In the cross cultural studies of many ethnic groups, menstruation, and everything associated with it, has been seen as simply negative. Menstrual blood and menstruating women have been identified as being dangerous, poisonous, and polluting. Menstrual women were believed to contaminate whatever they came in contact with: horses, food, hunting gear, weapons, canoes, water, and in particular the wealth and spiritual items of men. They were believed to spoil men’s “luck” in hunting and gambling (Buckley 1982).
These reports have negatively recorded menstruation itself and have been used as the basis for many ethnographic accounts in many cultures. These collective accounts seem to suggest that menstrual pollution is an ethnographic truism. This truism has been used as the basis for the idea that menstrual practices were instituted as a political means of control in a male-dominant cultures. In 1965, F. W. Young asserted that due to “men’s fear of women and weak solidarity among men themselves” they have imposed menstrual taboos “upon women in order to assure male dominance of society” (Young and Bacadayan 1965). Popular feminist scholarship of reports like this have further concluded that menstrual taboos are oppressive to women (e.g. Weideger 1977).
In my opinion these conclusions are erroneous because they lack a complete understanding of the word taboo and have applied this misconception to an incomplete picture of menstrual observances. To support this opinion, I will first, clear up any misunderstandings about what taboo means. Secondly, I will examine several of the most common menstrual observances in the Native American traditions that could be interpreted as oppressive to women, and finally, I will compare the menstrual practices of Yurok women to the wealth seeking practices of their male counterparts in order to gain a more complete picture of the relative status of men and women in Native American traditions.
Part of misunderstanding of menstrual taboos is due to the misunderstanding of the word taboo itself. Taboo is usually thought of in the negative aspect, associated with incest and cannibalism. This association is not only misleading fails to recognize the true meamng of the word.
In 1956, Steiner probed the semantic sphere of the Polynesian word taboo and its variants. He observed that the root “ta” means “to mark” and that “pu” is the adverb of “intensity.” The translation of tabu (tapu) that followed was “marked thoroughly” (Steiner1956:32). “Marked thoroughly” is inherently ambiguous; it lacks a stress in either the positive or negative dimension. Steiner further suggested that the concepts of holy and forbidden were inseparable in this way of thinking. In this light taboo encompasses both concepts of sacred and defiled with no inherent polarity. Taboo is the fusion of these two concepts that Westerners tend to distinguish. Therefore the opposite of taboo is not sacred or holy, but rather profane in the sense of common (Steiner 1956:36, 82).
Now that I have made this distinction clear, I would like to examine some examples of menstrual taboos common in Native American traditions. Although each of the Native American tribes are umque, comparatively speaking, there are many common basic religious concepts, beliefs, and rites (Beck, Walters and Francisco 1992). Among these the menstrual observances are very much alike. These include isolation, scratching, touching men or men’s things, crossing tracks, and telling at first sign of menses.
In 1956, F. W. Young wrote that the “menstrual taboos that often apply to native women throughout their middle years may function as a mechanism for reducing the status of women to that of men” (Young 1956: 155). In particular, menstrual seclusion, or the isolation of menstruous women in special shelters, has been singled out as indicative of low female status. The idea is that by singling a menstruous woman out and making her live in a separate hut shows that she is not as good as the rest of the group, that she is by nature not as pure and is in fact a polluting force that everyone should avoid.
This notion of menstrual seclusion assumes and ignores a great deal. It assumes that men and the rest of society are believed to be in a pure state, that a menstruating woman is in an impure state, that she is therefore not worthy of participating in society, and it also assumes that women are forced into solitary confinement against their will and resent their seclusion. These assumptions completely ignores the possibility that menstrual shelters can themselves be sanctuaries, protecting the woman during this time from societies impurity and that menstruating women might voluntarily isolate themselves.
According to a Yurok woman, this isolation frees a woman from “mundane tasks”, as well as social and sexual distractions and allows her to meditate and concentrate their energies “to find out the purpose of one’s life and accumulate spiritual energy” (Buckley 1988: 190).
