Living on the Land: Indigenous Women's Understanding of Place

By Edited by Nathalie Kermoal and Isabel Altamirano-Jiménez
Athabasca University Press, November 30, 2015, $27.95

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Study into the Indigenous ways of knowing and knowledge has been largely conducted from a western standpoint and subsequently focuses on the male point of view. This creates not only a gendered analysis but an incomplete picture that ignores the knowledge traditionally held and communicated by Indigenous women.

The new collection Living on the Land: Indigenous Women’s Understanding of Place aims to examine “how patriarchy, gender, and colonialism have shaped the experiences of Indigenous women as both knowers and producers of knowledge.” 

The entire collection is available for free download and together portrays the unique challenges facing Indigenous women and the vast and remarkable contributions to their communities.

Below please read this excerpt entitled Distortion and Healing: Finding Balance and a “Good Mind” Through the Rearticulation of Sky Woman’s Journey by Kahente Horn-Miller.


Like all women, I am Sky Woman’s great-granddaughter. I come from a matrilineal culture, the Kanien’kehá:ka, or “people of the flint,” to whom Europeans gave the name Mohawk. In our oral history, we tell the story of Sky Woman; it is through the telling of her story that we learn about our roles and responsibilities as women. As we embody her life, and learn from our mothers, we are also passing on her knowledge.

The story opens in the Sky World at the beginning of time and tells of the relationship between the young Sky Woman, whom we know by the name Awe(n)ha’i’ (“mature blossoms”), and her family and the people of that world. It describes how she was treated because she was special and gifted, how she learned the ways of her people, and about her relationship and marriage to the keeper of the Tree of Light.1 The story is the first place where the clans appear, ceremonies and songs, the medicine game of lacrosse, and where Sky Woman’s corruption takes place, leading to her descent to the earth world below. The challenges Sky Woman faces affect her both physically and emotionally, throwing off her sense of balance. As she deals with each of these challenges through critical engagement with herself and those she loves, Sky Woman learns how to think for herself, how to be respectful of others, how to endure suffering. It prepares her for what is to come.

This first part of the story teaches us about creating a Sky World on earth, one where respect for all living things is enacted in daily life. The story teaches us that Sky Woman has a history, a family, and a place where she belongs. We are reminded that we come from somewhere and that the Sky World is very similar to the world as we know it. It is understood in our culture that to be healthy in body, mind, and spirit you have to have a sense of your own history and identity. My own version begins with Sky Woman’s descent. She is pregnant, alone, scared, and bewildered. Yet she is acutely aware of her surroundings. This is her story.

Sky Woman’s Story

There are those who say I fell, was pushed, or jumped through a hole under the great tree and began my fall to the earth world below. Only I know the truth. This is the story as I lived it, and I am telling you what I remember.

It seemed like I fell a long time before anything happened. I opened my eyes, and I could see the water birds from the world below coming up to meet me. The Heron and the Loon were the leaders, with their wide wings expanded in full flight. All of their wings combined to create a large, soft cushion for me to land on. I could feel the softness of their feathers and the strength of their wings under my feet. I felt safe, but I was also shocked at my circumstances and how my life had suddenly changed. I wondered, what was to become of me? I was let loose, like a baby lynx in a briar patch, in a world I didn’t know. I felt no fear, only concern for the safety of my baby, mixed with sadness. I rubbed my belly and spoke to her.

“Little one,” I said, “I love you very much and I will protect you. We are now in a different world. You will never meet your grandmother or grandfather. You will never meet your father, but I am here and I will always love you and look after you.”

I kissed my fingertips and touched my belly softly as tears gently rolled down my cheeks and fell on her.

I went to the edge of the platform created by the birds’ wings and peered over the edge. Far below, my eyes were met with brilliant blue. The blue was from a great expanse of water reflecting the sunlight, and it was both beautiful and almost too much to bear. There appeared to be no land. I wondered to myself, where I would stand in this world?

In the depths beneath us, I could see water animals grouped together, looking up and talking to one another. I knew that they were talking about me and wondering what to do. Suddenly Otter gasped for air and dove under the surface of the water. Much time passed, and eventually his body slowly rose. He was dead.

I gasped and cried out, “Oh, Otter has died trying to save me!”

I wanted to hold his soft head in my arms and tell him I was grateful he had given his life to try to save me. I felt helpless watching from above. Then I saw Beaver being take a gasp of air and go below the surface. A long time later, his body slowly surfaced. I cried out again, with fresh tears on my cheeks as I wept for Beaver. I wanted to hold him and thank him for giving up his life to try to save me.

Next, I saw Muskrat gasp for air and dive below. A long time later his body slowly rose to the surface. I closed my eyes and let the tears fall down my face into the folds of my dress. I felt so sad that these water beings had died trying to save me. I wondered again what was to become of me.

