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Spirituality and Politics in the Print Culture of the Ozarks’ Women’s Movement, 1980-1989
 

Olivia Paschal

Ph.D. candidate, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia.  bwh4pw@virginia.edu or olivia.paschal13@gmail.com.

Introduction

Starting in the 1970s, many women involved in the countercultural back-to-the-land women’s movements moved to the Arkansas Ozarks, into the hills in and around Huntsville, Boxley Valley, Ponca, Eureka Springs, and St. Paul. At the same time, a grassroots women’s movement was percolating in Fayetteville, the University of Arkansas’s college town, on the western edge of the region. The early northwest Arkansas women’s movement was centered and housed at the university’s Women’s Center, but many women who were most involved were locals, not involved in the university’s academic sphere at all.[i] These two broad communities crossed over and into each other from the 1970s into the 1990s and produced a particular sort of grassroots feminism that took inspiration from the back-to-the-land elements of the counterculture as much as it did from the more traditionally activist elements of the feminist movement.[ii]

The feminist and lesbian movements of the 1970s and 1980s around the world had a thriving print culture that provided spaces for community-building, education, dialogue, and consciousness-raising.[iii] The Ozarks were no exception. Up & Coming, the subject of this paper’s analysis, was one of three main newsletters that served the Ozarks feminist and lesbian community from the 1970s to the 1990s.[iv] It succeeded a previous newsletter called Hard Labor, which was published from 1975 to 1979, and was succeeded by the Ozark Feminist Review, which published from 1991 to 1998.[v]

Hard Labor covered “issues such as rape, abortion, women’s rights, patriarchy, witches, and sexism,” according to Allyn Lord and Anna M. Zajicek, whose booklet based on oral histories with the women involved in northwest Arkansas’s women and lesbian scene is the most comprehensive history of the movement.[vi] Those topics, straddling the spiritual and the political, carried through into its successor newsletter, Up & Coming. Constructed from clippings of letters, articles, poems, and stories sent in by women involved in the local feminist and lesbian movement, Up & Coming was a community-sourced, community-driven newsletter.

In Liberation in Print: Feminist Periodicals and Social Movement Identity, Agatha Beins writes that feminist periodicals were crucial to building an “imagined community” within the women’s movement in the 1970s and 1980s—imagined communities, perhaps, constituted in particular places, their dialectics shaping and being shaped by their immediate localities and by networks with the broader national and international women’s liberation movements.[vii] A close reading of Up & Coming is thus one window into the dialogues, internal and external, that the women of the northwest Arkansas woman’s movement were engaged with. The newsletter itself served as a space where women’s spiritual and political consciousnesses were being shaped, exposed to new information and new ideas, at times coming into conflict with each other. The community’s identity was being worked out on the page.

Up & Coming had a subscriber base of roughly 200 readers, “about half of whom lived out-of-town,” meaning in land-based communities throughout the rural Ozarks outside of Fayetteville.[viii] The publication was mostly kept alive by the labor of one woman, Guthrie, whose was an active member of Fayetteville’s lesbian community.[ix] Her other involvements included sitting on the board of Spinsterhaven, an organization that bought land for women who had been active in the women’s and lesbian land communities to live on in their old age. She also helped run the Women’s Library and the women’s community coffeehouse.[x] Guthrie was not unique; many women active in the movement volunteered their time at several of its organizations, creating a deeply interwoven community.

Throughout Up & Coming is an expression of a particular kind of spirituality unique to this community and to its place—an ecofeminist, ecological spirituality influenced by women’s and lesbian land communities, by women’s organizations in Fayetteville that were tied to local groups and to the campus of the University of Arkansas, and by national and international articulations of ecofeminism rooted in perceived ties between women and the earth. This focus separates Up & Coming—and perhaps the northwest Arkansas women’s movement as a whole—from other feminist periodicals of the time, including those in Bein’s book.[xi] It also places the spiritualities in the Ozarks women’s movement as part of a larger feminist spirituality movement described by sociologists including Cynthia Eller.[xii]

Aesthetically, Up and Coming’s haphazard, handmade aura contributes to the sense that it is an authentic representation of the community it existed for. Unlike its successor, the Ozark Feminist Review, published with the aid of a computer, Up & Coming is a physical mishmash of literal cut-and-pastes—some contributions typed out, some cut from other publications and stuck to the proof pages, which would then have been run through a mimeograph. Like most feminist newsletters of the time, it drew content from other publications—in-state coverage of Arkansas political issues, pieces from publications like The Guardian and Southern Exposure about the wage gap, and poetry and fiction from other women’s and lesbian publications.[xiii]

In these mixed-media pages, expressions of spirituality are not limited to the text. They are also apparent in the images that decorate the newsletter, filling the space between announcements, news blurbs, poems, and book reviews. Numerous images of the Goddess, of wombs, of flora and fauna of the moon and of Native American and other indigenous women create a landscape in which even when spiritual elements are not verbally there, they maintain a visual presence, influencing how readers encounter the text. Spirituality in land communities was expressed not only through words, but also through rituals, art, music, and other embodied practices; its presence in the newsletter’s visual elements shows how these elements could converse with the more overtly political.[xiv]

Up & Coming’s spiritual expressions were clearly influenced by the back-to-the-land women in its contributors and readership; its politics were influenced by Fayetteville’s Women’s Center and by the Women’s Project, a women’s liberation and anti-racist activist organization based in Little Rock and co-founded by Suzanne Pharr, who had also been active in the northwest Arkansas women’s and lesbian movement at the University of Arkansas and lived for a time at Huckleberry Farm, a lesbian commune outside of Eureka Springs.[xv] The Women’s Project was active throughout rural and urban Arkansas, and focused on battered women’s issues, feminist activism and education, and anti-Ku Klux Klan organizing.[xvi]

