“The Ghigau Women” by Sun Cooper
The Ghigau Women
ᎩᎦᎤ, or the Ghigau, was a title bestowed by the Cherokee clans upon extraordinary women
who had demonstrated uncommon bravery and benevolence in battle and in community; this
title was held for life and literally translates: “beloved war woman.” She was given a ceremonial
symbol of her role: a white swan’s wing. Its anatomy is both graceful and powerful enough to
break a man’s arm. The Cherokees believed the Creator spoke through this woman endowed
with equanimous mercy and ferocity. She headed the Cherokee’s Council of Women and shared
a high seat among the Council of Chiefs; a role that flew in the face of her culture – a time when
American women were not allowed a vote, and long before. Further, Ghigau held a power even
greater than a Chief’s – she alone decided the fates of captives. With a wave of the wing, she
proclaimed fatality or freedom. A Seneca myth tells how some Ghigau women tattooed a
serpent around their lips, a striking reminder of the life and death in her tongue.
I saw a vision last night. A circle of fire. Smoke curdling past the wattle and daub. A longhouse.
Full with council and a half wing of swan.
A half wing of swan in her hands: a mast. Her hands bloodied with births and a battle-axe. She
has known mercy. She has known none. She is Ghigau. Beloved War Woman.
Ropes, swollen ankles, eyes white. Captives awaiting their fates. Sooted elbows. Mouths of clay.
Teeth knocking. It is not cold; it is sweat.
As she stands, the clan folds to the seam of her rustling. Her brown feet uproot the ground
where she walks: Her movements begin inside, then outside, and continue. She lifts the swan’s
wing and pauses in deliberation: A drop of mother’s milk; a pale, hard hope like pearl in a
blackened oyster. The vibration of swan: Scapulars, humeral, the trailing edge of finality.
Around her mouth, a tattooed snake sleeping. It uncoils as her lips open. Her tongue is forward
with speech, with death, with life. Swish, swish. You live.
Her movements continue. I unravel the buried seam of her feet, shuffling from uprooted
ground; a message from the Ghigau to us:
Be beloved. Be war. Be both.
Uncoil the snake. Unfurl the metaphor. Your hand, a stroke.
Swish, swish. You, live.
or Changing the Archetype
My presentation on the Ghigau and the swan’s wing as an individual and collective metaphor of
deciding our own narratives was meaningful; but when AROHO women responded by wearing
the white feathers on their bodies, tucking them into their journals, and then Maxine Hong
Kingston responded to the metaphor in her own Waves response, we collectively and powerfully
changed the archetype. A white feather no longer symbolizes the cowardice of men but the
courage of women.
Currents to change
Waves upon waves
Our stories overlapping
Coward to courage
Woman upon woman
White feathers overlapping
Into a swan song
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Sun Cooper Artist Statement:
Sun Cooper has been in AROHO community since 2015 and served five years as WAVES editor and Fire Heart Sister. Prior, she was named AROHO’s Blackbird Fellow and attended the writer’s retreat at Ghost Ranch where she first found sisterhood in the world of arts and letters. It was here that Sun shared about the Ghigau, the Cherokee beloved-war-women who modeled a way of leadership guided equally by compassion and courage. Sun is a single mother, published author, editor, and director of Sun Literary, a diverse women-led agency based in Oklahoma with virtual agency worldwide. Having hearing disability from birth has forged her vision beyond perceived boundaries and facilitated deep listening. Her multiple inheritances as a daughter of Indigenous, migrant, and settler ancestors shape her commitment to shared progress.