Suddenly from far below I heard a cheer erupt from the assembled animals. Muskrat had succeeded! In his lifeless paws were specks of dirt from the ocean floor. One of the animals pried the dirt from Muskrat’s clenched paws and gently placed the dirt on Turtle being’s back. Immediately, Turtle’s shell began to grow bigger. Soon the shell became big enough for me to stand on. I was gently lowered and my feet touched the first earth.

“Thank you, water beings, for saving me and my baby,” I said. “I am grateful to you all for what you have done and brought to this world.”

“I am going to sing you a song and dance for you, to show you how thankful I am for all that you have done.”

I readied myself, hummed a few bits of the first song in preparation. The animals gathered around me, their eyes wide and their ears open. The air was alive.


The Formation of Turtle Island

I began to dance the women’s shuffle dance and sing the planting songs I had learned from the women of the Sky World. I was heavy with child, but I still shuffled counter-clockwise, making the earth spread out on the Turtle being’s back. I placed the tobacco and strawberry plants in the soil.

“Hey ya, hey ya,” I sang in a loud clear voice. I wanted all the animals to know how grateful I was for what they had done for me, and for the earth to be patted down, firm and smooth.

My baby kicked, keeping the beat of the song inside me. I held my belly as I continued to dance. With each part of the song my voice grew louder and clearer. I turned my face up to Elder Brother Sun and let his loving smile warm my face. I looked up to the Sky World and sang for my mother and father. I sang for my husband, who had misunderstood me and challenged me as I tried to help interpret his dream. I sang for the fate I had been dealt. But we had arrived safely. As I sang and danced I felt stronger and stronger. I began to heal from my hurt and sorrow at being misunderstood by my husband. I understood him and was grateful for what he had given to me, my unborn baby.

The Turtle being’s shell continued to grow, and the earth spread out in all directions with my songs and dances. As I danced, the roots and seeds from the Sky World that were caught in my hair fell to the newly formed earth, while my dancing feet covered them over with good, black earth. Immediately tiny green shoots began to appear. New life was beginning on earth! It was as though my relatives in the Sky World were with me planting in my garden, ensuring that my baby and I wouldn’t starve.

I looked down and around me in wonder at the new life growing. Corn stalks began to appear, growing taller and forming silken hair that peered from their crowns. As the minutes went by, beans and squash also appeared. I could see all kinds of herbs, fruits, medicines in the ground around me. The air started to smell of the fragrant aromas of rich black soil and lush plant growth. I could see bright red strawberries and large flat tobacco leaves as well. I knew that as long as I had the sacred medicines, along with the corn, beans, and squash to eat, my baby and I would be fine.

The animals appeared and sniffed delicately at the new growth. I stood still and spread my arms out, welcoming the animals to taste what had come from the Sky World.

“Come and eat!” I said. “I have planted all the things we will need on this earth to survive. My relatives from the Sky World made sure we would not starve. I have planted them as we did together in the Sky World and I want to share them with you.”

Fox came forward and sniffed at the green leaves of a plant. He tasted them and then began to eat.

“Mmmm. These are good,” he said.

Rabbit, Bear, Wolf, and Deer all came forward and began to eat. For a time there was silence punctuated by sounds of smacking lips and grunts of happy feasting. I was exhausted. I lay down to take a nap and prepared for the birth of my daughter.


My Baby-Faced Lynx

I woke up to strong labour pains coursing through my back and belly. I was scared for the first time. The labour pains felt like a rope was tied tightly around my waist. I cried out for my mother.

“Mother,” I said, “I miss you! I wish you were here with me to help me, and to see your new grandchild come into this new world!”

After the shock of the first labour pains, my sensibilities kicked in. I had seen women give birth in the Sky World, so I knew what I had to do. I squatted over a pile of soft grasses. I made it through each contraction as it came to me, breathing with the pain, counting my breaths. I called out to my mother every once in a while so that she would hear me:

“Mother! Mother! She is coming!”

Then came the final pushes and I could feel the head of my baby come through. There was a loud gushing noise and then she fell into the softness beneath me. I bit the umbilical cord loose, birthed the placenta, and prepared to bury it, as was the custom of my ancestors. I looked around me for a tree near to where she had been born. As I dug the hole, I said some words and sang the song of creation. As a reminder to my daughter of where she came from, our mother the earth, I gently placed into the ground the sac which had nourished her.

“Hey ya, hey ya,” I sang in a loud clear voice. I wanted my relatives above to hear me and know of the birth of their granddaughter.

My little Baby-Faced Lynx, as I called her, was beautiful. She took to my breast right away, and nursed for a long time as she lay on my belly. I touched her hair; her soft head was so tiny in my palm. She had a nice little round soft bum and tiny toes which she flexed in pleasure as she drank my warm milk. I spoke to her:

“I love you, my little one. I will always look after you and give you food to eat. I will always try to make you happy. I will always do everything I can to heal you.”

I closed my eyes and we drifted off to sleep, I could feel her little quick heartbeat and her shallow breaths. We slept. When I awoke my daughter had grown. She grew fast and as time passed she became a young woman.


