2 Dealing with the Clichés
The Native American Culture
3 Heirs of First Mother
The Role of Native American Women
4 Living with the Legacy
Native American Women Today
In the beginning there was Spider Woman, she who was called Thought Woman.
At the dawn of being, Spider Woman spun a line from North to South, and another from East to West. She sat by these threads that stretched to the four horizons, which she had drawn across the universe, and she sang. As she sang two daughters came forth: Ut Set, who became the mother of the Pueblo people, and Nau Ut Set, who became the mother of all others. On all her daughters' children Spider Woman placed a covering of creative wisdom, spun from her own spider being. To each she attached a thread of her web. It is for this reason that each person has a delicate thread connected to Spider Woman, connected through a doorway in the top of the skull.
We chant to keep the doorway open.
~ Keres Pueblo creation myth ~ adapted from “Ancient Mirrors of Womanhood” by Merlin Stone
"Ask questions from your heart and you will be answered from the heart."
~ Omaha Proverb ~
In my Bachelor’s Thesis I want to introduce the culture of Native American women, and strike out especially their way of life and their importance in their tribes and communities. I want to deal with the issue of European and European American clichés about Native American women. When we as Europeans think about Native American women today we are influenced by different media like Hollywood movies and books about Native Americans. We might picture a bloodthirsty warrior, sitting on his horse, shouting, his tomahawk raised high above his head. Then we might see the lowly squaw with her baby tied to her back gathering food and little sticks for making a fire. We might also have the “Pocahontas-picture” in our mind and think of the romanticized story of the Indian princess that saved the life of a British soldier. I want to find out if some of these clichés are true and which ones were definitely fabricated by early settlers and continued by European whites who just did not understand Native American society.
The main part of my thesis will be on how Native American women lived in their communities and how their role was and is in contrast to what Europeans and European Americans think it was. While doing this I want to give insight into the culture of different tribes and get a feeling for the way of life the different tribes led while scattered all over North America before they were forced onto reservations by the United States government.
To achieve this I first want to write about the existing clichés and try to find answers about how those images came to be. This will be the second chapter of my Bachelor’s Thesis. The third chapter will explicitly deal with the role of Native American women. I want to find how they were honored in their family, what rights they had and how they lived their lives in comparison to Native American men. The fourth chapter will be about Native American women today, the changes they have undergone since the arrival of the first settlers and how they manage their life in the modern world that has never known how Native Americans lived in the land now called the United States of America.
Dealing with the clichés
The Native American Culture
"The one who tells the stories rules the world."
~ Hopi Proverb ~
To understand what Native American life is all about and how Native American women lived inside their tribes I first want to find out what we as Europeans think of when we hear the term “Native American” and what clichés come to our minds. Meanwhile I want to explain how the stereotypes came to be, what reasons can be found for the false images and how they endure to this day.
According to Paula Gunn Allen (1992:4-5) there are two categories of Native Americans invented by European Americans. On the one hand they see the “noble savage” who is the victim of a changing world but has a peaceful mind and lives in harmony nature. On the other hand they see the “howling savage” who captured innocent white women to torment them in their villages. In Gunn Allen’s opinion many people today still believe that the Natives were meant to “advance” to a “higher” social system and therefore needed the help and guidance of the European settlers.
Whatever the image was or is there must be reasons for it. Somehow these prejudices have come to life and are still present to this day. And if these two categories mentioned by Gunn Allen are just clichés, there must be a way to find out how Native Americans really were.
White settlers and missionaries who had direct contact with Native Americans were surprised by the most unexpected role of the tribal women. Both settlers and missionaries came from a Christian background in which the father was the head of the family, the patron. Their view on family, marriage and the role of women in general did not conform to what they found within the tribes. Because of their urge to “civilize” the Natives, integrate them into their system and even to take advantage of them they had to equate the Native American’s way of thinking with their own. Of significance was the fact that many of the Europeans had found out and were of the opinion that as long as women held any power inside their community they could not conquer the land. So they removed women from their positions of influence and began trying to erase the memories of native society before 1800 (Gunn Allen 1992:3). There are numerous examples in history that show how the early settlers and missionaries managed to gain influence in the Native American community and what arrangements they made. The Cherokee tribe was one of those tribes the British put great effort into. During the British colonization in the early 1800s settlers had the idea of taking away the women’s power by educating Cherokee men. In some cases they even took them to England for a while to provide proper education. With the help of the Whites the Cherokee men then were allowed to make a constitution for their own Cherokee nation. Before the Indian Removal Act of 1830 became effective they were promised to be untouched by it if they excluded women’s rights in their constitution. So when Cherokee men wrote the constitution they thought it would be better to take away their women’s rights than to be expelled from their home land. But as the following years showed many Cherokees were removed after all and were Christianized. Many Natives adapted to the European way of life and native women even started wearing petticoats like white women. The Cherokee men had been to trusting to see that they were being tricked (37-38).
