for 15 years, until Two
Bears died. Later, he continued working with Hyemeyohst
Storm, a Cheyenne and author of Seven Arrows.
Richard: Harley, what is American Indian spiritual
sexuality and why haven't we heard of it?
Swiftdeer: When the first white men came to this country,
they had no idea of the depth or extent of the great
metaphysical knowledge, indeed the scientific knowledge,
the alchemy, and the tremendous amount of inner,
spiritual truth that the American Indian carried.
My people are called the Chuluakui Ononoguia, which
actually means the "People of the Ancient Language". So
we referred to ourselves as "the people". We felt this land
was the place of sacredness; it was a place where people
would walk in beauty, walk in harmony with the earth and
come into alignment with the mineral, the plant, the
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animal, the human, and the ancestral worlds of spirit. They
could follow their visions, their sacred dreams. Most
importantly, our people lived by two laws: everything is
born of woman, and nothing should be done to hurt the
children. And that was the basic premise of everything that
followed. Those two laws are usually not kept or even
looked at in most of the organized religions of today.
Richard: What comes out of this idea that everything is
born of woman; what does that mean to you?
Swiftdeer: First of all, the Great Spirit cannot be male,
because a male has never given birth to anything. The male
is a seed, he is the action, he is the conception, but without
the reception and without the creativity, there can be no
birth. And so we see the Great Spirit as Wah-Kawhuan and
Ss- Kawhuan, Great Grandmother and Great Grandfather,
and we see that as the very beginning of the spiritual
sexuality teachings. So in the Great Void, we don't mean
that there was nothing; there was the Chuluakui, that pure
love light, energy in mental form, and from that, breath,
inhale, inclusion, Wah-Kawhuan, Great Grandmother, the
female, the egg, the receptive, the creative. And then the
exhale, explosion, the seed, the active, the conceptive,
Ss-Kawhuan. The Great Spirit saw itself in its two sides and
made love and out of that, it created itself in all forms and
all things.
Richard: So a sexual metaphor is really your central
Swiftdeer: Absolutely.
Richard: How were you brought up differently from me,
from an average American in terms of sexuality?
Swiftdeer: Well, for one thing, I was taught
self-pleasuring. Not "masturbation", which means to abuse
the self, but self-pleasuring which I was taught by other
men, by the warriors, uncles, grandfathers.
Richard: How old were you?
Swiftdeer: That started at around four and continued until
I was around eight. When I was twelve, I went through my
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rites of passage, my puberty ceremony. Part of that
ceremony involves a traditional vision quest: that is, going
up to the mountain in the morning and coming into
alignment with Grandfather Sun. It includes a sweat and
purification; it includes, particularly in my tribe, the
Cherokee, having the wrist cut and then going out for
three days and three nights with no food or water. When a
young boy comes back from there, he must become a man.
And so he goes with a woman who is called a Fire Woman,
a Phoenix Woman. She teaches him, initiates him into the
beauties and the powers and the energy of that which is
born of woman. She teaches him his woman side.
Richard: How do you define the woman side of men?
Swiftdeer: Inside all of us there is a male and a female
energy. I think that's pretty well accepted, even in science
today. Our people say that we have a "dream mind body",
beach ball-like spheres of light that are an energy part of
our essence, our personality. Inside you and me is a little
boy and a man, and we frequently can act in either one or
both. But there's also a woman and a little girl. And the
woman side of us is our magic. It's our ability to be totally
in the now. It's our ability to be clear and wise. It's our
ability to operate with change without being at the effect
of it. Our little girl is like our illumination, our
enlightenment. It's that part of our being that sees the
collective dream of the planet and is doing something
about it, giving to it. That's our little girl. Now for the
sisters, it's the opposite. Everything I've just said about our
woman would be the sisters' man shield, and what is our
little girl would be their little boy shield.
Richard: Why are men so afraid of their woman shield?
Swiftdeer: Because they consider it to be a weakness. So
they are starting right out with a basic illusion: that is, that
the woman is weak. If a woman is so weak, I'd like to see
just one man bear a child. I think he would probably fall
apart at the seams. Can you name me anything that's
stronger than Mother Earth?
That's strength, but strength through gentleness. There's
no weakness there; there's simply a different type of
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energy. The human male has got the concept that that is
somehow a weakness, and he's afraid to be weak. He's
afraid to be gentle. One of our great chiefs says that the
warrior is the man who walks in beauty because he knows
that his strength is the gentleness to hold the child in his
arms. I like that.
Richard: If that is, in a sense, man's problem, what is
woman's problem as you see it in our culture?
Swiftdeer: The women's problem, to me, is in taking back
the power of what they really are, and that's to be women.
Unfortunately, what has happened is that in an attempt to
gain back that which they gave away, and which was taken
from them, which is their beauty, they began the feminist
movement. Some in the feminist movement went out and
put on coveralls, combat boots, chopped off their hair, put
cigars in their mouths, and started walking around talking
about the powers of woman. Unfortunately, that's about as
far from the powers of woman as anything I can imagine.
That's the imitation of man. And so they were imitating
men. The sun and earth do not compete; they are
opposites. When we look around us in nature, at natural
law, we see that opposition creates the greater whole,
harmony. Competition destroys. So the sisters' problem is
that they've got to stop competing with us. They must
understand that their power as women means they can be
sensual, sexual, lusty, passionate, even wanton, and that
does not make them an object for you and me. In fact, it is
their power that gives birth to all things: emotion, mind,
body, spirit, and sexuality.
Richard: How do women work this out in the workplace
nowadays? I mean, they are competing with men.
Swiftdeer: But see, there's no need to compete with the
tyrant; you just need to know that that's the opposition.
Learn to stalk the tyrant. You have to become a warrior,
and what I do is teach women to become warriors.
Richard: What do you mean by warriors?
Swiftdeer: Warriors are people who seek alignment with
things around them, with the world around them, who
reach out for knowledge, for the pure pleasure and beauty
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of doing so. A warrior is, in essence, someone who is never
at the effect of anyone or anything, anywhere, any time, in
any way. Warriors stand in their own freedom circles. They
don't give their power away to the tyrants, and that
includes bosses. The tyrant is there as a teacher. But they
don't give their power away to the tyrant, male, female, or
situational. The warrior's way of walking life is in beauty.
You simply don't get your buttons pushed - that's what it
boils down to. Women get their buttons pushed out of their
illusions about what is male and what is female, and so do
the brothers.
Richard: There seems to be a very strong place, a center
for women in the Cherokee tradition.
Swiftdeer: Yes. The power of the tribe was held by the
women. These teachings I'm sharing were held and kept by
the Grandmother of Medicine Societies and by the
Women's Society. For example, in our political structure,
all the men holding offices of power did so only because
they were voted on by women. Men could not vote for
them. So the women constantly kept the power. If we chose
to go to war, the women's councils had to sit down and vote
unanimously to go to war. If we went to war, we would
never hurt the women and children of the people we were
fighting. But we would kill every last soldier, every last
male warrior on their side, if we chose to go to war. The
only way that war could be stopped was if their women
came to our women and said, "Don't kill our sons."
Consequently, the Cherokees had 6000 years of peace. It
Richard: It seems very balanced.
Swiftdeer: I think that's what's missing in our society and
culture and context today: balance.
Richard: In your own way, you sound like a spokesperson
for women's - I don't want to say liberation - power.
Swiftdeer: Yes. Because I know that everything is born of
woman. I don't believe it; I know it. I see it everywhere, in
mineral, plant, animal, human, and spirit. And I'm a
warrior and a magician; I have to go by what I know, not by
something I would arbitrarily like to believe in. For
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example, 60% of all my apprentices are women. In the
ways of our people, when I get ready to choose my death,
when I get ready to go back to the Great Round, I'll do a
ceremonial teaching thing for about three years prior to
my death, just like Grandfather did with me. I will pass on
all of my knowledge that I've learned in the ceremonial
way, in the magical way, to one man and five women, so it's
obvious where the power's going to go. Now what's
interesting is that the one man will do more outward
teaching than the five women. Men are fire beings, sun
beings; we go out. The women go in and keep. It's not that
the women don't go out and teach, just that it is not as
much their way. They're Earth beings. Men are Sun beings.
Richard: What direction would you like to see men and
women going, and what do they need to do to get together?
Swiftdeer: I think what I would like to see happen is that
we have to stop the war between us. Men have got to learn
about that essence which our people call the woman and
the little girl. And the sisters have got to learn about the
man and the little boy that's inside their beingness. Then,
we have to start communicating to each other, opening,
heart-to-heart, with full honesty. We have to begin to
"speak the unspeakable".
The Pear Orchard
by James Bertolino
This morning her limbs
take her
into a pear orchard
where the primitive form is
her fingers find
in the shaft and sphere
she knows in the yellow and
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the intelligence
of Eden,
and in the wet white flesh
the spirit that resides
and does not fall
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