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Red Willow Spirit: Grandmothers and Creator Spirits

Black Widow 4 Resized

In our cultures, there is no metaphorical analogue for the Black Widow. Perhaps there’s a reason for that.

In the dominant culture, the notion of a Black Widow is one that is in part a category of, and in part a subcategory over, that which has to be known as a “gold digger,” albeit one with particularly malevolent intentions. She is poison, and poisonous: said to lie in wait to trap an unwary mate; then, when she has drained him of all that is useful to her, to kill him.

It’s a particularly capitalistic metaphor, which might explain its ubiquity in the outer colonial world and its absence in our own.

May of our cultures do have old stories of scheming, grasping, predatory female beings, whether human or otherwise; indeed, the motif of the vagina dentata appears across many different indigenous cultures, and not just here on Turtle Island. There are also other stories of feminine selfishness and greed that involve animal spirits, such as the way in which the place now known as “Chicago” got its name (hint: that business about “stinky onion” is all hooey).

It derives directly from our peoples’ word for “skunk,” and the old stories of an exceptionally greedy and grasping old woman who lived in a lodge by the great lake with her husband, whom she browbeat into going out even in the coldest winter snows to search for increasingly scarce game. He came back one day with only a skunk, and she berated him for it, but ate it nevertheless. When all the game had abandoned the place to the bitter cold, she sent her long-suffering husband out again to find more skunks, but there was nothing. Spirit finally took pity on the man and promised to provide food, but admonished him that Skunk was not his to eat. If the man and his wife left Skunk alone, sufficient food would be made available, but if he transgressed this edict, the punishment would be swift and severe.

The man made his way through the deep snows back to his lodge, and told his wife of Spirit’s message. The next day, he went out to search for food, but before he left, he admonished his wife to leave the skunks alone. When he had vanished from view, she noticed a skunk by the edge of the lake, but recalling his warning, she left it alone. The day grew late, and her husband had not returned, and she was hungry and tired of waiting, and she said to herself, “The skunk is there for the taking. I’ll kill it and cook it and eat it, and no one will know.” And so that’s what she did.

When the man came home with game, he called to his wife, but she did not come outside; she was not inside the tipi, either.  As dusk fell around him, he suddenly saw her at the edge of the lake. She was bent against the wind, but as she walked, her body became increasingly hunched over, and her gait a humping, awkward thing. As she disappeared into the woods at the lake’s edge, never to be seen again, she completed her transformation . . . into zhigaag, a skunk.

And that is how Chicago, the place by the great lake, came to be called the Place of the Skunk.

Such are the wages of greed. It also goes to show that, in our ways, age is not always proof against folly. That said, age is still to be respected: Such stories are warnings against individual failings, not an imputation of bad behavior to elderhood as a category. In our way, that elders are to be honored is a given; no need for reason, rationale, or requirement. It’s simply part of our cultures (and, I suspect, most indigenous cultures the world over). Their long experience of life and survival to an age where fragility returns is reason enough to show basic respect. But our ways also place an emphasis on wisdom learned as well as received, and those who have spent may years upon this earth have learned answers to questions that those even slightly younger do not yet know to ask.

And so it is that many of our spirit beings, including those represented by animals or other creatures, are often honored as “old” beings. That’s another departure of our ways from those of the outside world: “Old,” in the abstract, is no insult; indeed, it is often used as compliment and honorific. As with any name or label, it can be made into something unkind, but the word by itself holds little sting (beyond, perhaps, the melancholy sometimes associated with personal memory). The same is true of women: While many of our cultures define gender roles very differently from the modern outside world, including a seeming distribution of power that mainstream feminism often misunderstands, that does not mean that they are not grounded in respect for women — sex, gender, identity, and personhood.

So it should come as no surprise that a spirit as powerful as Spider is often associated with femininity of a certain age. This is not to say that there are no male spider spirits; there are, even in this part of Indian Country (as well as trickster Iktomi and his kind far to the north). But most often, Spider is understood as referring to Spider Woman, who may or may not be old, but who in some traditions is certainly “old” in cosmological terms, and to Grandmother Spider, whose age is made express in her name, and whose wisdom is implied by it.

Not far west of here, the Diné trace the origins of the world as they know in part to the auspices of Spider Woman. There is a myth that, in Dinetah, she is the creator of the world — and by “myth,” I refer not to their origin stories (which would be an insult), but to the inaccurate non-Native accounts that permeate cyberspace. In Navajo cosmology, Spider Woman is not the Creator, but she is crucial to the establishment of this world, the one in which The People are able to survive. It is she who aided the Hero Twins in finding their father, the Sun, who in turn gave them the power to slay the monsters that put human survival in jeopardy. There is a sandstone formation in the famed Canyon de Chelly that is known as Spider Rock, because it is here, the people believe, that she made her home. She is also said to have given the people the gift of weaving by way of her husband’s loom, which is said to be constructed out of the very cosmos itself.

