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An Interview with Grandmother Margaret Behan

Indigenous Grandmother's Lessons on Living Your Best Life

Publish Date: October  01,  2011

Supporting people 50+ to live their best lives is one of AARP's main goals. What it means for people to live their best life is very personal. Among many things one's social, cultural, financial and family background shape the meaning and expectations of a 'best life.'   Here on the reservation we do not have a hotel so we are going to put up 13 teepees to house the grandmothers symbolizing the sacred circle. Our ancestors were Nomadic people and I am asking my people how they want us to remember our ancestors.

In 2004 a very special group of 13 women came together from Alaska; North, South, and Central America; Africa; and Asia and formed the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers. The Council was envisioned by members of the Center of Sacred Studies who saw the need for Indigenous Grandmothers to share their teachings of earth based ways of life, prayer and traditional medicines and healing. Initially 16 grandmothers were sent a letter by members of the Center of Sacred Studies. Thirteen grandmothers responded and have since been coming together every six months at one of the Grandmother's homelands.

In their mission statement the 13 Grandmothers share their vision:

We represent a global alliance of prayer, education and healing for our Mother Earth, all Her inhabitants, all the children, and for the next seven generations to come. We are deeply concerned with the unprecedented destruction of our Mother Earth and the destruction of indigenous ways of life. We look to further our vision through the realization of projects that protect our diverse cultures: lands, medicines, language and ceremonial ways of prayer and through projects that educate and nurture our children.

Since their first meeting in October 2004 at the Tibet House Menla Mountain Retreat center in upstate New York, they have met in New Mexico, India, South Dakota, Europe, Oregon, Arizona, Japan, and Alaska. Their meetings have been attended by thousands of participants, religious and government officials, all supporting their prayers for peace.  And while in India, they had a private audience with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. 

The 10th council gathering will be held Oct. 21 - 24 in Brasilia, Brazil.  Registration is currently underway:

The 11th council gathering will be held Summer 2012 in Missoula, Montana (check website for updates: AARP International recently had the honor of interviewing Grandmother Margaret Behan, a Native American Cheyenne who will be hosting the Montana gathering.

AARP International (AI): How did you get involved in the 13 Indigenous Grandmothers?

Grandmother Margaret (GM): I was raised as a Cheyenne and was very fortunate to have great parents and grandparents. I graduated from catholic mission and government boarding schools and raised three children as a single mother. I was going through a time of transition in my life. I had gone through divorce and had an empty nest. I had been back to school and was working as an addiction counselor. One year, for some reason, I did not sign my employment renewal contract. I felt something was going to happen. It felt very clear, I had seen my life and I was waiting and something was going to happen. I was getting ready to move to my father's land here where I live now in Montana, the Northern Cheyenne reservation, when I received a letter from the Centre for Sacred Studies. This was in 2003. They invited me to go to NY for a woman's gathering. I thought there is something really important here that we have been called for and I accepted the invitation. The Yup'ik grandmother from Alaska had a bundle with her and she was crying and trembling while untying bundle. In it were 13 eagle feathers and 13 stones. Her grandmother had given them to her when she was 9 years old and she said she came to give them to us. The Center for Sacred Studies said they had sent out 16 letters and we were the people that had answered the call. There were 13 of us: 6 from America, 1 from Nepal, 1 from Africa, 2 from Central America, 1 from Tibet and 2 from Brazil. We were the ones, we were the 13. We recognized each other, we were looking at each other and were all crying.

We knew we had a calling that was bigger than us, bigger than the world.

This was  October 2004.  We recognized this and in two days we had created our mission statement and our alliance and we made peace with each other and made peace with the women that were around us and we became a council. We promised each other we would go to each other's homeland to bring awareness and we were to balance our world in this awareness. In October 2011 we will celebrate our 10th gathering in Brasilia, Brazil".

AI: What happens during a gathering?

