The role of women in Native American societies

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2000

33 Pages, Grade: 1,7 (A-)



The Role of Women in Native American Societies

1. Introduction

2. Concepts of Society
2.1 Egalitarian Societies
2.2 Matrilineal Societies
2.3 Women’s Societies

3. Organization of Society
3.1 Marriage and Family
3.2 Sexuality
3.3 Ownership
3.4 Hierarchy
3.5 Work and Hunt

4. Political Power

5. Spirituality and Healing

6. Cultural Domination

7. Women Activism
7.1 American Indian Movement (AIM)
7.2 Women of All Red Nations (WARN)

8. Pocahontas
8.1 Historical Facts
8.2 Images of Pocahontas
8.3 Disney’s Pocahontas
8.3.1 The Movie Itself
8.3.2 Different Opinions on “Pocahontas”

9. Final Remarks

10. Bibliography

1. Introduction

When Europeans first set foot on the new continent they discovered that it had already been settled. At some point ethnographers became interested in those aboriginal cultures. They intended to “cultivate” the “savages”.

During those times hardly anyone was interested, let alone wrote about Native American women and the not unimportant part they played in this unknown culture. If women were mentioned at all, only their duties in the household were described. It is exactly this lack of interest that today makes it hard to get valid information about the life of Native American women at that time.

This ignorance caused the white society to form a distorted picture, where the role of American Indian women matched the rather passive one white women had in their own society. They did not comprehend the importance the family represented as the central institution of society, nor the part women played outside the family, or the freedom they had and the rules they needed to obey. It was only in the 1920s, when the image of the “vanishing race” was created, that more material was collected about American Indian women.

Stereotypes developed, because the information about America’s indigenous peoples was presented to us by a third person. This “medium” described the object of interest in his or her own Euro-centric terms and with a certain intention, in this case the want for the land the Natives inhabited. Then the information got generalized and eventually produced an image that mostly had nothing to do with the original object.

The question therefore is: “How did and do Native women, along with others, create Native America?” (Klein & Ackerman: 3)

2. Concepts of Society

2.1 Egalitarian Societies

The belief in egalitarianism and reciprocity is one of the pillars many Native American societies are built on. Early researchers, all of them male and from a western background, figured that because women often kept in the background, they could not possibly have any power. “The tendency to fill in this silence with powerlessness is the Western bias” (Klein & Ackerman: 4).

The concept that women and men are equally important in a society was hard, if not impossible to grasp for people in the old world. Every single member of the society had to fulfill their duty in order to guarantee the tribe’s survival. The male role is in no way superior to the female one and neither can most of those societies be divided into a public sphere as being the males’ and home and family as being the women’s responsibility.

Nevertheless labor was mostly distributed according to gender. Female members of a nation generally had to take care of their home, manage the household and the children, but mostly also took part in tribal councils and not seldom had the right to elect the leader of the tribe. Males were concerned with hunting, warfare and getting in touch with outsiders. “Family” in this context is not defined as “female domain of work”, but as “heart of society” (Klein & Ackerman: 14).

As will be seen later there were nations where women took part in the hunt and men were allowed to take over tasks which, from a western point of view, would normally be ascribed to females.

In most cases, if gender was of any importance at all in an indigenous society, the distinction into a stronger and a weaker gender was made by the society itself, not by nature. Often the question of gender was not important. Speakers of the Algonkian language did not even differentiate between male and female through lexical gender, but the distinction that mattered to them was the one between animate and inanimate beings (Kehoe: 120).

It can therefore be said that if male dominance occurred, it was because men had a dominant role in public life, not on the basis of their biological masculinity. Yet a large part of Native American societies were egalitarian and men and women had equal prestige and power.

2.2 Matrilineal Societies

Apart from being egalitarian, most Native Societies also were matrilineal, meaning descent and property was passed down on the distaff side of the family and women had a very high social prestige. If a society was matrilineal, it mostly was also matrilocal, which means that after getting married, the husband moved into the wife’s house and became part of her family and tribal community.

This was practiced for example in the Navajo nation. The women owned the crops as well as the household, in which they lived with their spouse. They also had complete sexual freedom, which included the concept that moral character was simply determined by age and not in the least by gender (Shepardson: 159).

The matrilineal organization of a society often derived from practical deliberations, as in the case of the western Eskimos. In this inhospitable area, the husband was busily trying to come up with enough food to save his family from starvation. Therefore he spent a great deal of time away from home and would have had difficulties “controlling” his wife’s actions. It could be assumed that brothers would then have taken over his responsibility and directed his wife. As a matter of fact this did not happen, but men simply did not have a great deal of influence on the domestic life (Guemple: 21).