From this report we gain a slightly different perspective on menstrual isolation. Here we can see that isolation can in fact be a way for women to store or accumulate strength and spiritual power. Such empowerment would serve to increase, rather than decrease, her status within the society due to the high regard for spiritual strength. Also, her referral to “mundane tasks” is reminiscent of the earlier discussion about taboo; where taboo is something that is not profane in the common sense. This understanding is very different from the interpretation that women are not as pure as the rest of society in this condition. It sees the everyday world as something that is common and menstruation as something that is powerful. It recognizes that the woman is not profane in the common sense, but rather something special that needs to be “marked thoroughly.”
Another common menstrual observance is abstaining form scratching with nails. Many tribes believe that if a woman scratches her head at this time her hair will fall out or that her nails will scar her arms if see scratches them. The woman must instead use a wooden or bone scratcher. This has been traditionally linked to the idea of pollution. Women at this time were believed to be charged with such negative energy that they were a danger of polluting even themselves (Bushnell and Bushnell 1977).
According to a Native American woman interviewed by Thomas Buckley, a scratcher is used because it aids in focusing a women’s “full attention on her body by making the most natural and spontaneous actions fully conscious and intentional.” This restriction on women seems to make them more self aware and in control of their own actions than it makes them more suppressed in their society. Here it is important to ask whether an observance in which a woman’s mind is used to control even her most unconscious actions is oppressive to women; or more succinctly, is the strengthening of self control oppression? To me self control is an empowering, not oppressive, and it is difficult for me to see this as oppression. Even if I was to cling to the notion that a woman is endanger of polluting herself, it is still her own will, her conscious control of her own actions, that keeps her from touching her own hair.
Touching a Man or a Man’s Things
Native Americans believed that a bow would not shoot anymore if a menstruating woman was to touch or even look at it. If she drank out of a man’s bowel it would make him sick and that if she were to touch a man at this time he would fall down dead (Underhill1936:31-36). If we were to assume that menstruation was seen only in a negative way in order to suppress women, then this might provide a good example of how men are seen as more pure and are defiled by the touch of women who are lower and polluting creatures. This would be true if the only thing we had to look at were these reports, but in fact this is not the evidence we have for the effects of women touching men when they are on their period.
Other reports tell of how a menstruating woman can heal by her touch. One Anishnabae man tells of the healing power of menstruating women:
When I was a young man I had many warts on my hands .. .! was almost covered by them. An old woman of my tribe advised me to go to a girl who had built a bakan ishkatowe at some distance away from our odena [village], and who was undergoing the giigwishimowin period, and have her cure me. I disliked the warts very much, and being ashamed of my ugly hands, I reluctantly concluded to follow her advice. I was warned about crossing her tracks and to approach from the lodge from the side very carefully, and if I reached it safely, to pass my hands in front and say, I have come to you to cure my hands.
I approached the lodge, passed my hands in, and repeated the words as directed. She wet her fingers with her saliva and touched all the warts on my hands, and when she had completed this, I retraced my steps and returned to my village. In five days, all the warts on my hands had disappeared. (Vizenor 1970:30-31)
This report gives contrary evidence to the idea that touch was another way by which women were oppressed. The fact that this woman’s touch was able to heal the man by her touch is an indication of her positive power during her period of menstruation. It is one that would seem to elevate her status in the minds of her people because she had the power to heal.
Walking in Steps
Another example of a menstruating woman’s power to heal is seen in the taboo against walking or crossing a woman’s tracks. When the man with the warts was sent to the girl to be healed, he was instructed not to cross her tracks. This idea especially coupled with the Sioux proverb “Woman shall not walk before man” can be used to support the notion that men were better than women and that to follow in the footsteps of a woman would pollute or degrade the man himself. But there is also evidence that following in the footsteps of a menstruating girl can be a healing experience.