Goddess spiritualities, witches, Native American land ceremonies, and invocations of the sacred—especially its connection to the earth—permeate the pages of Up & Coming. In the histories of the northwest Arkansas women’s movement and the back-to-the land movement in the Ozarks, spirituality is not often made explicit. Yet spirituality was deeply present throughout the region’s feminist and lesbian land communities, inflecting and informing the ways that these spaces shaped themselves throughout the 1970s, 80s, and 90s.[xvii] To claim a female Goddess, a particularly feminine form of divinity, at a time when the Christian Religious Right was ascendant and during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, was to make a political statement. Those women who had made choices to inhabit explicitly feminist spaces in Fayetteville like the Women’s Center, the women’s coffeehouse, or the women’s sporting clubs that carried names like “Razordykes” or “Uppity Women,” were already thinking politically—and many had already disavowed traditional religions, finding no room in Christianity or Judaism for women’s fullness, women’s power, women’s liberation, women’s queer sexualities.[xviii] The Ozarks in the late twentieth century were a religiously diverse place, what David Embree has referred to as “a haven for alternatives,” “a place where those outside the religious mainstream can find a home.”[xix] To the women inhabiting these spaces, living and practicing religion outside the mainstream may not have always felt so safe. While many iterations of New Age and pagan spiritualities seem to exist in an arena removed from politics, this particular expression of it was deeply entwined with women who understood their existence as political.

These two influences: the radical political feminism and lesbianism of the Women’s Project (and the northwest Arkansas Women’s Center), concerned with changing minds, policy, and power structures; and the ecological, ecofeminist spiritualities prevalent throughout the land communities and the countercultural back-to-the-land movement as a whole, are present in clear and sometimes surprising ways throughout the nearly ten years that Up & Coming was in print. The newsletter is an especially interesting site for analyzing a particular form of American feminist spirituality that is informed by activist political movements, but also takes up some characteristics of less traditionally political spiritual forms. New Age and neopagan movements are often disconnected from politics with a systemic analysis, from activist movements, and from questions of oppression and injustice. But in the pages of Up & Coming, mostly (though not exclusively) white feminists and lesbians in Arkansas were engaging with systemic political questions like colonialism, racism, and classism.

To understand this particular intersection of ecofeminist spirituality and politics, it is useful to closely analyze a few specific points where the spiritualities embodied by the community that met in Up & Coming’s pages converged with feminist and ecological political work. The remainder of this article will analyze Up & Coming’s interpretation of Starhawk, an internationally important writer in the Goddess, witch, and neopagan traditions; the invocation of place-based spirituality in the relationship between feminism, “bioregionalism,” and earth-based spiritualities in the newsletter; and the constant juxtaposition between the privileging of essentialized, romanticized representations of Indigenous religion alongside articles supporting Native American struggles against the state.

 

Reading Starhawk: Spirituality as Politics

Up & Coming’s book review section, titled alternately “Book Beat” and “Bedside Reading,” is a clue into which texts and thinkers influenced this community. Guthrie, Up & Coming’s primary editor, also volunteered at the Women’s Library, a Fayetteville organization which stocked feminist and lesbian titles that the university or the local public library did not (or would not) carry.[xx] In this section of the newsletter, anyone who wanted could review a title on hand at the library—a relationship which served the dual purposes of securing free review copies for the library to circulate throughout the community, and of alerting the feminist and lesbian community of which books were available—or at least of their general content, even if they never read them. The reviews varied in length and subject matter, but many were on topics of women’s and lesbian spiritualities, including titles like Eye of the Centaur: A Visionary Guide into Past Lives and Awakening: An Almanac of Lesbian Lore and Vision.

In the May 1988 issue, a woman named Teresa Blagg wrote a lengthy review of Starhawk’s 1982 book Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex, and Politics.[xxi] Starhawk, as one of the most influential writers in the Goddess movement, was a major influence on Ozarks women who practiced earth-focused spiritualities in various forms. This review of her book in the community newsletter shows how seriously Starhawk’s thought was taken and engaged with; that it was this specific title is also worth our attention.

Dreaming the Dark was not Starhawk’s most influential book—that was The Spiral Dance, which introduced thousands of women to her blend of Goddess spirituality and witchcraft. However, Dreaming the Dark is more explicitly political than The Spiral Dance, tying magical and sexual practice to systemic ills. Starhawk understands the violent disappearance of Wiccan and Pagan practices in the early modern period as the origin of all forms of systemic oppression, and the resurgence of these practices in the late twentieth century as a way to challenge oppressions. Dreaming the Dark begins with her recollections of being arrested during a blockade of a nuclear power plant— “a descent into the dark” of nuclear apocalypse, and a “return with knowledge and empowerment from within” upon challenging it with her body.[xxii]

Starhawk’s explicit connection of the spiritual to the political, her insistence that the spiritual is the political, is exactly why Blagg reviewed the book for Up & Coming. “I’ve never been much for hero worship, but Starhawk would serve as a worthy model, in my opinion,” Blagg writes. “Dreaming the Dark is subtitled ‘Magic, Sex, and Politics’; therefore, one can be assured that her methods will not be the mundane ones that we’ve all spent many hours arguing over in countless meetings. But neither is it an esoteric and arcane procedure that serves as a thinly disguised effort to evade reality.”[xxiii] Blagg’s criticism of other spiritual movements is just under the surface here. However, Starhawk’s definition of the Goddess as action—“choosing an attitude: choosing to take this living world, the people and creatures on it, as the ultimate meaning and purpose of life, to see the world, the earth, and our lives as sacred”—is deeply compelling for Blagg.[xxiv] Starhawk defines magic as “the art of changing consciousness at will…[encompassing] political action, which is aimed at changing consciousness and thereby causing change.”[xxv] For Starhawk, the world of magic, spirit, and consciousness is the world of the political. And Blagg thinks that her fellow travelers in the Ozarks’ feminist and lesbian communities will appreciate this joining-together of two worlds often understood to be discrete.

