Kochinnenako: The Figure of "Yellow Woman"

yellow woman drawing.jpg

The following excerpt is taken from

Allen, Paula Gunn.  The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions.  1986.  Rpt., with a new Preface, Boston: Beacon, 1992.  226-27.

          The Keres of Laguna and Acoma Pueblos in New Mexico have stories that are called Yellow Woman stories.  The themes and to a large extent the motifs of these stories are always female-centered, always told from Yellow Woman's point of view.  Some older recorded versions of Yellow Woman tales . . . make Yellow Woman the daughter of the hocheni [loosely, "rulers"] . . . . 
          Kochinnenako, Yellow Woman, is in some sense a name that means Woman-Woman because among the Keres, yellow is the color for women . . . . Keres women paint their faces yellow on certain ceremonial occasions and are so painted at death so that the guardian at the gate of the spirit world, Naiya Iyatiku (Mother Corn Woman), will recognize that the newly arrived person is a woman.  It is also the name of a particular Irriaku, Corn Mother (sacred corn-ear bundle), and Yellow Woman stories in their original form detail rituals in which the Irriaku figures prominently. 

          Yellow Woman stories are about all sorts of things-abduction, meeting with happy powerful spirits, birth of twins, getting power from the spirit worlds and returning it to the people, refusing to marry, weaving, grinding corn, getting water, outsmarting witches, eluding or escaping from mal-intentioned spirits, and more.  Yellow Woman's sisters are often in the stories (Blue, White, and Red Corn) as is Grandmother Spider and her helper Spider Boy, the Sun God or one of his aspects, Yellow Woman's twin sons, witches, magicians, gamblers, and mothers-in-law. 

          Many Yellow Woman tales highlight her alienation from the people: she lives with her grandmother at the edge of the village, for example, or she is in some way atypical, maybe a woman who refuses to marry, one who is known for some particular special talent, or one who is very quick-witted and resourceful.  In many ways Kochinnenako is a role model, though she possesses some behaviors that are not likely to occur in many of the women who hear her stories.  She is, one might say, the Spirit of Woman. 

          The stories do not necessarily imply that difference is punishable; on the contrary, it is often her very difference that makes her special adventures possible, and these adventures often have happy outcomes for Kochinnenako and for her people.  This is significant among a people who value conformity and propriety above almost anything.  It suggests that the behavior of women, at least at certain times or under certain circumstances, must be improper or nonconformist for the greater good of the whole.  Not that all the stories are graced with a happy ending.  Some come to a tragic conclusion, sometimes resulting from someone's inability to follow the rules or perform ritual in the proper way.