Unci Tillie Black Bear, A Legacy of Movement Building
The safety, healing, and well-being of Indigenous women are linked to their beliefs and way of life and that of their families, clans, communities, and nations.
Unci Tillie Black Bear's contributions to building a national movement for the safety of Native women were from the worldview of a Sicangu Lakota woman. For Unci Tillie, and those continuing to build the movement, an Indigenous worldview determines how we explain, interact, and live in the world. While Unci Tillie’s beliefs were specific to her experience as a Sicangu Lakota woman, her spirituality is shared across Indigenous peoples nationally and often internationally.
Uplifting the interconnectedness of sacred relationships is essential to restoring the natural relationships by which Native women can live free of violence and fulfill their life journeys. Honoring the sacred relationships of Indigenous peoples to the land, their families and clans, and respect for the honored status of relatives continues as a foundation to building our movement today and into the future.
“If we can come back to a place where women are sacred, that gives us the foundation for building everything else up.”—Lucy Simpson, Executive Director, NIWRC
This October 1st, in honoring Unci Tillie and upholding Women as Sacred, NIWRC dedicated the annual Tillie Black Bear Women Are Sacred Day to understanding Indigenous beliefs and sacred relationships in the context of movement building.
“This year, we wanted to create a space for Sisters to share how their indigenous beliefs are foundational to their struggles for safety and justice. Unci Tillie worked to create the October Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and it is fitting we begin the month in this way.”—Lucy Simpson
Sister Rosemond “Loke” Pettigrew shared in the struggle for the safety of Native Hawaiian women and the sacred relationship of Native Hawaiian women and people to their lands.
Sister Wendy Schlater, shared in the struggle for safety and justice for Native Two-Spirit, lesbian, gay, and transgender people and the sacred relationship we have as relatives and the belief of respect for all peoples.
Sister Patricia Whitefoot shared in the struggle for justice for missing and murdered Indigenous women in the sacred relationship we have to our families, and the importance of honoring the voices of our families in the movement as we organize to create legislative reforms and new policies.
Restoring the safety of Indigenous women will require changes to federal laws and policies. It will also require a cultural shift in recognizing, acknowledging, and supporting the role and original protections for Indigenous women found in the beliefs and social structure of their nations and peoples.
Respect for and understanding relationships between people and the world in which they live as natural and interconnected is a way of life where the use of violence to control or for greed has no place. Spirituality is a natural extension of the way of being as Native women and peoples. In the 1970s and 1980s, tribal women carried into the developing movement sacred beliefs and values held by their tribes since their beginnings.
These beliefs were natural protections and community safeguards for women within their nations. The introduction of violence against Native women was part of the colonization of the Indigenous nations by foreign governments, including the United States. The very laws and policies of the United States endangered Native women and eroded these social protections for Native women. Unci Tillie understood our movement for safety as a resistance struggle to colonization and centered our political eye on restoring original protections based on spirituality—”Even in thought women are to be respected.”
“It is in the spirit of sacred connectedness and relationships that Native people endure and have survived. Weaving our creation stories with the sacredness of Native women and ancestral homelands is a way of honoring spaces and interconnectedness. Such connections impart the importance that all creation is related and dependent on everything in creation for their existence. We must continue to elevate our sacred ways and they must be acknowledged and honored. We must continue reclaiming the sanctity of Indigenous women who have breathed life into our very existence.”—Rose M. “Lashaawat” Quilt, (Yakama), Director of Policy and Research, NIWRC, Restoration June 2020
Sister Loke Pettigrew, Member of Pouhana ‘O Na Wahine (Pillars of Women)
Every morning when I leave my driveway, I call out to my ancestors and land, (take care, make right), aloha aina (love the land/connection to family). It is important to acknowledge your ancestors who came before you and whose mana (power) flows through you as their living descendant.
I live on the ocean side of a small valley in Molokai, Hawaii. The valley where I live is my “kupuna aina”– the aina (land) where my kupuna (ancestors) have lived and worked since ancient times.
When the land tenure system changed and it went from communal to private, my kupuna claimed that ‘ahupua’a (land division) which ran from the top of the mountain to the ocean.
Central to Native Hawaiian culture is the relationship with one another through Akua (God), na aumakua (guardian of the family), kupuna (ancestors), ohana (family), and aina (land). We are connected to the land because Hawaii is our homeland. It is where our roots as Hawaiians are connected. The overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893 and annexation of the Hawaiian Islands by the United States in July of 1898, disconnected us as the Keiki O Ka Aina (children of the land).
Colonialism created divisions within our communities and devalued the role of who we are as wahine (women). Where I come from, many of our women experience domestic violence and other issues that take them away from being a Hawaiian woman, a mother, a sister, a daughter, an auntie, and their kuleana (responsibility) to family.
I am a domestic violence advocate on the island of Molokai. I would say approximately 98% of the women I work with are Hawaiian, and it is heartbreaking to see and hear the level of violence they experience and how vulnerable they are to the violence perpetrated against them. The sacredness of women to give birth to the descendants of the Hawaiian lahui (nation), and whose responsibility it is to nurture the keiki (children), and take care of the family, significantly diminished after contact.
Colonization led to the displacement of thousands of Hawaiians, resulting in increased vulnerability to trauma and oppression. Sacred land and spaces have been stolen and violated by colonizers who did not, or do not, understand the importance of the kupuna aina to Native Hawaiian people.
It is like the struggle to protect Manu Kea, from the construction of a 30-meter telescope. Our people are rising, standing, and coming together to protect Manu Kea as a sacred site. So, the way I see it, it is a movement to not only protect the sacredness of the sites but protecting the sacredness of women, family, and aina.
Aina is our land, and that's who we are. That's how we live. That's where we survive, through our lands and our teachings to protect that and to continue to teach the generations that maybe are disconnected, or were disconnected from who they are and where they come from.