Starhawk’s reformulation of “power,” which identifies a historically feminine “power-from-within,” particularly interests Blagg. In Dreaming the Dark, Starhawk encourages women to cultivate this “power-from-within” rather than the traditional, patriarchal “power-over.” Individual consciousness and practices of power are thus linked to systemic power relations and abuses—the practice of power-over is responsible for many of the world’s ills: 

For though we are told that…rape is an issue separate from nuclear war, that a woman’s struggle for equal pay is not related to a black teenager’s struggle to find a job or to the struggle to prevent the export of a nuclear reactor to a site on a web of earthquake faults near active volcanoes in the Phillipines, all these realities are shaped by the consciousness that shapes our power relationships.[xxvi]

 

“By recognizing the related nature of the forces of oppression, we can find the power-from-within by ‘dreaming the dark’, transforming our fear into a powerful agent of change, shaped by our innate integrity,” Blagg says, “Imagine taking action based on pride, rather than guilt, working for change, not out of a sense of duty, but from a deep feeling of joyous affirmation!”[xxvii]

Blagg is concerned by what Starhawk terms “estrangement,” what other theorists of the postmodern period like Fredric Jameson understand as “fragmentation” or “alienation.”[xxviii] “Estrangement” for Starhawk is siloing, isolation, the overwrought demarcations of disciplines and of human consciousness. “Estrangement permeates our society so strongly that it seems to be consciousness itself,” she writes.[xxix] For Blagg, surrounded by (and perhaps part of) the Ozarks many land communities, the idea of woman living in harmony with nature—the idea of humanity and the earth as so interconnected as for their bond to be sacred—would have been deeply familiar. But the incorporation of the political into this ecospiritual understanding is, for Blagg, bringing a new formerly “estranged” part of the self into the spiritual fold. “The heart of my interest lies in the very idea of combining political action and spirituality outside of the traditional Judeo-Christian religions featuring a male God with very definite ideas on the rights and wrongs of women who challenge those boundaries,” she writes.[xxx]

Starhawk’s spirituality is useful in the context of the Ozarks women’s movement because it provides a moral and ethical framework outside of the traditional religions that much of the movement found corrupted and useless. In understanding the sacred as female—as Goddess—and as a choice compelling the individual to change her consciousness from patriarchy to feminine, from power-over to power-from-within, Starhawk-informed spirituality allowed Teresa Blagg and her sisters in the movement a framework within which to integrate their spiritual and political lives, to understand them as one and the same, expressions of consciousness-changing magic on different scales. Giving systemic oppression a spiritual origin story made attempts to challenge oppression and domination not just about the material and cultural world, but also about the ephemeral, the sacred, and the magic.

 

Land as Other: Folk magic, bioregionalism, and the spiritualities of place

Place, the earth, and relationships to it figured deeply in the spiritualities of many members of women’s land communities. Diana Rivers, an important feminist and lesbian writer from New York, and a frequent contributor to Up and Coming and its successor, the Ozark Feminist Review, founded one of the earliest land-based communities in the Ozarks in the 1970s. In a 2017 oral history, she says that the community, Sassafras, had a spiritual dimension at its core.[xxxi] “The land was very strong, very spiritual land, very beautiful, harsh,” she says. As the interview moves into an explicit discussion of women’s spirituality, Rivers discusses her aversions to institutional religion, the Bible, and—for much of her life—to even the ideas of sacredness and sacrality.

Then she describes a friend inviting her into the women’s spirituality movement, asking her to come to a ritual drumming circle. “I felt like it was just one more religious group trying to get a chunk of my soul,” Rivers said of her initial reaction. But when she eventually went, she realized “that what was being celebrated was this connection to the natural world which I’ve always had. It’s always been sacred for me, but I’d never thought of it in terms of religion before, or sacredness.” Soon, Rivers was celebrating the holy days of women’s spirituality—the eight Sabbats, whose specifics Up & Coming detailed in most October issues, which are for “celebrating our connection to the world…acknowledging it, and being part of it, having a portion of it.”[xxxii] She was also leading a ritual circle, hosting rituals in the cedar grove down the hill from her home, which she calls a “sacred place.” By 2017, Rivers spoke of her spirituality in terms of the Goddess. “Partly we’re making it up as we go along and partly we’re trying to retrieve what was there,” she says, nodding to mentions of a goddess in the Bible. “All of this is in the Bible, but it also taps something in my heart,” she says.

Women’s land communities also drew Ozark folk magic into their practices, understanding some of it as traditional, natural, in line with ecofeminist spiritualities outside of the Christian tradition. The September 1982 issue of Up & Coming included a blurb about Dowsing Dykes: How to Use a Pendulum as a Psychic and Healing Tool, a book recently published by the Red River women in Huntsville, at the time was a hub for women’s land communities. Dowsing is a folk magic dating back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, prevalent in many parts of rural America and elsewhere.[xxxiii] In the Ozarks, dowsers “witch” or “dowse” wells and graves, often using wooden or metal rods and pendulums.

Dowsing Dykes put dowsing pendulums in the domain of women’s spirituality. “Dedicated to all lesbians who look to combine the psychic with the practical, Dowsing Dykes is filled with information, helpful exercises, anecdotes & advice on the art of dowsing,” the Up & Coming blurb for the book read. Though dowsing is a folk art with a long history, Dowsing Dykes tied it to New Age ideas of “energy meridians of the earth and earth healing techniques,” ideas more in vogue in the late twentieth century’s move towards spiritual ideas of energy and consciousness.[xxxiv] The book embodies a crossover between the New Age and neopagan ideas prevalent in women’s land communities and the folk magics of the place in which they found themselves.

