'This is the way I've raised them'

"If a nation goes down, it's because they no longer respect their women," said John Spotted Horse, speaking to me confidently and calmly under his feathered headdress with the strings of tiny colorful beads streaming down his cheeks. John, Stan, and their group were performing Native American dances at a community festival.

"I think about that more carefully now because we recently lost a couple of drummers. One was 86 and had a stroke, so he can't drum anymore, and another died. I can hardly believe we don't have him anymore. They were backbone drummers, and over there is the original drum they started with almost 50 years ago," he said, pointing to the large drum surrounded by stools just adjacent to the circle in which the women would be dancing.

"But we men just pound the drum and do the chants. It's our women who do the dances, invoke the spirit, and carry the wisdom. Think about it. Our women bear our children, love our children, teach our children, and carry on the tribe's future. Men can't procreate the tribe no matter how fierce or how important we think we are. We need the women."

John, Stan, and two other men gathered around the large drum, started the beat, and accented the chant that John sang out. One by one, several women adorned in Native American dresses and jewelry respectfully entered the circle, carried an eagle feather in front of them with one hand and clasped a colorful shawl around their shoulders with the other hand. Each dancer had her own variation of the traditional dance step consisting of the point-the-toe, touch-the-ground, then-lower-the-heel step, and then repeated with the other foot.

As the women danced to the chant I watched each one with new appreciation. I've seen this type of dancing many times and usually just took in the entire experience. This time I concentrated on who the women were, imagining their value to the tribe. After the dancing I spoke with Yellow Flower, one of the dancers, who told me that she lives in Washington State but spends time with several tribes in the Midwest over the summer.

"I've heard that Native American tribes have a matriarchal culture. Is that correct?" I ask. "Indeed, women are very important in every tribe," Yellow Flower says with a smile. "We can concentrate on our privileges as wives and mothers because our men already appreciate us and value our opinions. I have nine sons and this is the way I've raised them to treat women."

[Nancy Linenkugel is a Sylvania Franciscan sister and chair of the department of Health Services Administration at Xavier University, Cincinnati Ohio.]