“Ua Mau Ke Ea O Ka Aina I Ka Pono –
Life of the Land is Perpetuated in Righteousness”
Sister Wendy Schlater, Vice Chair, La Jolla Band of Luiseno Indians, and Treasurer of the NIWRC Board of Directors
My name is Wendy Schlater, and I identify as weh-potaaxaw, which means to walk with both female and male spirit/body.
A lot of you knew Tillie as Unci (grandmother), or muske (sister), but I knew Tillie also as Ina (mother). Tillie shared with us the teachings of the White Buffalo Calf Woman and set the marker for our work. She reminded us to go back home and revitalized our creation stories. She was instrumental in starting our coalition and Avellaka Program on the La Jolla Indian Reservation. We honor Unci Tillie, for her leadership over decades and her love for Indigenous peoples and reminders of the teachings that we are all relatives and of the spiritual foundation of our movement.
It took me a long time to feel human, reclaim myself, feel grounded in my skin, and really love myself. Since third grade, I knew I was different from my cousins and friends. Growing up my relatives nicknamed me Wendell and Wendoe. Reflecting on my childhood, there were hints of being weh-potaaxaw, but never a teaching or rites of passage.
In 2015, as Director for my Tribe’s Safety for Native Women Avellaka Program, we developed our Rainbow of Truth Circle Project. We learned our language and developed material reconnecting us with our teachings defining our respectful relations with each other. These teachings are reflective of how we governed ourselves, maintaining law and order and promoting healthy living long before the United States.
I remember my cousin calling me in excitement as he looked over Harrington’s notes. John Harrington was a linguist and an ethnologist who came through our people’s area documenting us in the 1930s and 40s. My Cousin said, “Look, this is a reference for two-spirit, Weh-Potaaxaw. Weh means two, Po means he-she-them, and Taaxaw means body.”
After reclaiming my people’s term, I felt grounded, visible, valued and safe, as if I had come home from living in some foreign land.
To reform systemic barriers in laws and policy we face as Two-Spirit and Native LGBTQ peoples we must address and understand colonization as the root cause of violence within Indian Nations, including homophobia, biphobia and transphobia.
This requires we, as a movement, recognize our sacred relationship to the land, our families, and to each other as relatives and Indigenous peoples.
Over the last several years our Rainbow of Truth Circle Project partnered with NIWRC to develop resources for our Two-Spirit and LGBTQ relatives, and their families and friends who can help them with safety planning and provide validation, encouragement, and long-term support.
We are asking community members to connect with our traditional teachings and values of being a good relative and relationships to each other. Our goal is to encourage our relatives to remember their individual and collective responsibilities to support each other. As Unci Tillie often said, “to be a good relative.”
Sister Patsy Whitefoot, Yakama Nation
Shix patchway, inmima tiinma. Inknash wanikshash Twapat, kuu pashtinwitkiy Patricia Whitefoot. (Good day, my friends and relatives across Indian Country. My Indian name is Twapat, (name of my great-great grandmother) and my English name is Patricia Whitefoot. I am a life-long resident of White Swan, WA on the Yakama Indian Reservation in south central Washington. As citizens of the Yakama Nation, our family has lived and continues our migratory way of life in the vast Columbia River basin of the Northwest. In following the traditional ways of ancestors, we are able to sustain our livelihood, where family roots are deeply embedded. In early fall of 1987, our youngest sister, Daisy Mae Heath, age 29, (Yakama Nation/Warm Springs Tribe) was reported missing. Daisy was the youngest of six sisters, who was raised by our maternal grandparents, along with extended family. As a ranching family being raised in Medicine Valley along the Cascade Mountains, we were nurtured in our Indigenous way of life. Daisy Mae and another younger sister, Beverly, who later passed away, lived with me and shared the responsibility in rearing my children and also helping with our many nieces and nephews.
As a lively young woman, it wasn’t unusual for Daisy to leave for extended periods of time to spend time with friends or family on the Yakama and the Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon. Daisy would travel to the Columbia River bordering Washington and Oregon to visit and fish with family. Or she would travel to play basketball or softball in the Northwest, where she excelled in sports as an All-Star and MVP player. As an energetic and fiercely determined young woman, Daisy was able to fend for herself, if needed. On October 29, 1987, Daisy Mae was reported missing. She has been missing for over 30 years. During this time, there were several women from White Swan and the Yakama Reservation who were murdered or were missing.
In recent years, I have joined with many other families, communities, and national organizations to increase safety and seek justice for my sister and so many other families of MMIW. Our efforts have resulted in the federal government recognizing the crisis of MMIW as a national issue. We work to inform and organize to create changes that will make a difference in not one case, but across tribal communities for all women, and our future generations. This approach views the crisis of MMIW as a result of a spectrum of violence committed against Indigenous women. And we hold the federal government and churches responsible for the laws and policies that placed our lives in danger, and continue to make us vulnerable to violence.
As legislation is considered at the state and federal level, it’s imperative that our family voices are shared, heard and respected, particularly as it pertains to our families and loved ones who endure this crisis daily, over years in silence.
As families of missing and murdered women, we simply seek calm and peace, sense of justice, and healing of our hearts.
More on Sacred Relations
- Read: “A Native Hawaiian Call for Change,” Restoration Magazine, June 2020: n8ve.net/FnNvj
- Read: “Engaging Our Relatives: NIWRC Partners with Tribal Programs to Develop a Toolkit for Native 2S/LGBTQ Relatives Impacted by Domestic Violence,” Restoration Magazine, Nov. 2020: n8ve.net/8EuHG
- Listen to Patricia Whitefoot’s, Women Are Sacred Talk on Missing Native women: n8ve.net/lf1Oi