These articulations of women’s spiritualities in the Ozarks are of something deeply tied to both nature and the female body and mind, as practitioners understood it. Ritual practices in Rivers’ sacred cedar grove included pagan rituals and drumming, and her spirituality extended to her sculptures, “large female forms with a lot of power packed into those shapes…an extension of my spiritual, ritual side.” The land and women’s understandings of their connections to it existed on two scales—as an idea of the earth as something generally sacred, but also of the Ozarks as a specifically sacred place with unique ecospiritual characteristics and traditions.

The year before Up and Coming’s first issue, the Ozark Area Community Congress (OACC)—the first bioregional conference in the United States—was established in the Ozarks. The founder of the Ozark bioregionalism movement understood the Ozarks as "a distinct biopolitical, as well as bioregional entity…[with] ancient ecological principles that guided and developed life…for millions of years before humanity arrived…[and] constituted an imminent, unacknowledged, and untranslated body of law and design principles for developing sustainable new political and physical support systems for human communities."[xxxv]

OACC was an organization made up mostly of back-to-the-landers, people who had moved to the Ozarks in the 1970s and come to see it as a unique ecological and historical region, set apart by its environmental qualities as well as its perceived history as a place home to “authentic life” following the “natural cycles of the world.”[xxxvi] Their understanding of bioregionalism was deeply spiritual: “Bioregional consciousness is acquiring the knowledge of and connecting to that life-place, or the bioregion where you landed and live,” one OACC member wrote.[xxxvii] The vision was also political: early bioregionalists conceptualized the Ozarks as a “free state,” with an ecologically informed internal politics and constitution.[xxxviii]

An item in the November 1981 issue of Up & Coming advertised Mother Oak, the “eco-feminist action group” of OACC. Mother Oak was formed early in OACC’s existence, “a feminist group…of strong women, aware of how often in organizations women were in the background as lovely assistants,” wrote co-founder Barbara Harmony. “We determined that in this new movement women would have an equal role.”[xxxix] The eventual disappearance of the Mother Oak caucus prompted a review of two books on Green politics and spirituality in Up & Coming’s December 1986 issue. Katherine Adam, a member of OACC’s steering committee, took up two books by Christine Spretnak: Green Politics, co-authored with Fritjof Capra, and The Spiritual Dimension of Green Politics.[xl] The review makes clear the close relationships between the women’s movement, the bioregional movement, and ecological spiritualities.

Green Politics, which analyzed how “Greens” operated in Germany and elsewhere, specifically referenced OACC as an international model of “organizing for decentralized action.” Adam suggests that OACC also has something to learn from the German Green’s treatment of women’s issues, like their practice of women raising their hands when a speaker exhibits “oppressive behavior patterns.”[xli] She connects this practice to recent events at OACC’s seventh conference, where “‘Whatever happened to Mother Oak?’ was the plaintive title of a handout…only partially assuaged by the fact that four of the five members of the current steering committee are women.” Adam defends OACC’s current structure, arguing that the women’s movement doesn’t always need to spread “through formally organized means,” and that it is a “healthy development when women head committee’s other than just “Women’s.”[xlii] 

She then moves to a discussion of Spretnak’s more recent book, Green Spirituality, which considered questions of “sustainable religion” in the context of the Green movement. “Spretnak acknowledges that the spiritual dimension of Green Politics will have to be ‘posthumanist, postmodern, and postpatriarchal… [Spretnak’s publisher is, of course, the publishing house of Matthew Fox, who with Starhawk has begun a new synthesis along these lines, “Creation Spirituality],” Adam writes. Here, the ties between the bioregionalism movement’s Green influences and the explicitly feminist spirituality of Starhawk and others interested in the sacralization of nature are made explicit in Up & Coming, which was an important organizing site for both movements.

Adams concludes by outlining Spretnak’s prescription for incorporating spiritual development into Green politics in four areas: “1) inner growth 2) ecological wisdom 3) gender equality, and 4) social responsibility.”[xliii] Green spirituality in this view is deeply individual, concerned with a kind of knowledge that can only be gained from knowing the earth, but is concerned specifically with social questions of earth justice and gender oppression. This kind of spirituality, as expressed in Up & Coming, was tied to earth justice and Green movements as much as (and perhaps more) than it was tied to the women’s liberation movement. At the very least, it took the sacrality of the earth as a first principle, from which all other forms of anti-oppression convictions—feminism, anti-racism, anti-classism, bioregionalism—could arise.

OACC members and people who lived in land communities throughout the Ozarks, as newcomers to the place they were claiming as sacred, the “life-place” where they had “landed,” sought out historical groundings for their ecospiritual project in what Campbell calls “their Ozarkian predecessors.”[xliv] This included traditional Osage and other Native American practices as well as Ozark folk cultures—midwifery, dowsing, uses of wild plants—that bioregionalists understood as “authentic” to the place.

Ozark mountain cultures have been historicized and romanticized as “pre-modern” and “primitive” in ways similar to other defined cultural outgroups.[xlv] In the 1960s and 1970s, Ozark folk cultures, alongside the image of the “hillbilly” and the “mountaineer,” were experiencing a particular cultural revival that placed their “authentic” expressions of pre-modern life front and center, attracting many tourists—and also many back-to-the-landers from the city who were searching for just this type of authenticity.[xlvi] These back-to-the-landers encountered their living Ozarkian neighbors, often descendants of the people who practiced the folk cultures the newer arrivals celebrated, as entirely distinct from their ancestors. The mamaws and papaws who midwifed, dowsed, used medicinal herbed, and lived from the barren land were seen as models of traditional, authentic, ecologically informed culture; their children and grandchildren, often engaged in large-scale industrialized farming and global commodity markets, were suspect, if not outright enemies.[xlvii] The Ozarkers the back-to-the-landers encountered more often than not did not match the idealized Ozark folk culture they found in books and in others’ memories.

