Stories from The Hidden World of Girls with host Tina Fey: Nigerian writer Chris Abani tells about his English-born mother enlisting him at age 8 to be her translator in Nigeria as she travels door to door through the villages teaching women the Billings Ovulation Method of birth control. Plus stories from singer/actress Janelle Monae, science fiction writer Pat Cadigan, Estonian activist Tiina Urm and her “Let’s Do It Campaign” and more stories about girls and the women they become.
Black cake, gingerbread, slant rhyme, secret loves, family scandals, poems composed on the back of a coconut cake recipe —we journey into the steamy, myth-laden, hidden world of poet Emily Dickinson through her kitchen. In her lifetime, Emily was probably better known as a baker than a poet.
Filled with mystery, intrigue and readings by Patti Smith, Thornton Wilder, Jean Harris and an array of passionate poets and experts.
This is the first episode of our podcast under its new name, The Kitchen Sisters Present.
Special thanks to: Emilie Hardman, Emily Walhout and Heather Cole from the Houghton Library, Harvard University; Brenda Hillman, poet and Professor of Creative Writing at St. Mary’s College; Jean McClure Mudge writer and filmmaker; Christopher Benfey, writer and Professor of English, Mount Holyoke College; Aife Murray, author of Maid as Muse: How Servants Changed Emily Dickinson’s Life and Language; and Elaine Hardman who led us to this story; and Zoe Kurland.
“This is a cake that calls for nineteen eggs! All assembled it’s 19 lbs. 4 oz! And that’s before you put the brandy in! The black cake first appears in the 1840s in cookbooks. It’s Caribbean in its origin — the cinnamon, the mace the nutmeg, its very tied up with the sugar trade and molasses.
“When you think about Emily Dickinson, the myth in the white dress, and then you think about her in the kitchen. The physicality of that cake — of making that cake that you share with people. It’s a social cake! This is a woman who is doing something that we think so counter to Emily and her remove from the world.” Emilie Hardman, Houghton Library, Harvard
Emily Dickinson wrote this poem on the back of her recipe for coconut cake.
“People have wanted to turn her into a lady poet, a romantic version of her, that is not untrue, it’s just probably partial. She did stay in her room and she did have what she referred to as her “white election,” putting on her white dress and going upstairs, not going out anymore. What choice did she have? In her time, she couldn’t have gotten her writing done by being the spinster in the community, a nice church lady that takes care of bodies coming home from the Civil War. She goes on to write 700 poems in two years. I mean 700! For Pete’s sake!” Brenda Hillman, Poet and Professor of Literature, St. Mary’s College, editor of The Pocket Emily Dickinson
“Almost every year or two a new photograph comes to light that has some claim to be a new undiscovered photograph of Emily Dickinson. And we are all terribly excited because we only have one true recognized photograph with a good provenance for Dickinson taken when she was 16 years old (photo at top of blog).
Most recently a photograph has come to light which may show an adult Emily Dickinson with her close friend Kate Scott Anthon. It was back in the early 1950s that Rebecca Patterson wrote a book called “The Riddle of Emily Dickinson.” And the riddle that she claimed to solve was that Emily Dickinson was a lesbian and that one of her lovers was Kate Scott Anthon. And it is a very tantalizing photograph.
I’ve stared at it a long time. Sometimes I look at that photograph and I say, “It’s her! Emily!” And there are other times I look at it and I say, “Uh, nay”. I’ve always felt that one of the problems with new Dickinson photos coming to light is that they all look too much like the old one.” Christopher Benfey, author of Emily Dickinson and the Problem of Others, and Summer of Hummingbirds.
“Sometimes her poems are like recipes…
To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.
Margaret Maher (left), an Irish immigrant, worked as cook and maid in the Dickinson household sharing the kitchen with baker Emily for 17 years. Emily chose Thomas Kelley (center), who worked as a laborer for the family, to be her chief pallbearer along with five other Irish immigrants who worked for the household.
“The influence of the kitchen and the language around her — Irish immigrants, Native Americans, people who are of African descent, slave descent—in and out of that kitchen, coming and going in that yard and barn. All of these different vernaculars played into the ways in which she approaches language.”
Aife Murray, author of Maid as Muse: How Servants Changed Emily Dickinson’s Life and Language
Emily Dickinson’s Recipe for Gingerbread
1 quart flour
½ cup butter
½ cup cream
1 tablespoon ginger
1 teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon salt
Make up with molasses
From Emily Dickinson: Profile of the Poet as Cook from Dickinson’s original manuscript.The editors of the book add the following about Emily Dickinson’s gingerbread recipe:
“Cream the butter and mix with lightly whipped cream. Sift dry ingredients together and combine with other ingredients. The dough is stiff and needs to be pressed into whatever pan you choose. A round or small square pan is suitable. The recipe also fits perfectly into a cast iron muffin pan, if you happen to have one which makes oval cakes. Bake at 350°F for 20-25 minutes.”