Life with My Daughter

My Baby-Faced Lynx loved to walk and explore the earth. As a child she had many playmates and her life was full of happiness. The animals would take on human form and play games with her. As she grew and became too old for child’s play, she began to explore the earth more widely. Sometimes I would not see her for a whole day. But she always came home.

When my daughter reached puberty, she was given the name Iakotsitionteh (One Flower Has Arisen). One night as I was sleeping, I had a dream in which Uncle appeared to me. He told me that I was to watch over Iakotsitionteh carefully. Three beings in human form would appear to her and want to marry her. I was to tell her that she was not to be tempted, but to wait for a fourth young man who would appear. This man was to be her husband.

I asked Uncle, “How will she know that this fourth man is the right one?” “She will know because she waited and took her time.”

When I woke up the next morning, I talked with my daughter.

“My daughter, I love you. You are going to be a woman soon. I have to tell you that when you are out in the world wandering the earth, men will appear to you. They will want to be with you. You must come to me and ask my permission first.”

Iakotsitionteh said, “Yes, mother. I will do that.” She’s a good girl.

One day my daughter came back from her wanderings and told me of a man she had met. He had asked her if she wanted him for a companion. She had told him that she had to ask me first. Upon hearing of this, I said no. This same thing happened two more times. I said no again and again.

One day the West Wind came to visit. He appeared in human male form. I watched as his eyes admired the beauty of my daughter. That night he appeared in my daughter’s dream and continued to do the same for two more nights. Each morning when she awoke she told me about her dream and the handsome young man who appeared to her. She told me she was in love with him and that they had agreed that they wanted to be life partners. I thought about this and about what Uncle had told me. I agreed to the marriage.

That night the West Wind came to Iakotsitionteh and lay beside her. In the morning I found two crossed arrows on her belly. I knew that my daughter was pregnant with twins. Iakotsitionteh awoke and gasped. Her belly began to swell as the babies grew rapidly inside her. I was so happy I was going to be a grandmother. I rubbed my daughter’s belly.

“My grandchildren, I love you. You are going to be arriving soon in this world. There is a lot to see. I will make sure you are happy and well fed. You will never need for anything at all. I will make sure you stay healthy and strong.”

My daughter rubbed her belly and smiled at me. The babies caused my daughter a lot of discomfort. It seemed like they were always in conflict. We could hear the two babies arguing and fighting inside her womb. I did all I could to help my Iakotsitionteh through her pregnancy and get ready for the birth.

One day I heard my daughter cry out in pain. I felt something in my gut that I had never felt before — apprehension. I ran to my daughter and helped her to lie down. Her belly had dropped and I could see her struggling through contractions. Suddenly she pushed and one baby came out the normal way, from between her legs and fell to the soft pile of leaves below. She groaned loudly as this happened. Then she opened her eyes wide, grabbed my hand, and fell over as the other baby came out of her armpit.

I helplessly watched my daughter, as she bled to death before me. The light faded from her eyes. I cried as I could do nothing to save her. I called out to my relatives in the Sky World for their help:

“Why have you done this? Why is my daughter dead? I have lost what I loved the most! Help us.”

I cried as I picked up the twin boys, washed them and wrapped them. They looked at me with their soft brown eyes, and I remembered my beautiful Baby-Faced Lynx and how she suckled in those first few minutes of her new life. Tears rolled down my face and fell into the folds of their coverings. I lay the babies down and then went to prepare my daughter for burial as I had seen my relatives do in the Sky World.

I lovingly washed my Iakotsitionteh and dressed her. I sang songs as I did this and spoke words of love.

“My daughter,” I said as tears fell down my face, “I loved you greatly. Many loved you greatly. You are going to be missed by me, and all others who had a chance to know you in your short time on this new earth. We watched you as you were born and grew into a beautiful young woman. We watched you as you played on this earth and worked in the gardens tending to the plants with loving care.”

I stopped for a minute to think about my pretty little Baby-Faced Lynx daughter. The way she looked up to me as I taught her about the plants and medicines that grew around us. The memory of her innocent face brought tears to my eyes.

“Your presence on the earth will be missed. But you are going to a place where you will be loved. You will have warmth and life again in ten days’ time. Your ancestors in the Sky World will watch over you and care for you as I did. Your life there will be rich with happiness. Your body will nourish the earth and give life to the new plants and animals.”

With my words and songs I sent her on her way back to the Sky World. I buried her in a grave and prepared to look after my grandsons.


My Twin Grandsons Do Their Work

My boys, as I called them, looked alike, but were very different in their temperament. Many know them today as the right-handed and left-handed twins. One was kind and thoughtful, the right hand; the other was selfish and scheming, the left hand. Teharonhia:wakon, “He who grasps the sky with both hands,” was the kind one, and Sawiskera, “Flint crystal ice,” was the scheming one. […]



The Tree of Light refers to the life forces of nature. The keeper of that tree is essentially the power of creation, the source of all life.