On October 11, 13 grandmothers from around all the world – the Arctic Circle, North, South, and Central America, Africa, and Asia, arrived at Tibet House's Menla Mountain retreat in Phoenicia, New York for the first Global Grandmothers' Council. They came to discuss the fate of the earth, and how to revive the traditions, rituals and medicines that can save it. Their teachings represent the universal morality against which we measure our actions, and it provided an example of bringing together the most ancient and modern ways in which women can organize, both personally and politically, to preserve their cultures and take care of the future.
For three days these grandmothers, who are trained shamans and medicine women, came together in a private meeting, to talk about ways to share their most secret and sacred ways with people who have been their oppressors. They included Tsering Dolma Gyalthong, a Tibetan refuge and founding member of The Tibetan Women's Association, which has more than 30 branches worldwide; Flordemayo, a Mayan elder and traditional healer; and Juliette Casimiro, a Mazatec elder who carries the tradition of healing with sacred plants.
They spoke of their relations and their ways of healing. They participated in each other's prayers, rituals and ceremonies. Through meeting with lawyers who specialize in the areas of American law that pertain to indigenous people and non-profit organizations, they worked on coming together to find a unified voice, and to find a way to make a more permanent alliance among themselves. To bring power and volume to their individual voice, they concluded that they would become a permanent alliance called the Council of the Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers.
During a prayer offering to the group , Rita Pitka Bleumenstein, a Yupik grandmother who teaches about Native American culture world wide, broke down into tears. She talked about a vision she had when she was nine years old that if she doesn't pass her traditions down to young people and teach them to save the earth, "We're going to suffer." she said.
"I don't cry very often," she continued. "I didn't cry when my husband passed away and I didn't cry when my mother passed away, but when something like this council happens I cry. I think we were put on this earth to do it because the grandmothers told us that when you start something you don't stop. You carry it on. You finish it."
After the three-day summit, the Global Women's Gathering continued over the next four days. An audience of three hundred people joined the original 13. In that unified voice, the grandmothers opened up for the first time to an assembly of western women elders – political activists such as Ambassador Carole Mosley Braun, Gloria Steinem and Alice Walker – to begin a discussion about how to work to save their families, their communities, and their lives on this planet.
The Roots of the Movement
Bernadette Rebienot, a Bwiti elder and grandmother of 23 had a vision for a Grandmothers' Council. She said that the women of Gabon regularly gather together in the forest to share their visions and to pray for world peace and the well being of their people. "In Gabon, when the grandmothers speak, the president listens," she said.
When Jyoti, an American spiritual teacher who holds a PhD in clinical psychology, came to Gabon to study with Rebienot, the two women found that they shared a vision of the Grandmothers' Council, and they decided to work together to manifest it in the west.
Jyoti mobilized her organization, the Center for Sacred Studies, to sponsor a council for indigenous grandmothers. She hooked up with Lynn Schauwecker, a former fashion model and fundraising expert, Ann Rosenkranz, who is also a spiritual counselor and a program director at the Center for Sacred Studies, and Carole Hart, an award winning television and film writer and producer, best known for "Free to Be You and Me." They organized both the 3-day Grandmother's Council and the Global Women's Gathering.
Restoring Our Voice
The Global Women's Gathering began with an opening talk from Wilma Mankiller, a former principal chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. She was the first female in history to lead a major American tribe – the second largest in the United States, with an enrolled population of over 140,000, an annual budget of more than $75 million, and more than 1,200 employees spread over 7,000 square miles. It was there that the grandmothers introduced themselves by making an announcement about their alliance.
The beginning and the end of each day was marked by a prayer from one of the grandmothers. They spoke of their prophecies, they spoke about how this was the time to make a choice about how to live and stay alive on the planet. In smaller break-out sessions, the Grandmothers and western women collaborated in facilitating discussions of plans for renewable resources, preservations of cultures and species, cooperative ventures to prevent global warming and eliminate nuclear weapons, new medicine models that integrate traditional and western medicine. In original tribal cultures, the Grandmothers' Council was honored as the final authority on most tribal matters, including the waging of war.
"The women of this conference believe that through this gathering, we are restoring that voice," said Carole Hart. "Their way of holding life in all its manifestations can show us how to sustain ourselves, our children, and our planet through our tumultuous times. Their values are truly the global test against which we can measure all our actions, personal and political, so that we can be sure they will create justice, peace, and abundance around the world. In a time where most political dialogue is harsh and vituperative, the new, wise voice of the indigenous grandmothers will elevate our political discourse."
In a speech on the final morning of the gathering, Carole Mosley Braun remarked that "Dr. Martin Luther King has said that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice. Because you are here you will make it more likely that the moral arc of the universe will bend towards justice and that this world at war with itself, will have to meet the resistance and the fight you have engaged to save it from itself. You are the embodiment of a great new spirit and the wisdom of the ages."
At the end of the conference, the grandmothers created a statement of intent of their new global alliance. "We come together to nurture, educate and train our children. We come together to uphold the practice of our ceremonies and to affirm the right to use our plant medicines free of legal restrictions. We come together to protect the lands where our peoples live and upon which our cultures depend, to safeguard the collective heritage of traditional medicines, and to defend the Earth herself. We believe that the teachings of our ancestors will light our way through an uncertain future."