Interview with Rima
“MAKING BRIDGES, GATHERING MEDICINE: Interview with Rima Thundercloud Hutsell”
by Paul B. Rucker (April 1996, Unpublished)
Rima is a Native American mask-maker, whose name and work are familiar to festival-goers across the country. In this interview, Rima shares with us her early experiences, her thoughts on creative and spiritual process, and reports “from the field” of her efforts to bridge the Native American and the Pagan communities, as well as to connect these communities with the mainstream.
Paul: Tell us about your early life. How did you discover your Native American affiliation and your artistic expression?
Rima: Well, my situation was not unlike a lot of other disassimilated Native people. My mother was a Native woman who was adopted, who was raised by Irish people. They were related to her on one level: the man I called my grandfather was in reality my great-uncle, who had adopted my mother. So I have an Irish-Iroquois background; that’s my tribal roots from my mother’s side. Like a lot of disassimilated Native people, she had a lot of hardship in her life.
Consequently, these same grandparents that adopted her, also raised my brother and me. And they were more old-Celtic tradition, very magical people. My grandmother was a woman people would come to: to predict the sex of their babies, to get rid of warts, and for herbal medicines. Yet she was also a Catholic who loved the church, and my grandfather was just a total Pagan, so I don’t know how those two ever got along!
Paul: Where was this?
Rima: Anderson, Indiana. Many reported UFOS in that area! (Laughs.) So, I was not limited in the same way that many magical people are, in their early years. I was more encouraged than limited. My grandfather would make sacred fires, and offer spirit plates to “the Little People,” and he taught me a lot of Irish mythology. I didn’t even recognize my Indian-ness except in that I had an aunt who would take me up to the reservation in Northern Michigan for short times. I don’t remember the name of the reservation. I have disassociated memories of this time because my life was spent back-and-forth between Grandma’s house and my mother’s.
It’s hard for me to talk about it… my mother was an alcoholic with very little self-esteem: she had wonderful creative talent, but somehow she just fell between the cracks. Our life with her was hard.
Like a lot of Native people who have not been associated with their tribal background, that were still things about me which were very different, that I couldn’t understand. I’m fair-skinned according to how full-blooded Native people look, but in the white community I was, of course, quite dark. But more than just my physical countenance, I think it was my spirituality that set me apart. Other children would come to me and I would make games and all kinds of theatrical productions, and eventually they would just leave me– I think I was just a little too much for them. My ideas and my theories– I’m talking about trees and stars [to the other children]; and magical workings with clouds….
I was fortunate that the grandparents who raised me had gone through a terrible financial crisis. As a result, we lived in the worst part of town– in a way it was joyful, because there were no color barriers there. My playmates were black. It was kind of, the middle-class white kids, that shunned me. (Laughs.)
We lived in a very natural small town where we used to gather mulberries, and where my grandfather would take me to gather medicine and herbs. It’s kind of funny because today people say,”Oh, Rima, she’s Native, she knows all about medicines and herbs,” and they always assume the knowledge came from my Native American grandparents that I never knew. But it was my Irish grandfather that taught me all these things!
My family and I are very involved in the Native community politically, and we dance in the Dances, but I never miss an opportunity to let other Native people know that my background from my Irish side is what gave me the greatest medicine.
Paul: Are you registered with the Iroquois?
Rima: No, I’m not enrolled at all. That’s another whole political thing that a lot of people have been looking at. It puts me in the position of always being controversial, even though I’m accepted in the Native community, because I am a feminist, as you know, and yet I’m also a traditionalist! I don’t know how (laughs) but I think the two do combine! If we go back to pre-Christian times, I think the two were one.
Paul: Your life is spent making bridges between all these things that otherwise seem irreconciliable–
Rima: I think so. Two years ago I had a vision about an enrollment that I believe some of us have, a spiritual enrollment. I understood that to be more of a priority than any special group. I’ve had talks with other Native people who are obviously Native but not enrolled, who have experienced the same thing all of their lives. Many live in the inner city, like I do. We’re going through a time of judgment right now, of others and ourselves; we’re in a place of new awakening, I believe. A lot of Elders speak of that time. I think this awakening is inclusive to all spiritual people, but I think what happens is that when a group of people who have been disenfranchised from their own strength and from their own spirituality are reclaiming it, sometimes they become greedy with that and fearful of that sharing. Especially considering the historical genocide of Native people by whites. So here I am, a bridgemaker, and it’s a difficult walk… but when you walk slowly with the spirits and without making assumptions, these journeys and hardships you go through will strengthen you. That is part of the walk. As you become a spiritual warrior, part of that is the testing. I’ve been around many Elders and spiritual teachers, and the story’s always the same. They’ll look me in the eye and say, “You know, you don’t walk this path without great hardships.” Maybe someday we’ll evolve into a higher space where we can tap into “higher consciousness” without all these hardships.
Paul: What forms of art-making were you involved with, when you were a child?
