This article also appeared in Feminist Current.
By Thistle Pettersen
As with all MichFest magic, there seems to be a rhyme and reason to the rhythms of the Land. After 40 years of creating a lesbian culture and gathering place like none other, the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival opened and closed its gates to the festival for the last time in August of 2015. Shortly thereafter, on December 13th, Amoja ThreeRivers passed on, leaving the legacy of MichFest’s Womyn of Color Tent and Sanctuary behind in her wake.
Amoja was one of the founding members of that separatist space inside of the larger lesbian/women’s separatist space that was the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, “home” to the hundreds of women who gathered there for the month leading up to the week in August where thousands sought refuge from patriarchy.
MichFest was a unique women-only space because a veritable village sprouted up every year in the woods, as opposed to women gathering in a hotel or some other urban location.
Amoja grew up as Carol Allen Hall, but changed her name to Amoja ThreeRivers after experiencing the sights, sounds and sisterhood of Michigan. In 1989, she and some other women of color founded the Womyn of Color Tent at the festival. They created one workshop that was closed to white women after having long discussions of why they wished to have a separate space and to express concern about backlash coming from white women in the larger MichFest community.
What they found, according to Amoja’s friends, is that “the more workshops we had for women of color, the more woc came.”
They also found that there was some resistance at first, to creating a WOC separatist space within the larger women-only separatist space that was the festival.
Blanche Jackson recalls in a recorded interview with Rose Norman on July 20th, 2014 that “Michigan (the festival) thought it (a WOC resource tent) would be divisive—we should all be sisters together, melded and everything. . . . Amoja and some other people went and negotiated really hard at Michigan . . . and they got half of a tent, I think the political tent. It overflowed. Women flocked to it. Michigan the next year gave us a small tent, and they overflowed that, and so the tents grew bigger. Those tents are where the discussions took place about what women of color want.”
I asked Amoja’s friends if there was protest of the WOC space and they told me some women would make racist comments and grumble as they walked by, but there was never an organized boycott or vandalism done to the space. For this reason, the idea to invite white allies to set-up a space nearby to educate was born.
“We started as an invited liaison from the Community Center in 1993, with a space under a corner of the WOC tent, and graduated the following year to the WOC Patio, a Festival-provided awning that was part of the WOC compound and staffed by two of us workers along with Festie volunteers; we WOC Patio workers were attached to the WOC Tent staff as white allies” said Bone, a white anti-racist MichFest worker and festie.
This patio on the edge of the WOC tent and sanctuary served as a spot along the trail where any woman could stop and chat should she wish to learn more about the WOC tent and sanctuary or to discuss race, ethnicity, nuances and any other questions. “It was a place where we got a lot of women to talk about their racial and ethnic backgrounds – women who were not sure if they fit into the category of WOC and wanted to sort it out” said Bone, staff at the patio from 1993-2003.
Both tents offered workshops, discussion groups and literature for women to learn about race, ethnicity and the need for the two spaces.
Amoja had a vision for the WOC tent before it was actually set up. Her romantic partner, Blanche Jackson and their mutual friend, Shirley Jons, talked deeply for years about “women of color and indigenous women’s visibility” at MichFest. They were the ones to push for more women of color on the Land and on the many MichFest stages.
“The three of us loved words and word play. I remember Amoja said one time the word ‘race’ is something that you run and we had a lively discussion after that about how to get woc onto the stages more, to the festival and how we could become more present and visible to one another and to the entire festival” said Shirley Jons, keeper of Amoja’s ashes that will be spread on the Land in late May at Amoja’s memorial gathering.
“We were nicknamed ‘the fiancees’ because the three of us hung out so much and loved each other so much” said Jons. “We all worked on various crews at Michigan and hung out before, during and after Fest each year.”
She added, “We are holding a memorial for Amoja on the land where the festival used to be on May 29th. We will spread her ashes in the location of the Womyn of Color Tent and Sanctuary as she wished. I will bury her bones there.”
The memorial gathering is for Amoja’s friends and will likely draw many women to it. https://www.facebook.com/events/126607691053988/
Jons shared her favorite memories with me of Amoja, the WOC tent and the festival.
She recalled a spontaneous dance she and Amoja did in the middle of the road as they were tearing down from Fest one year. “Amoja was standing in front of the community center tent and I was going by in my truck. Suddenly, right as I was passing Amoja, a kickin’ pow wow tune by Ulali called Mother came on, and I stopped the truck, cranked the music and we danced.”
Amoja ThreeRivers was an important part of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival and its legacy. She will be sorely missed and remembered by all of the surviving women in her circles.