“Her gingerbread was the first thing that struck me. Emily would bake gingerbread in little oval cakes. She would glaze them, put little flowers on top and put them in a basket and lower them from her window to the children below. A mystery.” Jean McClure Mudge
Jean McClure Mudge (center) lived with her family in Emily Dickinson’s house from 1965-76 while Jean’s husband Lou, was teaching at Amherst. Jean was the first resident curator of the Homestead. She is the author of Emily Dickinson and the Image of Home, co-editor of Emily Dickinson Profile of the Poet as Cook, and most recently Mr. Emerson’s Revolution.
A journey into the hidden world of Emily Dickinson — through her kitchen.
Special thanks to: Emilie Hardman, Emily Walhout and Heather Cole from the Houghton Library, Harvard University; Brenda Hillman, poet and Professor of Creative Writing at St. Mary’s College; Jean McClure Mudge writer and filmmaker; Christopher Benfey, writer and Professor of English, Mount Holyoke College; Elaine Hardman who led us to this story; and Zoe Kurland. The readings heard are by: Julie Harris, Mary Jo Salter, and Patti Smith.
Black Cake: Emily Dickinson’s Hidden Kitchen was produced by The Kitchen Sisters (Nikki Silva & Davia Nelson) in collaboration with Brandi Howell & Nathan Dalton. Mixed by Jim McKee.
Here’s Emily’s Recipe for Black Cake. We dare you to make it. Serves your entire community.
One recent evening we were invited to dinner at a friend’s house. Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow was at the table as well. She asked about the The Kitchen Sisters and we told her about some of our radio work — Fugitive Waves, Hidden Kitchens, The Hidden World of Girls…
“The Hidden World of Girls?” she said, and proceeded to tell us about 10 trailblazing women who are running for the US Senate, women who could make some history. Our intern Zoe Kurland and colleague Brandi Howell heard Senator Stabenow’s story and created these portraits of the candidates.
“When we look at this group of women running for the US Senate in 2016 we have the potential of adding Asian-Americans, Latina and African-American perspectives through electing these women.
“Catherine Cortez Masto, running for Harry Reid’s seat in Nevada, would be the first Latina in the US Senate, should she win. Ann Kirkpatrick, running against John McCain in Arizona. In Iowa, Patty Judge is running against Senator Chuck Grassley. Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth from Illinois is of Thai descent who served in the US Department of Veteran Affairs and was a helicopter pilot during the war in Iraq who lost both legs and an arm in the war. Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire, Deborah Ross in North Carolina, Patty Murray in Washington, Katie McGinty in Pennsylvania, and in California, State Attorney General Kamala Harris and Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez are both running for Barbara Boxer’s seat.
“More women in the Senate creates a richness of perspective and experiences that is invaluable in a democracy and will have impact for decades to come.”
Travellers. The people of walking. Sometimes called the gypsies of Ireland. They speak of non-Travellers as “the settled people.” Mistrusted for the most part and not well-understood. Nomads, moving in caravans, living in encampments on the side of the road. Stories of young Traveller women — exploring the ancient and modern rituals clinging on the edge of the Celtic Boom.
Our show today is in honor of the beloved poet C. D. Wright, who unexpectedly passed away recently. We were fortunate to spend time with her just a few months back at the Center for Documentary Studies where she read from her book “One With Others” which received a National Book Critic Circle Award. C. D., born in the Ozark mountains of Arkansas, was a professor of literary arts at Brown University. She is a recipient of a MacArthur fellowship, a past poet laureate of Rhode Island, an author of over a dozen books—among so much more.
The New York Times wrote: “Her work—characterized by linguistic experimentation, stylistic innovation and an ever shifting thematic canvas—was rooted in her southern heritage yet, at the same time utterly beyond category.” Like C. D. herself.
We interviewed C. D. in 2009 as part of a story we produced for our Hidden World of Girls series on NPR–and like with all of our stories—there are hours and hours of tape behind every minute of what you hear in the final piece.
So today we’re going to play our original story—a story of family, crime and the power of art to grapple with the unimaginable—and then we’re going to let it roll. To hear C. D. read from her work, and talk about life, poetry and her longtime collaboration with Deborah Luster.
A story of family, crime and the power of art to grapple with some of society’s hardest issues.
