PBS Online Film Festival


Without a Whisper

Explore the untold story of how Indigenous women influenced the early suffragists in their fight for freedom and equality. Mohawk Clan Mother Louise Herne and Professor Sally Roesch Wagner shake the foundation of the established history of the women’s rights movement in the US joining forces to shed light on the hidden history of the influence of Haudenosaunee Women on the women’s rights movement.

AIRED: July 12, 2021 | 0:26:48

[underwater sounds]

-[ Singing in Native language ]




-I would pay a million dollars to know what my grandmothers,

great grandmothers were doing when Columbus arrived,

or when the Revolutionary War was going on,

or when the War of 1812 was going on through here.

I would give anything to know

what those women were going through.

It was never written about.

We have to go in search of,

and almost have to begin, at this point,

to tell our stories,

so that we leave a really rich inheritance

for our great-great granddaughters

and our great-great grandsons.


[ Horns honk in distance ]


-Give me your arm. -Yeah, take my arm.

[ Indistinct conversations ]


[ Conversations continue ]

-Women's rights began with suffragists.

-That is a major myth.

The reality is that women had political voice on this land

a thousand years ago.

-[ Woman cheers ] [ Scattered cheers ]

[ Applause ]

-And that is not past tense,

because Louise carries on

a thousand-year-old tradition.

-Growing up, I learned about, I think, Susan B. Anthony

and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, maybe.

I had no idea that Native women, in fact,

had political power in this country long before.

-I remember growing up and listening to the grandmas,


them hearing about feminism.

My grandma would say, "We're not feminists.

We're the law."

[ Laughter and applause ]

-[ Singing in Native language ]



-[ Speaking Native language ]

-When the Statue of Liberty was unveiled

in New York Harbor in 1886,

they said, "Look at the hypocrisy here.

Liberty is represented as a woman

in a country where not a single woman

has political liberty."

[ Crowd cheering ]


-The women's rights movement was born here

in Seneca Falls in 1848,

and I'm proud that we live up to the legacy in New York.

[ Crowd cheering ]

-[ Speaking Native language ]

Greetings to you today

on behalf of the Mohawk Nation

and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.

Truly, today is a day of change.

But it's not about history, it's about her story.

[ Crowd cheering ]

And in her story, she's going to say

youse all been lied to.

Because it didn't begin here.

We had the right to choose our leadership.

And men became leaders only through the uterine voice

that said it to be so.

[ Cheers and applause ]

Imagine if that was in your Constitution.

[ Laughter ]

And for some reason,

my grandmothers

didn't even have a whisper in her story.

-[ Singing in Native language ]

-When I just hang out with Haudenosaunee women,

I come away a different woman.

[ Laughter ]

Because there are ways that you're strong.

You know that you have a right to be in the world.



I didn't set out to look for the influence

of the Haudenosaunee on the women's rights movement.

It did not enter my mind that Native women

could teach women anything.

How could this have gone on with nobody writing about it?


When Penguin Classics came to me saying,

"We're thinking of doing a suffrage anthology.

What would you like to see?"

I want a story that begins not with white women

and not in Seneca Falls.

I want the origins of the women's rights movement

on the soil of this land.

My thought was,

they're not going to publish something like this.

It is way too far out of the mainstream.

[ Dogs barking ]


[ Barking continues ]

-Hey! -Hey!

-[ Speaks indistinctly ] -Hello.

-Oh, how are you? -How are you?

-Good. -Mm.

Here you go, Sally. It's my Peruvian slippers.

-Oh, thank you. Those are beautiful.

-If you click it twice, you'll --

-Gee. -...you'll go to...

-I'll go to Peru? -[Laughs] You'll go to Peru.

[ Laughter ]

But yeah, we just got done a bear clan meeting, and...

-Ah. -Just finished that.

Caught my breath for a half hour.

-So busy. -It is. It's super busy.

You have to have a drink of sap water.

-Maple water. -I'd love to.

[ Water pours ]

-There you go. -Ah.

-Liquid gold. -Thank you.

Yeah. -Right out of the --

the wealth of our trees that are really important.

This is my world. -Wow.

-This is me as a baby.


This is someone who is taking the world pretty seriously.

[ Laughter ]

-That's my M.O. -Oh, that's great.

-We need to be serious about this...life.


[ Birds chirping ]

Our creation story begins with a woman.

She fell from the sky world,

pregnant and carrying with her seeds and roots.

The birds carried her

and placed her on a turtle's back.

