Saturday, November 16, 2013

Writing about Indians When You're Not One: Gender

Troy D. Smith

I have written several entries now in this series (I have linked all the previous ones at the end of this article.) If there has been one recurring theme, it is "misunderstanding." The indigenous peoples Europeans encountered in North America had cultural points-of-view that were radically different from the "western" norm, often very foreign to the white colonists' frame of reference. There is also the fact that many of those settlers made no effort to understand the differences, and those who did were looked at askance by their white neighbors. Whether due to honest misunderstanding or willful ignorance, the settlers often did not really understand what was going on culturally with Indians.

By extension, many western and historical fiction authors -often admirers of native peoples and their cultures -have written about them with the same misapprehensions. Some of my writer friends have responded to this series by saying, somewhat discouraged, that it seems impossible to bridge those divides, even partially. I disagree. I think it is a mistake for writers to confine themselves only to characters of their own race, gender, nationality, and/or socio-economic circle. But to expand, it is necessary to be sensitive, not only to others' history but their culture. You don't have to devote a lifetime to research, but it is necessary to understand and interact with some basic things, and my goal in this series is to point those things out, albeit imperfectly.

And this time around, it is gender and gender roles. As always, my current topic at hand has often been touched on in previous entries, so forgive me if I occasionally sound repetitive.

One big thing Europeans misunderstood was matrilineal culture, which describes about three-quarters of North American tribes. That is, clan and tribe memberships are traced through the mother, not the father. This makes the mother a very central figure. Women in such cultures often had significantly higher standing and more power than did women in patrilineal cultures (even among Native Americans.)

Another thing early colonists had trouble grasping was the division of responsibilities among men and women. Each had their own sphere of power and influence. In some ways, you could say this was true in European society as well; women were expected to keep house and men to take care of things outside it. But there was a difference. Among Indian women (again, in those matrilineal tribes), they didn't just keep house -they owned the house, and controlled most everything that went on inside it. European women at the time could not say that, by a long shot.

In essence, women in such societies were responsible, not just for their own homes, but for the village, whereas men were responsible for the world outside the village. Women controlled the agriculture; men were in charge of hunting and war. Men were also responsible for diplomacy, because diplomacy was connected to the extra-village world. Hence, warriors might take captives on the battlefield -while on that field, and on the way home, the captives' lives were in the warriors' hands. But once they got inside the village, it was the women who made the decisions about captives' fates. And if the fate was execution or torture, it was often the women who did that. If decisions were being made that would impact the village's crops or land holdings, women had a strong voice and expected to be part of the deliberations. (Among the Iroquois, men served as leaders but it was the women who elected them.) Again, it is no exaggeration to say that 18th century Cherokee women had far more rights within their communities that did their white colonial counterparts.

Europeans looked at this arrangement and concluded: Indian men are oppressive and lazy. They make their women do all the back-breaking agricultural work, while they go off and entertain themselves with hunting. In order to become "civilized," those Indian men would have to abandon the hunt and become good farmers, while their wives went inside and did housecleaning and spinning/weaving, like decent Christian women ought to do. They did not understand that A) the women were happy to do the agriculture work, because they had power over the crops and land, and B) forcing Indian men to do that same work was, in their eyes, forcing them to become women. (While simultaneously taking power away from the women. So no one was happy.)

One Choctaw woman resisted efforts of U.S. government Indian agents to force her son out into the fields with her: she did not want her son emasculated.

These "civilizing" efforts reached their apogee in the 1890s, after the passage of the Dawes Act, which called for en end to tribal control of land; for Indians to be civilized, they had to be independent. Hence tribal lands were divided up and assigned to individual families -or, more accurately, to the "heads of households." In the government's eyes, those were the men, who were supposed to be patriarchs. To most of the tribes, the opposite was true. Becoming Americanized, therefore, meant not only giving up ideas of communal living and communal property, but completely changing gender views.

Here's an interesting article: How the Carlisle Indian School used gender to erase a culture and put a new one in place

If the Americans in charge of the reservations could not wrap their minds around the relationships between Indian men and women, they darn sure had trouble when extra genders started getting involved. But get involved they did -for many tribes had no trouble with third genders, or with people born into one sex deciding they were really meant to be the other. In some cases such people simply lived as members of the opposite sex; women serving as warriors, or men living as women and often serving as secondary, or even primary, wives to warriors. This is portrayed in Little Big Man, and I doubt any movie before that (and very few since.)

Among some cultures, such people were not only accepted but viewed as special, even sacred. Here are some links for more info in that regard:

winkte (Sioux)
lhamana (Pueblo)
Kaúxuma Núpika (Khootenai)
Hosteen Klah (Navajo)
Osh-Tisch (Crow)

I will close with a story from the Crow reservation, recounted by Joe Medicine Crow:

“One agent in the late 1890´s…tried to interfere with Osh-Tisch, who was the most respected badé. The agent incarcerated badés, cut off their hair, made them wear men´s clothing. He forced them to do manual labor…The people were so upset with this that Chief Pretty Eagle came into Crow Agency, and told (the agent) to leave the reservation. It was a tragedy, trying to change them."

I never saw that on Bonanza.

Here are the previous installments of this series:

Part One: Kinship
Part Two: Balance
Part Three: Indians Are People
Part Four: Leadership
Part Five: Property


  1. Wow, Troy...another eye-opening installment of your blog series--so interesting and informative, as always. I had no idea about the third gender within the tribes--just never thought of it, I guess, but their attitudes about it were something I wouldn't have expected. Glad you brought it up!

  2. Great article! From all I know, the basic philosophy is "to let what is be" - a nice one, really. And from the bit of gardening I do, I understand the "control" factor of it. I think a lot of us women know sure feel like our houses belong to us. ;-)

  3. Wonderful post Troy! I've been thinking about this exact thing working on my new Western WIP! This is sooooo helpful! Thanks for the links too!

  4. Numbers vary, but at minimum over 100 North American tribes had this sort of third gender recognition. (And many still do.)

  5. This is such a great series, Troy.

    I've often wondered about the opposite--what did Indians think of the whites, who kept their women in the house and, in many areas, didn't allow women to own property (or even her children) at all. What did they think of men out working the fields?

  6. They thought: crazy white people (I'm guessin')

  7. Meant to also say how much I love the pictures!

  8. As usual your post is so informative and important. Thank you for sharing your vast information. I look forward to these post. Doris

  9. Upcoming topics: athletics and spirituality.

  10. Did you read my Line Rider? It has a bit about third gender. We got a very good lecture at the Mandan village outside Bismarck SD. Within those houses, when explanation of matriarchy came along, you could see the beds where the men were relegated and where a new male fit in, etc. Real education. Were the Mississippi mound people also matrilineal? They had an urban-like culture until whiteman disease wiped them out. As you probably know, we have a whole bunch of tribes in Arizona, some of which are nearly if not exterminated. Sad. Thanks for these posts.

  11. Most Mississippian cultures were matrilineal, yes. Check out the wikipedia article about the Natchez, the longest-surviving Mississippian culture:

  12. Fascinating as usual - and I do remember that in Little Big Man. Great post, Troy! Great series, too.

  13. Hello !
    I've been reading your insightful series for a while now as I plan to write about Indians and the issue of gender is particularly interesting to me. I thought I'd add some information I've found about the Navajo gender system (they actually recognize up to five genders) that people might be interested in :

    A basic presentation:

    And an in-depth study in PDF format:,d.d2k