Produced by The Kitchen Sisters
In collaboration with Nathan Dalton
Mixed by Jim McKee
“My mom… It’s hard to talk about your mom. She was very glamorous but she never put on any airs. There was no saditty with her. She was infected with that southern ancestor worship thing, all into the arts of dress and manners and home and the table, conversation and story telling. She was a shutterbug.
“IN OUR FAMILY, THE CAMERA WAS MANNED BY A WOMAN”
Deborah Luster’s mother and father divorced when she was a baby and she went to live with her grandparents in Arkansas. She and her mom communicated through photographs. “If I got a new coat I would have to be photographed and usually I didn’t want to be photographed so it would be the back of the coat. There would be photographs of me and my cat, my grandfather and me.”
From her mother, Deborah would receive posed photographs. “She would dress up even when she was cooking. Designer clothes and high heels. I mean, she’d wear a mink coat to a tractor pull, think nothing of it. Red hair. Big glamourpuss.”
APRIL 1, 1988
On April 1, April Fools Day, 1988, Deborah’s mother was murdered in her bed by a contract killer who came in through her kitchen window, down her hall and shot her five times in the head. Deborah believed she had seen the man at one time so she reasoned that he might be after her as well. For seven years she lived in terror until they arrested the man and he was tried and convicted. They have never, however, caught the person who hired her mother’s killer.
After her mother’s death Deborah started to photograph. “My mom had photographed constantly, my grandmother had photographed and constantly documented our family. Photography became something that I could think to do to try to dig out of the place I had found myself.”
“Perhaps I was channeling my ancestors in the years following the deaths of my mother and grandmother. Perhaps it was their spirits that moved me to pick up a camera—for in our family, the camera was manned by women. It was my turn. Or perhaps I picked up the camera out of desperation. I did need a tool. I was buried under the loss of my family members. The world was a sinister one. I was awake and numb and frightened. How could I sleep under the same stars as my mother’s murderer? I used the camera to dig out. I found that I was still capable of making contact”.
“THERE SEEMED TO BE A LOT OF PRISONS”
Deborah had moved to Monroe in northern Louisiana. In 1998 she was sent out with other photographers by The Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities to photograph in the region in support of an empowerment zone application for the state’s very impoverished.
“Debbie started noticing that the landscape was fairly emptied out,” remembered poet C.D. Wright, Deborah’s friend and collaborator. “Then she noticed that it was fairly emptied out but for the fact that there seemed to be a lot of prisons. And she thought, ‘well maybe that’s where everybody is.” Which, in fact, is where everybody is.”
On a Sunday afternoon Deborah knocked on the gates of a small prison on the banks of the Tensas River. The warden came out and she asked if she might photograph some of the inmates there. He said yes.
“I photographed there once and realized it was a project I had been looking for for a long time, something in response to the murder of my mother,” said Deborah. “It was like it lifted when I went in through the gates it became something else.”
“I CAME TO PHOTOGRAPH THAT PERSON, NOT THAT PERSON IN PRISON”
Deborah got entrance to the women’s prison in St. Gabriel, the minimum security male prison in Transylvania and Angola Maximum Security prison in Louisiana. She teamed up with her long time collaborator, C.D. Wright and the two began working together on the project.
Deborah started taking very straightforward formal portraits. “I would say to the prisoners, you’re an invisible population, and this is your opportunity to show the world who you are, to present yourself to the world as you would be seen. One man went in and came back out and he had written the world “freedom” on a piece of notebook paper.”
For the most part, the inmates posed themselves. They might want to hold something like a box of valentine candy or a family photo. One woman wanted to hold her shoe.
Deborah would take in a few pieces of black velvet and some duct tape, find a place that had good light and tape up her backdrop. She didn’t want any sort of sign of prison life. “I didn’t want that to get in the way of the person I was photographing. What I came to photograph was that person, not that person in prison.”
“I was trying to photograph as many inmates as I possibly could, because I wanted to really show the numbers of people who are incarcerated, to try to communicate to some degree, just how many y of our population reside in prisons.”
At Angola, Deborah photographed prisoners in the cotton fields where they still pick cotton by hand.
While Deborah photographed, CD Wright would interview and observe. One poem she wrote was inspired by overheard conversations on the field line—an entry level job at Angola State Penitentiary where prison farm laborers make about eight cents an hour.
LISTEN: C.D.Wright-Overheard in the Field Line
“IN LOUISIANA EVERYTHING FEELS LIKE A COSTUME…”
Deborah photographed the women at their Mardi Gras celebration and at the Halloween haunted house at at San Gabriel women’s prison. “There were all of these traditional Louisiana costumes and archetypes,” said Deborah. “Alligator Girl, Rat Face. They run this haunted house in the gymnasium. There’s the snake room, the bird room, the bat room. And there’s the execution chamber where one inmate sits in an electric chair, and the other inmate is the executioner, and she throws a switch, and this strobe light goes on behind the head of the woman that’s supposedly being executed, and that woman starts jumping around. There’s a lot of black humor there.”
