Whirlwind Woman (Neyoooxetuse) was the first woman on earth and vital to all ceremonies related to women according to the old Arapaho. She brought to us the art of quillwork and many of our sacred designs are said to be from her.
She never stays in one place very long and is constantly on the move, attributes that were actually the opposite of those valued by the old Arapaho. However, it is this very trait which played a crucial role in the creation of the earth.
The creation story of the Arapaho say that a turtle was sent by the first Pipe Keeper to the bottom of the water and this turtle brought up mud. Whirlwind Woman spun around the small piece of mud while it was still small.
As she circled, the earth grew until it reached its present size. She made four stops on her journey around the earth and created the four hills upon which sit the four Old Men at the four directions.
When she finally stopped, she had gone over the whole earth.
This sacred journey of Whirlwind Woman is told in one of the decorative quillwork designs that she gave to the Arapaho people. The black and yellow concentric rings represent her course. It is said that as she circled the earth, she worked on her first quill-embroidery piece.
Two of the sacred designs given to the tribe from Whirlwind Woman are the ‘bear-foot’ design unique to the Arapaho and the ‘ends of the earth’ design. She also created the first tent-ornament for the tipis to represent what she did in the creation of earth.
The power that Whirlwind Woman holds is that she generate motion and can stun or stop the motion of others who gaze at her. The medicine of the Seven Old Women is lost to us but the power to stun people may have been theirs because of Whirlwind Woman.
Quillwork was a gift from above to humans and was a prayer for a good and long life. The wearer of Quillwork absorbed those powers and more into themselves as it guided their life path. This power also radiated outward to others as did Whirlwind Woman’s power when she spun around the earth.
Wind is considered a creative power that connects Whirlwind Woman with the Four Old Men. It is wind that sent life-giving breath to the people. However, the medicine of the wind can also be dangerous.
It was said that the power of a whirlwind could take away your breath. If a whirlwind traveled towards a person, they must squat down and cover their face until it passes. If they fail to do this, they may lose their hearing or be nervous the rest of their life.
In 1907, Chief Left Hand of the Southern Arapaho told Hugh Lennox Scott the following account of the whirlwind.
“The old Arapaho said the dead went upward; sometimes the dead turn into owls. Sometimes when there is a sick person in a lodge and a whirlwind strikes the lodge the sick person dies and his spirit goes out of his body with the whirlwind.
When we see a whirlwind coming down the road, raising a vortex of dust, we get out of the way – it is a dead man’s spirit. If I do not get out of the way, it will take my life.”
Whirlwind Woman, once vital to the Arapaho beliefs and crucial to the woman’s sacred ceremonies is largely forgotten. She has left behind the art of Quillwork and her sacred designs though the meaning is not understood by those that see it. The Quill Society on the Wind River Indian Reservation has also disbanded and its ceremonies are lost. But, we still have a remnant of stories left behind so Whirlwind Woman is not completely lost to us.
— Jackie Dorothy 2016 copyright
For more about the sacred Quillwork that was inspired by Whirlwind Woman, read the book by Jeffrey Anderson, Arapaho Women’s Quillwork: Motion, Life, and Creativity