Rima: Well, this is funny; a few years back I was sitting on the ground and praying. There were little twigs there and I started weaving them together and playing with them, and crying to the spirits about what am I supposed to do in life? Here I am, a grown woman, and I still don’t know what I’m supposed to grow up to be, right? So what am I supposed to be doing– and all of a sudden I realized, well, I’m doing it. I’m taking natural things from right here where I’m sitting and praying, and I’m weaving them, and I’m creating from Nature.
I thought back to when I was a young girl, and all those children who would come back to me for great ideas, and I would show them how to make baby blankets for their dolls by weaving leaves together, and little houses out of twigs, and little Native encampments for everyone. I’ve just always done it: I can’t remember not ever having done it. And I do remember “Isis” [pronounces “EYE-sees”] worship; and I don’t know where that ever came from, but I used to have bunch of girls bowing down to “Isis” in this prayer. And we had a little doll set up, and I’d be going “and this is ISIS,” and we would bow to her. But when I found out who Isis [pronounces “EYE-sis”] really was, I realized I wasn’t playing. (Laughs.) I didn’t differentiate anyway: it was all reality to me.
My grandfather was so magical: it was so accepted, to sit by a fire and talk to the spirit of that fire. I was never told that was a fantasy.
Paul: There are two kinds of question I want to ask you, about when you became a young woman: what kinds of arts were you involved with, and how did you find yourself becoming more assimilated into the tribes?
Rima: Well, that journey started when I was a child. I remember that when I was taken to the reservation, I had been given a medicine bag. When I came home, I would gather seeds and make my own ceremonies: I would eat the seeds– well, they were Morning Glory seeds! (Laughs.) I was always hooking into natural things without realizing it! My connection there was very strong; I always felt home there. My auntie who took me there was a rebel, an artist and a matriarch– not my blood relative, but she knew my need to be connected, and made sure that I got it.
But that was not for the long term. My mother was in total denial about her Native heritage; she couldn’t accept that very well. Although she’s worked on reservations, she’s never connected to the traditional spirituality, never.
Paul: Under what circumstances did you finally leave home and strike out on your own?
Rima: My grandfather died when I was sixteen, and I took off for the Haight-Ashbury! [Iconic 60’s neighborhood in San Francisco.] I hung out in North Beach, where the old poets used to hang out, and I was like the child at play at that time. There were gurus all over. I saw the concerts, dropped acid and mushrooms and everything– this was the late 60s– but I wasn’t a glutton for those things; I was always seeking more spiritual experiences.
So I met my share of movie stars and had my highs and lows…. I was a very young, pretty woman and I got involved in a few things that gave me a lot of understanding about the world and how it works.
Paul: Could you tell us something about it? I think you mentioned something about street theater, and hanging out with the drag queens, and–
Rima: (Laughs) Yeah, the drag queens were the first ones to teach me how to do makeup! One time I lived in a building that was all queens– that was kind of interesting! I did a little street theater, but I wasn’t really an actress.
I always did my beadwork, always had that as a sideline. I was in an art collective in San Francisco; we had a house in the Haight-Ashbury. We designed greeting cards and put “Kitchen Witch” on the market– that was an astrological herb garden. This was 1973.
Paul: So we’re gettting close to the time when your first child was born?
Rima: That’s exactly right. That’s when I decided I wanted to be a full-time mother. I worked with the natural birthing, and I modeled! I modeled for “Pregnant Pin-ups” at eight months pregnant with my daughter. I think that’s why she likes modeling now.
I gave birth in ceremony, with midwives and friends– it was a party, even though it took place in a hospital in Marin County. People brought incense. There were no doctors controlling me– there were only midwives. The comet Kouhoutek was passing at the time and because all the holy people were visiting San Francisco, my daughter’s birth was a celebrated thing in the Haight-Ashbury. The band Tangerine Dream came and played, and later came out with an album that had my daughter’s name, “Phaedra.” There were holy people coming in and out of the house.
My life changed because of this responsibility. I decided I didn’t want to do promotions; I didn’t want to do videos for “Kitchen Witch.” I needed more structure. I took off for Northern California and ended up living in a little shack in the woods with my daughter. Turned out it was an old deserted Indian reservation; and that’s when I started having the really strong visions: the spirits talking to me, and….
Paul: Can you give some examples?
Rima: Yeah! I can give you a really good example.When Phaedra was just a baby, I would walk and gather manzanita and we would walk to the water and swim, and I was led to this one area, which was huge and had a hollowed-out rock. I saw women sitting on this rock and they were grinding something in this indented area. So I used to go down there and listen to them sing– their spirits were still there. It was a Mewahk encampment.
There were these two Indian guys who lived down the road from me who started talking with me about the more political things involved with the Indian people.
Paul: This was the time when A.I.M. [American Indian Movement] was formed?
Rima: Oh, yeah… these two guys just knew all the things that were happening politically and spiritually, and I felt like I had finally connected, through them, to where my heart space was…. I found out, hey!… I am Indian, but I didn’t know about all these things. I wasn’t raised in a tribal situation. But I’m sure there’s benefit to that, because I can walk in the white world, you know.
