Amoja ThreeRivers, separatist space, and MichFest

amoja-three-rivers

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 2015. Shortly thereafter, on December 13th, Amoja ThreeRivers passed on, leaving the legacy of MichFest’s Womyn of Colour Tent and Sanctuary behind in her wake.

Amoja, who called herself “an American-born African, Choctaw, Tsalagi, Ojibwa Jew” was one of the founding members of the separatist space for women of colour inside of the larger lesbian/women’s separatist space that was the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. Unique in that a veritable village sprouted up every year in the woods, differentiating it from other women-only gatherings held in hotels or other urban venues, MichFest was a temporary home to hundreds of women who gathered there during the month leading up to the week-long event, wherein thousands sought refuge from patriarchy.

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 colour founded the Womyn of Colour Tent at the festival. After many long discussions about the value of separate space and concern about backlash from white women in the larger MichFest community, they created a workshop that was closed to white women.

What they found, according to Amoja’s friends, was that “the more workshops we had for women of colour, the more women of colour came.”

There was some resistance at first to creating a separatist space for women of colour at the festival. In a recorded interview with Rose Norman on July 20th, 2014, Blanche Jackson, Amoja’s romantic partner, recalls:

“[Some MichFest organizers] thought [a WOC resource tent] would be divisive — [that] we should all be sisters together, melded and everything… Amoja and some other people negotiated really hard at Michigan… and they got half of a tent — I think the political tent. It overflowed. Women flocked to it. The next year [MichFest] gave us a small tent, and [WOC] overflowed that, so the tents grew bigger. Those tents are where the discussions took place about what women of colour want.”

Amoja’s friends told me that some women made racist comments and grumbled as they walked by the WOC tent, 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 (white women or women of colour) could stop and chat should she wish to learn more about the space or to discuss race, ethnicity, or ask questions. Bone, who was staff at the patio from 1993-2003, told me, “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.”

Both tents offered workshops, discussion groups, and literature for women to learn about race, ethnicity, and the need for both a WOC-only space and an anti-racist space accessible to white women.

Amoja had a vision for the WOC tent before it was actually set up. She, Jackson, and their mutual friend, Shirley Jons, talked deeply for years about women of colour and Indigenous women’s visibility at MichFest. They pushed for more women of colour on the Land as well as on the many MichFest stages. Jons said:

“The three of us loved words and word play. I remember Amoja said one time the word ‘race’ is something that you run. After that, we had a lively discussion about how to get more WOC onto the stages, to the festival, and how we could become more present and visible to one another and to the entire festival.”

“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 [MichFest] and hung out before, during, and after Fest each year.”

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.”

Jons, the keeper of Amoja’s ashes, told me that a memorial for Amoja would be held on May 29th, on the land where the festival used to be. “We will spread her ashes in the location of the Womyn of Colour Tent and Sanctuary as she wished. I will bury her bones there,” she said.

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.

Thistle Pettersen is a singer/songwriter, podcaster with WLRN, and eco-feminist activist based out of Madison, WI. You can check out her music and projects at www.thistlespace.org.

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  • oneclickboedicea

    Its so important for the women’s movement to listen to all members of the population of women. How can we escape patriarchy and its biological hierarchy if we recreate it ourselves?

  • Tangelo

    I never had a chance to go to Michfest. Seemed like it would have been a really cool experience. From your description of Amoja ThreeRivers, sounds like she would have been interesting and fun to speak with. Thanks for this post.

  • fragglerock

    I’m really glad ThreeRivers did this. While I don’t know if I’d be part of the WOC camp, I think it’s key to recognize our differences and respect them. Women have been expected to say “yes” and be invaded by everyone and everything for far too long. I have a lot of respect for women who say “no” and “not today” and “I need something different.”

  • skilletblonde

    Just so you know, a Skilletblonde is an old, African American, southern term, for a dark-skinned black person.