That this emphatic expressions of place, and indeed the push to sacralize it, came not from the people with deep generational roots in the Ozarks but instead from some of the mountains’ newest residents suggests that the Ozarks Mountains themselves (along with their historical inhabitants) had become a romanticized Other, something unfamiliar, mysterious, immanent, and beyond understanding. The mountains and its people were not the only place the land and women’s movement encountered in such ways, but they show how a specifically spiritual, mystical understanding of the Ozarks’ history and its ecology contributed to political movements around the region.

 

Solidarity and Essentialism: Race and Indigeneity in Up & Coming

Though Up & Coming’s readership was heavily—not exclusively—white, it showed a constant interest in issues affecting Indigenous communities in America and the global South.[xlviii] It also talked frequently about Native American spirituality, often understanding Indigenous spiritualities as primitive, closer to nature, and purer. Throughout Up & Coming’s pages, images of Indigenous women and women of color evoke women’s struggles throughout the global South—often accompanied by articles detailing these struggles and offering spaces for (presumed) white feminist solidarity. Yet the imagery they are surrounded with, and often the text itself, suggests imaginings that are often used to “other” non-white women in the ecofeminist and feminist movements.

This apparent contradiction between solidarity and appropriative essentializing shows a few things. First, solidarity with Indigenous political struggles was not necessarily incompatible with racist essentializing. Second, it reinforces the importance of reading feminist newsletters as dialogue, conversations between (in this case) different facets of the northwest Arkansas women’s movement, some Indigenous and some not, and their engagements with feminist and political communities beyond the Ozarks. Up & Coming’s involvement with Indigenous political struggles and spiritualities is a continual site of interest, education, and changing understandings.

Up & Coming was especially concerned by attempts throughout the 1980s to evict Hopi and Navajo people from their joint reservations on Big Mountain, in Black Mesa in order to mine the mountain for coal.[xlix] The first mention of this struggle is in the second issue of Up & Coming, in June 1981, where an entire page is devoted to a call for women to sign a petition against forced removal of the Hopi and Navajo.[l] An update in the November issue notes the root of the removal attempt—Peabody Coal’s plans to mine Big Mountain—and invokes the idea that Native Americans are more connected to the earth than Westerners. “Native Americans lived for centuries without depleting their resources. Energy development on native lands is rapidly replacing their self-sufficient way of life…,” writes M. Morning, the author of the article. “Our Mother Earth is being raped before our eyes wherever we turn. We who have been separated from the land have much to learn from native people.”[li]

Morning’s piece is accompanied by an ink drawing of a Native American woman in a flock of goats, carrying a baby on her back and toting a rifle, looking determinedly into the distance against a backdrop of mountains and mesas. The implication (made explicit in Morning’s words) is that the Hopi-Navajo struggle to remain on their reservation is important for Ozarks feminists because of the Indigenous people’s traditional connection to the land, because they emulate a distinct way of relationship with the natural from which white Westerners and specifically back-to-the-land communities can learn.

Morning’s understanding of Indians as essentially Other follows a broader trend within many parts of the American counterculture. “Indian Others were imagined [by the counterculture] in almost exclusively positive terms—communitarian, environmentally wise, spiritually insightful,” Phillip DeLoria writes in Playing Indian, his study of non-native Americans’ relationship with American Indians.[lii] This is exactly the kind of treatment Native Americans receive from most of Up & Coming’s authors—engagement with only the sort of Indians whose values and spiritual engagements buttress its particular combination of spirituality and politics.

Unlike other countercultural spaces, which DeLoria notes were rarely in contact with actual Native Americans, Up & Coming did have semi-regular engagements with Native women, publishing calls for attendees for things like the “Native American Lesbian Conference and All Womyn’s Sundance Ceremony,” to be held in Arizona, which explicitly sought “Native American lesbians who desire to follow ancestral ways.”[liii]  The October issue of the newsletter featured a dispatch from the sundance ceremony. “It is my understanding that, traditionally the SUN DANCE REPRESENTED BIRTH and in previous Sun Dances the males pierced some part of their body to represent the pain that wimmin endure during birth,” the anonymous author writes.[liv] The feminist desire to acknowledge the pain of women during birth is given credence and authenticity by its presence in this traditional Indigenous ritual. Native American religious ceremonies become a way to legitimize feminist and women-centric understandings of the world. 

However, Up & Coming’s engagement with Native activism was reserved almost exclusively for those Native Americans who practiced “traditional,” “authentic” spiritualities and cultural practices. Those who, in this framework, participated in the modernized, Westernized world and economy—including many members of the Cherokee and Choctaw Nations which were just across the Oklahoma border from the Ozarks—were rarely considered in Up & Coming. This treatment was not unique to the northwest Arkansas women’s movement—it was symptomatic of a broader cultural shift in the way that non-Indigenous Americans, especially those in countercultural spaces, had started to understand the role of Native Americans. “Since the colonial era, Indian Others had been objects of both desire and repulsion, and in that raging contradiction lay their power,” DeLoria argues. “Now they were almost completely flattened out, tragic victims who brought the last powerful remains of their cultures as ethnic gifts for a pluralistic American whole.”[lv]

Feminist scholar Noël Sturgeon argues that white ecofeminist spirituality often collapses at least three separate groups of women into an essentialist category of “indigeneity,” giving “an overall impression that…nonwhite, non-Western women, are essentially closer to nature and inherently environmentalists.”[lvi] The groups that become essentialized, in her view, are Native American, Third World (particularly rural Asian subsistence farmers), and pre-Christian European pagan women. “The conflation of these three categories into a symbolic ‘indegeneity’ is ironically a form of anti-racist discourse that ends up, despite good intentions, reconstituting white privilege,” she writes. “All differences between and within the categories ‘Native American’ and ‘Third World’ are erased and the women portrayed as indigenous are constituted as racialized Others to a white Self that is Western, modern, and industrialized.”[lvii]

This framing puts the feminist spirituality of Starhawk and other neopagan, Goddess spirituality practitioners in the same lineage as the “othering” of the Hopi and Navajo that comes through in Morning’s article. The embrace of Goddess-inflected spiritualities throughout the northwest Arkansas women’s movement made other Indigenous spiritualities seem more accessible to white practitioners and also endowed those spiritualities with a historical, traditional lineage stretching back to ancient matriarchal cultures. Indigenous spiritualities fit neatly into the spiritual mythologies of figures like Starhawk and Diana River and provided another site for negotiating and substantiating the northwest Arkansas women’s movements’ insistence that the spiritual was the political, that in a feminist framework, the two could not be separated.  

