Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Corn Mother and Collaboration

"Cornmother" mask worn by Kathy Huhtahluta in "Restoring the Balance", 2004

"Indigenous people have always known corn metaphorically in two or more of the four senses, mother, enabler, transformer, healer; that I use throughout this weaving. Although early European settlers took the grain only, there is evidence in America today that the Corn-Mother has taken barriers of culture and language in stride and intimated her spirit to those who will listen, even if they don't know her story or call her by name."

Marilou Awiakta, "The Corn-Mother Incognito. Or Is She?"
from SELU - Seeking the Corn-Mother's Wisdom
 A friend of mine is writing her dissertation on art and shamanism, and wanted to use my story about Corn Mother's Mask.  Since I'm now working with my proposal to create a new collection of Masks of the Goddess, I wanted to share again this story, although I know I published it before a few years ago.  I think it's a story worth re-telling.

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I remember a documentary about a famous Hopi potter, who said that she saw patterns and motifs when she went walking in the morning, and they just wouldn't leave her alone until she "wrote" them into her pots. I wondered what it meant to be an artist whose work was attuned to a long tradition of transmission - a purposeful thread woven into the fabric of daily life, not just for one's assertion of individuality, but in service to the tribe, the ancestors, the goddesses and gods..........perhaps not unlike the Icon painters I learned about at Wesley, or the traditional mask makers of Bali, the work is a meditation, a prayer,  a devotional activity. 

This morning I thought about "the greater collaboration", not just among colleagues, but also with what Bill Moyers called "invisible support", the synchronicities that engage others in the creative process.  This story happened when I was working with the Masks of the Goddess collection in 2002.

"Myth comes alive as it enters the cauldron of evolution, 
itself drawing energy from the storytellers who shape it." 
Elizabeth Fuller, The Independent Eye Theatre

"Corn Mother" has many names throughout the Americas - She is the ubiquitious and generous sustainer, the "Demeter" of this continent. The Cherokee Corn Mother is called Selu, and her story is one of sacrifice and renewal, with compassion for her children, who through fear and ignorance  attempt to  destroy the very source that sustains them. It is a myth with significance for our time.

In 2002, I had given the collection of masks to choreographer Mana Youngbear, who was directing a performance in Oakland. I had no idea of what she was creating,  but planned to attend the show. About a month before her event, I attended an unrelated event at the University of Creation Spirituality (now the Naropa Institute) in Oakland.  Organized by Evelie Posche, and supported by theologian Matthew Fox, the ritual event was dedicated to the Divine Feminine, and included a long and  moving meditation about the wounding of the Feminine in Western religions, led by a woman minister. She spoke of the tragedy of the Inquisition, the Burning Times. I sat cross-legged on the floor, surrounded in the darkness by people.

Yet when I closed my eyes, I vividly saw something that had nothing to do with the ceremony I was participating in. I saw a Native American woman, wearing a deerskin costume, dancing with an ear of corn in each hand. I opened my eyes - and there were 300 people, most of them weeping.  Closed my eyes, and there was the corn dancer.  This continued throughout the meditation, and was so strange and vivid to me that I decided to make a mask about her. I placed ears of corn on each side of the face, and as I worked, it occurred to me to paint a rainbow on the mask's forehead, a hopeful symbol of  the "Rainbow Tribe" our world was becoming.

A week before the performance, Mana told me there was one dancer in her cast, Christy Salo, who had no mask. Christy had wanted to create a dance to honor the Cherokee legend of Selu.   Now, it seemed,  she had her mask! And when Christy danced at Mana's performance,  she blessed the audience with corn meal, completing the circle for all of us.***

Here's the interview I taped with Christy after the performance.

Christy as "Selu", (2002)
"I made a bouquet of corn for Mana and Stephen's wedding, with a necklace of rainbow beads on it I bought at a garage sale, the same bouquet I used later to dance Green Corn Woman at our performance. The wedding was at a retreat in California, and after the ceremony, I met a woman walking about the property. She told me she really didn't know why she was there! She had been heading to Oakland, and felt an urge to turn off the road. When she drove by the sign for the center, she impulsively pulled in. And there she was, in a lovely place with a wedding in progress. As we talked, I realized she was the woman I bought the rainbow beads from, the same beads that were decorating Manna's bouquet, even as we spoke! I like to think she was a touchstone on my journey to Cornmother.


Mana is part Cherokee, so perhaps that was why she asked me if I wanted to dance Cornmother when she cast her show. We didn't have a mask for the Corn Goddess, but I was inspired to create a dance anyway. I knew very little about Her, and meant to do some research at the library, but a friend turned up with a wonderful book called BROTHER CROW, SISTER CORN full of indigenous corn legends. I also stopped at a used bookstore, and opening a rather esoteric book at random, discovered I was looking at an article about the Corn Maiden. I was stunned to learn it was illustrated by Vera Louise Drysdale, the first woman I met, years ago, when I lived in Sedona. With that, I sensed I was ready to begin.


I felt I was following an invisible, mythic thread - and the feeling of familiarity continued as I created a costume. I looked for materials associated with Corn Mother, and within a few days, Manna had left me a message. "Christy" she said, "There's a Hopi woman at Isis Oasis you need to meet! She gave me some 300 year old corn meal to give to you!" I felt the spirit of Corn Woman encouraging me indeed!


Corn Mother's story represents the wealth that comes from the hard work of forgiveness. How can we be fed, how can we create peace, if we cannot learn the lessons of forgiveness, if we cannot learn tolerance for our differences? That is the beginning place we will need in order to evolve into a peaceful Rainbow Nation. To me, the Rainbow as actually a circle. Half the rainbow disappears into the ground, into an underworld realm, where it exists beneath the Earth, hidden, but at the foundation never the less. Like the Corn Mother. We're all Her children, especially in America, with our mixed bloodlines. We have "rainbow blood".


We received the new mask at the time of the lunar eclipse, in May of 2002, and decided at that auspicious time to consecrate it with some dried corn. As we did, a flash of light went off in the room! At first we thought it was a light bulb, but looking around, realized there were no electric lights on in that room. We looked at each other amazed, and we felt the presence of Corn Mother."

** Elizabeth Fuller, Conrad Bishop, "The Independent Eye" Theatre

*** There's a funny postscript - in the summer of 2010 I went to Willits to visit Mana, who was having a big yard sale with Christy.  As I walked up to visit, Christy was behind her table selling a tray to someone that was decorated throughout with a corn motif. I guess that's the weaving of our connection to each other!

3 comments:

Trish and Rob MacGregor said...

Very cool story. Some telekinetic energy!

Trish and Rob MacGregor said...

rob snatched away that article you sent and hasn't relinquished it in 3 days. I can't wait to read it.

Lauren said...

I'm glad he liked it! I think Gloria Orenstein is an amazing woman and writer, not as well known as she deserves to be I think.......