The women make their costumes out of sheets, table clothes and available materials. “The winning costumes were big striped uniforms,” said CD Wright. “Uniforms with big tall Dr. Seuss like striped hats. They were made from uniforms of the women in maximum security who could not participate in either Halloween or Mardi Gras. So those were made in their honor.”
“In Louisiana, everything feels like a costume,” said CD Wright. “The inmates had different uniforms for all of the different positions in the prison. The prisoners were identified by their work detail uniforms. People in culinary arts wore big baker hats and white jackets.”
“This man who is scarred so badly, we heard that his brother threw a tire over his head and set it on fire,” explained CD Wright. “He was so dignified. He was beautiful, really. He had green eyes. He always looked absolutely, directly at the camera. I found him very striking. Not just because he was so scarred, but because of the dignity he brought to his very disfigured face.”
The photographs are done on aluminum photographic plates reminiscent of tintypes. The aluminum is treated with gelatin silver as you would treat a canvas with gesso before you paint on it. Deborah makes paper copies of the aluminum plates for the prisoners. They are not allowed to have sharp metal objects. The photographs are small, only a little larger than a postcard. “I wanted to preserve the intimacy of these very formal photographs,” Deborah said.
THEY MADE THEMSELVES SO VULNERABLE TO ME
At Angola where 90 percent of the men that go there, die there, it was very sober. There was no clowning around. It was a very formal. The way they would pose themselves was very sort of nineteenth century.
“For the most part they presented themselves as they wanted to be presented, looking out,” said CD Wright. It as was all voluntary. She returned a portion of the funds that she received from selling the plates which are on aluminum to the prisoners fund. With which they buy popcorn and books and undershirts and personal items.
Deborah made prints for each person she photographed. She returned 25,000 prints to inmates.
At one point Deborah was walking down the block at Angola, in the middle of the 18,000-acre prison, near one of the dormitories there. And a voice behind her said, “You’ve been to the women’s prison at St. Gabriel, haven’t you?” And she said, “Now how would you know that?” And the man said, “Because I sent my girlfriend a picture you took of me, and she sent me one back just like it.” “So there were these little images are flying between the prisons,” said Deborah, ” and, I thought that’s what it was all about.”
“They made themselves so vulnerable to me and it’s not often that you have an encounter like that. I know a lot of it was that they were actually posing for the people that they loved, their husbands, their wives, their children.”
“There was a woman who asked to be photographed,” said Deborah. “She said ‘I’ve been here 15 years. I’m down for 99 years. I have 19 children. My children haven’t spoken to me since I came to prison. Perhaps if I had some photographs I could send them it would soften their hearts to me.’ A few months later she said, ‘Four of my children came to visit me. The baby came and he’s nineteen. He was five years old when I came to prison.'”
SOMETHING MY MOTHER WOULD HAVE DONE
“For me,” said Deborah. “It became this project about the importance of the personal photograph, and what that little slip of paper, or piece of tin can mean to a person.”
“I think this project is the kind of thing my mother would have done,” said Deborah. “She had this way of looking right through the veneer, right into people. She could see the bottom in people. She liked to photograph her family, the food on your plate, you brushing your teeth. She photographed what she loved and that’s what she loved.”
How We Found this Story
We have been thinking about this girls series for a long time, even while we were in the middle of the Hidden Kitchens project. One of our central methods is to say everything out loud, tell everyone we know and don’t know about what it is we’re working on and looking for. We have a good nose for stories, but sometimes the people we know have an even better one. This story, “Deborah Luster: One Big Self” came to us because one night writer Michael Ondaatje and his wife, writer Linda Spalding were asking what new story we were working on. We described a new project we were just beginning to imagine about the secret life of girls around the world. Michael jumped in, “One Big Self. You have to see it. You have to know about Deborah Luster and her photographs and her collaboration with her C.D. Wright, the poet. They call it “One Big Self.” He told us Deborah’s story and we were mesmerized.
“AMERICA IS A THEME PARK OF VIOLENCE…” C. D. Wright
Poet CD Wright was a long-time friend and colleague of Deborah Luster who collaborated with her on One Big Self. Here are some excerpts from her interview.
Can you talk about your collaboration with Deborah Luster?
Deborah and I met at the University of Arkansas. I was a teaching assistant and she was a senior undergraduate, so we’ve known each other for some time. We have similar sensibilities, the same kind of edgy sense of humor and the same sort of political orientation. And we have complimentary aesthetics. We’ve worked on several projects together. Both photographers and poets are used to working in solitude so it’s sometimes testing to try to work out certain visions, but our visions are actually very compatible.
