In this time of memory and honor around July 4th, citizens of the USA celebrate the Founding Fathers and their independence. That is well and good, but I invite you to honor and celebrate Nonhelema, in my view one of North America’s greatest leaders, our Founding Mother.
What? You never heard of her? Read on.
It is time for us to honor the Founding Mothers, and I refer here not only to the nation state we call the USA but to the continent our indigenous grandparents called Turtle Island. The sooner we can connect with the spirit of the land, the web of eco-fields, before the European invaders arrived, the better we will be able to make a return as humans to the cycle of life. One way to begin this return is to delve deeper into history, to a domain beneath accepted text books in our educational systems. We will have to acknowledge that most of our histories have been written by historians dominated by a European view of life. For this reason Nonhelema has been relegated to a footnote, if that.
The Cosmic Story of Nonhelema
Once we dive beneath the surface of history’s waters, we discover Nonhelema as an imposing figure to assist us in our journey of return. Swim into a brief narrative, actually a cosmic story of her life. Born in 1720, she sang her death song in 1786. Her life spanned what we revere as the American Revolution. She was 6’6” tall, and, early in her life, a fearsome warrior. She painted her body and fought nude in battle . Picture that for a moment. You are a British or American soldier, and you look up to see a 6’6” Amazon charging you in the buff, hair flowing in the wind on a painted horse.
No wonder her Shawnee name translates as “not-a-man.”
We have had many warrior leaders arise from our continent, including George Washington early on and Dwight Eisenhower in recent times, who made the transition to peaceful leaders as Presidents. Why would I think of Nonhelema as one our greatest leaders? Perhaps surpassing these more well known figures? Let’s proceed.
By the time she was forty, Nonhelema had a spiritual vision that led her to see that war would not settle issues between indigenous peoples, Great Britain, and the emerging American nation state. Based on her vision, she shifted from war and identified herself as a Peace Chief. For the rest of her life, she studied war no more. She never wavered even though her own people entreated her to return to the battlefield.
Her brother, Cornstalk, also was an able War Chief, but she convinced him to join her to support efforts of peace with the infant American state in 1776. In 1777 the United States government –- in a shocking turn of events –- murdered Cornstalk, thus setting a dangerous precedence of not only breaking agreements but destroying the very people capable of building a viable society. In spite of this dastardly act, Nonhelema continued to support efforts at linking indigenous tribes with the new American government. She believe not so much in the new Americans as she did in her vision of peace that grew out of her deep connection to the rivers and land that sprouted her. Indeed, she returned time and again to the wilderness to refresh and renew her vision and heal the wounds of grief over the loss of her beloved brother. Her spirit guides gave her a wide angle lens that allowed her to see beyond any of her male counterparts in either the indigenous or American state world.
Soon, this remarkable mother of peace made a heroic transition to the emergence of a new era. Born into a hunter/gatherer tribe, she now had to face the inundation of a capitalistic society. As part of her transition, she married an American citizen, Richard Butler, with whom she had a child. Together they built a thriving cattle business that made her one of the most influential persons in the nation’s struggling economy.
Although Nonhelema was still revered as a key chief of the Shawnee, a more conservative Shawnee contingent considered her a traitor for adapting to the “new ways.” Still, she persevered and insisted on being a link between vMemes, the indigenous people on the one hand and the newly arrived Europeans on the other. In retribution for her support of peace, various American, British, and tribal factions completely destroyed her considerable herds of cattle. Consistently, she sacrificed her personal life and wealth on behalf of the larger good.
She understood better and better how the new capitalistic system worked and in 1785 petitioned Congress for a 1,000 acre grant in Ohio as compensation for her support during the American Revolution. Although the Shawnee did not practice property ownership, Nonhelema had had under her care hundreds of thousands of acres, including much of Ohio and Illinois. She and her brother, Cornstalk, governed this vast region. So, the request for a 1,000 acres was quite humble. Congress responded by granting her a small pension of daily rations and an allotment of blankets. Blankets! Really?
Some historians see her support of the War of the American Revolution as being entirely crucial, especially on the Western Front. And for that key support, Congress insulted her. Some things never change. But I digress.
Consider this bifurcation point in the new nation. On the Eastern front, Ben Franklin was under the considerable influence of the Iroquois Confederacy. You recall that the Iroquois were the oldest democracy on the planet at the time, an honor some historians still bestow on them. They advocated face-to-face conversation as the seat of a primal politics, a balance of masculine and feminine principles deeply connected to the web of what I call the eco-fields. Women were not only included but also had very powerful positions.
On the Western front stood Nonhelema casting her large shadow of feminine influence. It is no stretch to describe her life at this time as an embodiment of the Divine Feminine. Her American husband died, and she returned to a more tribal lifestyle by marrying an esteemed Shawnee chief, Moluntha. By the close of her Earth walk, she was fluent in English, a translator of languages and cultures, and the author of an English/Shawnee dictionary. She continued to practice her shamanistic ways of healing individuals and also working tirelessly to heal the wounds between her Shawnee people and the newly minted government of the United States. She was a brilliant scholar, a mature healer, and peace activist.
Strangely and for reasons of “national security” General Benjamin Logan captured Nonhelema and her Shawnee husband, Moluntha, and threw them into prison at Ft. Pitt in 1896. Within a few days Moluntha was executed. Shocked and more aware members of congress and likely George Washington himself intervened to release Nonhelema. Her health broken and her energy zapped after the stay in prison, Nonhelema completed her journey on Earth that same year. Honored at the time by Daniel Boone and General George Rodgers Clark.
Brilliant as the Founding Fathers were, they ignored both the indigenous Mothers of the East in the Iroquois and the primal Mother of the West in Nonhelema, a choice that would lead to a tragic civil war and the repression of the sublime feminine with which we are still struggling.
This morning when I told this story to Judith, she commented with an ironic tone in her voice,”Now that’s a pleasant story for July 4th.” She speaks a truth. Part of our return as humans to the circle of life means looking with clear eyes at an adult version of our history. Not always pleasant. That said, Nonhelema is finally a story of profound compassion and love.
I personally have followed Nonhelema’s story for several reasons. One, being that she was, according to one source, a contemporary of Tilitha, my great grandmother who likely lived in a Shawnee village with Nonhelema. Whether that is historically valid or not, I look to these transitional women as founding mothers. I once heard Brian Swimme say that a mother’s love is the most powerful human example of cosmic love. Both Judith and I have been gifted with mothers who incarnate the Divine Feminine, so I find that existentially true. Now, I invite us all to honor and accept Nonhelema as a Founding Mother, one whose ancestral energy can assist us in our return to a deep connection with the land and all its creatures. There, we may find peace in the lap of our mother Earth.
Our Founding Fathers ignored the Divine Feminine to our detriment, saying the peace advocated by the Mothers was unrealistic. We are at the bifucation point once again. This time, may we choose the path of peace, affiliation, and collaboration. If so, we will make Nonhelema proud.