EarthThunder: Articles
Medicine Women

March 26th 2008 - EarthThunder:
Medicine Woman working for our wild planet

Like many Americans, I have some First Nation ancestry braided into my family roots. When I connected with a few of my tribal cousins, I started hearing stories about tiny groups of people who never surrendered to the U.S. army in the 1800's. Instead they slipped away into the wildest, most rugged regions of the West, and lived a secret life. For several generations, the Wild Ones managed to stay hidden -- never leaving a trace for any hiker to find, keeping fires tiny and only lit at night. By the 1930s, logging and recreational development of public lands was making it harder for them to stay hidden. Yet a few 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 2001, she emailed from Idaho to say that she'd read my Western historical novel "One Is the Sun."

In 200--, when I visited Boise to be grand marshal of Pride, EarthThunder and I met. She told me the story of her early years.


"After the Trail of Tears," EarthThunder told me, "many little groups of Cherokees dispersed in different directions, so they could stay off the reservations. My family stealthed their way into Idaho. About 40 were into hiding in the wild country south of here. I think I was born around January 1947. My parents had come out… they were indentured and working on a ranch, and were murdered because they had a child. Somehow they stashed me. A local sheriff found me. My grandmother heard from the Wild Wolves that I had lived, so she went and found the sheriff, and took me 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 in the Sawtooth Mountains, hunting and getting ready for winter. In fall, we made a 100-mile trek down to 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 did not know there were other humans living on our big planet."

We jumped into EarthThunder’s pickup, and she took me 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 slopes, through the great silence of a summer afternoon, past groves of gnarled old aspens thinking about their autumn colors, I was imagining the life 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. went to school, learned English and got used to technology. By sixth grade, she says, she already knew she loved other women -- her teacher was shocked when she innocently wrote an essay about women hunters marrying each other.

She was still in and out with the Wild Ones till age 19. When she finally told people about her childhood, many Idahoans scoffed and said there was no way a family could have traversed those rugged mountains.
However, a year ago, a pilot flew her over the Sawtooths in a small plane, and she was still able to pick out the tiny trail they’d followed over the summits, down to the Malad caves.


Eventually EarthThunder found her path in life as a Medicine Woman. She retains full enrollment as a Cherokee. Her clan elders gave her the name, 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 few 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 picked the word "medicine" as a handy translation for their idea of the sacred, of power -- meaning the ability to direct human energies or natural energies at will. In these Peoples' world, there was none of the Christian split into "sacred" and "secular." To First Peoples, everything is holy. 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 its great women of power. The bronze statue of Freedom that tops the Capitol dome in Washington, crowned with an eagle headdress, is in part a tribute to those women chiefs who governed equal to men in the Six Nations confederacy. This native democracy was friendly to our European founders, attending the Constitutional Convention and loaning some features of good government. Back in the day, American coins often featured Liberty wearing an eagle-feather bonnet -- as recently as 1932, our $10 gold piece carried this image.

As for Medicine Women, white historians have managed to ignore them too -- though some have left their footprints across the slope of mainstream written history. Notable are Pretty Shield of the Absaroka and Josephine Headswift Limpy of the Northern Cheyennes. Medicine Women have been political leaders, war chiefs, clan chiefs, healers, prophets, artists. While some tribes had patriarchal traditions that were hostile to females of power, other tribes held women as equal.


Why would these women be important to us? After all, according to conservative white historians, our country is supposedly founded on Biblical Christian principles, a positioning that leaves no room for other ways of looking at life. Yet the contribution of Medicine Women who were healers, for example, is braided gently into our national heritage. Example: 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 settlers' because tribal women doctors shared with newcomers the secrets of how to prepare and use these plant drugs.

Once the First Peoples were pushed into those concentration 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 crush the learned women.

Only in the underground on the reservations, or in isolated pockets like the one where Earth Thunder 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 disciplines, 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, with new interest in the spiritual ways of First Peoples. 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 under terrible onslaught by global climate change and human influence. 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, she is among those battling to save America’s wild wolves, in gratitude for the Wolf Medicine around her rescue at birth. She travels to speak at international conferences, and 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 everything from marriage to death, as well as wilderness teachings. She’s also involved in LGBT activism.

Like so many today, Earth Thunder touches her planet with a website and e-list. Her weekly emails start with a cheery "O si yo" (Cherokee for hello), and go on to information about everything from healthy diet (raw foods recommended) to good recycling practice, to ceremonies that any individual can do for themselves. Phone calls are punctuated with her chuckles and howls of laughter -- humor is important.

As an tribal cousin of mine says, "If you can laugh, you've already won."

Contact Member:

Boise, Idaho 83703-3465
United States
GrandMother Earth, all womyns