We would hitchhike into the local town to the little flea-market, and I would sell my beadwork, while I was raising my baby, and then we started travelling, and doing shows. I wound up in Minneapolis, where I lived right behind the Indian Center, and I started finding elders and working in the community, and I found my way.
Paul: How did that process of coming closer to the traditional learning come to you? For instance, you say you were hanging out at the Indian Center…?
Rima: I’ll tell you how that happened. I think that we all think that all of sudden, you’re going to be gifted with medicine knowledge by association, and that’s just not gonna happen. I think that a lot of the gifts that we receive on the planet, whether we’re Native or not, come from having an open heart, and serving others.
There were times I’d be asked to help in the community, and although at first I didn’t know who he was, that’s how I met Grandfather Crowdog. One day he came into the Indian Center and I thought, ohh, now I have to cook up all this deer meat for this feast, nobody’s helping me… you know, all those kind of thoughts that run through your head. And here’s this old man and he needs a cup of coffee; so I slapped myself up and said, Now wait a minute– there’s an Elder and he needs some coffee. So I brought him his coffee, and I knew, oh no, now he wants to talk! It’s always a joy to talk to elders, but I had all this work to do!
Yet the more he talked, the more I realized I was in the presence of a true holy man. And he started teaching me right then and there. If I had had a more white attitude in this situation, like, well, I’ve got to get all this work done– I would have missed my opportunity to connect. And that’s when I learned to be more humble and to serve.
Paul: So this would be 1978 or so?
Rima: Yeah, Phaedra was five. I lived in Minneapolis for quite some time and started travelling and doing more shows; I ended up at the Renaissance Festival, and powwows and so on….
Paul: And usually these were things you’d hear about, and go check out, and then get involved with?
Rima: Actually, it’s never been that way. I have never planned a thing in my life, Paul! I just fall into stuff. For instance, a friend came to visit recently and I had a feeling we should drive up to the North Shore [of Lake Superior, near Duluth] and we ran into another friend there who said I’m so glad you’re here: we’re having ceremonies— he had assumed I’d heard from somewhere. Which I didn’t. And that one time started another whole several years’ journey.
But getting back to art: with art shows you have to plan in advance, you know. Back in the old days of powwow you could pretty much walk in and set your art up and be there, and it wasn’t like it is nowadays. It’s big business now. There’s a lot of Native people whom we call the “powwow circuit” people. They travel from powwows to powwows and make their living either through selling crafts, or maybe they have dancers in the family.
It’s really changed– they used to pass the blanket around, and I would honor the dancers with gifts. To pass the blanket around is for donations, for things to give-away. This was before everybody started getting these really fancy competitive costumes! Well, I shouldn’t say costumes because they’re “Dance Regalia,” but I was taught that what you wear in ceremony and to dance are things that are very strong medicines to you. They‘re not for show and they’re not just to look better than the next guy out there dancing, or to compete.
You talk to almost all of the Traditionals, and they’ll tell you that too. I’m not against the competitive dancing: I think it’s wonderful because I think it’s a good way to come together. But it’s not necessarily what you would say is traditional.
Larger organizations put on powwows now. I go to “Gathering of Nations” every year and there might be 1500 to 2000 dancers. That’s a long way for people to travel without money to get there– so there’s dance competition. Some people can win up to $2000, $3000.
Paul: Is there a specific calendar for these events?
Rima: Oh yeah, oh yeah.
Paul: Let’s get some ideas about medicine. You were saying, for instance, that “Dance Regalia” must be medicine?
Rima: Well, “medicine” is not just limited to Native community. I’m an Adornment Ceremonial Artist and I use the word “ceremonial” hesitatingly, because people want to put all kinds of connotations on the word. What denotes “ceremonial”? If you find a stone that has all this meaning to you, it’s sacred to you. If an auntie beads up an outfit for a child, that’s sacred to the child. So you can’t say what’s sacred and what isn’t. I’ve seen Christmas tree icicles coming off of some of the bustles, and I don’t want to say that’s not sacred, because it might be to that person, but….
Paul: It’s interesting how there can be such a close unity between art and the sacred, and yet, there are places where they diverge. For instance, art seems to have a very strong preoccupation with making beauty, meaning-in-pattern, and the sacred does too, but most of the time when we’re making art in the Beauty Way, we wouldn’t necessarily recognize to the same degree of importance something that seems ugly or chintzy or out-of-place. But if I’m following you right, in the appropriate context, from a sacred eye, it could be a sacred thing.
Rima: Well, I’m all for the traditional and the non-traditional powwows. Anything that gathers indigenous people together to celebrate and have a good time. By the way, almost all of our gatherings now are sobriety gatherings, which I find very empowering.
Paul: You might want to make some comments about that.
Rima: I don’t know if I’m the right person to do that; I just know that I had my own sobriety since I became pregnant with my daughter.
I have not lived my life in any other way than being connected to art; I make my living at art. But my work is of a spiritual nature. I’m a mother; I’m a matriarch; I’m a tribal woman; I serve the people. And my art sometimes gets me here and there to do that!