In the puberty ceremony of the South West the old and crippled followed in the girls footsteps and are marked with pollen by the girl in order to heal themselves (Driver 1941). These people were of both sexes and of all ages, they were touched by and crossed the tracks of a menstruating woman. This observance seems to violate the taboos associated with touching and following in tracks, but this apparent violation may be due to our misunderstanding about pollution than it is a violation itself.
Pollution, or symbolic contamination, like taboo is not restricted into either a positive or negative realm but encompasses both and changes in relation to what it is compared to (Douglas 1966: 7-9). This makes sense if menstruation is understood as ambiguously powerful and its relation to what is near it determines its positive or negative effect. A menstruating woman has the power to disrupt things that are in either a good or bad state. If people are well she may cause them harm, but if they are sick she heals them. Also, what is forbidden at one time may be endorsed at another. The puberty ritual has a defined time when it is good to be touched by, and follow in the tracks of, a menstruating girl. Also in the Sioux sun dance ceremony, there is a defined time in the dance when men follow the women. It is clear, then, that it is not possible to single something out at one particular time and draw broad conclusions from only that instance. Therefore, walking in or crossing the tracks taboo cannot be construed as oppressive to women because it is also used as a means of healing which elevates not lowers a woman’s status.
Native Americans also believed that bad things would happen to a girl or her family if she did not tell an elder that she had started menstruating. Maria Chona, a Papago woman recalls that lightening killed a girl, blinded her sister, stunned her family and burned their house down, because she did not tell that she had begun menstruating. She also recalls that while another girl was building a fire it reached out, grabbed, and consumed her. A girl at this time is considered not only dangerous to herself, but also to her family and friends (Underhill1936:31-36).
This report can also support the notion that menstruating women were dangerous and polluting. But if we keep in mind the earlier discussion of pollution, we can see that these girls were dangerous, not because they embodied negative power, but power itself that effected the state of whoever was around according to their state.
Now that I have discussed some of the most common taboos in Native American traditions, I would like to now compare the wealth seeking ritual of Yurok men to the menstrual practices of Yurok women.
To the Yurok of Northern California wealth meant spiritual ascendancy or attainment, detalium shells were prized objects and indicated an accumulation of such wealth. The middle of the sky in Yurok cosmography is considered to be the most pure, least polluted place in the universe. It is the source of the most valuable and powerful things including many wealth objects. It may be reached by only by those who are completely pure. Men who wished to go wealth questing or luck seeking would ascend to alpine lakes, which represented the middle of the sky. They would then dive for a rock from the bottom that would be a talisman, bringing them wealth later in life. Men wishing to make such an ascent would train for ten days. During this time they would seclude themselves in the sweat house, avoid all contacts with fertile women, maintain strict continence, and eat only specially gathered, stored, and prepared foods. They would bath twice a day and gash their legs with flakes of white quartz. These men believed that the flowing blood carried off psychic impurity and prepared them for spiritual attainment. While in the sweat house the primary activity of men was meditation, or kocpoks, directed toward personal centering and empowerment. It was believed that such meditation made one “grow stronger” or “made medicine” and that wealth accrued to those who had “done their thinking” (Buckley 1979).
What is remarkable about the wealth quest of Yurok men is its striking similarity to the menstrual observances of the Yurok women. During their menses, these women secluded themselves for ten days, meditating and eating the same specially prepared foods. They also have a menstrual formula that speaks of a small lake in the middle of the sky where menstruating women may see a great stock piles of dentalium shells (these shells symbolize wealth objects). In this formula, women were instructed to dive to the lake’s bottom, retrieve a small stone, and return with it to their homes. They also believed that these rocks when coupled with their menstrual practices would attract dentalium to their houses (Buckley and Gottlieb 1988).