GM: We just went to Anchorage, Alaska with the Yup'ik grandmother and it was amazing. When we got there it was May 15th and it was still bitter cold. Then all of a sudden on the 3rd day the flowers started blooming, it became warm and beautiful - before our eyes it became 85 degrees like magic. The grandma knew her land, she knew her climate, she knew what date to pick to come to Alaska with the 13 grandmothers. It was amazing. This is what we are talking about: the awareness of where we live and what our atmosphere and our environment is about. As indigenous people we know that we have a responsibility to take care of the earth. That is why as the 13 grandmothers we are going around the world, coming from different worlds, to speak about this mother earth, our only home, to bring the knowledge to each from our different ancient lines of prayer. When we have a gathering we all take turns in praying. Morning, midday and evening and we all pray about what is happening here before our eyes in the world. We talk about the catastrophes, about the people, the habitats that live here, we talk about everything. We also talk about healing, healing the earth, healing each other, healing all people on this earth. We just know there is a prophecy for the 13 grandmothers to speak.

AI: What does it mean for you to do this work?

GM: We are really happy to do this work and it means so much to all of us living this life and being alive at this time, being a part of this great cause for world peace and to feel good relations. I am very humble, very touched everyday of my life. This is such a great gift.  As a poor person I never thought this would ever happen to me. I've been brought into the light; I've visited the most amazing places I never thought I would see. My people, people in our audience, my grandchildren they ask me what did you see? And I tell them I cannot put in words what I saw, though in all these countries there is some kind of synchronicity with our fate, with our spirituality; making a full circle. It makes me cry. All these people who are so ready to pray with the Grandmas, so ready to change the world with the Grandmas. They come to us and say: 'Grandmas what can we do'? 'How can we help?' People are touched. Like when we went to Alaska the people, the natives, they were so gracious. They just wanted to give us some money, they wanted to give us some gifts. So many things you know. They really see what we are talking about: our presence in the world and that we are speaking out for mother earth and we want to make a good world, a good home here for the next seven generations to come. And it has been the great teachings from my grandparents and my parents who were preparing me for this.

AI: Is it all volunteer work?

GM: Yes, but once in a while we are offered an honorarium. I really appreciate it when people give us honorariums because then I am able to pay my bills at home when I am gone.

AI: Isn't your gathering coming up soon and how can people get involved?

GM: My gathering will be held in the summer of 2012, probably June or July, but we're still figuring out the schedule. It will be, the 11th gathering of the Grandmothers Council. I am already very busy with the preparations. Here on the reservation we do not have a hotel so we are going to put up 13 teepees to house the grandmothers symbolizing the sacred circle. Our ancestors were Nomadic people and I am asking my people how they want us to remember our ancestors. Really every moment of the day is very important to me.

When the Grandmothers come together we pray. There are many people who come to see us and offer us help. People come to pray with us, they come with proposals on various projects and people invite us to their houses and even offer us money to help pay for plane tickets and other things. So you know little things, big things whatever people want to help with.

I have so much joy even thinking about this gathering, the fundraising, the people that are helping me organize it and I encourage and praise my grandchildren that they are here. It's a very beautiful time in my life and I want to share it with everyone.

AI: Can anyone come to Montana for the gathering?

GM: Everyone is welcome to come to Montana during the gathering. The public gathering will be in the city of Missoula, so there will be hotels for people to stay.

If people would like to volunteer during the gathering, contribute to fundraising or help me set up a website they can let me know. My address is: PO Box 1213 Lame Deer, Montana 59043 or look at our website . The website is taken care of by the Center for Sacred Studies. It takes all of us to make this gathering.

When people ask me: 'what can we do for world peace?' I say: 'Be mindful'. By being mindful you automatically are doing a gesture for peace without having to put in great effort. Being mindful and caring for the earth. People are really going into recycling, taking care of energy and not wasting water. People tell me these things and it is really true, everybody is coming to this great awareness. I say thank you. Thank you so many times over and over to people for being mindful.

AI: AARP members are your generation. You are an AARP member. Do you have any words of wisdom for your generation and how they can participate in the change? 