You know that I’ve walked the medicine path at least as long as you and I have known each other* [*ten years in 1996] and I don’t know how to term that because so many Anglos have different ideas about what that is. [Sotto voce:] Oh, she’s up with the elders, she’s sacred and holy!
Well, that’s good. But every day– how you live your life– is sacred and holy. I mean, how do you deal with your children, how do you deal with people that need you? There’s a true circle, and whether you work a 9-to-5 job or whatever you do in your life, it can be sacred. I did waitress at one time, and I remember that instead of getting mad at people, I would pray that their food nurtured them. Every plate I brought out to people– no matter how mean or ornery they were– I would pray that the food would nurture them and it would go to their higher good. Now that’s really Pagan!
I have never known a time without alternatives, even in my rough times I felt like I was a priestess in the groups I hung out with. I was always into philosophy and counseling and being on a more spiritual level. Even though I didn’t know who I was associating with and those kinds of things were diametrically opposite!
Paul: Well, using your children as a kind of a timeframe, since they were born every seven years–
Rima: Yeah, they used to call me “Ironskirts” because you could count on, every seven years, I’d be out and snag a man and have a baby! (Laughs) There’s a couple of us women who are looked on as strong women, and I guess those guys are a little scared of us! It’s funny because I’ve always been afraid of partnership but it seems like every seven years I would end up with somebody and have a baby, but I never married! So I find that a kind of old matriarchal, ancient! tradition.
Paul: So what are their fathers like?
Rima: The fathers to my children? Oh, all talented, creative, the best of who they can be during that time we were together.
Paul: Are they all Native?
Rima: My boys’ fathers are Native but my daughter’s father is Greek. That’s where the name “Phaedra” comes from. The father of Michael, my 15-year-old, is Ojibway, and the father of David, my 8-year-old, is Navajo.
Paul: Did you tend to meet these men in similar circumstances?
Rima: Oh, absolutely! I met them at a spiritual time in their lives, when they were in their own sacredness. I’m not saying they’re still in that space.
Paul: Did they have the need of a Priestess/Earth Mother person in their lives?
Rima: I think so. Very much so. So everyone was served, all the way around. And I had blessed children from these unions.
For so many years I was ashamed because I was an unmarried woman who had produced three children, travelled all over the country, did my shows, served my community. Yet I know many other Native women like myself, and I think that the reason for this, is that there is such a breakdown of how we used to live tribally and even now we’re following our instincts, but now there’s no tribe in the sense of Tribe, that our genetics call for us. It wasn’t too long ago that we were living in a sacred way on the Earth; it wasn’t hundreds of years ago– it was a few hundred years ago.
Although I’m Iroquois by blood– my father’s also Native American– my mother wasn’t married to him either. I don’t know anything about my father… that’s a mystery yet to be revealed.
Paul: Well, I know you’ve said many times before that with the birth of each chlid you’ve sort of entered into a new phase in your life– how did things change when Michael came into the picture?
Rima: Ah, yes… Michael… he’s the one who came out smiling at the world, there’s no doubt about it.
Paul: You said you were bellydancing at the time?
Rima: I bellydanced Michael out! Michael’s birth was a ceremony of all women being there– it just worked out that way.
Paul: So you were still doing beadwork at that time?
Rima: Still doin’ it! By that time I was doing powwows all the time– as a matter of fact, two days after Michael was born, we were at a powwow.
Paul: How did the masks eventually come into the picture?
Rima: Well, I’ve always been attracted to masks. That came into the picture when we lived out in Colorado, fifteen years ago, 1982-84. I started doing masks out in the West. I did a gallery show with a mask that made me realize these were not just works of art– I almost hesitate to say this, but each and every mask was like a spiritual entity.
Paul: You say that you don’t have any examples of your early masks left, but what were they like compared to what you’re doing now?
Rima: Very similar.
Paul: So you had that aesthetic you’ve had since childhood, of using things from nature and creating ceremonial adornment from them?
Rima: Yes. My masks are more elaborate now because I can afford better materials. I have more time to seek better materials. Like this [points to “Peyote Clan Mother” hung over her piano] is all parrot feathers. That’s a ten-year journey.
In the Native traditions I’ve always respected the fact that one doesn’t sell medicine things. we don’t sell ceremonies– even though you’ll find some people who will do it. But I was taught that you don’t do things that way– yet as an artist I make my living with art. And I can’t separate ceremony from art, because all of my art is ceremony, because it speaks to me–
Paul: Yeah, you imbue it through your own connection with the Spirit.
Paul: And it’s not a tap that can be turned off; it just happens as a part of the process.
Rima: And I happen to make my living through my art! I don’t capitalize my work as “this is an Indian medicine mask!” No! It’s a Rima mask! It is my creation, and it may look very tribal, but it’s not gonna give you “power” to have this mask!
Paul: You could go so far as to say, that if it is meant for you, then the medicine that is attached to it, comes from you.
Rima: Sometimes, yeah. Some people have had very strong experiences seeing the mask–
Paul: I meant “you” in the sense of whoever is reacting so strongly to the mask–
Rima: Oh, absolutely!
