Indian Women

One of the most erroneous beliefs relating to the status and condition of the American Indian woman is that she was, both before and after marriage, the abject slave and drudge of the men of her tribe in general. This view, due largely to inaccurate observation and misconception, was correct, perhaps, at times, as to a small percentage of the tribes and peoples whose social organization was of the most elementary kind, politically and ceremonially, and especially of such tribes as were nonagricultural.

Among the other Indian tribes north of Mexico the status of woman depended on complex conditions having their origin in climate, habitat, mythology, and concepts arising there from, and especially in the economic environment and in the character of the social and political organization. It is one of the fundamental deductions of modern mythological research that the prevailing social, ceremonial, and governmental principles and institutions of a people are closely reflected in the forms, structure, and kind of dominion exercised by the gods of that people. Where numerous goddesses sat on the tribal Olympus, it is safe to say that woman was highly esteemed and exercised some measure of authority. In tribes whose government was based on the clan organization the gods were thought of as related one to another in degrees required by such an institution in which woman is supreme, exercising rights lying at the foundation of tribal society and government.

Ethical teaching and observances find their explanation not in the religious views and rites of a people but rather in the rules and principles underlying those institutions which have proved most conducive to the peace, harmony, and prosperity of the community.

In defining the status of woman, a broad distinction must be made between women who are, and women who are not, members of the tribe or community, for among most tribes life, liberty, and the pursuit of well-being are rights belonging only to women who by birth or by the rite of adoption (q. v.) are members or citizens thereof. Other women receive no consideration or respect on account of their sex, although after adoption they were spared, as possible mothers, indiscriminate slaughter in the heat of battle, except while resisting the enemy as valiantly as their brothers and husbands, when they suffered wounds or death for their patriotism.

Among the North American aborigines here dealt with each sex had its own peculiar sphere of duty and responsibility, and it is essential to a proper understanding of the subject that both these spheres of activity should be considered. To protect his family-his wife or wives and their offspring and near kindred to support them with the products of the chase, to manufacture weapons and wooden utensils, and commonly to provide suitable timbers and bark for the building of the lodge, constituted the duty and obligation which rested on the man. These activities required health, strength, and skill. The warrior was usually absent from his fireside on the chase, on the warpath, or on the fishing trip, weeks, months, and even years, during which he traveled hundreds of miles and was subjected to the hardships and perils of hunting and fighting, and to the inclemency of the weather, often without adequate shelter or food. The labor required in the home and in all that directly affected it fell naturally to the lot of the woman. In addition to the activities which they shared in common with men, and the care of children, women attended to the tanning of skins, the weaving of suitable fibers into fabrics and other articles of necessity, the making of mats and mattresses, baskets, pots of clay, and utensils of bark; sewing, dyeing; gathering and storing of edible roots, seeds, berries, and plants, for future use, and the drying and smoking of meats brought by the hunters. On the march the care of the camp equipage and of the various
family belongings constituted part of the woman’s duties, in which she was assisted by the children and by such men as were incapacitated for active fighting or hunting.

The essential principle governing this division of labor and responsibility between the sexes lies much deeper than apparently heartless tyranny of the man. It is the best possible adjustment of the available means of the family to secure the largest measure of welfare and to protect and perpetuate the little community. No other division was so well adapted to the conditions of life among the North American Indians. Fortified by the doctrine of signatures and by other superstitious reasons and beliefs, custom emphasized by various rites and observances the division of labor between the sexes. Thus, the sowing of seeds by women was supposed to render such seeds more fertile and the earth more productive than if planted by men, for it was held that woman has and controls the faculty of reproduction and. increase. Hence sowing and cultivating the crops became one of the exclusive departments of woman’s work.