This project was initiated by Deborah who is working out a long term relationship to violence which began with her mother’s murder. She’s trying to include every point of view. This is a very sympathetic project for someone who is a survivor of such a violent act. The decision from the beginning was to photograph inmates in their whole selves, their better selves.
The title of the project comes from a sentence by Terrence Malik: “Maybe all men got one big soul where everybody’s a part of–all faces of the same man: one big self.”
The popular perception is that art is apart. I insist it is a part of. Something not in dispute is that people in prison are apart from. If you can accept that — whatever level of discipline and punishment you adhere to momentarily aside — the ultimate goal should be to reunite the separated with the larger human enterprise, to see prisoners among others, as they elect to be seen. In “their larger selves.”
LISTEN: Wright talks about writing text for One Big Self
What significance do you feel these photographs had for the inmates?
In the maximum security prison, the mirrors are stainless steel, so there’s a kind of warp—your reflection is not that clear. So many of these inmates don’t see themselves for years at a stretch, they don’t see the real delineation of their faces. And time passes. I think that many of them are not aware of the details of their physical changes.
The last photograph for many of these prisoners is their mug shot. In Deborah’s photos prisoners presented themselves as they wanted to be presented, looking out. Dressed in costume, holding up a sign, a photo or something they cared about.
Family portraiture, is a big tradition in the south, so these photographs were another opportunity to be included in that tradition. It was important that they were posed and dignified pictures. We tried very hard not to idealize people there; most of them were not there for spitting on the sidewalk, they had done really bad things. Most of them had brought some harm of some kind to somebody else.
LISTEN: Wright reads from One Big Self
MORE POEMS FROM ONE BIG SELF:
If I were you:
Screw up today, and it’s solitary, Sister Woman, the padded dress with the food log to gnaw on. This is where you enter the eye of the far. The air is foul. The dirt is gumbo. Avoid all physical contact. Come nightfall the bugs will carry you off. I don’t have a clue, do I?
they sit on the slab walk, smoke and talk
They pass a stuffed bunny from hand to hand
for their turn in front of the camera
The church ladies are out on soul patrol
they’ve got ditty bags for the prisoners
Poster: Black History, women’s prison
The blacker the college
The sweeter the knowledge
Navy is housekeeping
Khaki is for peer tutor
The search for Molly is forty-five days old
If you were a felon
You’d be home now
Cradle my head Sister
until the last rivet of grief is secure
One Big Self was produced by The Kitchen Sisters, Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva in collaboration with Nathan Dalton and mixed by Jim McKee.
We’d like to thank our dear friends and sisters in collaboration – C.D. Wright and Deborah Luster. We’d also like to thank Jack Woody of Twelve Trees press, Michael Ondaatje and Linda Spalding for leading us to this story, Randy Fertel for his generous heart and support, and the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the arts for their support of Hidden World of Girls.
C.D. Wright’s latest book is a collection of essays published in January 2016. It’s called The Poet, the Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, A Wedding in St. Roch, the Big Box Store, the Warp in the Mirror, Spring, Midnights, Fire & All. Published by Copper Canyon Press.
Fugitive Waves is produced by The Kitchen Sisters with Nathan Dalton and Brandi Howell.
We’re part of Radiotopia from PRX – a collective of the best story-driven, creative cutting edge radio shows on earth.
From all of us at Radiotopia, many thanks for listening, sharing these programs with your friends and supporting this new experiment in supporting storytelling.
We’d like to thank the many of you who have donated to Radiotopia and The Kitchens Sisters, especially designer and illustrator Jez Burrows, whose most recent project Dictionary Stories is a collection of very short stories entirely composed from example sentences from the dictionary. Find it at dictionarystories.com.
Brave Heart Women’s Society
Hi. My name is Brook Spotted Eagle. I belong to a women’s society on my reservation in South Dakota. The Brave Heart Women’s Society. My mother is one of the founding grandmother’s who has brought it back to life. Over the last 100 years we’ve lost a lot of our ceremonies. I’ll have to check with the elders, but when I saw the Hidden World of Girls I thought it would be amazing to share with other Native women the Isnati coming of age ceremony for our girls. Give me a call if you’re interested. Thanks. Bye.
Watch the slideshow
White Swan, South Dakota
On a wide grassy bank of the Missouri River on , Brook Spotted Eagle stands watching five young girls raise a tipi. The girls are taking part in a four-day coming-of-age ceremony revived in the 1990s by the Brave Heart Women’s Society.
