The Oglala Lakota Nation: “Genetic Memory” and Gender
My very first interview on masculinity and femininity was with Professor Karen Lone Hill, at the Oglala Lakota College on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. As the female Chair in the all-male Oglala Lakota Studies Department, I was curious and excited to benefit from her studies and her experience.
With a soft, confident voice, Prof. Lone Hill spoke about the meaning of femininity and masculinity in her culture primarily through stories. This, she noted, was the mode of her aunt, her mentor: “She always tells me things through stories.”
Permeating the stories of the interview was the understanding of “genetic memory.” It is through our ancestors, our families, she explained, that we come to know who we are and that we receive the gifts for which we have been chosen. These gifts come to one through either their female lineage, as women, or male lineage, as men. Mentors of the same sex are important in understanding and developing these gifts as given through ceremonies and in dreams. Such a reality allows men and women to appreciate one another, without devaluing the other sex.
As Prof. Lone Hill remarked, “turtles…represent the women because we have strong hearts. I think some of the medicine men…talk about the women being strength, and the women have that strength…men have the physical strength, but I think the women…their strength is different. Physically, we're not as strong as they are, but spiritually and because [of] our hearts, we have strong hearts and the compassion.” This idea of “genetic memory,” of receiving who we are as women and men through our families, from familial mentors, from traditional stories, then helps to confirm and develop women and men in their personal identity.
This is especially important for the Oglala Lakota as some of this memory and identity was temporarily lost. Prof. Lone Hill explained that she teaches a mandatory course on American Indian women. Some of the men complain about taking the course, as they think it’s “women’s business.” However, as the course teaches, before the reservations, before the colonization of the Native American culture, men and women were considered equal. Women made everything, so they owned everything. They worked alongside the men and took care of the children. Neither sex was considered superior to the other. In fact, divorce was allowed for both sexes, and if a woman decided to divorce her husband, she merely had to put his clothes outside of the teepee. However, with the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie and the move onto the reservations, Prof. Lone Hill explained, new cultural values regarding gender were imposed: men were then considered superior to women. This course thus seeks to help Native Americans recover their pre-reservation understanding, the “genetic memory,” founding the identity that men and women are equal.
Despite the imposition of foreign values, a mutual receptivity, men’s willingness to learn from women and women’s willingness to respect men’s struggles, still bears witness to the permanence of such a “genetic memory”. This characterized Prof. Lone Hill’s stories about her brothers. After her mother’s death, she explained, her brothers began to come to her, seeking guidance in the decisions that they needed to make. Prof. Lone Hill reflected, “I don't know why they come to me, when decisions need to be made. They just naturally turn to that, to somebody, a female within the family.” At the same time, she noted that a woman who recognizes that a man is struggling with something, is not to view him “as lower” or “to fix them, [because] that’s up to them.” She further explained, “My brother knows about me and I know that he's got what he's got, and so we work together. I think sometimes he's not really moving into, as he should, but I can't tell him that, because that's up to him.” With the “genetic memory” of their equality, a desire for respect between the sexes perdured, even in moments of difficulty, making it possible for families to move forward.
What then can the Oglala Lakota culture teach us today, in our own cultures, about what it means to be men and women?
We can begin by asking ourselves, “What is my genetic memory?” What are the stories, the relationships, that characterize my family? When we are little, most of us enjoy stories about our grandparents, or maybe about how our parents met. What do these stories reveal to us about our own gifts, our own capacities to grow in the world, or even the family struggles that have obscured our original “genetic memory”?
Who then are the mentors, in my birth family or those that have become my family, who can help me to recover and develop my personal identity?
As a man, are there women that I look up to? As a woman, do I try and "fix" men, or do I work together with them, respecting their struggles?
In summary, how can my “genetic memory” help to better form my personal identity as masculine or feminine?
Thank you for accompanying me on this gender journey! May the wisdom of the Oglala Lakota be a gift to you!
To read more about the Oglala Lakota by Prof. Karen Lone Hill, see “On Learning,” in Shaping Survival. Essays by Four American Indian Tribal Women (The Scarecrow Press, 2006); “Sioux,” in Encyclopedia of North American Indians (Houghton Mifflin, 1996); Civilian, Military, Native American: Portraits of Fort Phil Kearny (Fort Phil Kearny, 1993); Lakota Language-1 (Oglala Lakota College, 1989); North American Indians Today: Sioux (Mason Creek, 2003); and Pine Ridge Reservation: Yesterday and Today (Ba
 While divorce is never desirable, sometimes it may be necessary for the health and protection of a spouse and the children. A comparison of this custom with that of the majority United States culture at the time makes it clear that this arrangement did reflect a greater understanding of equality between men and women, since it allowed for the protection of women and children. See, as an example, Susan B. Anthony’s “Address at Seneca Falls in 1848,” at the first convention on women’s rights: “We are assembled to protest against…such disgraceful laws as give man the power to chastise and imprison his wife, to take the wages which she earns, the property which she inherits, and, in case of separation, the children of her love…It is to protest against such unjust laws as these that we are assembled today, and to have them, if possible, forever erased from our statue-books, deeming them a shame and a disgrace to a Christian republic in the nineteenth century…” Ellen Carol DuBois (ed.), The Elizabeth Cady Stanton-Susan B. Anthony Reader. Correspondence Writings Speeches (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1992), 31. This was twenty years before the Treaty of Fort Laramie.