Cibola 52

This entry is part 51 of 119 in the series Cibola


Shiwanna (2) (cont’d)

Chakwena Woman,
black-skinned ogre,
runs back & forth in front of her white-
robed warriors, catching the arrows.
Her calabash rattle is in constant motion
like a hive of hornets. When the Ashiwi
advance with their medicine priests
she directs her followers to plug
their nostrils with cotton, breathe
only through a cloth.
By the third day the Kyanakwe
seem invincible, even capturing
four of the Ashiwi gods–
though one escapes, & one remains
so obstreperous they think
he must be part female, put him
to grinding corn. Make him don
the dress the Chakwena scorns.

But what happens then
is a thing of genius:
one half of his hair coils up on his scalp–
squash blossom, hummingbird wing–
while the other half still hangs
straight, like a man’s.
Thus from this contest there emerges
something good: a wholly new part
in the sacred repertoire.

black-skinned ogre: As mentioned elsewhere, black and red represent cosmic polarities for a large swath of native North America. White is also often included as a stand-in for black. Presuming that “red” stands for all animating colors (via the association with blood, ergo heart/breath), the two yin-yang poles might better be thought of as black-and-white vs. color.

Ashiwi: A more neutral term for the Ashiwanni (“priestly people”).

a thing of genius: This incident is indeed the mythological origin of the berdache or third gender in Zuni cosmology. Notice that in this matrilinear, matrifocal society, women are perceived as being just as strong as men, albeit in a different way (they possess innately those qualitites that boys must strive to acquire through initiation into the priesthood). In a sense, the presence of a socially accepted transsexual figure is one very good measure of sexual equality. In the last 150 years, some of the most influential members of the Zuni tribe have been berdaches. Their position between genders appears to make them especially adept at bridging the gap beween White and Indian ways, without feeling that they have to choose between the two.

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