You know, I was blackballed, I was once accused of selling medicine masks and misappropriating my own culture. But they’re not medicine in the sense of tradition, of spending years mastering a specific medicine to know how to make that mask, like say, the Iroquois Nation does with the wood-carved masks. These are totally from my own concept but they do come with energy– I’ve been in ceremony for a lot of years with this sort of work.
Paul: Let’s talk a little bit about some of the conflicts you’ve had with the Native community–
Rima: Actually, it hasn’t been the Native community so much as all the PC, correct, white people that are out to save all of us Indians and our rights! It’s good that there is some of that, but some people get on a bandwagon of judging other people without understanding how things change in different situations. For instance one person of one tradition told them a specific rule that applies in that person’s tradition, so now the white person is going to go out and be the “Culture Cop!” Native people don’t approach each other in this way.
So now that we’ve dealt with the fact that I’m not misappropriating anything, let me tell you about the first mask I ever made that I felt had a real strong spiritual connection. I mean really strong. I was living in a housing project with my first two children and I was working with the community, which is what called me back to my artwork. We were doing fashion shows and other outrageous things to raise money for the playground equipment. I had a great chance to be interviewed in the local paper that October– they wanted to interview a maskmaker. This was in 1983 in Colorado.
Well, I didn’t get the interview! They had chosen this man, another maskmaker– and his mask– I was livid– not because someone else had been chosen, but because he called it “A Witch’s Mask”! It was all in aluminum foil and it portrayed a Witch woman as being ugly!
Now, I had always been taught never to work in anger with your art, because that goes into your art. Yet this was the biggest transformation for me because I broke the rules. I became so angry, I had a friend come and stay with my daughter because I started on this art piece and I said, “I can’t stop on this one!”
It ended up being a mask called “Péle” and it was all about woman’s rage.
Paul: What did it look like?
Rima: There were a lot of parrot feathers and bright red and golden Chinese pheasant feathers, and it had whole bird head on it with wings spread. It was so beautiful, and so strong! When I finished the piece, I was sitting in my living room, and I was adding this last parrot feather right in the center place where the Third Eye would be, and I knew I had worked in anger and constructed in anger and it was woman rage anger.
I wasn’t just angry at what this man had taken from me, I was angry at how he had portrayed a Witch! His work was such a woman-hating, misogynistic piece of ugliness. That’s what I felt about it, anyway, whether or not he intended it– it produced that thought in me, that rage in me.
Anyway, I sat in that living room and added that last feather, and I knew there was a storm coming in. All of a sudden it just thundered and lightninged! I had never felt that kind of power before. For this mask, the elements came inside my house! Hailstones came in through a furnace room, in my kitchen, rolled out, and instead of just scattering, surrounded the mask!
Although I didn’t know anything about Péle or Hawai’ian mythology at the time, other than connecting with Her intuitively, I knew this was Péle speaking to me!
Paul: And later you actually visited Her, in Hawai’i– where, as you put it, “the Goddess is constantly creating new land–”
Rima: New land, new life. Yes, She is. Through a very abrupt type of energy. I am honored to say that that year I was invited to a Native American art show in Denver, Colorado. It’s a very big one, and I was honored to display my work there– and even though it was not a traditional piece, I won first prize with this mask! In a very traditional show! That’s how I could tell I was on to something here!
Paul: What did that tell you about the connection that was made here?
Rima: Well, it told me that it’s okay to break tradition– that some people base their traditions on something that’s very untraditional.
It scared me– I knew that I had reached the point where, when I had worked in that anger, I didn’t say “Oh I’m purposely gonna break the rules here and work in anger”– it was an energy that came over me and I had to do it. I was forced by the spirits to do that. And I didn’t know at the time whether it was for good or for bad or whatever.
I’ve learned in my medicine walk that it’s very important to respect tradition, that you can’t just go in and change something without knowing it.
Paul: Yes, with art, the same principle applies– you can’t go out there and break new ground until you understand the ground itself.
Rima: Exactly. I think I was given a great gift. There is no tradition when the spirits are at work. And you have to suffer the consequences. If you’re doing something and it’s incorrect, but you’re forced to do it, you always have to have this doubt: is this correct or not? But nonetheless, you do it.
Paul: Have you discussed this issue with other Native people?
Rima: Yeah, I finally have. There were times I took a few of the masks around and there was some criticism. A few medicine people came up to me who knew what I was doing. One really wise man came up to me and said, “You know, there aren’t many maskmakers around here. But if you go to all four directions on Turtle Island [America] you will find there are maskmakers.”
There’s something to this connection that I don’t understand but on the level that I walk there’s medicine to it, even when I’m influenced by a tradition or a culture other than my own. Maskmaking is connected over all of Turtle Island.
Paul: How, in your opinion– magically, medicine-wise, or in any other way– is the mask form different from creating other artifacts? How does it spiritually transform a person to wear a mask? How does a mask change consciousness in a way that could be considered different from the effect of a painting or a theatrical act?
