Survival through Ecofeminism


The struggle to accept and overcome a shattered and profoundly tragic history, along with its subsequent suppression of self-actualization, is wearisome at best, and nearly impossible at worst. The confusion that muddies one’s purpose in living – given that tragedy and pain lurk behind every corner of one’s life – is often numbed through self-destruction, and sometimes suicide. The choice to surmount and triumph over the anguished hardships and injustices that one is dealt – especially in both an historical and an individual context – is one that a few make, and many more do not. The life story of Chickasaw Linda Hogan speaks of suffering, desperation, injustice, and tragedy. However, it also tells of persistance, enlightenment, and triumph. In Hogan’s The Woman Who Watches Over the World: A Native Memoir and The Book of Medicines, a collection of poetry, Hogan applies ecofeminist perspectives to her struggles, in order to better understand them, learn from them, and grow stronger from them. Her identity as a Native with inherent connections to the earth plays a vital role in her own survival and strength of character.

To cite every reference of Hogan’s explicit and implicit use of ecofeminism would require an exhaustive commentary of each and every page in both of her books; ecology and feminism are rampant themes in her stories, influences, and beliefs. Instead, in an attempt to illustrate the importance of ecofeminism to Hogan’s development as a self-actualized Native woman, four obstacles from her own life, taken from her memoir, will be considered: physical and mental illness, silence and the search for her mother, alcoholism, and the troubled upbringing of her adopted daughters. Hogan’s response to each of these life circumstances is ultimately guided by ecofeministic perspectives. There are, of course, many other significant life events not included in this grouping that Hogan endures and overcomes, including her near-fatal fall from the horse. However, the aforementioned events seem to be the most responsible for Hogan’s discovery of self-realization. The shattered part of Hogan, broken by her outrage and profound sadness towards the imperialistic unfolding of American history and its injustice to Native Americans, is not included simply because of its unspoken presence throughout every step of her life. It is a pain that Hogan never resolves.

To clarify, although hardly, ecofeminism is a complex concept that seeps out the sides of regimented definition. As Linda Vance reported at the National Women’s Studies Association: “Ask a half-dozen self-proclaimed ecofeminists ‘what ecofeminism is’ and you’ll get a half-dozen answers, each rooted in a particular intersection of race, class, geography, and conceptual orientation.” Essentially, the fundamental premise of ecofeminism is the interconnectedness of all life. As a movement, ecofeminism calls for an end to all oppressions, with an assertion that the liberation of women (or any other oppressed group, such as Native Americans) is dependent on the liberation of nature (Gaard 1). However, ecofeminism holds its own validation to those women who respect the earth and appreciate the interconnectedness of all life. Ultimately, as Gaard points out, “Implicit in ecofeminist theory is the importance of being ‘grounded’ in a particular context, while respecting cultural differences. An ecofeminist spirituality must evolve naturally from a specific geographical and cultural location” (308). In terms of Native American women and their relationship to ecofeminism, the concept is relatively new, and seems to have resulted from a forced integration into European culture; traditionally, Native cultures already provided an ample framework of understanding the interdependence of women and nature. In an historical context, gender oppression has not been a concern among Native women: “Indian societies were not male dominated. Women served as spiritual, political, and military leaders. Violence against women and children was unheard of…Environmental destruction also did not exist in Indian societies” (Warren 22). Hogan does not forcibly assert an influence of ecofeminism; her works are not necessarily political statements. Rather, the undercurrent of ecofeminism runs throughout the themes of both works. More importantly, Hogan uses ecofeminism – the interconnection of women and nature – to understand herself, her history, and her struggles.

Hogan’s use of ecofeminism in each book extends far beyond its application to hardship. To begin, the principle characters in each of Hogan’s works are either women or animals. In her memoir, the focal relationships in Hogan’s life, or at least the people whose stories and influence are the most expanded upon, are her grandmother, her mother, her two daughters, Mystery, the horse who she refers to as her ‘sister’, the Big Red Horse, and Kelli, a horse. In her collection of poems, central figures are a whale, a buffalo, a bear, a mountain lion, and, again, her grandmother. In addition, Hogan mentions several symbolic figures of ecofeminism, including the Inuit sea goddess Sedna, the Native story of the mud mother, and environmentalist Rachel Carson, whose novel Silent Spring “advocated long-term consideration regarding the effects of human manipulation of nature” (Cuomo 17). She uses feminine pronouns throughout each work to signify nature and animals, suggesting a feminization of the earth.

