Matriarchal Cultures: the Native American Essay

There has long been debate among anthropologists about matriarchal societies. But that is a historical result of last 500 years of European military expansion and extermination of native cultures. There are a few societies whose status as matriarchies is disputed among anthropologists and this is as much a debate about terminology as it is about interpreting how another society defines status and such, their self-understanding as opposed to our imposition of categories on them. Among anthropologists, there are theories that support the plausibility of having prehistoric matriarchies.

And if we look more at the complexity of societies, we’re liable to find that the answer to why a particular arrangement developed in particular cases and may vary from case to case. Conversely enough there are many more matrilineal and matrilocal societies. A lot of people tend to interchange the definition of matrilocal and matrilineal with matriarchal. Matrilocal is when a husband who marries a woman must move to her community/village. Matrilineal is a descent system based on unilineal descent that gives the mother’s family certain terms of kinship than the father’s family.

Matriarchal is when women have control of a community.

Matrilocal and matrilineal societies do not mean that the women hold more power than the men. Inheritance and lineage does not equal power. Whereas, matrifocal is the gravitating toward or centering on the mother. Native American’s were well known to have a matriarchal system. Most early societies were organized around matrilineal lines. Women were the center of society, before agriculture, women generally raised children, cooked, gathered fruits, vegetables, etc. Men hunted. In this role, women were the first scientists. They learned how to cultivate plants, and domesticate animals. They learned methods of food preservation.

They learned how to build better houses. Women were the ones responsible for the development of civilization. There were a lot of societies that were both matriarchal and patriarchal before Christianity took over. Some indigenous tribes were accepting of androgyny and women taking on men’s roles before Christianity came into play. Most Native American tribes had traditional gender roles. In some tribes, such as the Iroquois nation, social and clan relationships were matrilineal and or matriarchal, although several different systems were in use. One example is the Cherokee custom of wives owning the family property.

Men hunted, traded and made war, while women cared for the young and the elderly, fashioned clothing and instruments and cured meat. The cradle board was used by mothers to carry their baby while working or traveling. However, in some, but not all tribes a kind of transgender was permitted. Apart from making home, women had many tasks that were essential for the survival of the tribes. They made weapons and tools, took care of the roofs of their homes and often helped their men hunt buffalos. In some of the Plains Indian tribes there reportedly were medicine women who gathered herbs and cured the ill.

In some of these tribes girls were also encouraged to learn to ride and fight. Though fighting was mostly left to the boys and men, there had been cases of women fighting alongside them, especially when the existence of the tribe was threatened. There has been such a continual misconception as on the position of women among Native Americans. Because she was active, always busy in the camp, often carried heavy burdens, attended to the household duties, made the clothing and the home, and prepared the family food, the woman has been depicted as the slave of her husband, a patient beast of encumbrance whose labors were never done.

The man, on the other hand, was said to be a loaf, whom all day long sat in the shade of the lodge and smoked his pipe, while his overworked wives attended to his comfort. In actuality, the woman was the man’s partner, who preformed her share of the obligations of life and who employed an influence quite as important as his, and often more powerful. Native Americans established principal relationships either through a clan system, descent from a common ancestor, or through a friendship system, much like tribal societies in other parts of the world.

In the Choctaw nation, “Moieties were subdivided into several nontotemic, exogamous, matrilineal ‘kindred’ clans, called iksa” (Faiman-Silva, 1997, p. 8). The Cheyenne tribe also traced their ancestry through the woman’s lineage, Moore (1996, p. 154). shows this when he says “Such marriages, where the groom comes to live in the bride’s band, are called ‘matrilocal’. ” Leacock (1971, p. 21) reveals that “… prevailing opinion is that hunting societies would be patrilocal…. Matrilineality, it is assumed, followed the emergence of agriculture…. ” Leacock (p.21) then stated that she had found the Montagnais-Naskapi, a hunting society, had been matrilocal until Europeans stepped in.

“The Tanoan Pueblos kinship system is bilateral. The household either is of the nuclear type or is extended to include relatives of one or both parents…. ” (Dozier, 1971, p. 237). The roles and statuses for men and women varied considerably among Native Americans, depending on each tribe’s cultural orientations. In matrilineal and matrilocal societies, women had considerable power because property, housing, land, and tools, belonged to them.

Because property usually passed from mother to daughter, and the husband joined his wife’s family, he was more of a stranger and yielded authority to his wife’s eldest brother. As a result, the husband was unlikely to become an authoritative, domineering figure. According to Dozier (1971) Additionally, among such peoples as the Cherokee, Iroquois, and Pueblo, a disgruntled wife, secure in her possessions, could simply divorce her husband by tossing his belongings out of their residence. The Iroquois, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Mohawk, Seneca are a matriarchal societies.

In the Iroquois community, women were the keepers of culture. They were responsible for defining the political, social, spiritual and economic norms of the tribe. Iroquois society was matrilineal, meaning descent was traced through the mother rather than through the father. Also, when a couple marries, the man traditionally went to live with the wife’s family. Women’s role in tribal governance was often influential in matrilineal societies, as among the Iroquois, in which the principal civil and religious offices were kept within maternal lineages.

The tribal matriarch or a group of tribal matrons nominated each delegate, briefed him before each session, monitored his legislative record, and removed him from office if his conduct displeased the women. Although the leaders were men, it was the Clan Mothers who nominated and elected them, and could remove them from their position. The women made sure the male leadership fulfilled their responsibilities. Iroquois women enjoyed social equality and respect. The Seneca Native Americans were a matriarchal egalitarian culture in that the practice of sur-naming as identifying to the individual was reversed.

