Patricia Nell Warren

EarthThunder: Medicine Woman working for our planet

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | March 25, 2008 5:32 AM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Living, Living, The Movement
Tags: First Nations, First Peoples, medication, women's history

Like many Americans, I have some First Nation ancestry braided with the European ancestry in my family roots. When I connected with a few tribal cousins, I started hearing stories about family groups back in the 1800s who had never surrendered to the U.S. Army. Instead they slipped off into the wildest, most rugged regions of the West. For several generations, the Wild Ones managed to stay hidden -- never leaving a trace for hikers or forest rangers to find, keeping fires tiny and only lit at night. By the 1930s, logging and recreational development of public lands was making it harder to keep their secret. Yet a few families held on till the 1950s.

I thrilled at those stories, and never dreamed that I would ever meet someone who was born a Wild One...till I met EarthThunder.

Around 2002, she emailed me from Idaho to say she'd read my Western historical novel One Is the Sun. Not long after, when I visited Boise to be grand marshal of Pride, EarthThunder and I met, and she told me the story of her childhood.


"After the Trail of Tears," EarthThunder told me, "some Cherokees dispersed in different directions, so they could stay off the reservations. My family stealthed their way into Idaho. About 40 of us were in hiding in the Sawtooth Mountains south of here. I think I was born around January 1947. My parents had gone out...they were indentured and working on a ranch. They were murdered because they had a child. Somehow they had stashed me and a local sheriff found me. My grandmother heard from the Wild Wolves that I was alive, so she went and found the sheriff, and took me back into the mountains.

"I was raised by my grandfather and his four grandfathers, and my grandmother and 3 of her grandmothers. In summer we camped at 8000 feet, hunting and getting ready for winter. In fall, we made a 100-mile trek along a little trail over the mountains, down into the Malad gorge at 3000+ feet, where we spent the winter in the caves there, with plenty of dried rabbit and deer. From birth to age 11, I grew up speaking only Cherokee. I didn't know there were other humans living on our big planet."

EarthThunder and I jumped into her pickup, and she took me up into the Sawtooths. Today the area is a 2.1-million-acre national forest, still one of the wildest and most magnificent regions left in the U.S. As we walked along the mountain slopes, through the silence of a summer afternoon, past groves of gnarled old aspens that were thinking about their autumn colors, I imagined a large family living up there without any technical support from the rest of the planet, never reading a newspaper or listening to a radio.

As we watched the little rivers rushing, EarthThunder said sadly, "The salmon and steelheads are mostly gone now. There used to be so many, I could catch them with my hands."

When EarthThunder first left the mountains, her encounters with the outside world were shocking to her. She went to school, learned English and got used to technology. By sixth grade, she already knew she loved other women -- her teacher was shocked when she innocently wrote an essay about women hunters marrying each other. Till age 19, she was still going back out to spend time with her wild family.


Eventually EarthThunder found her life-trail as a Medicine Woman. She retains full enrollment as a Cherokee. Her clan elders gave her the name, which is a traditional one.

She says: "I am a Tsalagi, a vessel of dreams of those who walked before, and empowered by Elders' repository of Teachings, 35th generation." She talks about the Thread Peoples, meaning those like herself who hold living threads that link to a pre-industrial consciousness, when humans had more clarity about living in balance with Wildness.

What is a Medicine Woman, anyway?

As the conquered Peoples learned English, they saw the word "medicine" as a handy translation for their idea of the sacred, of personal power -- meaning the ability to direct human energies or natural energies at will. In the Peoples' world, there was none of the Christian split into "sacred" and "secular." To First Peoples, everything is Medicine. Everything is one with everything else.

Mainstream white historians have usually blown off First Nation women, often portraying them as servile, pathetic figures. Yet the First Nation world had -- and still has -- its great women of power. The bronze statue of Freedom that tops the Capitol dome in Washington D.C., is crowned with an eagle headdress. In part the statue is a tribute to those women chiefs who governed equal to men in the Six Nations confederacy. This tribal democracy was friendly to America's founders, attending the Constitutional Convention and sharing some ideas about good government. Later, the ancient trading routes through deserts and across mountain ranges were sometimes shown to whites by influential women like Sacajawea, who belonged to a powerful Shoshoni family and led the Lewis and Clark expedition across the West. Today's highways often follow these old routes.

As for Medicine Women, most white historians have managed to ignore them too -- though some of these women left their trail across the mountains of mainstream written history. Examples: Pretty Shield of the Absarokas and Josephine Headswift Limpy of the Northern Cheyennes. Medicine Women have been political figures, war leaders, clan chiefs, healers, prophets, teachers, artists. While some tribes had patriarchal hostility towards females of power, other tribes held women in awe and great regard.


