Obleka, an Eskimo woman
What were women treated like in the tribes of the Indians? Were
they given more rights than American women of the time?
In 1644, the Rev. John Megalopensis, minister at a Dutch Church
in New Netherlands, complained that Native American women were obliged
to prepare the Land, to mow, to plant, and do every Thing; the Men
do nothing except hunting, fishing, and going to War against their
Enemies. . . Many of his fellow Europeans described American
Indian women as slaves to the men, because of the perceived
differences in their labor, compared to European women. Indian women
performed what Europeans considered to be mens work. But,
from the Native American perspective, womens roles reflected
their own cultural emphases on reciprocity, balance, and autonomy.
Most scholars agree that Native American women at the time of contact
with Europeans had more authority and autonomy than did European
It is hard to make any generalizations about indigenous societies,
because North Americas First Peoples consisted of hundreds
of separate cultures, each with their own belief systems, social
structures, and cultural and political practices. Evidence is particularly
scarce about womens everyday lives and responsibilities. However,
most cultures shared certain characteristics that promoted gender
Kinship, extended family, and clan bound people together within
a system of mutual obligation and respect. Lineage was central to
determining status and responsibilities, consent held communities
together, and concepts of reciprocity extended to gender roles and
divisions of authority.
Men were generally responsible for hunting, warfare, and interacting
with outsiders, therefore they had more visible, public roles. Women,
on the other hand, managed the internal operations of the community.
They usually owned the familys housing and household goods,
engaged in agricultural food production and gathering of foodstuffs,
and reared the children.
Because womens activities were central to the communitys
welfare, they also held important political, social, and economic
power. In many North American societies, clan membership and material
goods descended through women. For example, the Five (later Six)
Nations of the Iroquois Confederation all practiced matrilineal
descent. Clan matrons selected men to serve as their chiefs, and
they deposed chiefs with whom they were dissatisfied. Womens
life-giving roles also played a part in their political and social
authority. In Native American creation stories, it was often the
woman who created life, through giving birth to children, or through
the use of their own bodies to create the earth, from which plants
and animals emerged.
Some scholars argue that, after contact, womens authority
steadily declined because of cultural assimilation. Euro-American
men insisted on dealing with Indian men in trade negotiations, and
ministers demanded that Indians follow the Christian modes of partriarchy
and gendered division of labor that made men farmers and women housekeepers.
However, other scholars, such as SUNY Fredonia anthropologist Joy
Bilharz and University of North Carolina historian Theda Perdue,
argue that many indigenous women maintained authority within their
communities. Matrilineal inheritance of clan identity remained important
parts of many cultures long after contact, and women continued to
use their maternal authority to influence political decisions within
and outside of their own nations.
For example, as the United States increased pressure against the
Cherokee nation to relinquish their eastern lands and move west,
groups of Cherokee women petitioned their Council to stand their
ground. In these communications, they sternly reminded their [b]eloved
children that they had raised the Council members on that
land which God gave us to inhabit and raise provisions.
They admonished their children not to part with any more lands.
Another Cherokee woman wrote to Benjamin Franklin in 1787, advocating
peace between the new United States and the Cherokee nation. She
advised Franklin that political leaders . . . ought to mind
what a woman says, and look upon her as a mother and I have
Taken the prevelage to Speak to you as my own Children . . . and
I am in hopes that you have a beloved woman amongst you who will
help to put her children right if they do wrong, as I shall do the
same. . . . American Indian women assumed that their unique
positions in their societies gave them the right to play the mother
card when necessary.
For more information
John Megalopensis, A Dutch Minister Describes the Iroquois.
Albert Bushnell Hart, ed., American History Told by Contemporaries,
vol. I. New York: 1898.
Petitions of the Womens Councils, Petition, May 2,
1817 in Presidential Papers Microfilm: Andrew Jackson. Library
of Congress, series 1, reel 22.
Letter from Cherokee Indian Woman to Benjamin Franklin,
Governor of the State of Pennsylvania, Paul Lauter et
al., eds, The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Volume
A: Beginnings to 1800, 6th ed. New York: 2009.
For Further Reading:
Joy Bilharz, First Among Equals? The Changing Status
of Seneca Women in Laura F. Klein, ed., Women and Power
in Native North America. Norman, Ok.: 1995. 101-112.
Theda Perdue, Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change,
1700-1835. Lincoln, Neb: 1998.
Nancy Shoemaker, ed., Negotiators of Change: Historical Perspectives
on Native American Women. New York: 1995.
"Obleka, an Eskimo woman," Frank Nowell, 1907. Prints
and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
"Kutenai woman," Edward Curtis, 1910. Prints and
Photographs Division, Library of Congress.