Next time you feel embarrassed about your period, think about the spiritual power menstruation has in Native American cultures.
At a remote farm in Woodstock, New York, there's a lodge called the Wise Women Center, where you can explore your womanhood in relation to the earth and the universe. More than a hippie retreat, this place wants to encourage women to get into the depths of themselves and contemplate their historical connection to the earth, not only by leaving all trappings of modernity behind, but also through ancient practices that promote that connection with nature. One of the main activities during these retreats is learning how to embrace your period by stripping away all of those terrible taboos and restraints women have historically faced. In order to do so, not only is free bleeding highly encouraged, but they also teach you about the sacred role menstruation had in Native American communities and how this was seen as a moment when women became goddesses connected to the moon. So, how did these practices actually honor and worship women, and why aren't we following them?
You might have noticed that I used the phrase "historical stigma." There’s no doubt that this taboo about menstruation has been ingrained in our minds for literally thousands of years, but is it a general and global perception? Fortunately, no. This is more of a Western idea that stuck and spread all over the world to the point that we have countries where women are locked up during their periods because they’re thought to be impure during this time of the month. However, as I said before, that’s not the case everywhere, and there have been communities around the world where menstruation has been seen as a sacred process of women’s bodies when they become closer to their deities. One of the most relevant cases was that of many Native American traditions and communities, where menstruation is seen as a link between humanity and spirituality, so they celebrate with different rituals to honor blood.
Menstruation and periods have always been linked to the cycles of the moon; this was the perfect evidence of blood's meaning. To honor this moment in their lives, women would go to a sacred lodge where they would spend a few days together to share their experiences and think about their spiritual role. Instead of a prison to keep them away, this was seen as a safe and private space for them, where they went through an empowerment process. This was the time of the month when women were at the top of their power, and for that reason, they didn’t do any chores or have any contact with men to keep that power to themselves.
For these and other cultures around the world, the color red was understood as a symbol of life and a sacred color in contrast to white, which, interestingly, was seen as the color of death. They had a very logical and compelling image to explain and understand these metaphors. White is the color the human body acquires once the blood (life) is drained. This belief was quite relevant, as Jordan D. Paper explains in Native North American Religious Traditions, for most Native American traditions. The seclusion and sacred rituals were mainly made for the menarche, the first menstruation of women, as a welcome to their powerful being. All the women of the tribe would gather to teach these young women to control their newly acquired powers and to create that special bond they naturally have with the Earth and the Moon, of course.
In many tribes in what now is the north of the US, women would gather in a special and sacred cave, sit on the earthen floor and let the blood flow to create that special connection between them and Mother Earth to become one. So, this wasn’t only that special moment when they were seen as givers of life or a sign of maturity, but an actual link in which they become goddesses and respected figures in their community. Once the seclusion ritual was over, these young women would wear a special attire, and eat and drink special foods from sacred vases during a year to avoid that power from getting contaminated.
These practices can be traced among the Diné tribes who later on would grow and migrate south. They merged their traditions and customs to those of the land they reached and gave way to some of the most important Native American tribes, like the Navajo and Apache. Still, these menstruation rituals prevail to these days, though with less importance than before. Personally, I believe this is really beautiful and something we should all embrace to change the game and discourse around womanhood and menstruation, but how can we break with all the taboos we’re taught to believe from childhood? Can we really learn to understand menstruation not as a shameful moment in our lives, but as the time we can become empowered women? That’s a lot to think about.
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Cover image by @beririr
Article images by @singsinthetimber