“I was part of the first group who went through this Isnati coming-of-age ceremony 13 years ago,” Brook recalls. Brook’s mother, Faith Spotted Eagle, is one of the women who re-established the Brave Hearts. With American and European contact many such societies and ceremonies have been lost over the last 100 years. In 1994, Faith and the Brave Hearts interviewed grandmas from three states about what they remembered of the Isnati coming of age ceremony.
“In the old days,” Faith Spotted Eagle says, “as soon as a girl had her first moon, her menses, she would immediately be isolated from the rest of the camp and begin a four-day ceremony where she was taught by other women. So we symbolically set up one camp a year and have the girls come in for four days.”
In traditional Yankton Sioux culture everyone had a niche, a role. One of the roles of the women who were part of the Brave Hearts was to retrieve the dead and wounded from the battlefield and help the families. “In a way we are doing the same thing today with the modern day Brave Hearts,” Faith Spotted Eagle says, “bringing back our people from emotional death.”
Thunder cracks in the distance as the girls, dressed in long skirts and tank tops, unroll the canvas tipi. This is where they will sleep together for the next four days, away from the rest of the camp. A group of grandmas and aunties yell instructions from the sidelines: “A little to the north, to the north! Hurry up girls — before the rain comes!”
“Most women’s tipis have 13 poles because we have 13 moons in a year,” explains Judy Drapeau, a grandmother who helps every year. “That’s why we call it a moon camp because it’s a special time for women to learn about themselves.”
“The first thing you need to do is put up your own lodge, you need to have that strength to house yourself,” says Marissa Joseph, 21. Adopted at birth, Joseph spent a large part of her youth bouncing between relatives.
“Childhood was really rough — lost, floating and drifting.” “By my early teens, I was a pretty strong alcoholic. I didn’t know who I was and what I needed. I really wanted to not live anymore. The summer of my 14th year I went through Isnati. I felt like I was found.”
Feeding The Girls
During the four days, the girls cannot touch food or drink. They are fed by their mothers and other women in the camp. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, I don’t want to do this,’” says Kiari Worldturner, 16. “Your mom has to feed you and give you water. I didn’t like my mom. I didn’t trust her.”
Marla Bull Bear, who has been through the ceremony with her daughter, says the feeding feels a little like heartbreak — “that bittersweet feeling.” “It’s treating them like a baby one last time before they become women,” she says. “No longer would she be my little girl to feed anymore. You really begin to start the foundation of what that adult relationship is with a mother and daughter.”
On the second day, the girls pile into the back of a pick up truck to gather traditional herbs and medicines. Faith Spotted Eagle points out a little plant called “too proud,” and yellow cornflowers, which have roots that when ground up are used to treat toothaches.
The girls pick buffalo berries and armfuls of wildflowers and women’s sage for the bouquets they’ll carry at the womanhood ceremony.
Teresa Heart, a Brave Heart grandmother, arrives in the afternoon and sizes up the girls. For the past 13 years, she’s made the girls’ ribbon dresses for the ceremony. “I didn’t have this when I became of age,” Teresa says. “Growing up at a boarding school, they came from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and they took us. I must have been five. And I didn’t see my mom and my grandparents for nine years. When I was older, they assigned me a little first grader and I had to teach her English. I’d braid her hair and take care of her. Then they’d switch everybody all around and I’d get another little girl. They wouldn’t let us get close to each other.”
The Camp Circle
Just before dusk, Marissa Joseph arrives to teach the girls how to make ceremonial food — dried buffalo meat jerky with buffalo berries.
“Every year I try to teach what I know, bring that back to recreate that feeling I felt,” she says. Older Isnati girls return year-after-year to feed the younger girls and teach them ceremonial songs and beading.
Throughout the days, the elders talk to the girls about modesty, courtship, pregnancy — and suicide, a serious problem on the reservations. “At times we have a nutritionist come in and talk to them about eating right and not just drinking Gatorade,” Brook Spotted Eagle says. “About not being afraid of doctors and having to get a check up. Sexual abuse and incest can pose a huge problem within families. There’s no easy way to talk about these issues, so you just have to get them out there. And we’re always talking about this concept of a camp circle. We can’t be attacking each other and doing this mean girl’s stuff.”
Madonna Thunderhawk, an activist and long time American Indian Movement advocate, sits watching the girls as they learn how to bead their small leather medicine bags. “As a grandmother and great grandmother, I just wanted to come and spend a few hours,” she says. “This is part of what I need to do. At one time, all of this was underground. We only got the American Indian Freedom of Religion Act in the late ’70s. So we had to stand our ground to have these things out in the open again.”
The Fourth Day
On the last day, each girl spends time with her mother or an auntie in the tipi. The older woman bathes the girl in sage water and talks to her about her birth, her young days — and her future. Kiari World Turner says her mother washed her hair and told her about when she was a little girl: “Good stories. I guess we found each other.”