Rima: Masks were utilized in all primal, tribal societies. If you look at ancient Egypt, for example, or any ancient society, you’re talking about people who understood what masks were for and what they were to be used for. The medicine, the vision, came to them for how they were to do that. Well, nowadays, look at what we’re doing– we’re looking at how we are “re-tribing” as people. So I look at the masks that I am making and I know that if they have a special connection for a person, it doesn’t mean that they can wear one and create some far-out ritual. But if they are moved by it, if there is a personal connection… I have seen people try on masks and transform.
Paul: Can you give an example of what you mean?
Rima: I went to a Women and Spirituality meeting once where a woman saw a mask I had made and she had dreamed of it. And this happens all the time! People come up and say “I dreamed of this mask” or “This is my spirit”— they connect with it. I almost feel like I’m in-between. It’s a ritual door but we all know that material things don’t really make the medicine. But sometimes tools come into our hands that really help us achieve a higher consciousness; and the masks I make are using natural elements— like the feathers and shells I brought back from New Orleans this last Mardi Gras. They’re going to make a special mask for someone; I don’t know who that person is yet.It may be mine– I don’t know– I hold onto them sometimes! [Laughs] I mean, it’s really hard to let some of them go! “Péle”— under terrible circumstances I had to let that mask go, because of my terrible poverty at the time. We had no money to get out of that area–
Paul: So maybe the Péle mask allowed you a liberation– maybe that was the point of it, expressed a different way–
Rima: –I do want to tell you about the very first mask show in New Orleans, which I and my kids were able to attend. We had invested all our money in being at the show but at first the money just wasn’t coming in. Then this very, very sophisticated woman in furs– a drippy debutante type — came up to me and said, “I want that mask!”
I told her I wanted $750 for it, although I was so desperate I’d have probably taken $300. She didn’t bat an eyelash– just said, “Save that one for me. I’ll be back for it!” There was no connection, no spiritual interchange, nothing! I was not used to operating this way; I just prayed and said to my kids, “You’re involved in this too. And this is our prosperity hour and yet I don’t want to sell it to her. If you guys feel I should, I will, because we’ll have instant money and get our needs met.” But we all made the decision not to sell to her.
Paul: So she came back?
Rima: She came back and I told her that I was mistaken, that it was not for sale, that as an artist I had change my mind.
Paul: How did she take that?
Rima: Oh, she was livid! She finally left, and the very next day, this wonderful Native American man came by and bought it as a present for his wife. Their spirit was so respectful, I was grateful. This situation was one of those tests of integrity. In spite of sometimes knowing that you might not be selling your work to the exact right home, you can’t have the kind of greed on your work that that woman had for the mask, if you’re going to make a living at it.
Paul: Yeah, you want it to be respecting the spirit in which it was made.You know, you said something about remaking tribes, by which I am assuming you mean not just Native tribes but also white Europeans, in Paganism, that is–
Rima: Yes— it’s a shared thing, a coming together of tribes. I go to a lot of different gatherings and I notice that even though Native people are holding fast to what they do have left of their traditions, especially the very traditionals, who have been raised with the medicines and things, many Native people who have had this terrible genocide of being severed from their physical and spiritual roots are– not borrowing, but utilizing, elements from other tribes. For instance you might see an Ojibway with Lakota beadwork on. This is the spirit of our powwows and gatherings now– a coming together of tribes. I see that not only for the Native people in our reclamation, but I see it for the Europeans. I have tried to bring Pagan people that I know who are very sacred and spiritual into more tribal ways. Traditionally, they’ve been accepted: friends I’ve brought to elders; they get to meet them and share on that level.
There are also a lot of greedy people out there who want power, though, and I refuse to subject either elders or myself to those kind of people.
Paul: Do you find that Native people, dealing with all they have come through– the genocide, oppressive economic situations– as well as the conditions of today, like the information explosion and what we could call the “winnowing-out” of the original populations– forces you by circumstance to be more eclectic in doing this sharing of cultures?
On the one hand I see the preservation of traditions– Native, European or wherever– as important because we need to know where we came from and live that way if we choose to do so, insofar as that’s possible today. Even if our blood is mixed, as it is for most of us now. But if we could compare the activity of ideas to the activity of genes* [*the theory of memes– the components of concepts encoded in language, that propagate themselves in a manner resembling that of genes]– well, we see that organisms survive by trading genes to create hardier specimens to deal with new circumstances. Do you see something like that happening now?
Rima: Yeah, I know exactly what you’re talking about: farmers always bringing in new strains in their crops. And yeah, I do see a strength in that.
You look at the medicine wheel– which is so popular now, although it’s been around for hundreds of years– and you see the colors of the four directions: red, black, yellow, and white… well, those are not just the colors of the directions but they’re also the colors of people. And you look at these indigenous people here on Turtle Island, who had never encountered European, Oriental, or African culture– how did they know there were all those four directions? They were on a higher consciousness somewhere.
