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Indigenous grandmothers share stories, songs and wisdom about preserving Mother Earth

Wisdom and tears flowed freely on stage in Bailey Hall Auditorium Oct. 5 when members of the International Council of 13 Indigenous Grandmothers spoke from their hearts.

In a three-hour public ceremony to a nearly full auditorium, the elderly women shared songs and prayers from their cultures and described their advocacies for nonviolence, environmental protection, indigenous health and water quality, among other causes.

The 13 indigenous women -- from traditional communities around the globe -- came together for the first time in 2004 in Phoenicia, N.Y. There they formed an alliance to work toward common goals, which include "prayer, education and healing for our Mother Earth, all her inhabitants, all the children and for the next seven generations to come," as outlined in their mission statement.

Eight of the 13 grandmothers visited Cornell for the ceremony, including members from Tibet, Central America, northern Alaska and the western United States. Seated in a row of armchairs, wearing the brilliant colors of their traditional dress, the grandmothers passed the microphone down the line, speaking in turn about their concerns -- both for the globe and for their communities.

"Everyone must work together so that more powerful nations don't take advantage of smaller ones," said Tsering Dolma Gyaltong from Tibet.

Mona Polacca, a Hopi elder from Arizona, spoke about her work to develop a global indigenous forum for water and peace. "In the U.S., we often overlook how precious water is ... when you take your first drink of water after this, take a moment to give thanks to it," she said.

Agnes Baker Pilgrim, the eldest member of the Takelma Indians of Oregon, shared thoughts on age: "Being an elder isn't for wimps -- you've gotta be tough! With the 13 of us, we have almost 1,000 years of wisdom!" she said.

Women from local indigenous communities spoke as well, including Freida Jacques from the Onondaga Nation, who shared lessons of peace from her tradition. Her stories emphasized the value of a strong mind in coming through loss and pain without turning to hate or violence.

Kasti Cook, a midwife from the Mohawk Nation, spoke about the power of birth and peace: "The prenatal environment is where the notion of peace begins for all of us -- we know now that as the fetus's development is based on what the mother feels and fears," she said.

The ceremony ended with a solo vocal performance by Star Nayea, who -- the night before -- had won Songwriter of the Year at the 2008 Native American Music Awards. Her songs, which were inspired by her searching for a homeland after being displaced from her tribe as a baby, drew tears and long hugs from the grandmothers on stage.

The event was sponsored by the Women's Gathering of Groton in collaboration with Cornell United Religious Work; Center for Transformative Action; American Indian Program at Cornell; African, Latino, Asian, Native American Programming Board; Cornell Women's Center; Office of the Dean of Students; and Multicultural Resource Center.

Graduate student Melissa Rice is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.

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