Saturday, May 9, 2009

Women Among Us: Beth Brant

Beth Brant (Beth Brant/Dagonwadonti, New York City, 1990; photo by Robert Giard)

Women Among Us: Beth Brant

I read that there are 15 statues of women in the U.S. Capitol Building, and none of them are of Hispanics or Asian women. One African-American (Sojourner Truth), soon to be joined by Rosa Parks.

Yet whose labor actually built this nation, all the nations on this continent? Who gave birth to every American who has ever lived? So many First Nations tribes are matrilineal and/or exist far outside European notions of gender, and their ways of organizing human society are (I believe) the biggest influence on why America pursued liberty in such a radically different way. This invisibility is no accident, and must be reversed if we are to survive with a soul in place.

So, once a week, I'll be posting the name of a woman whose writing and thinking have been extremely important to me and my sisters, but who has remained unseen (or poorly seen) by the dominant heteropatriarchy. I invite you to go read them, listen to them, let them work their change on you.

Beth Brant, also known as Dagonwadonti, was born to a white (Scot-Irish) mother and a father whose lineage is Bay of Quinte Mohawk from the Tyendinaga Mohawk Reservation in Ontario, Canada. She began writing in 1981, when she was forty years old and had come out as a lesbian. She was immediately published and recognized as a major voice, especially by the women's community. Her accomplishments have been attained despite being raised working-class on a Native reservation and having dropped out of school at age 17 to get married.


"When I use the enemy's language to hold onto my strength as a Mohawk lesbian writer, I use it as my own instrument of power in this long, long battle against racism." (from her essay "From The Inside Looking At You" in Writing as Witness: Essay and Talk)

"I long for a conclusion to the new-age religion, and in its place, a healthy respect for sovereignty and the culture that makes Nationhood. We do not object to non-Natives praying with us (if invited). We object to the theft of our prayers that have no psychic meaning to them." (from her essay "Anodynes and Amulets" in Writing as Witness: Essay and Talk)

“A people who despise sex must also despise their god.”

“We do not worship nature. We are part of it.”

"The writing created by First Nations women is writing done with a community consciousness.”

"In putting together this collection... I hope to convey the message that words are sacred... because words themselves come from the place of mystery that gives meaning and existence to life." (preface to Writing as Witness: Essay and Talk)

"We made the fires. We are the fire-tenders. We are the ones who do not allow anyone to speak for us but us." (in Sinister Wisdom, 1983)

Beth Brant's poem "Her Name is Helen", 1988:

When she was laid off from the factory she got a job in a bar,
serving up shots and beer.
Instead of tips, she gets presents from her customers.
Little wooden statues of Indians in headdress.
Naked pictures of squaws with braided hair.
Feather roach clips in fuschia and chartreuse.
Everybody loves Helen...
She’s had lots of girlfriends.
White women who wanted to take care of her,
who liked Indians,
who think she’s a tragedy...
Her girlfriends took care of her.
Told her what to say
how to act more like an Indian.
You should be proud of your Indian heritage.
Wear more jewelry.
Go to the Indian Center

Mohawk Trail, Firebrand Books, 1985, ISBN 0-932379-02-8
A Gathering of Spirit, anthology of North American Indian women, Firebrand Books, 1988, ISBN 0-932379-55-9
Food & Spirits, narratives, Firebrand Books, 1991, ISBN 0-932379-93-1
Writing as Witness: Essay and Talk, Women's Press of Toronto, 1994, ISBN 0-88961-200-5
I'll Sing `til the Day I Die, talks with Tyendinaga presbyters, McGilligan Books of Toronto, 1995, ISBN 0-9698064-2-6

Creative Writing Award, Michigan Council for the Arts, 1984 and 1986.
National Endowment for the Arts, 1991.
Canada Council Award in Creative Writing, 1992.

LINKS FOR MORE INFORMATION (these are sources for most of what I've included above)
Voices from the Gaps: Women Artists and Writers of Color

The Work of Beth Brant by Tamai Kobayashi

Queer Theory bio and reviews

Native Authors bio

Survival's Song: Beth Brant and the Power of the Word, essay by Linda Cullum