The conflict at Big Mountain dragged on for years, and Up & Coming published frequent updates. In 1986, a group of women affiliated with the Arco Iris community, about an hour and a half outside of Fayetteville in Boxley Valley, traveled to Big Mountain in support of the Hopi-Navajo fight against removal. Arco Iris’s engagement with Up & Coming and their dispatches from Big Mountain are another important site of dialogue between non-white women and white women in Up & Coming.

Arco Iris was a unique presence in the Ozarks women’s land communities, a splinter group from Sassafras that was specifically for women and children of color. The group was founded by Maria Christina DeColores Moroles, a Mexican-American/Coahuileteco lesbian healer who also went by the name SunHawk.[lviii] Native spiritualities were a core part of Arco Iris’s community practices: they self-described as “a survival camp/shelter where we teach native traditions and culture to displaced native women and children,” and in 1987, incorporated as a nonprofit “’Spiritual Survivor Camp,’ (defined in Native American tradition as a place where youth and elders gather to live in traditional manner and learn self-sufficient ways to live in harmony with nature).”[lix] In 1986, the community included “2 women of indigenous & Latin heritage, 1 Sepphardic [sic] Jewish woman, & 2 woman/children 12 & 5 years old, both of Native Amer. heritage.”[lx]

In the Ozarks, one of the whitest regions of the country, maintaining a land-based community specifically for women of color was a difficult undertaking financially and culturally. Throughout the 1980s, Arco Iris’s long-term sustainability was often in question. A 1984 article detailed the community’s problems with finances and asked for support to purchase a windmill that would allow them to pump water from a well without putting power lines on their property. Their plea was articulated in spiritual language, as “important to the survivor of the whole woman’s community and preservation of our Mother Earth.”[lxi] The women at Arco Iris understood themselves as carrying on a tradition of care for and relationship to the earth, a feminine, matriarchal force.

At some point in the mid-1980s, Arco Iris began producing cotton menstrual pads and advertising them for sale in Up & Coming. The ad’s imagery draws upon traditional characterizations of Native American women, washing fabric in a river with h a jug; the implication of the ad is that Red River’s “100% Cotton, Non-toxic, Washable, Comfortable” menstrual pads are more natural, more traditional, more in tune with the moon who appears in the sky of the ad and the mountain that frames the woman’s upward-cast gaze than other menstrual products like store-bought tampons and pads.

 

The interaction of the women who made the pads (at least some of them Native) and submitted the advertisement with its audience of primarily white women seems to raise questions about how Native women understood and portrayed themselves for a white audience, and how authentic these representations were. When a woman living in the Arco Iris community designed an advertisement with a Native-coded woman kneeling serenely next to the river, perhaps she understood this as an accurate representation of herself; perhaps she understood it as an expression of Native connection to the earth that would appeal to the white women who are its primary audience; perhaps she understood it as both.

Sturgeon distinguishes the problematics of essentializing Indigenous people and spiritualities in an academic sense from their utility in a political setting, especially when used by Indigenous women themselves. “How and when do we support the common assertions of tribal, peasant, or rural women that they see themselves as closer to nature than Westernized peoples?” she asks.[lxii] On the one hand, this seems a question primarily for Native people engaged in these struggles; on the other hand, it raises larger questions about how non-Indigenous people have and should support political struggles without further entrenching essentialist stereotypes.

These questions do not seem at all present for the women who met in Up & Coming. The perceived authentic, “pure” spiritual connection of Native Americans to land and earth seemed a primary reason, for both Indigenous and white women in the newsletter, to support Native political struggles against the American state. The two were intimately connected and inseparable.

When Arco Iris’s community members traveled to Big Mountain in 1986, they stayed for several months. One, Miguela, wrote a dispatch to Up & Coming from the camp. “We came because we love and cherish our mother earth and we wanted to stand with the elders here against giving up their land to mining companies and destruction,” she wrote.[lxiii] Solidarity with their indigenous sisters and a desire to learn from their practices figured heavily in their decision to travel west; they aided the mostly elderly Hopi and Navajo who remained on Big Mountain in herding and cooking, and brought food and clothing. “We believe all native people of Turtle Island (North America and Central America) are relatives and caretakers of this land and we support our grandmothers and grandfathers in their struggle against the injustice of relocation,” Miguela continued.[lxiv] A spiritual connection to sacred land and elders as “relatives and caretakers” of the land informed their decision to offer physical and material support to the fight. It was also used to convey the significance of the struggle to the broader feminist community in the Ozarks.

The connections Arco Iris made at Big Mountain resulted in further connections between the Ozarks women’s and lesbian communities and the Hopi-Navajo struggle.  In 1987, Hopi and Navajo elders visited northwest Arkansas to speak at a number of events, including one at the Ozark Natural Foods Co-Op and another at St. Martin’s Episcopal Center, two geographic centers of Fayetteville’s land and women’s movements. The topics of conversation at these events were political, concerned with impacting U.S. policy so that the Hopi and Navajo could remain on Big Mountain. But their visit ended in a spiritual event, “Four Nations’ Grandmothers’ Earth-Peace Healing Circle,” held at dawn in a rural spot outside of Eureka Springs. The Native elders—grandmothers—who had traveled to Arkansas led the healing circle.[lxv] One can imagine women on a hill or in a valley at dawn, circled in a grove like the kind at Diana Rivers’ home, participating in a ritual that they understood to be connecting their sacred land of the Ozarks to the sacred land of Big Mountain, repairing the injustices done to the earth.

