Based on the paper titled “Gender in Pre-Christian Native American Society” by Misty Smith. Originally Published on Dec. 16, 2017, for HIST 314 at Southern New Hampshire University.
Gender in Pre-Christian Native American Society
From the onset of European arrival to American shores, most settlers attempted to force their societal norms and religious ideology onto the Native American tribes. Christianity was, for the most part, the dominant religion of the Europeans and it taught that there was only male (Adam) and female (Eve), created by God in the Garden of Eden, whereas Native Americans had different beliefs on what gender was and recognized multiple gender identities. However, for the Christian Europeans, the Christian Bible clearly stated: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them,” and it was the bible that commanded the daily lives of most Europeans of that age. Furthermore, European society was patriarchal and dictated that the male was the dominant of the two genders and that women were not to be in leadership or power positions, outside of the royal family. However, Native Americans believed in equality of all members of their society and did not base relationship validity upon a religious notion. Therefore, Native Americans and the Europeans who invaded their world had conflicting viewpoints on gender, sexuality, and overall gender roles in society. However, with the conversion of the Native people to Christianity, over time the gender fluidity and social acceptance of all people would soon change over to European social views.
The differences that were held between the European and old Native American views on gender roles in society are easy to identify from various resources. The first point of contention between European and Native American viewpoints on gender relations was that of the roles of women within society. European women were expected to take care of the home front and children while the men provided and fought wars. European women were also limited to the amount of power and influence they had over their surroundings and family’s possessions. “Under English common law, a married woman had no control over property and could not execute an enforceable contract, write a will, or initiate a legal action without her husband’s consent or participation.” Furthermore, women were to be obedient to their husbands, as described in a seventeenth-century text by Puritan ministers John Dod and Robert Cleaver, “She must not examine whether he be wise or simple, but that she is his wife, and therefore being bound she must obey…”
Native Americans did not share the same philosophies in relation to gender roles with Europeans. Native American women often were in charge of many tribal government workings and were important members of society. For example, in 1791, in response to President George Washington’s emissaries to the Iroquois, the Seneca sent an unnamed woman who stated, “Hear us, therefore, for we speak things that concern us and our children; and you must not think hard of us while our men shall say more to you, for we have told them.” The woman then assigned Red Jacket as their representative, to speak their words, as they understood that the emissaries would take the words more seriously if they came from a man. However, it was then Red Jacket who proclaimed that the women had spoken for the tribes:
“Brothers from Pennsylvania: You that are sent from General Washington and by the thirteen fires; you have been sitting side by side with us every day, and the Great Ruler has appointed us another pleasant day to meet again.
Now, listen, brothers; you know it has been the request of our head warriors that we are left to answer for our women, who are to conclude what ought to be done by both sachems and warriors. So hear what is their conclusion. The business you come on is very troublesome, and we have been a long time considering it; and now the elder of our women have said that our sachems and warriors must help you, for the good of them and their children, and you tell us the Americans are strong for peace.”
The next area of contention between Native Americans and the Europeans was gender roles in relationships. Native Americans did not share the same social ideology as the Europeans did in relation to gender roles in relationships. Europeans believed firmly that relationships outside of the scope of a male and female coupling, in lawful marriage, was a sin against God. For example, the colonists of Plymouth Colony “place inhibitions on their [sexual] desires, using the Bible as a justification for the greatest restraints.” As a matter of fact, the colonists went further in their beliefs and “emphasized the avoidance of temptation through Bible study, sermons, laws, and when necessary, after the fact, punishments.” Furthermore, marriage was a sacred institution under Christianity and divorce was not easy to come about, and depending upon the location in Colonial America, such as Plymouth Colony, could suffer punishments such as fines or beatings.
On the other hand, Native Americans were accepting of all relationships as a normal part of their societies. Divorce among the Native American populations was also as easy as placing the spouse’s possessions outside, “Men and women freely married at the onset of adulthood; a woman could initiate a divorce by placing her husband’s belongings outside of her house, implying that women had a choice in their mates.” Furthermore, Native Americans, unlike the Europeans, believed that there were more than the two male-female genders, therefore there were more than male-female relationships. One example comes from what is now known as the Southeastern United States, is associated with the Cherokee people who once referred to some members of their communities as two-spirit people. A reference is made to an early encounter between a European explorer in 1825 with a band of Cherokee which ended in great confusion for the European. The meeting was described as seeing men dressed and behaving as women, “There were among them formerly, men who assumed the dress and performed all the duties of women and who lived their whole life in this manner.” The encounter, as described in the unpublished manuscripts of C.C. Trowbridge, illustrates the shock of a European when confronted with a social norm that was outside of their normal viewpoint.
Figure 1 Cherokee “Two Spirits”
A further example of gender identities outside of the European male-female spectrum in Native American society can be seen in the tales of the Berdache within Native American society, who are believed to be the equivalents of the Cherokee two-spirits. The Berdache were biologically male Native Americans who took on the persona of women; dressing as women, performing women’s duties, and having sexual relationships with individuals of all genders. Other European explorers documented Berdache across North America, “Plains Indian Berdaches are best described as occupying an alternative or third gender role, in which traits of men and women are combined with those unique to Berdache status.” The Berdache, like the Cherokee two-spirits, were often given important status within the Native American society, including religious ceremonies.
However, as Christianity spread throughout North America, the views of the Native Americans began to imitate those of the Europeans. The Christian religion replaced the Native, the view of God changed from a female, as was seen by Iroquois, to that of the male Christian God. Women were given less dominance in tribal affairs as European styles of Government took over. Travelers across North America started reporting the Natives succumbing to the pressures of Christian missionaries across the land, with fewer reports of gender differences with each passing year.
In conclusion, the Europeans’ arrival in America brought with them a way of thinking that differed from that of the Native Americans. Therefore, Native American and European views on gender roles were completely opposite for two main reasons. First, Native Americans did not believe that men were completely superior to women and allowed women equal roles in their society. Furthermore, Native Americans recognized more than two genders and sexualities among all individuals as normal. However, as time progressed and the Europeans spread their religious views throughout the land, more Natives converted and as a result, they succumbed to the European views of male-female gender roles.
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Figure 1. Cherokee ‘‘Two Spirits’’. Early American Studies, An Interdisciplinary Journal, Fall2014, Vol. 12 Issue 3, p626-651, 26p, 1 Illustration; found on p. 640.
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