Women were considered the heads of households in which men married into and changed their last names from their mothers to their wives last names. And the children were given the names of the mothers’ family. Though men were considered the elders and chiefs of each household, during each conference of the families, the female heads of household sat behind the male spokesperson and advised each of them on manners concerning the tribe. In the Northeastern Woodlands and on the Plains, where hunting and warfare demanded strenuous activity away from home, the men often returned exhausted and required a few days to recover.

Wearied by both these arduous actions and the religious fasting that usually accompanied them, the men relaxed in the village while the women went about their many tasks. Seeing only female busyness in these native encampments, White observers misinterpreted what they saw and wrote inaccurate stereotypical portrayals of lazy braves and industrious squaws. Such was not the case. In the Southeast and Southwest, men and women performed their daily labors with observable equality because the men did not go out on grueling expeditions as did the men in the Northeast and Plains.

In California, the Great Basin, and Northwest Coast, the sexual division of labor fell somewhere between these two variations. Women had certain common tasks in each of the U. S. culture areas: cleaning and maintaining the living quarters, tending to children, gathering edible plants, pounding corn into meal, extracting oil from acorns and nuts, cooking, sewing, packing, and unpacking. Certain crafts were also usually their responsibility: brewing dyes, making pottery, and weaving such items as cloth, baskets, and mats. In the Southwest, however, men sometimes made baskets and pottery, and even weaved cloth.

In regions where hunting provided the main food supply, the women were also responsible for house building, processing carcasses of game, preparing hides or furs, and whatever food gathering or farming that could be done. In the mostly agricultural societies in the Eastern Woodlands, the women primarily worked in the fields and the men built the frame houses and both shared duties for preparing hides or furs. Similarly, in the fishing communities of the Northwest, the men built the plank houses and helped with the processing of animal skins.

In California and in the Great Basin, most aspects of labor, except the defined female tasks of weaving and basket and pottery making, were shared fairly evenly. In the Southwest, the men did most of the field work, house building, weaving, cloth manufacturing, and animal skin processing. Female prestige among the Iroquois grew greater after the Revolutionary War, and male prestige ebbed due to continual losses and defeats and the inability to do much hunting due to scarcity of game.

By the nineteenth century, mothers played a greater role in approving marriage partners for their children and more consistently got custody of their children in a divorce, unlike the uncertainty of custody in earlier times. Among many Southeast tribes the women were influential in tribal councils and in some places they cast the deciding vote for war or peace. The Cherokee designated a female as “Beloved Woman,” through whom they believed the Great Spirit spoke. Consequently, her words were always heard but not necessarily heeded.

However, she headed the influential Woman’s Council, sat as a voting member of the Council of Chiefs, and exercised considerable influence. She also unhesitantly used her absolute authority over prisoners. When she died, a successor would be chosen. Cherokee women were strong, hardworking, and very powerful within their community. The Cheyenne held women in particularly high regard. They played an influential role in determining warfare and sometimes even fought alongside the men.

Upon a war party’s successful return, the women danced about while waving the scalps, exhibited their men’s shields and weapons, and derived honors from their husbands’ deeds. Property possession, inheritance, power, and influence rested on whether a tribe’s structure was in matrilineal or patrilineal. Although a few universal female-designated work tasks existed, like cleaning, nurturing, edible plant gathering, food preparation, cooking, packing, and unpacking, others varied by region, means of food production, and social organization.

Such variances in gender roles further exemplify the diversity that existed among Native Americans. Summing it all up, a Matriarchy is a type of society, which is distinguished from all other types of societies by the absence of power structures and institutionalized hierarchies. The means of production are commonly owned and set of rules prevent the accumulation of possessions or power. Compared to socialist or communist systems they are characterized by the absence of a centralized administration and ruling authority. Decisions concerning every area of life are made by consensus including all genders and generations.

During my research of women-run societies, some fundamental differences from predominantly male-run societies become pretty clear, and quite obviously a different view than that of Western culture today. A much greater emphasis is placed on communal participation than that of societies run by men, which tend to be more hegemonic. Children, case in point, belong to the whole community rather than to a single family, I have always heard the saying “it takes a village to raise a child” I don’t know the origins of that but it is well known in African-American culture.

Also, for example land is shared instead of partitioned off. What I ascertain from this, is that societies run by women stand to be more egalitarian, more nurturing, and perhaps more just. So going forth in Western culture today the idea of a matriarchy has always fascinated people, men as well as women. In the midst of women starting to dominate the professional world more and men falling behind in education it would appear that we’re on a sure path to becoming a matriarchal or egalitarian society, it seems if that word makes more people comfortable in this day and age.

In my opinion and looking at the data, Women are gaining power as a gender and men are losing it. That alone is doubtful to bring about a complete matriarchy but it certainly will have matriarchal elements. Works Cited Bruhns, Karen Olsen, and Karen E. Stothert. 1999. Women in Ancient America. University of Oklahoma, Norman Dozier, E. P. , (1971). The american southwest. In Leacock, E. B. , & Lurie, N. O. (Eds. ), North american indians in historical perspective. Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc. Faiman-Silva, S. (1997). Choctaws at the crossroads.

Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. Gero, J. M. ja M. W. Conkey, editors. 1991. Engendering Archaeology: Women and prehistory. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. Leacock, E. B. (1971). Introduction. In Leacock, E. B. , & Lurie, N. O. (Eds. ), North american indians in historical perspective. Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc. Lerner, Gerda. 1986. The creation of patriarchy. New York: Oxford University Press. Moore, J. H. (1996). The cheyenne. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers Inc. Reiter, Rayna R. , editor. 1975. Toward an anthropology of women. New York: Monthly Review press.

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