By Leonide Martin

Last weekend I declared freedom from I-5 by taking Amtrak to attend the Historical Novel Society conference in Portland. It was a banquet of delights for historical fiction lovers, where I rubbed elbows with famous and not so famous authors, joined spirited discussions of the art and content of writing, and spent far too much money buying books by inspiring writers. This international group is based in England, with U.S. and Australian branches. Naturally, there was a big focus on fiction set in Europe. I browsed the bookstores noting many titles featuring powerful European women: Victoria, Elizabeth I, the White Queen, Ann Boleyn, Tudor queens, Catherine the Great, Isabella of Spain.

Where, I wondered, was historical fiction about women leaders in the Western Hemisphere? Important women from the Far and Middle East, Egypt, and Mediterranean regions were there. The Americas were represented by some sagas about women in the 18th-19th centuries, with more books on women during the world wars. 

But the ancient Americas? Nothing. I was particularly struck by this omission, since my books are about powerful native women in ancient times. Although a few native women such as Pocahontas and Sacagawea have been portrayed, stories set in pre-European contact Americans are rare. Yet, it is exactly in these ancient eras when native women had the greatest influence upon their cultures, holding positions of highest leadership. Few Americans (North or South) realize that sophisticated, complex indigenous cultures had many powerful women leaders in positions equivalent to European, Egyptian, or Asian queens.

Yes, there were “queens” in the Americas, although the roles of rulers and leaders were different in native cultures. Their societies had more shared governance, often with councils advising the leaders. Rulers had huge responsibilities mediating with spiritual domains, keeping the worlds of spirit and earth in harmony, thus bringing abundance and peace to the people.

Women leaders, ancient Mayan “queens” are the focus of my own writing. Ancient Mayan civilization, considered the most advanced in the Americas, lasted for 3000 years and left spectacular cities of stone rising above jungle canopies. Most information comes from the Classic Period, 250-950 CE. During this time, names and deeds of several Mayan queens were carved in hieroglyphs on monuments and panels. Some ruled as long as 60 years, some were portrayed as warriors and reputed to lead troops in battle, some carried out impressive constructions, and many were shown conducting calendar-based rituals to commune with the deities.

A surprising amount of information has been deciphered, although most Mayan books were burned by over-zealous friars. Using research from several disciplines, my books focus on a lineage of four queens in the ruling family of Palenque, a major Maya site in Chiapas, Mexico. They were related to Pakal, most famous Mayan king whose rich burial pyramid is compared to Egypt’s King Tut. The grandmother, first Mayan woman ruler, ruled for 22 years and used her visionary power to foresee and deflect enemy attacks, bringing the city peace and prosperity. The mother assumed rulership in the chaotic aftermath of a devastating attack, guided the city through political and spiritual crises, and held the throne until her son Pakal came of age. The wife, called the Red Queen, played a key role in restoring the spiritual charter and bore four sons; two later became rulers. The daughter-in-law married the fourth son, who died young, and their son continued the dynasty; she contributed to codifying Maya secret knowledge into architecture and hieroglyphs to preserve their wisdom for the future.

These powerful women shaped their people’s destiny and left a legacy of their culture. They held respected leadership positions, dealing with conflicts and intrigues that rival those of European and Eastern cultures. We need more historical fiction about our American heritage of native women leaders—perhaps even a TV series about the Mayan Red Queen!

American girls and women don’t need to look across the Atlantic Ocean for inspiration, for models of leadership and success. Models are right here in our own indigenous women of power and vision.

Leonide Martin is a retired professor and award-winning author living in Silverton, Oregon. She was featured recently in author events at The Book Bin, Salem. Her books are available there and at online booksellers.

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