2.3 Women’s Societies

Women’s societies are defined as “more or less voluntary”, closed social groups, which are not organized according to families or relations. In order to become a member one usually had to pass certain tests (Gugel: 1), while in other cases admittance was granted to any woman who was willing to make a vow and able to pay her fee (Gugel: 3).

What women’s associations actually did depended largely on what they wanted to achieve as well as on their religious beliefs. Like men’s organizations, they usually had a social character, while secret societies, some of which admitted both genders, had their emphasis on the esoteric side of life and centered around curing (Gugel: 2). Women’s societies’ foremost function was to strengthen social bonds across kinship groups and help the old, the sick, and widows (Gugel: 8).

Some of those organizations, like the Cheyenne and Lakota Quillworkers, came close to our understanding of guilds. After having been admitted into the circle, the members were taught the trade. This knowledge was kept a secret within the society and artifacts were often sacred and produced for a “customer”, not the producer’s own use (Gugel: 3).

Other central features were hunting and warfare. The Kiowas’ Old Women Society performed prayers and dances, which were supposed to guarantee a successful fight. The Skunk Women, Enemy Women, or World Women of the Mandan and Hidatsa also took part in the act of hunting itself (Gugel: 5). Among the Pawnee there even existed a female society whose only task was to torture prisoners of war and to dance in honor of warriors that returned from a fight (Gugel: 8).

In a number of female societies, for example in the Blackfoot nation’s Ma’toki, only couples could become members. This was the case, because it was believed that males received their power only by having sex with their wives. Wives, in turn, were given power by engaging in sexual intercourse with a “grandfather”, a man who already was a member of the society (Kehoe: 119).

It has often been argued that the existence of women’s societies indicated that women held a particularly high position in a nation (Gugel: 8). In her article “Women’s Societies in Native North America – A Comparative View” Liane Gugel quotes the definition the German Wörterbuch der Völkerkunde (Dictionary of Anthropology) gives for women’s societies:

“Women’s societies in the sense of men’s societies do not exist, secret societies of women are rare (West Africa) and are generally regarded as local imitations of men’s secret societies ” (Gugel: 1).

Gugel continues by agreeing with Peggy Sanday, who argues in her article “Toward a Theory of Status of Women” that women’s societies were actually the first to develop and later served as a model for men’s societies (Gugel: 8). It should not be forgotten that this theory is contrary to the widely accepted version. Nevertheless Sanday believes to be able to stick to her theory on the basis of what she found when studying women’s societies of the Iroquois, Hopi, Mandan, and Hidatsa nations.

Some of the female association, for example in the Hopi nation or an organization called “Ma’toki of the Blood” survived and are still in existence today (Gugel: 2).

3. Organization of Society

3.1 Marriage and Family

Even though it is correct that there are some native peoples who have a tradition of arranged marriages, the stereotypes that go with those marriages, like the belief that a woman’s life is totally controlled by her husband, usually are false.

Eskimos, just like Paiute and Navajo, did believe in the concept of arranged marriages. The family usually chose a husband, but did not force the woman to accept their choice (Guemple: 23). If a woman agreed to marry the chosen man, in Inuit culture, he had the right to decide on his wife’s sexuality. He could for example share her with other men or take one, two or even more wives if he pleased (Guemple: 23).

If the wife did not approve of what her husband was doing, she, as well as he, could seek divorce. In order to do so, all either spouse had to do was pack their belongings and leave the house. This way of obtaining a divorce was also practiced by Plateau nations. After getting divorced, woman and children in Eskimo society retained a lifelong “claim” (Guemple: 24) to their ex-husband or father and his close family all the same. The option of re-marrying was open to everyone, and they now had the freedom to choose a partner for themselves.

The fact that polygyny was possible among some nations, for example in the Plateau, is often used to illustrate the existence of male dominance. The truth is, though that, as stated before, women could seek divorce and walk out on their husbands if they no longer wished to cope with their actions. If therefore a man beat his wife, the relationship would probably be terminated shortly afterwards (Ackerman: 87).

The mother’s most important task in an Eskimo society was not, as would be expected according to innumerous stereotypes, taking care of her children, but this role was mainly occupied by the grandmother. Nevertheless close relationships between mother and child were considered important and expected to continue even after the child had matured (Klein: 42-43).

Adultery was handled differently among different nations. In the Plateau, if a husband found out his wife had deceived him, he could choose to kill his wife’s lover and possibly also his wife. Yet this right was seldom executed, because before getting married a man was usually advised by an elder to refrain from any kind of violence. (Ackerman: 87) In Navajo society on the other hand, women committing adultery were not punished at all (Shepardson: 168).