According to Lewis and Clark (Travels, 307, 1806) the Shoshoni husband was the absolute proprietor of his wives and daughters, and might dispose of them by barter or otherwise at his pleasure; and Harmon (Jour. Voy., 344, 1820) declares that the women of the tribes visited by him were treated no better than the dogs. Writing of the Kutchin, and of the Loucheux Indians in particular, Hardesty (Smithson. Rep. 1866,312,1867) says that “the women are literally beasts of burden to their lords and masters. All the heavy work is performed by them.” A similar statement is made by Powers (Cont. N. A. Ethnol., III, 23, 1877) in regard to the Karok of California.

Schoolcraft (Ind. Tribes, v, 167, 1855) declares that the Cree women are subjected to lives of heavy and exacting toil, and that some mothers among them do not hesitate to kill their female infants to save them from the miseries which they themselves have suffered. Champlain, writing in 1615, states that the Huron and Algonquian women were “expected to attend their husbands from place to place in the fields, filling the office of pack-mule in carrying the baggage and in doing a thousand other things.” Yet it would seem that this hard life did not thwart their development, for he adds that among these tribes there were a number of powerful women of extraordinary height, who had almost sole care of the lodge and the work at home, tilling the land, planting the corn, gathering a supply of fuel for winter use, beating and spinning the hemp and the bark fibers, the product of which was utilized in the manufacture of limes and nets for fishing and for other purposes; the women also harvested and stored the corn and prepared it for eating.

The duties of a woman of the Upper Lakes i. e. of the Ottawa and the Chippewa were to bring into the lodge, of which she was the mistress, the meat which the husband left at the door; to dry it; to have the care of the cuisine; to get the fish at the landing or harbor and to prepare it for immediate use or for storage; to fetch water; to spin various fibers in order to secure thread for sundry uses; to cut firewood in the surrounding forest; to clear land for plaiting and to raise and harvest the several kinds of grain and vegetables; to manufacture moccasins for the entire family; to make the sacks to hold grain, and the long or round mats used for covering the lodge or for mattresses; to tan the skins of the animals which her husband or brothers or her own or her sister’s sons had killed in the chase; and to make robes of those which were used as furs. She made also bark dishes while her husband or other male members of the household made those of wood; she designed many curious pieces of art work; when her infant, swathed on a cradle-board, cried, she lulled it to sleep with song. When on the move, the woman carried the coverings of the lodge, if not conveyed by a canoe. In all her duties she was aided by her children and by dependents or guests, not rarely by the old men and the crippled who were still able to be of service.

While the tribes of the northwest coast are distinct in language and in physical features and mental characteristics, they are nevertheless one in culture; their arts, industries, customs, and beliefs differ in so great a degree from those of all other Indian tribes that they constitute a well defined cultural group. The staple food of these Indians is supplied by the sea, whence the women gather sea-grass, which after being cut, and pressed into square cakes, is dried for winter use; clams and mussels are eaten fresh, or strung on sticks or strands of bark are dried for winter consumption. Considerable quantities of berries and roots are also consumed. The dense forests along the coast furnish wood for building cabins, canoes, implements, and utensils. The red cedar (Thuya gigantea) is the most useful as it yields the materials for a large part of their manufactures, its wood being utilized for building and carving, and its bark for the manufacture of clothing and ropes, in which the women perform the greater part of the work. The women have their share also in the preparation and curing of the flesh and furs of the various game and fur-bearing animals which their husbands and brothers kill. Berries and crab-apples are preserved by them for winter use; the food is stored in spacious boxes made from cedar wood suitably bent, having bottoms sewed to their sides. Women assist in curing and tanning the skins designed for the manufacture of wearing apparel. Dog’s hair, mountain-goat’s wool, and feathers are woven into fabrics suitable for wear or barter; soft cedar bark is also prepared for use as garments. The women manufacture in great variety baskets of rushes and cedar bark for storage and carrying purposes; mats of cedar bark, and in the South, of rushes, are made for bedding, packing, seats, dishes, and covers for boxes.