Paul: Here’s something else: almost every generalized Pagan ritual today involves evoking the four directions. It’s done and taken for granted even though it’s not indigenously European, even though in certain instances the directions were aligned with the four elements as in the traditions of High Magick. But the common people very likely did not consecrate space in the same manner that we do today, and if they paid court to specific directions or elements, the European correlations are different from the ones that are considered standard now: North-earth, West-water, South-fire, East-air. This system is purely Native American and that needs to be recognized, because with the books that people teach themselves with today, you get the idea that supposedly it’s part of this unbroken European tradition, when in reality it was like maize, or something. It was taken from this continent. I feel that you almost can’t consider the Pagans and the Wiccans in this country apart from the Native Americans, because there has been so much influence on the way that people actually do things.
Rima: Well, you hear all this “wannabe” business, and I’ve always felt that when we’re children, we stumble and fall and we make mistakes, and the superior parent, or the one with superior knowledge, helps to pick us up. They don’t judge us or put terrible things on us because we don’t know how it is yet. It’s unfortunate that the European consciousness has promoted this attitude of “let’s get well quick”, “let’s go into this Indian ceremony and take bits and pieces of it and turn it into something else.” And I do see a lot of the Pagan people doing that because they’re so desperate for a traditional connection of sorts, because they’ve been removed from their own for so long. But they don’t realize it is out there, waiting for them, and if they put out their spirits to the place of their ancestors, they will get what they need.
Paul: I think another part of it is that they’re just charmed with this alien aesthetic, and I think that they think that by taking on the artifacts of a culture, that they will somehow become more at one with this thing they find charming. Probably not realizing that part of what they find charming is their own invention.
Rima: Exactly! There is no doubt! And there is also the thing of borrowing or capitalizing on something from the culture– but they won’t live it. They won’t live on a reservation and get back to the people. They won’t live with the alcoholism and the disease; they won’t live tribally and give back to the tribe what they gather from it. And if non-Native people wanted to go on a medicine path, that’s exactly what you do.
Paul: I see a parallel with another aspect of Pagan culture today, which is of Pagans who might be into their idea of Celtic enchantment, or Norse bravado, or whatever; they take initiations, give themselves fancy names, and play power politics in the secret fishbowl. But these folks are often unwilling to live the life fully– meaning owning up in public to their Pagan identity, using whatever resources they have in money, time, or connections to advance the tribe in the public sphere. So is it any wonder that Paganism is still wrapped in guilt and secrecy, with many of its adherents living completely double lives as Joe and Jane Mundane during the day, Lord and Lady Fullavit during the night. What shocks me is that so many think this is right, that it’s normal.
And you see the catalogs, like “The Pyramid Collection”, with ads for silver Native jewelry, pictures of handsome Indian faces of all ages, and all that stuff– we even have a company in this town, “Spirit Art,” which puts out a lot of that kind of thing. You look at this imagination of surfaces–
Rima: But there’s also a need, and there’s also an addressment– like with dreamcatchers. I’ve been involved with dreamcatchers for many years. I networked dreamcatchers to Northern Sun merchandising and to women’s bookstores, and when I was travelling, the dreamcatcher for me was part of a vision, and part of a reclamation. When I gathered my willow, that was all a very sacred act for me, and I did bring prosperity to my family and to other Native women. I had a firm belief that women are the weavers of the Destiny, so I worked with women to do this.
Every part of the dreamcatchers was sacred to me, but I brought prosperity through selling them. The visions that came with them were mine; and you see dreamcatchers everywhere now– I’ve even seen my personal visions reprinted in a Tandy Leather catalog. But my personal visions are not the tradition, although tradition is about having vision, about being a visionary and bringing that out to the people. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a system that necessarily always honors that.
There’s a real fine line between making art and misappropriating even your own culture.
Paul: What kinds of guidelines do you use for yourself that you might be able to pass on?
Rima: That I share! That I share everything I have! There isn’t anyone that comes to my door that I don’t feed, hardly! I don’t just empower myself, I empower everyone around me. If I benefit, my circle benefits.
I’ve put some boundaries on me lately, because I’m doing a “self” thing right now– I finally decide that I wanted to do some gallery-level pieces and internalize for a while– do my own art without it being a total sharing.
The line for me is fulfilling my own heart and my destiny, first and foremost: asking myself, am I being right? am I doing a good way? Going to elders– I would go to elders and say, what do you think of this? You go to ten elders and you get ten different answers, but by taking their answers together I find a good way.
I think that for visionaries, though, if we limit ourselves to what other people tell us, we will not be the ones to make that breakthrough. And I think that sometimes our position on the earth is to be the one to make a breakthrough. Native people, whatever we have, we utilize! And so this mask, it’s not a traditional mask, but anyone who looks at it says wow, that’s so primal, it’s so tribal, and they can’t put a finger on it except that maybe it looks South American or Hawai’ian, but it’s just my own vision, my own feelings about what I connected to.
Paul: It’s interesting that when you go to the archaic experience, the very root of tradition, whether we’re talking about Dreamtime or geological history or creative process, it’s always in ferment. You’re always waiting for the original inspiration to give you the true step forward. I think this is sort of what’s happening with the re-awakening of Pagan culture right now, and how your work branches off into that….
