Still not
Silent

Facing discrimination from white settlers, Native women were held to unfamiliar societal molds in Indian Territory. These women upheld their nations in tragic conditions, proving their essential but changing roles.

 

It’s 1825 and you walk in to a large Cherokee village in northern Alabama. Before long, you notice something this bustling village of more than 300 Native men, women and children. Women dictate the pace of daily life.

A Native mother passes fry bread discs to her children.

Another gives her slaves directions for a day of planting corn and tobacco. An elderly woman surrounded by wide-eyed youngsters, listening intently to the sacred Cherokee creation story.

And then you look to your left and see a woman setting her husband’s clothes outside their home—an unmistakable sign she is ending the marriage.

These are the Cherokee, and these are their women.

“They are prized for the role that they play,” said Dr. Linda Reese, a retired history professor at East Central University in Ada, Okla. “They are the foodgivers. Often times they are the growers of crops, and they are the raisers of children. They take care of the sacred possessions of their husbands.”

During this same period in American history, their white female counterparts also were prized for their roles, but not for the same reasons.

About a thousand miles north of the Cherokee village, white women’s power was assessed differently: by the tightness of their corsets and the layers of frills on their lavish parasols.

They were treated like “china dolls,” Reese said.

Compared to their Native counterparts, white women didn’t have rights to their children or property, and uttering the word ‘divorce’ was nearly an expletive. These roles belonged exclusively to the family patriarch.

“It was such forward thinking to have (Native) women in such places of power,” said Michelle Cooke, scholar-in-residence at the Chickasaw Cultural Center in Sulphur, Okla. “There’s such an irony there that the men of the tribe looked up to the women more than the white culture did.”

Many Native cultures valued women at such a deep level because of their innate and sacred ability to give birth—a power men didn’t possess.

Observed Luther Standing Bear of the Oglala Lakota: “It is the mothers, not the warriors, who create a people and guide their destiny.”

But over time, with increasing assimilation and contact with whites, the independence and power at the very heart of many Native women gradually eroded. Their diminishing role has since bred a community both misunderstood and misrepresented. Subjected to a European viewpoint and forced to act contrary to Native culture provided little room for Native women in these new communities.

Consequently, many Native women today still struggle with the social implications of their diminished power.

For years, many whites despised Native women “as drudges, as immoral, as dirty and ignorant,” especially if they clung to their traditional way of life, said Reese. Although this perception clashed dramatically with the cultural identity many Native women maintained within their tribes, the white population refused to see Native women in this light.

In some sense this perception persists today. Reese cited the frequent Oklahoma powwows, and the dancing, chanting and ornate outfits that define these gatherings—events where white people are known for not showing up.

“It’s almost become kind of cartoonish for non-Indian people to think of a powwow,” said Reese, explaining that many don’t understand the cultural significance of what they consider pomp and circumstance.

This cultural ignorance can shift attitudes about Natives as a whole.

“If we explore real Native women’s lives, we have to confront that they have lives. If they have lives, then they have a culture and there’s some legitimacy to their lives,” noted Dr. Donna Barbie, a humanities professor at Embry-Riddle University in Florida. “If (Native women) can remain undifferentiated savages, then we don’t have to think about ourselves so much.”

Understanding the narrative of those Native women, who long ago were forcibly removed to Oklahoma, begins with understanding:

  • the prominence those Native women once had and their vital role within the tribe
  • how European contact dramatically altered Native culture and values
  • how stripping away the roles of Native women affected their identity
  • how the loss of cultural identity still plagues Native women today


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Prior to Removal, Native women were not just a female counterweight for men. Instead, they had specific roles within their tribe that only they could fulfill.

Within the Five Tribes, women organized other women in terms of communal work and raising crops. They were at council meetings, whispering advice in their husband’s ear. And they often acted as the “social workers” of their community.

In the Chickasaw Nation, from the time young girls could walk they followed their mothers around the village, learning the ins and outs of their future roles. They were taught the boundaries of their tribal town, how to care for crops, the duties of their clan and their duties to the arts and cooking—obligations that increased with age. So by the time Chickasaw girls were 13 or 14, they knew their obligation as a woman.

“You knew who you were,” said Glenda Galvan, a Chickasaw storyteller at the Chickasaw Cultural Center in Sulphur, Okla.

 

While the prominent role of women was well defined within many Native cultures, white perception of Native women often was at the other end of the spectrum.

“(Native women) were considered by white people to be dirty and ignorant and sexually promiscuous and sometimes dangerous,” said Reese. And whites often saw Native men as “lazy” because they lounged around the fires and left for long periods of time. But they too were fulfilling their role as hunter and family provider, just different than the white definition of a man’s role.

Reese described the traditional relationship between Native men and women as “mutually respectful.” It lacked competition. Each gender found its greatest value in taking ownership of their respective roles. Likewise, if they didn’t live within those roles they quickly became social outcasts.

For example, if a woman looked the other way at hungry children in her village she was ostracized for not treating them as her own.

However, contact with whites in the early 1800s brought with it a startling development: the European view of men being all powerful—a concept Native men had never seen. And it wouldn’t be long before this contact forever changed Native social structures.

Reese speculated that as Native men became more accustomed to white culture, they also embraced capitalism.

“(It became) the man’s role to acquire land and fortune and to assume more political standing within the tribal group,” she said.