 

Conclusion

Up & Coming published its last issue in 1989. Its successor, the Ozark Feminist Review, in its first issue thanked Guthrie for her work, but also indicated a new direction for the newsletter—reflective of the area’s feminist and lesbian community. The 1990s were a tricky time for the feminist movement nationwide, as coalitions began falling apart and many of the movement’s largest battles seemed, for a brief moment, to have been won. In northwest Arkansas, women were trying to figure out which elements of the movement of the 1970s and 1980s could be salvaged, and how to maintain the once-strong feminist community that seemed to be falling apart.

The Ozark Feminist Review moved away from its predecessors’ more radical, systemic analyses and towards publishing individual letters, poetry and art, and letters indicating deep infighting within the community. These moves reflected broader trends toward individualism that were perhaps exacerbated in the Ozarks because the sort of women attracted to land-based communities were women who already prized (or did not mind) some form of isolation, independence, and self-sufficiency. Throughout the ‘90s, they seemed to become more and more disconnected from the broader women’s movement, which was far less prevalent in the Ozark Feminist Review than it had been in Up & Coming

Yet the way that spirituality interacted with politics in the newsletters of the 1980s shows that it was not always so fragmented. There was a form of women’s spiritualities in the Ozarks that, because of the various communities that met and dialogued in Up & Coming’s pages, was concerned with political and systemic justice work, and understood spirituality as an important part of that work. To combine spirituality and politics in such a way required drawing on traditions outside many of the participants’ own, and the spiritualities present northwest Arkansas women’s movement of the 1980s required an Other—the essentialized Native, the sacralized mountains and their original folk—to idealize, legitimate, and motivate these political work that the spiritualities negotiated and embodied in Up & Coming.

 

Endnotes

[i] For more on The Women’s Project’s history in the state, see the recent digital history The Women’s Project Story, by the Arkansas People’s History Project: Acadia Roher and Anna Stitt, “The Women’s Project Story,” Arkansas People’s History Project, 2022, https://www.womensprojectstory.org.

[ii] For the most complete recounting of the grassroots women’s movement in northwest Arkansas, see Allyn Lord and Anna M. Zajicek, The History of the Contemporary Grassroots Women’s Movement in Northwest Arkansas, 1970-2000, n.d., University of Arkansas. This booklet, sourced from oral histories conducted by the authors and supported by grants from the Arkansas Humanities Council, the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, the University of Arkansas Humanities Program, and the Department of Sociology, Social Work, and Criminal Justice, includes an overview of the history and major actors in the movement, as well as short blurbs on organizations connected to the women’s movement, including its various newsletters (Hard Labor, Up & Coming, and the Ozark Feminist Review) and organizations like the Women’s Center and Women’s Library.

[iii] Agatha Beins, Liberation in Print: Feminist Periodicals and Social Movement Identity (Athens: The University of Georgia Press), 2017.

[iv] The archive of Up & Coming is digitized in nearly its entirety by JSTOR’s Independent Voices collection of alternative press titles and can be accessed online here: https://www.jstor.org /site/reveal-digital/independent-voices/upandcoming-27953992/. The archive of the Ozark Feminist Review is available here: https://www.jstor.org /site/reveal-digital/independent-voices/ozarkfeministreview-27953734/

[v] Lord and Zajicek, History of the Contemporary Grassroots Women’s Movement, 51.

[vi] Lord and Zajicek, History of the Contemporary Grassroots Women’s Movement, 49. Hard Labor’s archive is not available online.

[vii] Beins, Liberation in Print, 18. Beins is drawing on Benedict Anderson’s theory of the nation as an imagined community.

[viii] Lord and Zajicek, History of the Contemporary Grassroots Women’s Movement, 49.

[ix] Ibid. 

[x] “Spinsterhaven Land,” Ozark Feminist Review, April-May 1993, 14.

[xi] Bein picks the five periodicals she considers at length in Liberation in Print because she takes them to be broadly representative of feminist periodicals across the country; in none of them, nor in any of the other feminist and lesbian political newsletters I have been able to access through quick scans of digital archives, most notably JSTOR’s Independent Voices collection of radical and movement print publications, is women’s spirituality given as prominent or frequent a place as it is in the Ozarkian women’s newsletters.

[xii] Cynthia Eller, Living in the Lap of the Goddess: The Feminist Spirituality Movement in America (New York: The Crossroad), 1993.

[xiii] See for example “Health: South Suffers,” Up & Coming, September 1985; “Election ’88: Global Issues Tied to Women’s Struggle,” Up & Coming, January 1988, among many other instances.

[xiv] See Jared Phillips, Hipbillies: Deep Revolution in the Arkansas Ozarks (Fayetteville, AR: University of Arkansas Press, 2019) for an in-depth history of the back-to-the-land movement.

[xv] Lord and Zajicek, History of the Contemporary Grassroots Women’s Movement, 49. Brock Thompson, The Un-Natural State: Arkansas and the Queer South (Fayetteville, AR: The University of Arkansas Press), 2010, 142-3.

[xvi] “The Women’s Project,” Arkansas People’s History Project, 2022. http://womensprojectstory.org.

[xvii] Lord and Zajicek’s booklet, an accompanying article by the same authors in the Arkansas Historical Quarterly (Anna M. Zajicek, Allyn Lord, and Lori Holyfield, “The Emergence and First Years of a Grassroots Women’s Movement in Northwest Arkansas, 1970-1980,” The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Vol. 62. No. 2, pp. 153-181) and a smattering of entries on the Encyclopedia of Arkansas website are the primary attempts to write a history of the women’s and lesbian movements in northwest Arkansas. Hipbillies is the most complete history of back-to-the-landers in the Ozarks, but it does not consider women’s and lesbian land-based communities as a particular category of back-to-the-landers and thus misses much of their distinctive political-spiritual characteristics.