Rima: Nowadays I associate with people that my politically correct peers would never dream of associating with, like upper-class suburbanites. At one time I might have been viewed as a total freak to those kind of people; now they’re looking at me in a whole different way. I work with Girl Scouts and their leaders. I don’t have that judgment any more of the dominant culture being the enemy. As a matter of fact, I feel we have things to share with each other. I feel there are many people out there who want to know about that Pagan connection, about that Native connection, about that earth connection– because they’re desperate right now.
I see a lot of white middle-class women, whom I consider among the most oppressed, because they have to live with patriarchy real strong! and yet they have the power to make that change. And I see it! And they are very hungry. I have more middle-to-upper-class white women who want to do workshops with me, who want to connect on that level: they are so hungry. And yes, sometimes they really say some misappropriate thngs to me, not knowing better, but as I said, if I have a spiritual teaching and a way with which they’re stumbling, doesn’t it behoove me to benefit them while at the same time letting them know they can’t rob me or rip me off?
Paul: In practical terms, how do you go about drawing those kinds of lines?
Rima: Well, for instance, people who came in expecting “good ole Indian 101”– well, I’d make sure they didn’t get it, so they’d get bored and leave. Folks like that want all the miracles and the magic; they want everything fast.
I see art as healing, so one thing we may do is have the people– usually all woman– make a shield. And all kinds of things would happen. And I would say, “Look, you’re not getting good ole Indian 101, you’re getting an art creation circle to come to, and we will see what happens.” Sometimes the spirits have moved, and I might share with them some traditional things that I feel are appropriate. A few special women I have worked with have wound up going on spirit journeys with me, gathering medicine,
I make sure that poeple understand that just because I’m Indian, there’s no guarantee that will come out in this experience– they’re doing art therapy, not buying a contact with Indian-ness. Do you understand what I’m saying? I see people doing that; they’re gonna sell sweatlodges and you can’t do that. The spirits don’t work that way.
Paul: I think that people who are not acquainted with how the spirits work, think it’s going to be a little like a glorified version of what happened to Biblical prophets– that all the harsh stuff is going to be taken away and the spirits are going to sweep through their heads like cymbals and golden thunder. And say things like, you are truly the blessed chosen one, and all the suffering you’ve been through is has been merely the mud which causes the lotus to grow, and like that. I think that’s what they want, which drives them to tarot cards, and getting their palms read; they want to be told how truly wonderful they are without having to discover it on their own. They think the spirits are cheerleaders! (Laughs.)
Rima: Right, right, exactly. We started out calling the workshops “Transformational Workshops”, and there is no transformation without pain. And a lot of it, especially the shieldmaking class, involves outside time: walks to find medicine. Even in the city you can find a pigeon feather. For us Pagan and Native people this kind of stuff goes on all the time, but for some of them this might be the first time. Finding magic and medicine right out of your front door is an alien world to them.
And when I realized for sure they didn’t know about this, I’d make absolutely sure they’d do the forty-five minute exercise.
Paul: Begin at the beginning.
Rima: We’d start out with meditation in the group, getting together, identifying ourselves; sometimes I’d burn sage for clarity. Then I’d talk a little bit about gathering medicine, and then they spend some time doing that and bringing it back.
I tell people, bring back what’s sacred to you for your shield. I always watch how people operate, and I can tell early on if they’re the sharing kind, the community kind; or if they’re the greedy kind. Some people bring total boxes of this stuff and they want it all on their shield! And then they find out through process, oftentimes a painful process, that the gathering of medicine isn’t always about them, oh my goodness! Wow! But at last there’s someone there who does have a connection to that shield.
And then we have a gifting circle, where they gift each other, and really, I’ve seen amazing things happen! One woman came to the workshop who was a nun, and she found out through making her shield that wasn’t how she wanted to serve, and she’s now a masseuse. That’s a transformation!
So, no, it isn’t an Indian ceremony, and no, your life isn’t going to change in a minute, but if you do take that time, and surrender, to find your own medicine, it will come to you.
Paul: I think we get “imprinted” by the image of the teacher, which is one reason why people seek out training by other people even if they have unlimited access to booklearning. Their being, as a character, will speak to you from inside you, including all their quirks that make their knowledge unique. I think we all need this, and this is why it is worthwhile to invest in being taught.
Rima: Oh, I think so too: I think we are all teachers and that we all need teachers, whether it’s the child or the elder or the bird in the tree– I’m guided to so many things by the winged ones and by the four-leggeds, truly.
And as you know, I’m working on a book now about gathering medicine, which is not specifically Native; in fact, in doing my research I ‘ve been amazed with how many different cultures wore medicine bags.
Paul: Well, yeah, that’s what a sporran* [*ornamental bag worn by Scotsmen in front of their kilts] is. Family lockets are another kind of medicine vessel. Little charm chests, a bride’s trousseau.
Rima: Absolutely, it’s all medicine. It’s amazing that we deny ourselves what’s so available. But as people learn what medicine is, and go after it with their hearts, it will come. Just like I’ve been saying.