Even further west, at Hopi, their own Spider Woman plays a significant (and in many ways similar) role in the creation of this world. In one of their old stories, it was her role to assist the Creator of all. When he formed this world, it was perfect, as far as it went, but it was lacking in something: joy, sound, life. And so he created an assistant, a spirit being upon whom he could depend to create life for this new world, and he named her Spider Woman. In a story that finds a mirror of sorts in genesis, and another in Dinetah, she created two beings out of the earth itself, a pair of twins, and charged them with making the world a place of life. In some versions of the Hopi stories, the tellers refer to her as Grandmother, because it was she who midwifed the world as it is now known into being.

Hopi, Navajoland, and Spider Rock all may be several hours west of here, even by car, but that name is not unknown in this area. Here at Red Willow, one of the Pueblo’s small roads off the main highway where visitors travel is named Spider Rock. A being called Spider Woman has her own role in the ancient stories that are a part of this land, as well. It’s not surprising; a variety of spiders are indigenous to this land, from grass spiders to black widows to tarantulas. And while most of them are not especially dangerous, a few possess venom that is toxic to humans, meaning that a relatively tiny being can have a huge — and hugely unpleasant — impact on we creatures many hundreds of times its size.

But venom is not Spider’s only means of subduing predator or prey — and creation of twins is not its only gift, either.

Spiderweb 092116 Aji

As the Diné believe, so, too, do many other Native peoples of this land: that Spider Woman gave the people the gift of weaving through the example of her web. Others combine weaving and creation stories, such as a Cree story belonging to ethnic cousins of my own people, in which Spider wove a web so that the First People might be lowered to the Earth. In our own way, some stories and translations speak of this lowering process, while others use the language of emergence more common to the peoples of this land — and some combine the two into a human account of that which defies description, a spontaneously active being that calls upon aspects of both.

Not all spiders spin webs, and those who do do not necessarily share a commonality of purpose. For some, they are a means to catch prey; for others, simply a safe place to be; for still others, both. Some spiders use the silk for purposes other than webs. And the webs themselves are gifts to us in ways symbolic and literal.

Where we live in this place called Red Willow, the elevation is approximately 7,500 feet above sea level. It is a desert climate, but one in which precipitation is not uncommon, both rain in the warm months and snow in the colder seasons. A byproduct of our climate here in these northern reaches of the state is something common to my homelands, but mostly absent from the southern portion of the state where I spent too many years: Dew. It seems like nothing, but a climate where dew is a feature is a world spangled with diamonds at dawn.

Here, it is webbed with them.

In the summer and fall, it is not uncommon to see, as the sun rises above the peaks, great threads of spider silk webbing the blades of grass and the hay in the fields. In winter, the dew accents the web with long ropes of waterdrops, tiny opals glowing in the dawn light. As the weather turns cold, the dew freezes in the early hours, and the ropes turn to diamonds beneath Father Sun’s gaze. And in the middle of the day, the webs are simply small matrices of silky-white beauty, tiny monochrome kaleidoscopes stretched out upon the grass and between stalks and branches of plants and trees.

Of course, the web is a gift in more symbolic ways, one of which my tradition claims as its own.

Dreamcatcher Full Resized

The dreamcatcher is widely now regarded as a pan-Native symbol, claimed by many across our various cultures and appropriated by nearly all outside of them. It’s a beautiful pattern, one rooted in Grandmother Spider’s particular weaving style.

It’s also rooted in her status as Grandmother, with all that that implies: mother, elder, a wise and womanly spirit who has seen much and understands more, and who is able to teach Spirit’s mortal children how to find their way back when they go astray. I’ve written at length about the versions of the dreamcatcher’s origin story, enough that there is no need to recount them here. It’s their significance that is relevant to this discussion: a way of weaving together life and culture and obligation and healing into one unified web that cannot be broken, one strong enough to hold onto the good dreams and wise enough to release the bad. it’s a story of balance, of guidance, and dreams and visions and Medicine with a capital “M.”

And that is, after all the role of grandmothers, of women elders, of creator spirits long of life and deep with wisdom. Indeed, in my own language, one of our (frankly many) words for spider is rooted directly in the word for “elderly woman.”

There’s nothing capitalistic or colonial in that.

~ Aji





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