Susan Stark Christianson began interviewing grandmothers in 2008 to better understand the source of their resilience — and herself. She now has traveled around the world capturing women’s voices, specifically indigenous voices, to document the wisdom that has been there all along.
Susan Christianson looked down at the line of cars ahead of her, waiting to drive aboard the Alaska State Ferry at the Juneau dock. She was about to embark on a self-conceived trip from the top of Russia to the tip of South America, but felt so unsure of herself that day in 2008 that she was not even certain she could manage driving her car down the ramp and into the boat.
Christianson was not a filmmaker — yet. In fact, she did not think of herself as an artist — yet. She planned to interview grandmothers, in large part to find out her own next phase of life. She’d learned an indigenous prophecy from her mentor, Tlingit elder Jim Walton: “There won’t be peace on earth until the voices of the grandmothers are heard.”
Those words resonated with some questions growing large in Christianson’s life. Her work with women in crisis had made her super-aware of dangers and decision points in women’s lives, but also of resilience that came from somewhere. Where was that somewhere? She was 53. After 30 years of marriage, she’d just gone through a divorce. It seemed like an expanse had opened between her past and an uncertain future. She says, “I had raised my children and my youngest was going to college. I wanted to know ‘What is this next phase of life? What is it that older women can contribute to the world?’ ”
This journey was an intended interruption in a successful career. Raised in Illinois, she had come up from Colorado with her husband when she was in her late 20s. She taught in Bethel before moving to Southeast Alaska. Along with volunteer and professional work with women in crisis, Christianson had worked as a newspaper reporter and editor. At the time she conceived of her wisdom-seeking journey, she was a communications consultant with clients in and out of the United States. While working for the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault, she authored the “Choose Respect” campaign that former Gov. Sean Parnell picked up as his administration’s theme for fighting domestic and sexual violence.
Christianson met Jim Walton through his many service initiatives including a cross-cultural approach to alcohol recovery and his initiation of the Spiritual Unity of Tribes Gatherings on four continents. She became a friend and collaborator. Walton adopted her into his Tlingit clan. Together, they traveled to northeastern Russia and met people who shared his vision for the unification of all peoples and the rebirth of traditional indigenous teachings.
After Walton died, Christianson decided that the best way to honor his memory would be to explore women’s roles and grandmothers’ voices, to find out what power they possessed. She invited two women she’d met in the Sakha Republic to travel with her on a journey from north to south, from head to heart, something she’d been introduced to through Walton and her own study, known in many indigenous traditions as “the good red road.”
The women purchased a video camera, but they had to learn how to turn it on. Christianson wanted to use the film footage for transcribing interviews that maybe would lead to a book. Only gradually did she realize she had the resources for a powerful film documentary. With the help of friends at Juneau public media station KTOO and others, she began a deep dive into film production.
In the beginning, her conversations with women cast a wide net: “I didn’t set out to just interview indigenous women. I set out to interview a wide variety of women because grandmothers are from every culture, every tribe, every economic strata.”
Christianson interviewed older women from Siberia to Patagonia, returning home at times to work and earn enough money to set out again. She never knew what responses would follow her gentle, open-ended questions: “Why are women’s voices important? What helped you get through difficult times in your life?”
She found a diverse collection of voices with a commonality — older women who spoke of finding strength and spirituality, turning away from materialism and opening their hearts. They spoke of restoring balance in their own families and in the world.
A 2010 book, “Women’s Voices: The Wisdom of the Grandmothers,” came first, followed by a 2015 documentary film. “The Wisdom of the Grandmothers” has been shown more than 440 times on PBS and FNX (First Nations Experience) stations, to almost 89 million people in 34.5 million households.
By 2015, Christianson had learned that filmmaking required many facets of both skill and art — the presentation of narrator and interviewer, settings, background stories told by way of photographs and film clips behind voices. She wanted to make a more sophisticated, more focused film. She wanted to explore indigenous prophesies that are meaningful for today’s world.
“Our values in Western society and capitalism are killing the earth, and they’re killing us,” she says. “We need to look at those values and how we can change them.”
Christianson also considered two related issues that surround any project informed by indigenous narrators: cultural appropriation and the idea that indigenous knowledge is disappearing.
She says: “It’s been my experience that when your intention is the well-being of the earth, and asking people to share, (culture-bearers) read that intention as sincere. They know that what you’re trying to do isn’t to steal something from them or use it in a way that is disrespectful.”
Christianson says, “Colonization has had and continues to have a horrible effect on aboriginal and indigenous cultures all over the world. But there’s also been a resurgence of interest among young people all over the world in living a life that’s more in harmony with the spiritual teachings of their own cultures. And that crosses all economic and racial and religious lines.”
In resistance to the widely perceived fragility of cultural knowledge, she points to her interviews with Adelina Alva-Padilla, a Chumash elder from Santa Ynez, California, who survived a desperately abusive childhood to become the spiritual leader of her people.
“Adelina says that Western cultures tell indigenous people that their cultures have been lost, but the knowledge isn’t lost. Adelina says ‘It comes in our dream time. It comes in the wind. It’s part of who we are.’”
Adelina Alva-Padilla told Christianson that her mother, after her death, had taught her a song in a dream. And when she began to sing it, people said to her, “Well that’s not our language. That’s not right.” But years later, people from the Chumash tribe listened to recordings of Chumash songs from the early 1900s and heard very similar songs.
In that mystery, Christianson finds great hope: “We tend to think that if knowledge isn’t in a book or in a documentary or isn’t written down, then it’s lost. But it isn’t lost.”
The 2018 Rasmuson Foundation Fellowship fed Christianson’s work on the new film, with many hours of editing and shaping already accomplished and many hours yet to come. The grant allowed her to attend a peace conference in Japan where she interviewed Mayan, Amara, Shinto and other elders from around the world. She’s made several trips to Arizona to work with a Hopi elder, and filmed two Tlingit grandmothers in Ketchikan.
Her next big trip is Australia. She’s been invited to continue conversations with aboriginal culture bearers.
Watch “The Wisdom of the Grandmothers:”
Mary Odden is a lover of stories — especially the kind that might help heal the world. A collection of her essays, "Mostly Water: Reflections Rural and North," is coming from Boreal Books / Red Hen Press in June 2020. She received a Rasmuson Foundation Individual Artist Award in 2015.
Image credits - Artist portrait is by Erik Hill. Gallery images 1-5 are courtesy of the artist. Writer portrait courtesy of the writer. Images 1 and 4 were taken in Japan. Image 3 is of two members of the Mayan Elders Council. Image 6 is of a grandmother and shaman in Peru.