Why would these women be important to our history? After all, according to conservative historians, America is supposedly founded on Biblical teachings that leave no room for other ways of looking at life.

Yet the contribution of Medicine Women who were healers, for example, is braided gently all through our national heritage -- in the medical arts. In the U.S. Pharmacopeia today, 220 North American medicinal plants are listed. They found their way into usage with white colonists and pioneer settlers because tribal women doctors shared with these newcomers the secrets of how to prepare and use these plant drugs.

When First Peoples were pushed into the prison camps called "reservations," they came under fierce pressure from Christian missionaries. They were forced to attend church and send their children to government schools. Gradually the new generations lost much of the knowledge that their traditions had cherished through thousands of years. Since the Bible says that women are forbidden to speak, missionaries took extra steps to silence Medicine Women.

Only in the underground on reservations, or in isolated pockets like the one where EarthThunder grew up in, was old knowledge and wisdom preserved.

Few Americans today realize that the First Amendment didn't apply to the tribes till just recently. Federal law outlawed the old ceremonies and prohibited healers from practicing the old medical arts, like herbal and crystal healing. If you got caught, you were sent to prison for "practicing medicine without a license."

By the late 1970s, however, when EarthThunder was in her 30s, court decisions struck down many of these bans.

At that time, the New Age movement was getting under way, and there was new interest in the spiritual ways of First Peoples all over the world. A number of Medicine Women and Medicine Men decided to share the old teachings with any non-Indians who came seeking with a "good heart." Today, that decision remains controversial with some in the First Nation world, who feel strongly that traditional information should not be shared with outsiders.

EarthThunder's position is this: "I do not speak for other First Nation Peoples or my reservation. I only speak of my families' stories."


Now around 61, EarthThunder doesn't live in the past. Her daily life is a living bridge between that wild ancient world where she grew up, where people were one with Mother Earth, and the post-millennial world where Earth is being slammed by global climate change and human disruption. She works at renewing that Tsalagi consciousness into the present, and putting it to work here.

"I am in privilege to work for our wild planet," she says.

Deeply involved in the green movement, EarthThunder is also helping to save America's wild wolves, in gratitude for the Wolf Medicine that touched her life at birth. As the wolves do, she travels long distances -- but to speak at international conferences. She has visited First Peoples in Australia, who have their own history of wild bands surviving in the outback.

At her Idaho home base, EarthThunder does counseling on wellness, relationships, prosperity and death, as well as wilderness teachings -- all drawn from her learnings with her wild family. She's also involved in LGBT activism.

Like so many today, EarthThunder does her work with a website and e-list. Her emails start with a cheery "O si yo" (Cherokee for hello). They share information about everything from healthy diet to ceremonies that anyone can do for themselves, to activist alerts on legislation that needs support. Phone calls are punctuated with her chuckles and howls of laughter -- humor is important.

When EarthThunder talks about her wild childhood, some Idahoans scoff and say there's no way that a family could have trekked over those rugged mountains into the Malad gorge. "But a year ago," she told me, "a pilot flew me over the Sawtooths in a small plane. I looked down there...I looked and looked, and finally spotted that tiny trail that we always followed. It's still there."

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What's the link to her website? I'd like to join the mailing list.

What a wonderful thing. Human beings can have dignity and life can have meaning without civilization as we know it.

Patricia, thanks for sharing this. Your posts for WHM have been awesome!

I love learning about women who have preserved the old ways. This is so typical of Western colonialism, that women's knowledge is outlawed. It's cool that Earth Thunder is involved in so many different levels of sharing that knowledge.

There are many of us who keep the old ways not just the Native Peoples.In the west and even in the east there are places that have never seen a human so it is very possible for a small family to live and never be seen.So for all who keep the old ways and build bridges with the new Hail and well meet!


For the older groups of Wild Ones, there was a big difference between what they were doing, and a family of today that may try to live "away from it all" as much as possible.

The federal government had treatied with the tribes as foreign nations. Therefore the conquered peoples had the status of "foreign nationals" and therefore were legally prisoners of war for some time. The road to U.S. citizenship was long and difficult (unless you married a white person, which some did), and universal citizenship was not granted till 1924.

Yet even after that, the tribes were legally wards of the government. An individual's life and affairs -- property, finances, etc. -- were under scrutiny and control of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. To belong to a tribe, you had to be "enrolled," meaning you or your immediate ancestors had to be recorded on early-day head counts done on the reservation.

So the Wild Ones who finally started coming in from the cold faced a huge struggle to deal with the bureaucracy that had been built around their ethnicity.