In the late afternoon, dressed in their ribbon dresses, moccasins, and beaded regalia, the girls are introduced to the community as women and members of the Brave Heart Womens Society. More than 90 girls have taken part in the Isnati Awica Dowanpi Coming of Age Ceremony in the Ihanktonwan territory over the past 13 years.
“When I went through Isnati, my grandmother gave me the name Gray Eagle Woman,” remembers Marissa. “My sister’s name is Stand Strong Woman. She’s the baby girl and she’s lived a hard life as well, and she’s been able to stand strong. It only seems fitting that you would change your name with where you are in your life. The Brave Heart Society, these grandmothers, this connection with these girls I’ve made. This is my sixth year into it. I’m like a 6 year old trying to live a new life. I’m still pretty new to a lot of things.”
Horses, Unicorns and Dolphins
“Horses, unicorns and dolphins are kind of like a girl’s fantasy,” says eleven-year-old Sally Rose Reiker. Sally is a horse girl. She’s been riding since she was 6 months old strapped in a baby carrier on her mom’s back. “Every girl wants a unicorn. Every girl goes through the stage where they want their own horse.”
The idea of creatures that possess the imagination of young girls is something that intrigues Laurel Braitman, a graduate student in the history of science at MIT who writes about animals and what we think about them.
“Horses, unicorns and dolphins are borderland creatures; gateway animals to other worlds,” says Braitman. “They help us imagine other ways of being. They let us be cowgirls and oceanographers and mermaids and princesses.“
“We don’t really like princesses that much,” says seven-year-old Allie McKenzie. Allie is one of triplets, she and her sister are in love with horses and dolphins. Her brother likes sports. “Princesses are not as exciting as horses and animals and the show called Flipper.”
Dolphins—Sleek, Power, Speed
“Dolphins capture your heart,” says Chelsea Berman, 21, who works at the Monterey Bay Horsemanship Center where she began volunteering when she was 13. Her love of horses is only rivaled by her love of dolphins. “I swam with dolphins. When they take off and swim and they’re just pushing you with their nose or they’re pulling you with their fin. It’s power.”
“It’s like the mermaid fantasy, that you can just live in the ocean and not have to have anything,” says Georgetown University Professor Janet Mann who has been studying bottlenose dolphins for 23 years.
Mann has gotten hundreds of letters from girls who are in love with dolphins. Sometimes the girls’ mothers write for them. “Hi Janet. My second grade daughter Emily is crazy about dolphins. She has to do a small biography project at school. While her classmates are choosing the likes of Thomas Edison and George Washington, she wants to do Janet Mann, dolphin researcher.”
“Sometimes they say they want to be me,” says Mann. “I think it’s like what I went through as a girl when I first wrote to Jane Goodall. I just wanted to do what she did.”
Dr. Mann observes that a lot of girls with childhood illnesses become very interested in seeing dolphins before they die. One little girl from central Australia who died at age eight, requested that her ashes be scattered with dolphins.
“It’s this notion of being able to move like that through the world,” says Mann. “That’s what both dolphins and horses have in common. Sleek, power and speed.
Horse Power that has a Heart
For Sally Reiker, horses are more than just a hobby—they’re something she can’t live without. “When I look at a horse I look into myself. I see myself in their eyes. It’s just who I am. I want to be free and I want to leave my worries away from me just getting on and riding and leaving my bad memories on the ground.
Long-time horse woman Domenique Gioia says, “To be in control, or out of control on a galloping horse is a wild feeling. You are one with it. You just feel the power underneath you. And that’s part of the attraction.”
Peggy Orenstein is the author of “Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture.” There’s always been a lot of speculation about why girls love horses. Is it about power, is it some Freudian phallic thing? What is it? I think horses and unicorns and dolphins are the girl expressing her own power through these very dynamic, strong creatures that they’re identifying with. They’re all active, they’re all sources of power and motion and transformation.”
National Velvet, collections of Breyer model horses, posters, bedspreads, t-shirts, movies, stuffed animals, anything with a horse on it. Eleven year old Danielle Altizio thinks about horses all the time. As she pours feed into a bucket she talks lovingly about her horse Grendal. She spends every minute she can with him. “He’s just always there if I need him. I just know that we can do it and that we’ll do well.”
When Chelsea Berman is confused or frustrated she turns to her horses. She believes that much of the attraction for girls is that horses don’t judge you. “Horses don’t talk back. They don’t have mean things to say. They’re not going to yell at you if you didn’t clean your room or give you the cold shoulder if you forgot to return a phone call.”
