Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers

MARIN COUNTY, Calif. (WOMENSENEWS)–They come from the Amazon, the Arctic Circle, Asia, Africa, Mexico and the Northwest, Southwest and Midwest sections of North America. They are 13 women, ranging from their 50s to their 80s, with dozens of grandchildren among them.

In their villages, towns and cities they are spiritual activists, medicine women, tribal elders and advocates for sustaining indigenous ways of life.

As individuals each is recognized for her work to preserve her indigenous culture.

One advises the president of Gabon on governmental affairs.

Another helped found the Tibetan Women’s Association, which has 47 branches worldwide, to raise public awareness of the abuses faced by Tibetan women under Chinese rule.

Together, they form the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers with headquarters at the Center for Sacred Studies in Sonora, Calif.

Their purpose is to offer the world an increasingly scarce resource: earthly wisdom and prayer.

Eating a Proper Diet

One grandmother–a Mayan elder named Flordemayo–spoke to Women’s eNews recently on the phone about a typically grandmotherly topic: a proper diet.

"We are losing the way of understanding nature and that processed food doesn’t have light," she said. "If we are going to eat anything it should be intact. It should have the optimum amount of light so it is healthy for us to nourish the body and the spirit."

Flordemayo was born on the Nicaragua-Honduras border and is now a healer living in New Mexico, where she founded the Institute of Natural and Traditional Knowledge.

On the grandmothers’ council she is entrusted as the "seed carrier," who oversees the exchange of seeds among the women and spreads the word about the importance of raising and nourishing seeds, plants and animals organically.

Twice a year the council gathers in one of their homelands to discuss such environmental threats as the melting of the Arctic glaciers; the right of those in the Amazon rain forest to grow and use traditional medicines; the risks associated with arsenic in water; the unemployment, suicide and drug problems that affect Native Americans; the contaminated water in developing countries. Then they pray.

"They are not women of politics but women of prayer," said Jeneane Prevatt, a Cherokee spiritual leader with the Center for Sacred Studies. "They want their homes to be OK. They want good air, good water, and they want to live where families can take care of each other. They are realizing our Western world is living in a disassociated manner."

Purely Spiritual Framework

"The International Council was born within a framework that is purely spiritual," said Bernadette Rebienot, a Bwiti elder and grandmother of 23 from Gabon, through a translator.

Next July the grandmothers plan to meet in Rebienot’s homeland. With their costs paid by private donations they are trying to raise about $225,000 for the trip.

Prevatt says the idea for the grandmothers’ council arrived in the form of a prophecy. A woman came to her in a vision saying, "I am going to hand you my basket. In it are some of my most precious jewels. They are lines of prayer that go back to the original time. You are not to mix them or change them. You are to protect them and keep them safe. Bring them through the door of the millennium and hand them back to me, for I have something I am going to do."

At the same time, Prevatt says others at the Center for Sacred Studies and elsewhere also received messages that said, "When the grandmothers speak the door to unity will open to us all."

Prevatt–who prefers to be addressed as Jyoti–went to Gabon to study with Rebienot, where they discovered they had a shared vision of the grandmothers, and then began to organize the group in earnest.

Documentary makers have filmed the group since their start in 2004 and hope, with enough funding, to release next year "For the Next 7 Generations: The Grandmothers Speak."

Last year, author Carol Schaefer published "Grandmothers Counsel the World: Women Elders Offer Their Vision for Our Planet" about the group of women.

"There are so many people who are waiting and really looking for this kind of wisdom because they already have some wisdom, some teaching from their own grandmother," said Schaefer in a telephone interview from her home in New York.

Part of the group, already in Brazil for their 2005 biannual prayer meeting, journeyed to the Amazon River to pray for and support residents of the rain forest who want to preserve the right to grow and use traditional medicines essential to their lifestyle.

In fact, since their formation in 2004 at Tibet House’s Menla Mountain Retreat in upstate New York, the grandmothers have convened and led talks and prayers in Pojoaque, N.M; the Brazilian Amazon; Oaxaca, Mexico; Dharamsala, India and the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Addressing the Bioneers

Most recently, the grandmothers addressed the Bioneers conference, held in San Rafael, Calif. Bioneers, a diverse group–scientists, artists, gardeners, economists, political activists, public servants, architects, ecologists, farmers, shamans, policymakers and journalists–share ideas about how to save the earth. They are particularly concerned with preserving biological and cultural diversity, traditional farming practices and environmental restoration in California’s Marin County.

Supporters of the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers say they met last year in private in India with the Buddhist leader the Dalai Lama, who advised the grandmothers to turn their "prayer into action."

But at the Bioneers conference the grandmothers stuck to giving advice.

On the subject of living more harmoniously, one grandmother pointed to the importance of treating young children well.

"If you grow up the first five years being loved you will later know how to love and be loved," Grandmother Margaret Behan from Lame Deer, Mont., told a crowd of 400.

Behan is a dancer, author, artist and traditional healer who uses the medicine plant peyote and sweat-lodge ceremonies, a thermal bath offering relaxation, purification and healing that is practiced in some form in many cultures. She also leads workshops for adult children of alcoholics and co-dependents and is researching generational trauma.

At 82, Agnes Baker Pilgrim is the oldest in the council and describes herself as the oldest Takelma Indian from southwest Oregon.

As part of her spiritual activism Baker Pilgrim revived 14 years ago the ancient sacred salmon ceremony on Oregon’s Rogue River and speaks out for the protection of sacred waters worldwide.

"I hope everybody’s got the message that prayer works," she said. "We can turn this world around."

The Bioneers audience gave the grandmothers many standing ovations and begged them to pose for pictures.

Rita Pitka Blumenstein, who introduces herself as a Yupik tribe elder, talked to one group of Bioneers about the connections between self-knowledge, generosity and taking care of the environment.

"Elders used to tell us, ‘When you know yourself–share. Nothing belongs to you, it belongs to the universe.’ So you figure that out," she said with a laugh. "Study yourself and if you become happy then those around you will become happy. That’s medicine."

Kristin Bender is a newspaper reporter at the Oakland Tribune in Oakland, Calif., and a freelance writer. She has fond memories of her own late grandmother, Rita Bender Lehman.

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