[xviii] Lord and Zajicek, History of the Contemporary Grassroots Women’s Movement, 10-17; Up & Coming, “One Woman’s Thoughts at Christmas-Time,” December 1986, 7.

[xix] David Embree, “The Ozarks: Buckle of the Bible Belt or Haven for Religious Diversity?” OzarksWatch Series 1, Vol. 12 (1999), 1 & 5.

[xx] Lord and Zajicek, History of the Contemporary Grassroots Women’s Movement, 66-67. 

[xxi] Teresa Blagg, “Dreaming the Dark by Starhawk,” Up & Coming, May 1988, 3-4; Starhawk, Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex, and Politics (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988).

[xxii] Dreaming the Dark, xxx.

[xxiii] Blagg, “Dreaming the Dark by Starhawk,” Up & Coming, May 1988, pg. 3

[xxiv] Starhawk, Dreaming the Dark, 11.

[xxv] Starhawk, Dreaming the Dark, 13.

[xxvi] Starhawk, Dreaming the Dark as quoted by Blagg in Up & Coming, 3.

[xxvii] Blagg, “Dreaming the Dark by Starhawk,” Up & Coming, May 1988, 3.

[xxviii] Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, Or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Duke University Press: Durham, 1991), 13-14.

[xxix] Dreaming the Dark, 9.

[xxx] Teresa Blagg, “Dreaming the Dark by Starhawk,” Up & Coming, May 1988, 3.

[xxxi] Diana Rivers, interview by Mason Funk and Natalie Tsui, July 6, 2017, The Outwords Archive, https://theoutwordsarchive.org/interview/rivers-diana/.

[xxxii] See for example Cheri Lesh, “Holydays of the Goddess,” Up & Coming, November 1981, 1; “Happy New Year!” Up & Coming, October 1984, 1; “Happy New Year!” Up & Coming, November 1987, 5.

[xxxiii] Vermeir Koen, “The ‘physical prophet’ and the powers of the imagination. Part II: A case-study on dowsing and the naturalization of the moral, 1685-1710,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences (2005), Vol. 36, Issue 1, 1-24. 

[xxxiv] “Dowsing Dykes,” Up & Coming, September 1982, 2.

[xxxv] Quoted in Brian C. Campbell, “Growing an Oak: An Ethnography of Ozark Bioregionalism,” in Environmental Anthropology Engaging Ecotopia: Bioregionalism, Permaculture, and Ecovillages, ed. Joshua Lockyer and James R. Veleto (New York: Berghahn Books, 2013), 59. Campbell anonymizes the subjects of his ethnography.

[xxxvi] Phillips, Hipbillies, 115; Campbell, “Growing an Oak,” 63.

[xxxvii] Quoted in Campbell, “Growing an Oak,” 63.

[xxxviii] Campbell, “Growing an Oak,” 60.

[xxxix] Barbara Harmony, “From Resentment to Gratitude: How the bioregional movement changed me,” unpublished (2012), 3. Accessed via https://ozarkareacommunitycongress.org/resources.

[xl] Charlene Spretnak and Fritjof Capra, Green Politics: The Global Promise (E.P. Dutton, 1984); Charlene Spretnak, The Spiritual Dimension of Green Politics (Santa Fe, NM: Bear and Company, 1986).

[xli] Katherine Adam, “Book Beat,” Up & Coming, December 1986, 4-5.

[xlii] Ibid.

[xliii] Ibid.

[xliv] Campbell, “Growing an Oak,” 63-64.

[xlv] See Brooks Blevins, Arkansas/Arkansaw: How Bear Hunters, Hillbillies, & Good Ol’ Boys Defined a State (Fayetteville, AR: University of Arkansas Press, 2009), 241 & 267; Brooks Blevins, Hill Folks: A History of Arkansas Ozarkers and Their Image (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 200 & 241.

[xlvi] Phillips, Hipbillies, 23.

[xlvii] Phillips, Hipbillies, 59-78; Blevins, Hill Folks, 200.

[xlviii] Lord and Zajicek, who interviewed many still-living participants of the grassroots movement in northwest Arkansas around the year 2000, put the percentage of non-white women in the broad northwest Arkansas women’s movement at about 7 percent.

[xlix] Eric Cheyfitz, "The Navajo-Hopi land dispute: a brief history," interventions 2, no. 2 (2000), 248-275.

[l] “Petitions Against Forcible Relocation of Native Americans,” Up & Coming, June 1981, 3.

[li] M. Morning, “On Indian Affairs,” Up & Coming, November 1981, 7.

[lii] Philip DeLoria, Playing Indian (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 174.

[liii] “Native Americans Sought,” Up & Coming, May 1988, 7.

[liv] “Wimmins Sun Dance Makes Herstory,” Up & Coming, October 1988, 1.

[lv] DeLoria, Playing Indian, 175.

[lvi] Noel Sturgeon, "Ecofeminist appropriations and transnational environmentalisms," Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power 6, no. 2-3 (1999), 273.

[lvii] Sturgeon, “Ecofeminist appropriations,” 263.

[lviii] Lord and Zajicek, History of the Contemporary Grassroots Women’s Movement, 35

[lix] “A Water Pumping Windmill—A Necessity for the Development & Survival of a Woman’s Community,” Up & Coming, March 1984, 4; Lord and Zajicek, History of the Contemporary Grassroots Women’s Movement, 4-5.

[lx] Ibid.

[lxi] Ibid.

[lxii] Sturgeon, “Ecofeminist appropriations,” 274.

[lxiii] Miguela, “Big Mountain Deadline Draws Near,” Up & Coming, June 1986, 1 & 7.

[lxiv] Miguela, “Big Mountain Deadline Draws Near,” Up & Coming, June 1986, 1 & 7.

[lxv] “Grandmothers’ Council,” Up & Coming, May 1987, 1.

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