3.2 Sexuality

Among the Navajo men were supposed to pay women for their “sexual favors” (Shepardson: 168). At the same time too much sexual activity on the women’s side was not much appreciated. Therefore women who had intercourse too frequently were sometimes considered prostitutes by the members of their own tribe. Yet, there was no such thing as institutionalized prostitution.

Sexual activity was considered to have an effect as well on hunting and fishing as on warfare. In the Navajo nation, women were allowed to

“join the war party. ... They fought just like the men did, but were forbidden to take scalps and must not have sexual intercourse with any members of the party.” (W.W. Hill: 8).

Similarly it was believed on the Plateau that men should refrain from having sex before the hunt (Ackerman: 95). The exceptional regulation among Plateau nations was that there also were restrictions for the sexual behavior of women: they were not supposed to engage in sexual actions before root digging (Ackerman: 95). This fact proves that either gender’s activity was considered equally important. Root digging and hunting was what sustained the tribe. If either men or women failed to produce enough, the tribe’s survival was endangered.

Cherokee women had ultimate control over their own sexuality. Even after getting married they were still free to engage in sexual activity with men other than their husband (Sattler: 222).

Muskogee women, on the other hand, only enjoyed complete sexual freedom as long as they were not married. Accordingly any children born out of wedlock did not suffer any stigmatization. As soon as a woman was married, she was expected to remain absolutely faithful. Any kind of closeness with an unrelated male led to accusations of adultery. Punishment for adultery was severe, including the husband’s and his clansmen’s beating the woman senseless, cutting off her hair, ears of even her nose. Divorce was possible, but was connected to shame, which made it hard or even impossible for the woman to remarry. If a husband died, on the other hand, his widow was offered a “replacement husband” from among her husband’s brothers after a mourning period of five years, but she was not forced to agree to marry him (Sattler: 218).

3.3 Ownership

While in the white society almost everything belonged to the male population, because it was thought that men only could handle money, many Native American nations, like for example the Inuit, had a different attitude: they believed women only should be in control of money as a reaction to “men being foolish with money” (Klein: 35). A concept that comes a lot closer to the truth ...

“Women shall be considered the progenitors of the Nation. They shall own the land and the soil.” (Fenton: 42). Accordingly Seneca women owned the land as well as all the horticultural goods, because their use of the land was more extensive (Bilharz: 102). Because of similar reasons did Blackfoot women own the tipi, namely because they were the ones who had built it (Kehoe: 114-115).

Equally women in the Plateau were in possession of whatever goods they gathered (Ackerman: 77). In addition they constituted one third of every hunting party and were responsible for drying the meat and having the camp run smoothly. When the hunting party returned home, it was the woman who got the family’s share of meat. She then had the right to distribute it and use whatever surplus there was for trade (Ackerman: 82). The idea of a community of property after getting married did not exist. Even after one spouse’s death, neither widow nor widower inherited anything (Ackerman: 84).

The guiding principle of the nations above and several others was simple: whoever gathered, created, or worked on something most owned it. Again, native societies were in a sense “more modern” than the “superior white culture”.

3.4 Hierarchy

There are a number of American Indian societies that are organized according to a certain hierarchy. The criteria they are arranged by differ from tribe to tribe, but rarely is gender one of the most important factors.

One’s rank in Tlingit society depended on wealth and kinship as well as on the amount of rare artistic items one owned. Artifacts that came from far away regions were considered especially precious and helped define wealth. By obtaining objects of that kind any member was able to improve his position in society. The emphasis here was notowningthose objects, but being able to give them away at public feasts (Klein: 31-34).

Influencing who was to become chief certainly was important. Seneca women had the right to nominate chiefs (Bilharz: 102), while white women often were not even admitted into city council meetings. Nevertheless there are very few examples of female chiefs. Apart from that chiefs were mostly chosen, like in the Plateau, because of their leadership quality and often also their heredity (Ackerman: 79).

Similarly one’s rank within the Cherokee nation depended on one’s genealogical position and moral character. Here improvement of social rank depended, among other factors, also on seniority. The Cherokee honored old age and believed in older people’s wisdom. Therefore elder women played a role in beginning and ending war and determining what was to happen to captives. Also Cherokee women were free to articulate their political opinions and their advise was taken seriously. (Ackerman: 79)

To my knowledge there is not a single movie that shows women having any part in war or any influence on the fate of prisoners of war, let alone political decisions.


Excerpt out of 33 pages


The role of women in Native American societies
Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg  (Institute for American Studies)
Native American Indian Stimulations and Philosophies
1,7 (A-)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
875 KB
Native Americans, Gender Studies, Women, Pocahontas, Kulturwissenschaft, USA, Kolonialzeit, Landeskunde
Quote paper
Kristina Maul (Author), 2000, The role of women in Native American societies, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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