Another example for negative white influence on Natives is the Montagnais tribe. The Jesuit missionary Paul LeJeune saw the Native’s social system and was shocked by how much power the women had (Thwaites 1906:77). He decided he had to do something about this and constructed a four-step plan to “civilize” the Montagnais. They were a tribe who were always looking for new and better places to hunt and live so the first thing LeJeune wanted to change was to stop them from traveling around and settle down. As a second measure he established punishment inside the tribe which was not common to their culture. As a consequence his influence brought a lot more violence and fear into the tribe’s structure. Third, he put the children in Jesuit schools which were far from their homes to reduce their parent’s influence on their education. Fourth, he wanted the Montagnais to live like typical European families with the father as the head of the family and the mother loyal to her husband. He did not totally succeed in putting pressure on all Montagnais tribes but he started a major change. From this time on shamans and leaders were mostly male and a great number of Montagnais became Catholic. Paula Gunn Allen explains the hidden agenda behind this development as follows: “Patriarchy requires that powerful women be discredited so that its own system will seem to be the only one that reasonable or intelligent people can subscribe to (1992:203).” That means that a patriarchal, man-focused system does not work as long as women own some of the power and as long as they have a major part in decision-making.
However, this is not what the settlers reported. In their book “Women and Power in Native North America“ Klein and Ackerman (1995:5-6) write about the images the early settlers spread across Europe. In the colonial reports the settlers wrote about deeply devoted wives who lived to serve their husbands and had to do whatever they want them to do. Those reports also told how hard life was for the women. The only few exceptions mentioned were the “Indian princesses” who did not work at all, lived a convenient life but in spite of that still had to obey the men. In the opinion of the settlers the gender stereotypes of Native Americans were simply an extension of gender stereotypes of all non-European people (15-16).
Another very common stereotype was the image of Natives being in constant war with each other. In his book “Now that the Buffalo’s Gone“ Josephy, Jr. explains how this misunderstanding came to be (1982:34-35). Before white contact most of the tribes lived in peace because every tribe had its own large domain and usually had no reason to fight about anything. If there was war, which was very rare, it was officially announced and explained by a herald. When the battle started it was “fierce and noisy, but usually of short duration and with few casualties (35)”. However, the real envy and rivalries started with the appearance of white traders who brought precious goods and weapons and started a series of battles and fights. All the same, the colonial reports spoke of native war-fare as an “established institution” even though most of the time the Natives were a peaceful people who enjoyed hunting, and arts and crafts.
Apparently these false and highly exaggerated stories about wild bloodthirsty men who capture white women and torture them, made a peaceful journey of settlers moving westward impossible. They had been told so many brutal stories about how “the Indian” was supposed to be that when they actually met a Native they were too afraid and angry for a peaceful encounter. Sooner or later this ended in a vicious circle of violence in which both sides more or less took part (Gunn Allen 1992:5). One example of this is the Puritans who had a quest for native land. They were told in their churches that God wanted them to cultivate the country even if they had to suppress the people living on it. The Natives were supposed to have no legal rights because they did not administer the land in the proper European sense so it was a necessity to use violence on them if they refused to accept help. Furthermore, the Puritans believed that since Satan the devil ruled the wilderness, the “wild Indians” must be his children and therefore sinners. As a result the Whites felt that they had to “save” the Natives from evil and introduce them to their own religion. This was yet another reason for using force on the Natives if they did not join willingly. The Natives on the other hand, not knowing of the Puritan’s plans, just saw the Whites as another good source for trading goods and innocently welcomed them to their land which often sealed their fate to being killed by over-reacting traders (Josephy, Jr. 1982:47-75). Of course not all Native Americans were friendly and welcoming.