From this we see that there is a direct parallel in the conception, ritualization, and goal orientation between male training and female menstrual practice. Men isolated themselves, cut their legs to release impurities, ate the same foods, and made the same dives for wealth bringing talismen. The fact that the wealth seeking ritual of males parallels the women’s menstrual practices, right down to blood letting, says a lot about the perception of menstrual taboos in the Yurok society. If we were to stick to the notion that these women’s menstrual observances were used as a means to oppress them, given the remarkable similarity, shouldn’t we also conclude that the wealth seeking ritual of the Yurok men was also oppressive? Conversely, menstrual taboos can instead be seen as a way for women to increase their spiritual power, or wealth, in the form of spiritual attainment or ascendancy.
The fact that men feared menstrual pollution as driving away wealth and that women saw their time of menses as a time that they could most easily attract wealth is interesting because it allows us to see that menstrual taboos may serve more to separate the two worlds of men and women than they do to oppress women. In this light, menstruation is a woman’s way to power, which is distinct, and although it can have a negative influence on men’s power, it is not negative in itself. Men did not use menstrual taboos to oppress women, nor did these women feel oppressed, but rather they recognised their period as time of power that should be used to strengthen oneself spiritually.
In this discussion of menstruation practices of Native American women I have shown that a woman’s period of menstruation was a time when she was very powerful. At this time women had the power to effect the physical state of the people around them and themselves. This power, however, was not simply negative, but could also be a healing, purifying, and strengthening power.
Western interpretation, in its inability to recognize the true meaning of the word taboo and its prejudice for identifying the male as the dominant gender in romanticized hunter gather cultures, has singled out menstrual taboos as a means by which men oppressed women. This interpretation has relied heavily on statements by native men. To these men, women were indeed seen as a polluting force, but it is important to understand exactly what that means. It does not mean that women were inferior, or that men used this idea of pollution to oppress them, although women threatened a man’s place in the society, likewise men were just as polluting to the woman’s way of life. Separation of the sexes is a common theme in many Native American peoples. This separation, however, was not one in which one sex dominates the other. As Ella Deloria put it in 1944, “the simple fact is that woman had her own place and man his; they were not the same and neither was inferior or superior” (Deloria 1944:39).
Buckley, T. 1979. Doing your thinking: Aspects of traditional Yurok education.Parabola 4, no. 4:29-37.
Buckley, T. 1982. Menstruation and the power of Yurok women: Methods in cultural reconstruction. American Ethnologist 9: 47-60.
Buckley, T. and Gottlieb, A. 1988. Blood Magic. Berkeley, C.A.: University of California Press.
Bushnell, J. and Busnell, D. 1977. Wealth, work, and world view in native northwest California. In Flowers in the wind, ed. Thomas C. Blackburn, 120-182. Socorro, N.M.: Ballena Press.
Deloria, E. C. 1944. Speaking of Indians. New York: Friendship Press.
Douglas, M. 1966. Purity and danger: An analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo.London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Driver, H. E. 1941. Cultural element distributions: XVI Girls puberty rites in Western North America. Anthropological records v6, no. 2.
Erdoes, R. and Oritz, A. 1984. American Indian Myths and Legends. New York: Random House Inc.
Steiner, F. 1956. Taboo. London: Penguin.
Underhill, R. 1936. The Autobioography of a Papago Woman, memoirs of the American Anthropological Association, No. 46, Menasha, Wisconsin: Krause Reprint Co., 1974, 1936.
Vizenor, G. 1970. Anishinabe Adisokan: Tales of The People, Minneapolis, Minn.: Nodin Press.
Weideger, P. 1977. Menstruation and menopause: The physiology and psychology, the myth and the reality. New York: Delta.
Young, F. W. 1965. Initiation ceremonies: A cross-cultural study of status dramatization. New York: Bobbs-Merrill.
Young, F. W. and Bacdayan, A. 1965. Menstrual taboos and social rigidity.Ethnology 4:225-240.
Brett Dixon March 16, 1993