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Native American Women


Western civilization's patriarchal society tends to ignore the unique perspective that women bring to the issues facing them. Partly as a result of this inherent bias, the central roles native women played in their aboriginal cultures was radically misunderstood by the Europeans who came to take their lands.

This book is a general introduction to the central and critically important roles of Native American women. Within the constraints imposed by space, common themes throughout the 500 indigenous nations are addressed, along with specific aspects of the lives women lived as they played, raised families and worked as members of the Lakota, Cherokee, Iroquois, Apache, Navajo, Cree, Inuit and other nations. While references are made to the nations living within what are now called Central and South America, this book focuses on North America during the period of evolution from traditional lifestyles to the present.

Research for this book came from a number of sources, including information obtained directly from the native people I came to know and love during a period of years and the many books they recommended. Through more formal interviews, I had the honor of meeting people kind enough to share their thoughts with a stranger.

In a classically constructed book, the material is logically divided into sections and chapters. But an intensely holistic subject such as native life won't divide so easily. In native life, all endeavors, from the making of a simple utensil to the creation of highly complex decorations, are seen as outlets for the individual soul. Indigenous people see all of life as holy, the sacred and the mundane as one.

While not long ago, Native Americans were casually dismissed as members of a "vanishing race," in the space of but a few hundred years, Westerners have managed to take the thin envelope in which we live on Mother Earth to the brink of destruction, perhaps endangering all cultures. Women-centered societies are descended from cultures that managed to live in harmony with nature for a million generations.

With gratitude for keeping the sacred fire burning through dark nights, this book is dedicated to "the mothers of the nations."

The Centrality of Native Women

To begin to understand the native cultures of North America, and why they were so successful in living with nature, one must first comprehend the central role played by native women, and the deep respect accorded them by their societies. Women were critically important and recognized as the life bearers and nurturers of the nation. While their role differed from that of the men, they were not seen as inferior. The wise women of most nations were consulted with the same respect accorded men.

In matrifocal communities, society is not ruled by women in the way that patriarchal societies today are ruled by men -- with heavy emphasis on hierarchy, obedience to authority and a tendency toward vastly unequal distributions of wealth and power. Matrifocal societies tended to be communal, life centered and strongly concerned with the needs of all of the people. The woman's role was to care for her children, and the main reason for a man's very existence was to support her in this by providing meat from the hunt, and protection against enemies. In an egalitarian system, everyone, regardless of sex and age, has a place in the life of the nation.

In the white male dominated culture of the United States today, it can be difficult at first, to grasp just how radically different life under a truly matrifocal society can be for all of its citizens -- women, children and men. Everyone benefits in a culture based on protecting, nurturing and respecting all of life.

For the most part, women contributed to the nation's well-being through the care with which they raised their children and looked after their families. Beyond the childbearing years, their roles took on wider dimensions, expanding into politics, and the spiritual realm, where many became medicine or holy people. The men took care of the tribe mainly via their skills in hunting and, when necessary, in war.

... Among First People the world over, hospitality is a virtue with few equals. A hungry person is never turned from the door. Among the Plains People, a man who wished to show his prowess and gain honors would offer part of his kill in the hunt to the widows and elderly who could not provide for themselves.

As opposed to the competitive individualistic western values of today, the strong and talented among native people demonstrated their superior abilities not by shunting aside the weak, but by taking care of them. One of the requirements of the chief was that he allowed no one in his band to go hungry -- if necessary, he fed them himself. He led by example, not coercion. Among the Iroquois, it was the women who chose the chiefs (who were always men) and could remove them if they proved themselves unworthy.

The virtue of sacrifice for others, which can be seen as "feminine" in Western eyes, survives among native women and men today, where great respect is still accorded that person of whom it may be said that she or he "works for the people."