Hodge (in article Pueblos) is authority for the following statements: That monogamy is the rule among the Pueblos, and that the status of woman is much higher among them than among some other tribes ; that among most of the Pueblos the descent of blood, and hence of membership in the clan and so citizenship in the tribe, is traced through the mother, the children belonging to her, or rather to her clan ; that the home belongs to her, and that her husband whom she may dismiss upon slight provocation, comes to live with her; that if she have daughters who marry, the sons-in-law reside with her; that it is not unusual to find men and women married dwelling together for life in perfect accord and contentment; that labor is as equitably apportioned between the sexes as is possible under the conditions in which they live; that the small gardens, which are cultivated exclusively by the women, belong to the women ; that in addition to performing all domestic duties, the carrying of water and the manufacturing of pottery are tasks devolving strictly on the women ; that some of the less irksome agricultural labor, especially at harvest time, is performed, by the women; that the men assist the women in the heavier domestic work, such as house building and fuel-gathering; that the men also weave blankets, make moccasins for their wives, and assist in other tasks usually regarded as pertaining exclusively to women.

According to Mrs Stevenson (23d Rep. B. A. E., 1904), among the Zuñi, who are an agricultural and pastoral people, the little gardens around the villages, which are cultivated exclusively by the women, are inherited by the daughters; a married man carries the products of his fields to the house of his wife’s parents, which is then his home. The wife likewise places the produce of the plots of land derived from her father or mother with those of her husband, and while these stored products are designed to be utilized by the entire household, only the wife or the husband may remove them thence. Mrs Stevenson says further that a woman is a member of the Ashiwanni or Rain Priesthood, consisting of nine persons, and constituting one of the four fundamental religious groups in the hierarchical government of the Zuñi; and that while the Zuñi trace descent through the mother and have clans, these clans do not own the fields, as they do among the Iroquois; that by cultivation a mail may make use of any unoccupied plot of ground, and thereafter he may dispose of it to anyone within the tribe. It is to be noted that the daughters, and not the sons, inherit the landed property of the married Zuñi man or woman. These few facts show plainly that the Zuñi woman occupies a high status in the social and the political organizations of her tribe.

Among the Iroquois and tribes similarly organized, woman controlled many of the fundamental institutions of society:

(a) Descent of blood or citizenship in the clan, and hence in the tribe, was traced through her;
(b) the titles, distinguished by unchanging specific names, of the various chieftainships of the tribe belonged exclusively to her;
(c) the lodge and all its furnishings and equipment belonged to her;
(d) her offspring, if she possessed any, belonged to her;
(e) the lands of the clan (including the burial grounds in which her sons and brothers were interred) and so of the tribe, as the source of food, life, and shelter, belonged to her. As a consequence of the possession of these vested rights, the woman exercised the sovereign right to select from her sons the candidates for the chieftainships of her clan, and so of the tribe, and she likewise exercised the concurrent right to initiate the procedure for their deposition for sufficient cause. Being the source of the life of the clan, the woman possessed the sole right to adopt aliens into it, and a man could adopt an alien as a kinsman only with the tacit or expressed consent of the matron of his clan. A mother possessed the important authority to forbid her sons going on the warpath, and frequently the chiefs took advantage of this power of the woman to. avoid a rupture with another tribe. The woman had the power of life or death over such alien prisoners as might become her share of the spoils of war to replace some of her kindred who may have been killed; she might demand from the clansmen of her husband or from those of her daughters a captive or a scalp to replace a loss in her family. Thus it is evident that not only the clan and the tribal councils, but also the League council were composed of her representatives, not those of the men.

There were chieftainesses who were the executive officers of the women they represented; these female chiefs provided public levy or contributions the food required at festivals, ceremonials, and general assemblies, or for public charity. Part of their duty was to keep close watch on the policies and the course of affairs affecting the welfare of the tribe, to guard scrupulously the interests of the public treasury, with power to maintain its resources, consisting of strings and belts of wampum, quill and feather work, furs, corn, meal, fresh and dried or smoked meats, and of any other thing which could serve for defraying the various public expenses and obligations, and they had a voice in the disposal of the contents of the treasury.