Chelsea’s boy friend doesn’t understand her intense feelings about horses. “He’s a car freak,” Chelsea tells us. “He loves the power that a car gives him. “Horses are similar, big machines, but this is the horse power that has a heart.”
Taming a Bad Boy?
When champion barrel racer Caterina Tadlock, was a student at Southern Oregon Community College, one of her writing teachers asked what it was with girls and horses. “He posed the theory that it was similar to taming a bad boy,” says Caterina. “I really disagree with that.”
Caterina wrote a paper for the class, “The Mystery of Girls and Horses,” which was also published on her sister’s website, The Ultimate Horse Site. In it she talks about how the image of the horse has changed. She says that in the past mostly men rode and broke in horses. Women didn’t have as many opportunities to form relationships with the animals as they do now. “Horses used to be considered tools for cowboys, a means of transportation for soldiers, and a matter of business for racehorse owners,” she writes. “Today, horses are mostly companion animals kept for pleasure rather than work or business purposes.”
The currying, the cleaning of the hooves, the mucking of stalls, the brushing of the mane and tail, the feeding of the horse. Girls are attracted to achieving the skills and level of competence it takes to care for a horse as well as to the nurturing aspects of the work.
“What this seems to be turning into in this generation is online pets,” says Peggy Orenstein who has been observing girls and their toys and obsessions. “There’s this whole world of online horses. It’s in its little stall. You have to feed it and brush it and change it’s hay, do all the things you would do with a real horse. And if you don’t, your horse starts to die and its little life meter runs out.”
Amazon Princess Training
Leah Creatura is a children’s book buyer for Bookshop Santa Cruz. “For me a lot of the horse craze was that I wanted to be an Amazon princess because I wanted to be Wonder Woman.” When she was a girl in the 1970s Leah read about Wonder Woman in her mother’s Ms. Magazine and then the television series came out. Wonder Woman is an Amazon princess and her mother is Hipolyta. She’s from an island and there are no men on the island.
“One of the parts of my Amazon Princess training was learning how to ride bare back,” Leah says. “I was going to a Y camp. I was very discouraged because they didn’t really understand about the Amazon Princess training. They would not let me learn to shoot archery on the horse.”
Peggy Orenstein notes the importance of having a place where what it means to be a girl is to be courageous and strong and the only one able to do this impossible task. “It’s the girl who can ride the horse, it’s the girl who’s Wonder Woman. It’s the girl who tames the unicorn.”
Unicorns—The Dreamland of the Horse
Along with her passion for horses and dolphins, Chelsea Berman loves unicorns. “They are like the whimsical, the fantasy, the dreamland of the horse,” she relates.
Unicorns are magical. For eleven year old Jennifer Green they symbolize dreaming and achieving. “I know that unless you believe in them they won’t show themselves to you,” she said. “They’re like a very pure spirit.”
Girls and unicorns have been linked in stories, art and on tapestries since at least the Middle Ages. One of the iconic myths about girls and unicorns has to do with the unicorn hunt relates Nina Shen Rastogi in her article for Slate magazine entitled “What is it About Girls and Unicorns? It’s More than Just the Horn.” In this myth the only way that a hunter can lure the unicorn is to bring out a pure young virgin, have her sit in the woods. The unicorn is attracted by the maiden’s innate goodness, her purity, beauty, and youth.
Rastogi says, “I think for many young girls, there’s a fantasy that some day you will be recognized as the secretly beautiful, magical thing that you are. It’s the notion that the unicorn will be attracted to something ineffable about you, secret from the rest of the world.“
When you’re small you’re more imaginative and open to possibilities says Laurel Braitman. “That’s maybe the most beautiful part of girlhood, knowing that you can’t actually be all these things but not being entirely sure.”
The Secret (and Not So Secret) Life of Theresa Sparks
Theresa Sparks has lived more than one life. Born a guy’s guy, a man’s man, cowboy boots, motorcycles, a stint in the army, married his childhood sweetheart, kids, big successful business. But the truth was more complicated than that. In Fugitive Waves, Episode 21, one of San Francisco’s most respected and outspoken transgender activists tells her truth, that she was walking around in the wrong suit for 50 something years. “Transparent” years before the series saw the light of day.
Produced by The Kitchen Sisters with Nathaniel Johnson and Nathan Dalton.
Leslie Cockburn is a journalist and documentary filmmaker whose work has appeared on 60 Minutes, PBS’s Frontline, and in the New Yorker and Vanity Fair.
She’s just written her first novel, Baghdad Solitaire, a thriller about a female trauma surgeon set in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Davia sat down with her recently to talk about becoming a first time novelist after a 30-year career in journalism.
Here is their conversation: