In the Beginning was . . . The Mother By Carol Flinders

The following is a guest post written by Carol Flinders, Ph.D.  Carol received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of California at Berkeley and has authored multiple books including Enduring Grace: Living Portraits of Seven Women MysticsAt the Root of This Longing: Reconciling a Spiritual Hunger and a Feminist Thirst;  Rebalancing the World; and Enduring Lives. She has taught at UC, Berkeley, and at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and gives workshops and lectures nationally and internationally. Carol is a Fellow of the Spirituality and Health Institute, Santa Clara University and is currently adjunct faculty at the Sophia Center in Culture and Spirituality, Holy Names University, Oakland, CA.

The word matrix  comes, of course, from the Latin root mater. Its literal meaning is “womb,” but it can also refer to the fine-grained portion of aggregate rock, the “glue” that holds the rest together.

It was probably this latter sense of the word that a resident of Littleton, Colorado, had in mind when she was interviewed after the Columbine shootings in 1999 and spoke about “the stunning erosion of our social matrix.”

When we get it right, she seemed to be saying, in the family, or community, or nation, an invisible container or force field comes into being that keeps everyone safe.  Something like this was implicit in the definition of matriarchy Peggy Sanday offered here a few weeks ago: “A balanced social system in which both sexes play key roles founded on maternal social principles.” 

It meant everything to me back in 1999 to discover that my own bioregion had been characterized by just such a social system for probably seven or eight thousand years.

I live in West Marin County, inhabited mostly by Coastal  Miwoks. Closer to San Francisco, were the Ohlone people. To the north, and east, were the Pomos. Most of what I want to say today concerns the Pomos, and Pomo women in particular, but a birthing custom honored by the Ohlone people speaks volumes about the kind of “key role” a man might play in the sort of “balanced social system” Sanday associates with matriarchy.

As soon as a woman’s labor commenced, her husband would dig a trench five or six feet long, line it with smooth stones, and build a fire in it. When the fire died down, he would sweep out the ashes and fill it quickly with freshly cut grasses and herbs. Soft deerskins would be piled on top, and once the baby arrived, mother and child would rest for the next few days on this lingeringly warm and fragrant bed. . .

My 200x book  The Values of Belonging, a.k.a. Rebalancing the World, begins with a tribute to the weavers of Pomo baskets:

“From sedge grass roots, willow shoots, and the bark of the redbud tree, stripped, peeled, painstakingly treated and cured, women of the Pomo tribe in Northern California wove baskets of extraordinary beauty and complexity. The fact of those baskets and the women who made them, fasting and praying, as scrupulous of their mental states as they were of the coiled bundles of root and bark with which they worked, sustains me . . .”

My infatuation with all things Pomo began with a visit to the Grace Hudson Museum in Ukiah. Set out among the baskets displayed there were enlarged photos of the weavers, including Elsie Allen (1899-1990), who had led the revival of Pomo basketry and whose dedication was the reason this collection existed. She had had to break with a longstanding tribal tradition to do it:  a Pomo woman’s baskets were believed to be so much a part of her that they were customarily buried with her. As I walked around the museum that day, I learned the difference between coiling and twining, and what it means when you see a tiny break in one of the colored bands that circle a basket (it’s the dau, or spirit door, that allows Spider Woman free access so that she can check on your work), or a bit of reddish brown worked into a band of lighter color (your period just started; time to drop everything and rest).

Some baskets – decorated with abalone shell, feathers, and beads – were for wedding gifts, or ceremonial use – others were for storage of food, and clothing – others were to be used in healing work – but all of them –except the ones made for collectors! – were seen as sacred because life itself was sacred.

Before the catastrophic arrival of white settlers, life was relatively comfortable for the Pomos, who migrated seasonally between the coastline and the oak meadows of the interior, enjoying a diet of fish and shellfish, small game, acorn mush, roots, seeds, fruits, and greens. They lived in a balanced complexity that allowed them to prosper and live in harmony. The archaeological record indicates unusually low levels of armed conflict.

Yet the population was extremely dense. Nowhere on the continent had so many Indians lived so closely with as much linguistic diversity.  The Pomos themselves spoke seven related but mutually incomprehensible languages. Linguistic differences had broken the region up into innumerable tiny patches, but over time, bonds of trust and affiliation had been thrown out across lines of difference. Neighboring tribes that didn’t speak the same language could meet nonetheless for all-night “sings,” because of a shared body of songs made up of words whose meanings nobody even knew anymore, borrowed from a third language or, informants say, from spirit or animal language.

Nothing you could call a “goddess culture” existed around here, but nothing like a “god culture” did either. Just an ordinary, unlabored sense of respectful mutuality and interdependence.

“As the symbolic originators,” Peggy Sanday says of matriarchy, “ women, in their roles as mothers and senior women, are the performers of practices that authenticate and regenerate or, to use a term that is closer to the ethnographic details, nurture the social order.”

Exactly. While Pomo women inherited the patterns for most of their baskets from their mothers and grandmothers, they also received them in dreams. A basket was regarded as a living being, and an extension of the woman who made it – I remember one weaver saying she could look at the “eye” of the basket – its starting point – and guess the state of mind of the woman who was weaving it.

To describe the Pomo basketry tradition as sacramental feels particularly appropriate when we remember sixteenth century Anglican Richard Hooker’s definition of a sacrament, as “the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”

5 thoughts on “In the Beginning was . . . The Mother By Carol Flinders”

  1. Wish I had learned this a child studying California history. All I can remember is being taught that California Indians don’t exist any more, went around naked, and didn’t have a culture worthy of note. (sigh)

    Nothing like a Goddess culture? I suppose it depends on what you mean by Goddess culture. There may not have been a high transcendent monotheistic Goddess comparable to the God of let us say Aquinas, but when were Goddesses ever figures like that? Paula Gunn Allen considered Spider Woman and Thought Woman to be “Goddess” figures with the understanding that they are not apart from everything but rather a part of everything.


  2. Good point, Carol — I probably misspoke. Only that most of the explanations of the “dau” that I ran across didn’t even say Spider Woman but something much vaguer like “the spirits.” The emphasis in most of what I read seemed to be on the Ancestors, the Plant Spirits, etc., and a kind of pervasive sense of the sacredness of Everything. Maybe someone who’s Pomo could help us out?


  3. Greetings! Absolutely loved this article. 30 years ago while living in San Francisco I attempted to reasearch the various groups of indigenous people who previously lived in this region. What struck me was the transient nature of the Pomos, Miwoks and I think even the Ohlones. The ability for these groups to co-habitate peacefully, especially given the linguistic challenges. What struck me even then, was that this geographical area in some way (the natural energy of the land or environment?) still reflected this type of transient, easy going style of life. Back in the 70’s San Francisco (and still is) had a very transient population, people coming and going constantly and at that time was relatively peaceful.
    Yes, they lived in balanced complexity and perhaps did not also have a strong God/Goddess belief system. Perhaps this was not an issue. What’s of importance is the societal balance, the belief in the sacredness in life and the quality of life they obviously created. Great article, loved the description of the earth bed for mother and child and the basket weaving! Blessings, Michele Braun:)


    1. Thanks, Michelle — and to balance out the sweetness of the story about the “earth bed” for new mother and child I wish I had Greg Sarris’ book Keeping Slug Woman Alive at hand for the spectacularly terrifying Pomo legend of Slug Woman who chases down men who are cavalier about the custom of staying very close to their wives for the requisite week or two after childbirth — worthy of Stephen King!


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