Every distinct and primordial family or ohwachira (see Clan) had at least one of the female chiefs, who together constituted the clan council; and sometimes one of them, by reason of extraordinary merit and wisdom, was made regent in the event of a vacancy in the office of the regular male chief. Hence, in various accounts mention is made of “queens,” who ruled their tribes. In view of the foregoing facts it is not surprising to find that among the Iroquoian tribes, the Susquehanna, the Hurons, and the Iroquois, the penalties for killing a woman of the tribe were double those exacted for the killing of a man, because in the death of a woman the Iroquoian lawgivers recognized the probable loss of a long line of prospective offspring. According to Swanton, on the northwest coast the penalty for the killing of a woman of the tribe was only one-half that for the killing of a man. These instances show the great difference in the value placed on the life of woman by tribes in widely separated areas.

The statement of Powers in regard to the Yokuts of California, that notwithstanding the fact that the husband took up his abode in the lodge of his wife or of his father-in-law; he had the power of life and death over his wife, can not be accepted without qualification. This statement can mean apparently only that this power might be exerted to punish some specific crime, and that it might not be exercised with impunity to satisfy a whim of the husband.

In describing the character of the Muskhogean people, Bartram (1773) says: ” I have been weeks and months amongst them, and in their towns, and never observed the least sign of contention or wrangling; never saw an instance of an Indian beating his wife, or even reproving her in anger. . . . for indeed their wives merit their esteem and the most gentle treatment, they being industrious, frugal, careful, loving, and affectionate.”

According to Smith, among the Indians of Virginia, while the men devoted their time and energy to fishing, hunting, warfare, and to other manly exercises out of doors, within the lodge they were often idle, for here the women and children performed the larger share of the work. The women made mats for their own use as well as for trade and exchange, also baskets, mortars, and pestles; planted and gathered the corn and other vegetables; prepared and pounded the corn to obtain meal for their bread, and did all the cooking; cut and brought all the wood used for fuel, with the help of the children fetched the water used in the lodge. Thus, the women were obliged in performing their duties to bear all kinds of burdens; but they willingly attended to their tasks at their own time and convenience, and were not driven like slaves to do their duty. The descent of blood was traced through the mother. The class of women whom Smith calls “trading girls” affected a peculiar tonsure that differed from that of all other women, to prevent mistakes, as the Indians were as solicitous as Caucasians to keep their wives to themselves.

Lawson (Hist. Car., 1866) says that a woman with a large number of children and with no husband to help support her and them, was assisted by the young men in planting, reaping, and in doing whatever she was incapable of performing herself. He says also that they eulogized a great man by citing the fact that he had “a great many beautiful wives and children, esteemed the greatest blessings amongst these savages.” It would thus appear that the North Carolina native woman was not the drudge and slave of her husband or men of her tribe. Concerning people of the same general region, Bartram (Trans. Am. Ethnol. Soc., III, pt. 1, 31, 1853) says that among the Cherokee and the Creeks scarcely a third as many women as men were seen at work in their fields. De Soto found in 1540 a woman whom he styled a queen ruling in royal state a tribe on the Savannah River, indicating that woman at that early period was held in high esteem among these people.

From what has been said it is evident that the authority possessed by the Indian husband over his wife or wives was far from being as absolute as represented by careless observers, and there is certainly no ground for saying that the Indians generally kept their women in a condition of absolute subjection. The available data show that while the married woman, because of her status as such, became a member of her husband’s house hold and owed him certain important duties and obligations, she enjoyed a large measure of independence and was treated with great consideration and deference, and had a marked influence over her husband. Of course, various tribes had different conditions to face and possessed different institutions, and so it happens that in some tribes the wife was the equal of her husband, and in others she was his superior in many things, as among the Iroquois and tribes similarly organized.