Before elaborating on Hogan’s acquired struggles and their resolve through ecofeministic ideals, the history behind her strong American Indian identity should be considered, as this is a powerful groundwork beneath Hogan’s life and stories. A deeply religious people, Chickasaw beliefs were closely interwoven with the natural world; they perceived land as a gift from their creator, thus rendering it impossible for land to be held as personal property. Instead, the people of each town shared common fields, which they cultivated together (The Chickasaw 18). Indigenous to the American Southeast – specifically Northeastern Mississippi, northern Alabama and western Tennessee – the removal of the Chickasaw people from their homeland in 1837 relocated them to southern Oklahoma. By the early 1700s, the Chickasaw had befriended the white man – in the form of English traders and settlers. However, following England’s defeat in the American Revolution, the Chickasaw had no choice but to befriend another foreign power – the United States. The relationship between the U.S. and the Chickasaw was initially amiable enough, provided that the U.S. benefited in some way from the relationship. Although the U.S. originally promised to respect the Chickasaw’s right to their homeland, by 1796, U.S. Congress had passed a law permitting the construction of publicly operated trading posts on Indian lands. By 1837, U.S. officials had forced Chickasaw tribal leaders to sell their land and relocate to Indian Territory, a grueling and tragic journey known as the Trail of Tears: “My ancestors were followed by thieves and the military. They would later be charged by the United States $720,000 for their own removal from their homeland. The Chickasaw owed money for food and supplies that never arrived, to those who coldly forced us away” (WWW 117).

Until the next century, the Chickasaw slowly rebuilt their community and adapted to the new demographic of Oklahoma. But the early 1900s brought more heartache for the Chickasaw people; the U.S. dissolved the Chickasaw government and divided the tribal territory. Hogan’s grandmother was raised, like the other Chickasaw girls, under the influence of missionaries, attending the Bloomfield Academy: “Their purpose was to Americanize the girls…The girls were educated as if they were white, but leaving school on graduation, they returned to their Indian world. They ended up, like most other Chickasaws in that time, in rural property, without water, lights, and plumbing” (WWW 121). Countless Chickasaws were left homeless as a result of their relocation and subsequent disbanding as a tribe, rendering poverty a rampant theme in the lives of many Chickasaws. Relief was scarce until the 1970s, when the Chickasaw tribal government was re-established.

Physical and Mental Illness

Since the early days of her childhood, Hogan has from a number of physical and mental sicknesses. Highly susceptible to colds, tonsillitis, and infections, when Hogan was eight years old, she contracted pneumonia; her fever was so high that some of her teeth were deformed. A few years later, at the tender age of twelve and freshly out of a relationship with a much older man, Hogan discovered blood in her urine and experienced fainting spells. It seems as though Hogan’s childhood emotional trauma manifested itself in the form of physical ailments; psychosomatic symptoms appear to have afflicted Hogan’s health well into her adulthood. Both Hogan and her sister suffered recurrent nightmares and bouts of bedwetting.

Incidentally, Hogan’s exposure to the pesticide DDT was alarmingly consistent, and may have been the catalyst of many of her girlhood illnesses. In addition to the physical ailments of her childhood, Hogan’s mental health was poor, to say the least. She clearly suffered from severe clinical depression. At one point in her adolescent years, Hogan’s parents took her – at her own insistence – to the state hospital for treatment of her depression, where her feet were chained together and her hands cuffed. The deterioration of Hogan’s mental health was far from over. In the coming years, her depression would lead her to alcoholism and attempted suicide.

Furthermore, Hogan’s tiresome relationship with physical pain and illness was just beginning. Later in life, Hogan would spend months debilitated in a hospital bed after a near-fatal fall from a horse, as well as suffer from a painful neuromuscular disease. Hogan describes her endless bouts of physical agony and illness as a loss of time; for her, years of her life were lost. Healing was illusive for Hogan, to say the absolute least. Her faith in the modernized medical world dwindled like the money and time she spent seeking their treatments: “It was as if a tide had gone out, leaving behind a tide pool with stranded orange starfish, ghost crabs, anemones, and mussels attached to rocks, closing themselves, awaiting the return of the river. In time, if the water didn’t return, the pool would dry up. Like the stranded, I could only wait and hope, but in all that time, the sea with all its force and power had gone out and not returned” (WWW 133).