GM: What I tell people my age, my peers: first I congratulate them. We made it. We are here. We are considered the baby boomers and we are headed to retirement, though what does this mean? A lot of us are not really retiring, we are still healthy we are still able to work and many of my peers do still work. I encourage them to continue to take care of themselves and even ask them to come to teach me how to take care of myself. I can be considered a disadvantaged person as a Native American, as an oppressed person, as a Cheyenne woman. I want them to teach me how you live financially secure, how you live spiritually, how you become this whole person. They come and share of their life stories and experiences and give me advice.

AI: Grandmother Margret what does 'living your best life' mean for you?  

My best life is being mindful. At 63 years old I am more in prayer, in meditation and being mindful than before. I am watching how life is unfolding and it is so beautiful. My grandmother used to tell me to notice nature and how peaceful and beautiful it is: the birds singing, the wind blowing against the grass and now at 63 years I can see this, it so clear. The birds they do not worry about things, they are just living and I see them and I am so grateful to be alive.

My sister called me this morning. She turned 71 in July and I told her congratulations you made it. I told her at 63 I feel I am getting younger, my mind is changing; I am noticing my eyes are seeing different things. I am looking with different eyes. I am looking at a different world, a very beautiful world that has probably always been here but I am just noticing it now. So it is good to really be mindful and to see these things: this is my best life.

AI: I understand you are living with 4 grandchildren and your daughter, a real intergenerational family, how is that?

GM:In the beginning we had to make adjustments. The kids like to watch television and play video games with friends but I do not like to hear that sound from video games. I am a grandmother and I could tell them to just turn it off, but I do my best to get involved in their lives, to see what they are seeing instead of just telling them shut it off. I want to see what they are seeing in that game. Everywhere I go I see the grandchildren playing these video games and I see it takes energy, electricity and focus. So in my own way I tell my grandson, "Let's go for a walk, let me show you something," to distract him from wanting to play a video game. And he is really listening to me. We go down the road and look at the water by the creek.

It takes a lot of courage because other grandparents they tell me that they have patience but I ask them do you go another step? Are you really with them? Do you really listen? It is difficult. In this modern age they want video games, to be with their friends, to go to the city and watch the new movies. And then it is really amazing when they say, "I don't care to go, I would rather go hiking in the mountains." That is what I want to hear. That really makes me happy. And I say, "I will go with you part way." It is about really engaging, about conversation, about dialogue. My daughter says you never treated me like that. Your grandchildren you treat them different. So I say ok but I still have time so let's talk. You are here and I am here. We have a challenging mother-daughter relationship. That is reality.

The other day my 8 year granddaughter was on the phone with her friend and she told her: 'If you are thinking bad thoughts you are polluting the world". I thought oh my gosh she got it!

AI: When you come together with the 13 grandmothers do you generally agree or are there issues that you disagree about because you come from such different backgrounds and cultures?

GM: It took us 7 years and in our last council meeting (we have 2 meetings a year) we finally came to solidarity. And the solidarity became very strong. This is because we were able to really speak to each other. We need 7 interpreters for 7 different languages. So finally through conversation and dialogue we have come to really understand each other. It is really an amazing group of 13 women. I do not know if it is because we are women of prayer, women that are concerned about the world, how to lead a better life, to be more aware of who we are, what we are doing on mother earth and how we live our lives, thinking about decisions that we make even when brushing your teeth and running the water. My 4-year-old granddaughter has a cup when she is brushing her teeth and says grandma do not turn on the water, take a cup of water and brush your teeth."

The 4 year old is already saving the water and the 8 year old is already being mindful. That is really powerful for me to see that as a grandma.

For more information:

The Grandmothers' documentary film For the Next 7 Generations, directed by Emmy and Peabody Award-winning filmmaker, Carole Hart, documents the Grandmothers as they meet and travel around the world.

The book Grandmothers Counsel the World: Women Elders Offer Their Vision for Our Planet by author Carol Schaefer gives a detailed glimpse at each of the Grandmothers individually and collectively.