In most, if not in all, the highly organized tribes, the woman was the sole master of her own body. Her husband or lover, as the case may be, acquired marital control over her person by her own consent or by that of her family or clan elders. This respect for the person of the native woman was equally shared by captive alien women. Mrs Mary Rowlandson, the wife of a clergyman, and a captive in 1676 for 12 weeks among the fierce Narraganset, bears excellent witness to this fact. She wrote: “I have been in the midst of those roaring lions, and savage bears, that feared neither God, nor man, nor the devil, by day and by night, alone, and in company; sleeping, all sorts together, and not one of them ever offered the least abuse or unchastity to me in word or in action.” Roger Williams, with reference to another subject, brings this same respect for woman to view; he wrote: “So did never the Lord Jesus bring any unto his most pure worship, for he abhors, as all men, yea, the very Indians, an unwilling spouse to enter into forced relations” (R. I. Hist. Tract, 1st ser., 14, p. 15). At a later day, and in the face of circumstances adverse to the Indians, Gen. James Clinton, who commanded the New York division in the Sullivan expedition in 1779 against the hostile Iroquois, paid his enemies the tribute of a soldier by writing in April 1779, to Colonel Van Schaick, then leading the troops against the Onondaga, the following terse compliment: “Bad as the savages are, they never violate the chastity of any woman, their prisoners.” However, there were cases in various tribes of violation of women, but the guilty men were regarded with horror and aversion. The culprits, if apprehended, were punished by the kindred of the woman, if single, and by her husband and his friends, if married.

Among the Sioux and the Yuchi, men who made a practice of seduction were in grave bodily danger from the aggrieved women and girls, and the resort by the latter to extreme measures was sanctioned by public opinion as properly avenging a gross violation of woman’s inalienable right, the control of her own body. The dower or bride price, when such was given, did not confer, it seems, on the husband, absolute right over the life and liberty of the wife: it was rather compensation to her kindred and household for the loss of her services.

Among the Navaho the husband possesses in reality but very little authority over his wife, although he has obtained her by the payment of a bride price or present (Westermarck, Human Marriage, 392 et seq.)

Among all the tribes of Indians north of Mexico, woman, during the catamenial period, and, among many of the tribes, during the period of gestation and parturition, was regarded as abnormal, extra-human, sacred, in the belief that her condition revealed the functioning of orenda or magic power so potent that if not segregated from the ordinary haunts of men it would disturb the usual course of nature. The proper view point is that while in either condition the woman involuntarily was the seat of processes which marred, if they did not thwart, the normal exercise of human faculties, rather than that she was merely “unclean,” and so an object to be tabooed. Yet, it appears that this species of temporary but recurrent taboo did not affect the status of the woman in the social and political organization in any way detrimental to her interests.

It appears also that in many instances woman aspired to excel in some of the vocations which might be regarded as peculiar to the male sex, hunting, fishing, fowling, and fighting beside the man. At times also she was famed, even notorious, as a sorceress. Some of the weirdest tales of sorcery and incantation are connected with the lives and deeds of noted woman sorcerers, who delighted in torture and in destruction of human life.

Some students maintain, on seemingly insufficient grounds, that the institution of maternal descent tends to elevate the social status of woman. Apart from the independence of woman, brought about by purely economic activities arising from the cultivation of the soil, it is doubtful whether woman ever attains any large degree of independence and authority aside from this potent cause. Without a detailed and carefully compiled body of facts concerning the activities and the relations of the sexes, and the relation of each to the various institutions of the community, this question can not be satisfactorily decided. The data concerning the rights of women as compared with those of men to be found in historical accounts of various tribes are so meager and indefinite that it is difficult, if not impossible, to define accurately the effect of either female or male descent on the status of the woman. It is apparent, however, that among the sedentary and agricultural communities the woman enjoyed a large, if not a preponderating, measure of independence and authority, greater or less in proportion to the extent of the community’s dependence for daily sustenance on the product of the woman’s activities.


Hodge, Frederick Webb, Compiler. The Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. Bureau of American Ethnology, Government Printing Office. 1906.

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