[ Birds squawking ]

She spread a handful of dirt, and danced,

and the turtle grew into our Mother Earth.

Everything in our worldview

is vested in the life-giving force of women.

She had a destiny to fulfill,

and it was through her story that the Earth came to be.

So everything in our longhouse,

in our ceremonies, replays that.

-The sort of equivalent of Sky Woman,

the creation story --

he is lonely.

He creates woman out of man's rib.

So we don't have an original identity.

We are the helpmate of man.

That set the stage for law.


If we're looking at the time period

right before the first women's rights convention

in 1848 in Seneca Falls,

they socially lived in isolated households.

They owned nothing.

The children that they bore were not theirs.

Because once they married,

everything became the property of their husbands.

It wasn't possible for women to get divorced

during this time period,

and the idea was that marriage was a covenant with God,

and you couldn't break it.

Husbands had the right to beat their wives

as long as they inflicted no permanent damage.

Women in the United States had no political voice.

They were dead in the law.

And they could not sue or be sued.

They couldn't serve on a jury.

They had no political influence in the government in any way.

-[ Singing in Native language ]


-This belt that I'm holding,

it's referred to as a wampum belt.

This is the way in which

we visually recorded our important history.

This confederacy is located within what today

we call New York State.

We range all the way

from the westernmost part of New York State

to the eastern part of the state.

Some call us the Iroquois.

Some refer to us as the Six Nations.

To ourselves, we are Haudenosaunee.

Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson saw that

we have a representational form of government

because they attended treaty councils

and they saw how we made decisions.

The clan mothers are there to make sure that the chiefs

are acting in the best interests of the people,

sort of a balance of power of men and women.

And it's the women who nominate these leaders.

-The first generals with Washington,

in meeting with our chiefs,

noted that our chiefs would not make a decision

without counseling with the women.

He called them "petticoat chiefs"

because he thought it was a spectacle.

His European mind could not comprehend why it is

that men would confer with women

when trying to make a political decision.


-Before the year 1687,

the year that it was destroyed by the French,

we would have seen, first of all,

about 150 bark longhouses.

The domain of men, it's really the woods.


Everything inside of the clearing --

the gardens and the house -- belonged to the women.


The duties and responsibilities of a woman

really centered around food

because they were really the primary agriculturalists.

They grew our three sisters -- corn, beans, and squash.

It's the central role of women to bring life,

you know, into this world, and that is powerful.

-I can only imagine

what it was like in the villages,

in the fields a long time ago.

[ Crickets and birds chirping ]


Our villages were arranged by clients.

Inside each longhouse was a network of women

from one clan family.

-[ Speaking Native language ]

-There was a balance between the roles of men and women.

-[ Baby fusses ]

-When daughters would marry,

their husbands of a different clan

would move in with her and her entire clan family.

-Abuse of women was almost nonexistent,

and if a man could not follow that sort of rule,

he might come home and find outside of the door

all of his belongings,

indicating it was time for him to move on.

-Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote with wonder

about what it was for Haudenosaunee women

to be able to just put the belongings

outside the longhouse, and that was the end of it.

That if a husband misbehaved, it was --

that was a vision of,

could that even be possible in this world?

-The suffragettes from, you know,

Mott to Cady Stanton,

all of them have things written and published about them.

We simply don't because our history

has been left out all these years.

-Good afternoon.

Thank you for coming to Women's Rights National...


-If you're so deeply embedded

in being told religiously

and socially and biologically that you're inferior,

and that's all you see around you,

you can't imagine that things could be different.


These women had to see something that told them

that it was possible to have a different world

and to be treated in a different way.

And so in 1848, Lucretia Mott comes from Cattaraugus.

She's met with the Seneca women.

And she would probably have been pouring out the vision of,

"You know what I just saw?"

-[ Speaking Native language ]

-"I just saw women having political voice.

I just saw women having spiritual voice."

So she's seeing something that is like,

"Here is a vision of the way the world can be created."

-Definitely, you cannot deny the fact

that many of their ideas,

their philosophies that they fought for

for women's rights came from Haudenosaunee women

because the women's rights movement,

the suffragists were from New York State.


Their location in Seneca Falls,

right in the heart of our indigenous territory.

That has to be significant in itself.

Why didn't they choose New York City or Washington?

-Matilda Joslyn Gage, who lived in Fayetteville,

in 1893 was given an honorary adoption

in the Wolf clan of the Mohawk Nation.

She writes to her daughter, "My sisters are considering me

for a voice in the Council of Matrons,

which would give me a say in the choosing of the chief,

would give me a political voice, as all the women have."