Gradually, Native men also found themselves influenced by the white man’s values of wealth and power.

“The tribes were more and more pressed and marginalized and pushed toward assimilation by the Europeans and the Americans,” said Patti Jo King, a professor of American Indian History and Studies at the University of North Dakota. “What basically happens is that the men’s roles become usurped. Men lose their place in society.”


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This shifting power of Native men directly influenced Native women. They watched as some of their men became captivated by white dominance. Many times Native women responded by taking up the “slack” to keep their people together, preserving culture and language, King said.

In the 1880s and ’90s, the federal government also became more involved in allotment, again contributing to the dominance of Native men. In the white world, land equaled power—a sharp contrast to the communal perspective in Native communities.

At the same time that they’re stepping in and carrying these burdens, they’re also trying to uphold their men.” Patti Jo King, professor of American Indian History and Studies

“As the Western concepts of politics became much more ingrained among the Choctaw and the Five Tribes, the women’s roles…started declining as the Western political climates recognized men as leaders,” said Dr. Joe Watkins, director of the Native American Studies Program at the University of Oklahoma.

Confronted with this change, Native women had some decisions to make: What should they do? Should they fight for their traditional roles or embrace a new identity to pacify the rest of the country?

“Native women have always been sort of practical and resourceful, and at the same time that they’re stepping in and carrying these burdens, they’re also trying to uphold their men,” said professor King.

Native women are humble, she said, noting it was uncharacteristic for women to force themselves on a situation. The result of this tug of war left many Native women to watch as their men entered “a brave new world,” wrote Theda Perdue in her book “Cherokee Women.”


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With the white man also came the white man’s goods. Many Natives were awed by the velvet, beads, cooking pots and guns that accompanied their new neighbors.

“Cherokee, Choctaw and Chickasaw immediately embraced, first, the material goods of European settlers and then the European ways of life,” Reese said. Intermarriage provided a tangible example. Now, skin colors, traditions and family functions were influenced by a new generation of children with mixed heritages. Depending on the status of your family, this new identity could either be beneficial or detrimental, Reese said.

Assimilation, as hard as they tried, didn’t work.” Glenda Galvin, Chickasaw storyteller

Among the Chickasaw, this change could be seen as families strayed from the clan system in which each town and village was a self-governing tribal entity. Galvan, the Chickasaw story-teller, explained how mixed marriages detracted from entrenched Chickasaw traditions.

“If you have a nontribal mother raising tribal children, who’s the dominant person in the family?” asked Galvan. “Is she really going to tell those tribal children much about the clan system? I doubt it.”

She emphasized that cultural ignorance breeds a community where the next generation is missing pieces of who they are, especially in the first generation after removal.

“We can understand why they have an identity crisis, because they know who they are, but they’re living in two different worlds. They don’t belong to either one completely,” said Galvan.

“Assimilation, as hard as they tried, didn’t work.”

Forcing Native people into a Victorian mold resulted in confusion and shame as they watched traditions vanish before their eyes. As Native women were held to these rigid standards, the end result was a collective group of powerless women—no longer prized for their roles within many Native societies.

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History professor King referenced the way contemporary culture takes strong, independent Native women and puts them under the rule of white men, calling this mindset the “Pocahontas complex.”

For example, Barbie described how Sacagawea became a pawn for Lewis and Clark. To modern Americans, Sacagawea is “a cultural icon telling us a story that we like to believe,” she said.

“I think that American culture has never really wanted to know much about Native American women,” Barbie said. “I think it would force us to confront their humanness and it would force us to confront the ugliest part of our history.”

But Native women had a choice. They could either accept the loss of their power and roles or they could step into the future, holding tight to their values and character.

Watkins said he’s seen Native women shrink from leadership, hesitant to voice their opinions. But he also finds solace in women like Wilma Mankiller, the first female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, who helped strengthen the voice of Native women.

“In terms of humanism, it’s more important to recognize that the competition creates antagonism. If we can understand the different roles and how they mesh, it can create a symbiotic relationship,” Watkins said.

In recent times, some Native women are pushing beyond the barriers inherited from their ancestors and stepping back into their traditional roles.

According to a 2004 survey by the Center for Women’s Business Research, more than one of every 11 Native women owns a business. Native women also had the highest rate of entrepreneurship among major ethnic groups. They were at 9.2 percent compared to Caucasian (6 percent), Hispanic (4.2 percent) and African American (2 percent).

“You see far more professional women—women doctors, women heading up hospitals, education, medicine, businesses—Native women forming their own businesses and being CEOs. That’s the 21st century Native woman,” said Reese.

Now, imagine this: It’s 2018 and you walk into an American History museum in Oklahoma City, Okla.

Your eyes scan a list of exhibits and linger on one advertising “Women: Famous Faces of the United States.”

Your feet clack against the hard floor as you make your way through the arched exhibit entrance, where you’re met with an huge picture of a woman with warm, dark skin.

You read the description of the woman with dark brown eyes and you are

surprised to see: She is a member of the Muskogee (Creek) Nation.

This is the kind of future Michelle Cooke imagines for her daughter and for both Natives and non-Natives—to know the power and strength of her people.

“It’s our legacy, and it’s a legacy that’s so unique to us as Native women,” said Cooke. “That past has been written, the present is now – it’s happening – but only we can write the future.

“We’re responsible for that future and we can’t just sit around and do nothing about that future and expect it to be great.”

 

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