Hogan’s pain, it seems, is partly an emotional cancer that cannot be cured by the hands of man – the psychosomatic result of a placement within a tragic cultural continuum. Despite her seemingly inescapable binding to physical and mental frailty, Hogan finds solace in the environment: “…my doctors became earth, water, light, and air. They were animals, plants, and kindred spirits. It wasn’t healing I found or a life free from pain, but a kind of love and kinship with a similarly broken world” (WWW 16). In “Sickness,” Hogan personifies sickness as not only a personal affliction, but also as the devastation of the Native people:

In sickness are the stories of a broken world. / …I am the child of humans, / I have witnessed their destruction inside myself, / and crawled along the ground / among fallen trees / and long grasses. / Down there, I saw disease. / …It owned water and land. / It believed in its country / and followed orders. / It went to work / It tried to take my tongue. / But these words, / these words are proof / there is healing (The Book of Medicines).

Hogan’s faith in the earth and its ability to heal and transform demonstrates a sense of triumph over her pain, despite its continued presence in her body.

Alcoholism

As a mixed-blood individual from a shattered people, the pursuit of a sense of self can be quite illusive; an abandonment of self-realization nearly kills Hogan. She develops a severe addiction to alcohol, even suicidally drinking peroxide and cough syrup in a desperate attempt to drown the confusion and pain that she had accumulated: “As a young woman I was lost. Perhaps, without knowing it, I wanted and needed the earth and falling was the answer to a broken heart. In those long-ago days, I lay on the ground only because I was too drunk to get up. There I would lie on the life of the earth, on the heart of the mother with the rising plants and alive smell” (WWW 54). Alcohol abuse was a disease that afflicted many of Hogan’s Native friends as well. In fact, alcohol abuse is a relatively commonplace affliction to the Native American population. Although alcoholism is certainly a form of self-destruction with its roots in many unforeseeable areas on one’s life, it is also a way of escaping the cruel reality of a broken ancestry, and the daunting task of waking each day to shattered prospects of lifestyles that could have been, and should have been: “There is a great sadness in the loss of a man to the bottle. Yet it is not an uncommon story in Native America, where there were even greater losses than his, the loss of lives and an entire land, its languages, its theologies and their beauty” (WWW 52).

Although many years of alcohol abuse clearly left their mark on Hogan’s life, she chooses not discuss it in much detail in The Woman Who Watches Over the World. She refers to herself as a “drunk” and not an alcoholic. This is because, she reasons, “a drunk wants to lose the memory of every day” (WWW 54). Hogan relates the symbolic tale of her Native co-worker, who had wandered off from a white college in a drunken stupor, stumbling naked through the snow: “Her spirit and body, if not her mind, understood the symbolism of the white world surrounding her, her vulnerability and difference within it” (WWW 53). Hogan’s drunkenness “was an escape from the pain of an American history” that nearly destroyed her (WWW 54).

But Hogan survives. In fact, she transforms. She cleverly describes her desperate alcohol-soaked days as a need for the earth, and that “falling was the answer to a broken heart” (WWW 54). She fosters a soft tenderness towards the injured around her, in spite of her own injured self. As a young woman, she remembers the way in which she would “tenderly pick up an insect and move it, give it water, allow the wasps to live in my ceiling, and let in every stray or hurt animal” (WWW 57). As an adult, she overcomes her alcoholism, and symbolically adopts two damaged and abused Native girls. She perpetuates her generous nature by taking more injured souls under her wing; first, through her connection to and support of the wild mustang Mystery who tragically lost her baby in labor, and then through her healing of Kelli, a severely abused horse. With the realization that she is not complete without earth and animals, Hogan lets herself be healed, and in turn helps to heal, her broken counterparts. This interaction with the earth was crucial to Hogan’s path to sobriety.

Silence and the Search for a Mother

Despite a shroud of mystery and a host of unanswered questions surrounding her mother, Hogan’s character narrative of her mother outweighs all other in The Woman Who Watches Over the World, with the possible exception of her daughters. There is very little factual data available regarding Hogan’s mother and her past, in part because Hogan herself does not know it; she strews together bits and pieces to form a makeshift history for her mother. In fact, Hogan has little data concerning her own childhood: “I still asked questions, even at the age of fifty, because I wanted, needed, a history, a story, if only one, about my childhood” (WWW 105). But Hogan’s mother offered no stories regarding her birth or early childhood.

