Walking in two worlds is the act of walking in our traditional way while simultaneously walking in the non-traditional professional world of work and education. As American Indian women we often ask ourselves, “who am I” and “how do I fit in.” As an American Indian woman knowing who you are can be difficult in a whitewashed male driven society. Our students in local high schools find this question hard to answer at times as they try to stay true to their identity and yet fit into the description they are given by society.
Women have played an important role in the life of the American Indian. They were more than just mothers of the tribal children. They were builders, warriors, farmers, craftswomen and leaders. Strength, power, wisdom, courage and knowledge are a few of the words used to describe the American Indian woman. She is a gentle warrior, strong and brave, yet humble and kind. We often find her in the arena dancing for the healing of her people. She is strong as she carries the burdens of her people on her shoulders. Our lineage is that of a matriarchal society. Our women have been our people’s backbone of success for centuries. There are so many mighty women and so many stories. Our women are givers of life and keepers of our stories and ways. Without the women, our tribes would not have survived many of the adversities that we faced.
As a young girl, I remember the songs of my grandmother. When I was four years old I would follow her to the garden where we would sing, plant crops and harvest. We picked fresh vegetables and prepared them for afternoon dinners. She stood me on a stool in her kitchen so I could watch and learn how to prepare the family meals. While cooking, we sang together. This is how she taught me the songs of our ancestors. She taught me the songs that she sang to bring peace and healing during difficult times and songs that brought joy and laughter.
My grandpa was a dark-skinned man. During the times of segregation, he found it difficult to buy, sell or trade. He was not generally allowed into the front door of many stores nor did he have access to the better items they had on hand. Because my grandmother had brighter skin, she took on the responsibility of going into town to “trade.” She was the strongest woman I knew. She could negotiate and secure the goods her family needed better than just about any man. She not only took on the role of purchasing all the goods that were needed for the home, she also worked in the garden, prepared meals and took the children to church.
My grandmother Vera was one of the founders of Mt. Sinai Holiness Church which is one of the three local Indian churches in the Buckhead/St. James communities. She was not only a spiritual woman, she was also anointed with a very special gift. I remember people saying that my grandmother could “talk the fire” out of burn victims. When people were burned in fires or explosions, they would find their way down the long dirt road to my grandmother’s house. She collected herbs from the natural environment behind her home and made a cream to rub on the infected area. Before she applied the medication, she went through a certain ritual. The individual would come in crying or screaming in anguish and leave in a calmer state.
As a little girl I learned not to be afraid, but to be the assistant for my grandmother by fetching the supplies she needed. She would sit them on her couch and begin to “talk to the fire.” She would take the individual’s arm, hand or whatever the affected area was and put it right up to her lips. As she breathed her hot breath on the affected area, she would take the saliva from her mouth and rub it on the area while praying and speaking healing to the pain. When her prayers were completed, she applied the medication she’d prepared. People came from miles around as far as Virginia, Georgia and South Carolina. As a kid I was always amazed at how people found her. There were no cell phones during that time so word of mouth was the way that our people communicated. If an individual knew that they could trust you, then others would trust you as well.
I remember looking through the living room window at night and seeing lights coming down the long road. I never knew what to expect or how bad the individual might be injured. No matter what their condition, my grandmother was always prepared to help deliver their healing. As the years went by, many individuals would come back to see my grandmother, the “fire talker” and show her how they had healed without scars! The affected areas would be as smooth as a baby’s bottom. They would go on to talk for hours about how it was a miracle from the Creator and how He led them down that long dusty road to my grandmother, the vessel that He would use to help them. Their burns would be totally healed with not so much as a discoloration. During times when I stood on that old stool singing with my grandmother, she always reminded me that it was not her gift and she could not do anything without the Creator.
Growing up with my grandmother, I learned to be strong, to speak up for what was right and for who I am. She taught me it did not matter what others thought of me, but what the Creator said that I could be. She taught me to be humble, kind and rely on the Creator to lead me into the path that He had set for me. So many women impacted my life as a child and my role as an American Indian woman. But my grandmother was the biggest influence of all. I realized, through her eyes, our lives had special meaning and every heartache and trial we faced made us stronger.
American Indian women are called to be gentle warriors. We carry the stories of our people like the fringe upon our regalia and their burdens like the yokes upon our shoulders, we carry the blessings like the beautiful beadwork upon our heads, we walk the path of the Creator with gentleness like the moccasins that adorn our feet. Who am I, I am a strong, mighty American Indian woman equipped with the power and gentleness of the Creator to change the lives of our people.
Pamela Young-Jacobs is the Vice Chairwoman of the Waccamaw Siouan Tribe. She is the Youth Director at New Hope Church and Chair of the Youth Committee for American Indian Women of Proud Nations. She is an advocate for Native Youth and abused women through her work with Women’s Empowerment projects. She is an inspirational speaker, mentor, life coach and singer/songwriter.
I loved reading your story! It reminded of my grandmama, who could also talk fire out, she lived on the Lumbee River. When I was a child she would tell me stories about how her mom was born in Indian Territory of Columbus County. She told me a good many stories and I would like to re-connect with my mixed heritage. Thank you for writing your story; it really resonated with me.