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Sky Woman and Women's History Month

The woman who fell from the sky
Sky Woman - oil on canvas painting by Ernest Smith (1936)

The month of March is designated as Women’s History Month, yet few Americans would think of American Indian culture as an inspiration for the women’s rights movement. Yet, March offers a fine opportunity to reflect upon an American Indian culture which genuinely manifested an attitude of respect and trust toward the native women, and a society which afforded women equality with men long before Columbus ventured across the Atlantic Ocean. This culture or way of life did not exist within all American Indian nations, but it did within at least one of the more prominent American Indian cultures known as the Iroquois League.

Their culture or way of life developed due to the spirituality at the core of this union of American Indian nations initially known as the Iroquois League. The spiritual core held the League intact, and eventually the five tribes of the League grew into an expansive and powerful organization of ultimately six united Indian tribes belonging to the Iroquois Confederation. In this culture of the Confederation, women maintained individual and community "rights," especially ownership of property, and women were expected to take leadership positions within the clan or tribal organization. Women were not simply tolerated, but respected and revered in leadership positions within their clans.

The Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederation became one of the strongest cultural and political unions of American Indians in American history. These people called themselves the Haudenosaunee, or the people of the longhouse, which was central to the people's identity and strength of unity. The Haudenosaunee tribal union was practically implemented by the creation of the longhouses where many families (up to 20 or more) would live together in clans, the members all living under the same roof, being of the same familial lineage. The concept of the longhouse was even extended to the way the tribes lived in harmony side by side on each nation’s respective stretch of land to the south and east of Lake Ontario.

Women were at the center of the domestic culture of the longhouses. It may have seemed natural in such an agricultural-based society, that since the women were the ones responsible for the planting, tending, and harvesting of the crops, the land should be under their control. And Iroquois women were the ones who actually owned the land. In many ways, women were basically the ones responsible for nourishing the community by raising not only the children, but the crops, and would be seen as equal in many ways to their male counterparts. This more dignified position that women normally enjoyed within the Iroquois culture may be more easily attributed to their creation myths regarding the “Woman Who Fell from the Sky.”

Unfortunately, much of the mythology of the Iroquois has been lost, but some of their more important religious stories have been preserved, including the creation stories and some folktales. This is because they were passed on verbally from one generation to the next over time. The myth of the “Woman Who Fell from the Sky” related in several versions (possibly more than one per nation and with many variations), tells the native stories of how human beings came into existence upon earth. The telling of these tales through different tribal translations, repeated over time, would account for the various versions and subsequent variations. Basically, an original explanation of the creation of humankind was shared by several tribes, and probably embellished by many as it was handed down through the ages.

The woman who fell from the sky was referred to appropriately as “Sky Woman” because was originally one of the “Sky People,” or the “Karionake.” For the purpose of relating the myth, she will be referred to simply as Sky Woman, which is a basic description or title, but in this central Iroquois mythology, various tribes referred to her by many different names: names such as “Iagentci” (Seneca for "ancient woman"), or “Iotsitsisonh” and “Atsi'tsiaka:ion” (Mohawk names meaning "fertile flower" and "mature flower"), or “Awenhai” (a Cayuga and Seneca name also meaning "mature flower,") or “Atahensic” or “Ataensic” (a Huron name possibly meaning "ancient body"). In addition, she is sometimes referred to as Grandmother or Grandmother Moon.

The myth of the “Woman Who Fell from the Sky” relates the story of Sky Woman, originally an inhabitant of the “SkyWorld” or “Karonhia:ke,” which means she is considered a goddess. One of the primary versions of the myth relates that this pregnant woman asked her husband to bring her the equivalent of pickles and ice cream; but in her case, she asked for the bark of the root of the Great Tree in the middle of the Sky World, seemingly so she could make some tea. Accordingly, her obedient husband dug into the dirt around the tree to get to the roots. Different variations of this part of the story provide some alternate perceptions of the couple’s interaction and what happens to the tree. One main version is that her husband dug so much that he opened up a hole in the Sky World, and as Sky Woman peered into the hole, she fell through.

That this version of the tale relates that the husband was understanding of his pregnant wife sets a different tone in the relationship between the couple compared such relationships in other American Indian stories, or between man and woman in Old Testament stories. Other versions indicate this celestial being was cast out of Sky World either for violating a taboo, or through her husband's treachery. In any case, she fell through the hole to the dark, watery world below. As she fell, some kind of waterbirds (different variations refer to the birds as geese, or loons, or swans) caught her and helped her land gently on the back of a great Sea Turtle. Thus, Sky Woman finds her new home in a place that the Native Americans call Turtle Island, or what Europeans came to identify as North America.

Some versions of the myth explain that Sky Woman helped create the place on Earth that transformed into Turtle Island because the great turtle’s back became populated with bits of roots and plants that the Sky Woman had brought down with her from Sky World. Other versions of the myth relate that several water animals like the beaver, the otter, and the muskrat dove down to the bottom of the body of water to retrieve land to put on the back of the Sea Turtle. Different variations regarding the sacrificial creatures recount that only one of all the animals was successful as each offered their lives in subsequent attempts to dive down below the water to retrieve land to place on the back of the great Sea Turtle.

Different variations designate either the otter or the muskrat as the one that finally succeeded, but still with the loss of the animal’s life. As the animal’s dead body rose to the surface of the water, in its claws the victorious little creature had hold of a bit of earth. The dirt was placed upon the back of the turtle and magically it grew and grew and grew. In such versions, the animals offer their lives for Sky Woman and her future home, and ultimately the future of mankind. Since Sky Woman was pregnant when she fell, she gave birth in her new home. But depending on the particular version, Sky Woman becomes the mother of a daughter, or the mother of twin boys who develop into culture heroes.

More commonly, Sky Woman is the mother of a daughter, “Tekawerahkwa” or “Breath of the Wind,” who eventually gives birth to the twins. However, in some Iroquois myths, Sky Woman is only a minor character who dies in childbirth after reaching Earth, and it is her body that fertilizes and nourishes the Earth. In the version in which she gives birth to the twin boys (called “Sky Holder” and “Flint,” and sometimes known as Good Mind and Bad Mind, or Good Spirit and Bad Spirit), Sky Holder is born first, but then Flint breaks out of Sky Woman’s side which kills her. In some Iroquois traditions, where Sky Woman is the grandmother of the twins, she is normally the central character of the entire creation saga. In such versions, Flint bursts from the side of her daughter, Tekawerahkwa, and kills her.

Essentially, the twin boys are deities and represent good and evil. However in some versions, neither twin is evil, yet Sky-Holder represents the aspects of creation, life, summer, and day. On the other hand, Flint represents destruction, death, winter, and night. In many of the versions of the myth Sky Woman favors Flint, because Flint had deceived her into believing Sky-Holder killed Tekawerahkwa. In different versions of the myth, Sky Woman supported both of her grandchildren equally, because she held that there must be both life and death in the world.

Although there is much more to this creation myth, as Sky Woman is also associated with the moon by many Iroquois people and is sometimes referred to as Grandmother Moon, to the Iroquois people, a goddess was central to the creation of Earth and originated a series of events that ultimately created humankind. Among the Iroquois, the legend of the Sky Woman is still revered today and it may explain a lot about the dignified position Iroquois women held and their respect and trust of the clan mothers. In raising the future generations, the Iroquois women assured the survival of their people and their culture and ultimately served as the keepers of their people’s culture. The legend of the Sky Woman had much to do with how Iroquois women earned such a place in their society and in the Iroquois Confederation.

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