It becomes apparent that, despite her mother’s denial, Hogan’s mother has lived a difficult life. She was a woman who “…feared phone calls, walking past windows, and going out in public. A mother who believed that everyone would steal from her or would hurt her. Something had gone wrong in her past. It was unspoken, unacknowledged…” (WWW 105). A telling artifact of her mother’s childhood was the large oval burn scar on her leg, caused by a hot iron that she had used, as a young girl, to warm her feet in bed. Hiding the burn from her parents in fear of being scolded, the wound became infected and she was eventually forced to seek medical attention. The fact that the young girl was clearly in pain but refused help suggests that silence was an inherent characteristic in Hogan’s family long before it became an issue with Hogan herself. Like her mother, the young Hogan “…both feared punishment and expected no comfort. This trickled down, was passed down to my sister and me” (WWW 101). Aside from the burn, Hogan is aware of other experiences from her mother’s childhood, such as “…her brothers holding her down and spitting on her face, and her story of squeezing baby chickens too tightly and killing them – that sign of love gone so needy as to become destructive” (WWW 106). Hogan wanted and needed to fill the void in her relationship with her mother; she harbored an intense desire to know her mother, sifting though her perfumes, clothes, and shoes as a child, and later continuing the search as an adult in photographs, greeting cards, and bureau drawers. This longing sought not only to shorten the emotional distance between Hogan and her mother, but also to better understand her own self: “It was my heart that wanted to learn her life, and through it, my own…Now I know her only because I study her from inside myself, and my own inner world of fear” (WWW 95). A “tragic lack of generosity” resounded in Hogan’s mother, which Hogan was unable to understand as a child or an adult; when Hogan was engaged to be married, Hogan’s mother gave her twenty dollars so that Hogan could elope and not bother her with a wedding. Hogan could only fully comprehend the coldness in such a statement after the adoption of her own daughters, and dreamed of one day having a traditional Indian wedding for her own daughter: “…I pictured how she would wear her beaded deerskin dress…we’d walk together up the dirt road with our traditional Lakota and Chickasaw clothing and I would give her to a man who would not drink, who would be kind” (WWW 104).

Hogan’s own childhood was filled with silence and an emotional distance from her mother. Raised in a small Denver house without interior doors, there were no physical boundaries that separated Hogan from her mother, but instead a communication division that distanced them: “It wasn’t the kind of quiet I would later value as that place of human regeneration and peace. It was a powerless silence” (WWW 92). In a house with no doors, Hogan’s mother became “a closed door that nothing could pass through” (WWW 94). The lack of affection and communication towards Hogan, as Hogan estimates,HHH was not out of spite; her mother was exhausted and vulnerable. Aged beyond her years and overwhelmed with her life, Hogan’s mother raised her two daughters alone as her unfaithful husband served in the military in Japan. A victim of cultural tragedy, silence, and powerlessness, Hogan’s mother had been hardened by life. When Hogan, as a young girl, cried after watching a kitten run over by a car, her mother told her that she needed to toughen up. Otherwise, her mother said, she would never make it in this world.

Clearly, Hogan’s desperate need to know her mother is of profound importance to Hogan’s own development as an individual, although Hogan often felt that there was “no room in her private, quiet world” for her (WWW 100). As a result, Hogan herself becomes vulnerable, fearful, and silent. Her inheritance is likened to the kittens that Hogan sees at father’s work: “The silent kittens at the orphanage had inherited their mother’s muteness. Whether it was a physical condition or whether they’d learned soundlessness, I don’t know. I only know that silence, muteness, was not entirely foreign to me” (WWW 92).

But even though Hogan was quite obviously in anguish over the distance between her and her mother, as well as the fact that her depressed childhood years begged for motherly attention and affection, Hogan used this strained relationship to better understand herself, and positively influence the way that she raised her daughters: “I remember thinking that since I had never had this kind of relationship before with my own mother, then I’d one day become that kind of mother, nurturing, friendly, with a daughter, maybe two” (WWW 74). She understands, and accepts, the difficulties involved with being a woman – a Native woman – with very little power over her own life: “Looking back, I feel such sympathy for her, kindness toward her, the way she wanted to be beautiful for my father…she was vulnerable in a place of another language and people she believed stared at her, the foreigner” (WWW 44-5). With the adoption of her two daughters, Hogan comes to understand the true challenge in parenting, and appreciates, as a mother herself, the symbolism and importance of motherhood.