She talks about the Haudenosaunee

and she says, "Never was justice more perfect.

Never was civilization higher."


It took women 72 years

to finally be guaranteed the right to vote

in the Constitution of the United States.


[ Crowd cheering ]



-[ Singing in Native language ]


-As the women in America were gaining power,

the right to vote, more freedom for speech,

our women were losing a lot of the power

that they had held traditionally.

-[ Singing continues ]


-The children who were here were forcibly isolated

from their families.

They took away their culture,

they stripped them of their language,

they didn't teach their own history to them.


This is a picture that I actually found

in the New York State Archives, and what you see

is my mother pictured here in the second row,

the second one from the left.

One thing that she remembers,

you could hear the crying at night.

And here's a picture of where you can see

how the boys were taught farming skills.

The women in our Haudenosaunee society

were always the ones who took the seeds and planted them.

That complete gender role reversal happened

as a result of the boarding schools,

and also partially as a result of placing us on smaller

and smaller pieces of land called reservation.

-[ Singing in Native language ]


-Under this full moon here under the winter solstice...


...you know, we gather here

in, like, a feminine force

in order to share with each other,

to acknowledge each other.

Besides being a wife, a mother, a grandmother,

I'm a clan mother,

so I take seriously my position and I sincerely care

about the maternal child wellness in our community.

And because of everything that's happened to us,

we have forgotten.

We have forgotten our rightful place in our societies.

So in this generation,

I want to make everybody reclaim their rightful place.

But part of reclaiming that authority also means

responsibility about how to be responsible for that.

-I notice a lot in, at least as a youth,

that there's a lot of intergenerational trauma,

but we don't realize it until we're older,

and we don't really know how to deal with that.

-Be part of this generation that rethinks itself,

redesigns itself, and get away from those stereotypical norms

of what everybody thinks an indigenous woman is.

You know, because there's a lot of things amiss

in societies, from missing and murdered

to the disrespect of our women.

But nobody's going to give that to us.

We're going to give it to ourselves.

-Find some good women to be around

and keep them close and support support each other

because we're all going to need each other

at different points in our lives and our children's lives

and our grandchildren's lives, like --

maybe our great grandchildren's lives

if we get there, you know.

-[ Singing in Native language ]




[ Exclaiming ] [ Chatter ]


-Ms. Rock Star Sally.

[ Laughter ]

-Oh, thank you.

Gloria Steinem says this book,

unlike most histories,

doesn't begin with white women.

And it begins, of course, with the Haudenosaunee influence

on women's rights.

There are 500 people tonight who are going to know

that women's rights did not start

in Seneca Falls in 1848.

-Makes my heart want to cry.

Because of you.

-No, it's because I got taught.

[ Both laugh ]


I've anticipated that I'm going to get

really strong backlash to this book.


People who are entrenched in the university,

and they've been telling a particular story,

may end up being threatened by this.

[ Cheers and applause ]

-In the Museum of the American Indian in Washington,

there is a lecture in the beginning by a young scholar,

Native scholar, who starts out by saying,

"There are two things, history and the past,

and they are not the same."

-History is not what happened, it's who tells the story, right?

-History was lived by several different races,

but only told from one point of view.

-And if you have a single lens,

and especially if you have the lens of people with privilege,

you have the least effective and truthful history.

-Until you begin to put women and life bearers

to the forefront on the currency

and statues across the city,

you return them to the podium, you return them to leadership,

you give them a voice in your democracy,

in your decision making --

then not until then

will this country be truly rich and be truly a superpower

and a leader to the rest of the world

to say, "We include our mothers. We include our sisters.

We include our daughters and our granddaughters.


-So someday when they ask you about where you're from

and who your people are,

you're not going to go like this and hide,

you're going to step into it

because you had these lessons [ speaks indistinctly ].

-I just want to say, like,

we should not let go of our roots

and we should not give up, even if someone says it's too late.

As a community, we need to work together in unity

to learn those things and bring it back

in order to heal ourselves as ago:nhgweh people,

and in order to heal ourselves as...

a human race, because our Earth is really sick right now.

It is our job, more than anyone else's,

to be able to heal each other

and heal this Earth we should be respecting.

-[ Singing in Native language ]


[ Singing continues ]



[ Singing continues ]





[ Singing continues ]



[ Singing fades ]

-Funding for "Konnón:kwe -- Without a Whisper"

was made possible by the following funders...

And the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.


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