In accordance to Chickasaw tradition, tribal membership is inherited from an individual ‘s mother (Hale and Gibson 18). In this sense, motherhood is connected with the passing on of a generation: “This is what it means to be mother and child, / to wear the skin of ancestors, / the mother’s stolen lands / carried on the face of the other” (The Book of Medicines 71). Hogan uses her mother’s distance to help her develop into a stronger individual, and to better understand her own path as a Native woman and a mother: “I cherish her skin, her flesh, in all its Korean, Lakota, Anglo body, her perfect feet on the earth, and I would not allow anyone to harm her, and this I call love” (WWW 102). Furthermore, Hogan rises from the depths of an inherited and enforced childhood silence, and matures into a successful woman of words and language.

The Daughters

Motherhood, a prospect which was supposed to mend the damage of Hogan’s history and her daughters’ history, proved to be one of the most challenging additions to Hogan’s life. Despite the disappointment of her mother, who believed adoption to be a loss of bloodline, Hogan adopted two Native girls into her care; Jeanette, 5, and Marie, 10. Anything that Hogan endured during the course of her childhood quickly paled in comparison to the abuse that Jeanette and Marie had both suffered at the hands of others. There was no history available on either on them, although Hogan soon learned – through her daughters’ stories – that the only stories they had to tell were of horrid and unspeakable acts of abuse and neglect.

Jeanette was malnourished when she came under the care of Hogan. At only twenty one pounds, Jeanette didn’t speak, hurt herself, hardly slept, and clung unrelentingly to Hogan; she had frequently been locked in dark basements and taunted by a cruel foster grandmother. Marie had already been damaged beyond repair by the time she was adopted: “She had been abused, even as an infant, burned by cigarettes and hot wires, and raped. She was a girl who was once dropped off by her mother and her mother’s boyfriend on a dark country road in their attempt to lose her” (WWW 76). In her new home with Hogan, Marie was outwardly violent, and would feed needles to the family dog and defecate on tables. Although Jeanette was not as blatantly aggressive, she was stubborn and fiercely resistant to Hogan.

Jeanette’s abusive early childhood, although harsh, was repairable. She grew up to be a thoughtful and patient mother. But Marie would later severely abuse her own children, and eventually lose them to an adoptive family. At one point, Marie threw a lamp at her crying baby, threatened to kill her, and then threw a Christmas tree. The damage that had been inflicted on Marie from an early age was never erased, and by abusing her own children and losing them to an adoptive family, Marie was essentially recycling the abuse of her own past.

Hogan’s adoption of the abused girls was a choice that led to both anguish and delight. Despite the trials and tribulations of motherhood – which were doubly as intense in Hogan’s case – Hogan’s life was significantly enriched by the girls. By adopting Jeanette and Marie, Hogan was inadvertently looking her people’s shattered history straight in the eye: “…we had entered, and taken in, a war that was more than child abuse or lack of love. Along with the girls, history came to live with us, the undeniable, unforgotten aspect of every American Indian life” (WWW 76). Hogan knows that Marie, despite her violent and cruel behavior towards her children, is not an evil person; she is simply a “remnant of American history”, whose “story has not yet fully deciphered. Perhaps it will never be, nor will it end. Inside remains a knot that isn’t of her own tying, a painful world not of her own making” (WWW 77). Hogan also knows that Marie “was a woman who had come from beautiful people, warriors, healers, and those who had been dreamers. She, in her very being, was the consequence, the near end, of our Indian dreaming on this continent” (WWW 78). In this sense, Hogan understands her daughters and their behavior as manifestations of a tragic historical context. Hogan must know, especially when Jeanette journeys unknowingly to the sacred site of Chimayo, that she has transformed the lives of her daughters; she has saved both of their lives, and, at least in the case of Jeanette, she has helped to install a sense of Native identity and pride in a new generation of women.

Hogan’s story is one of both heartache and love, but ultimately, it is a story of survival. Through her persistent affliction with physical and mental distress, a troubling distance from her mother, years of severe alcohol abuse, and the heartbreaking story of horror and silence that surrounded both of her daughters, Hogan, although still broken, has triumphed: “I had survived history, survived even myself. All of it. History. Mental hospitals. Alcohol. An American education” (WWW 127). By taking heed of her Native roots and acknowledging the interconnection of the earth and humans through ecofeminist ideals, Hogan is able to overcome, cultivate strength, and find herself in light of the obstacles that once blocked her path to self-actualization.


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