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Of all the stereotypes that the movie industry has perpetuated about Native Americans, none has been quite as off-base as the stereotype of women in the Native American society and culture.
The Myth of the Indian Woman
*Please note the change in title of this article. It was brought to my attention that the term "squaw" is considered very rude in the Native American culture. Being that it is not my intention to further stereotype a group of people that I'm actually trying enlighten other's about, I've changed it in consideration of other's feelings. [Note: information obtained from the Native Village Publications, www.nativevillage.org ]
European society placed little value on women except as child bearers and homemakers. So when Europeans first came to the New World they viewed Native Americans with prejudiced eyes and completely misunderstood women's place in those cultures. They saw the Native American woemn working very hard, often doing what Europeans considered to be the least desireable tasks.
What the settlers failed to comprehend was that, unlike the male/female relationships and roles in places like England and Spain, the male/female relationships in tribal societies were true partnerships in survival -- they did what they had to do just to survive.
In addition to the survival issues, it was often the women who passed down the tribal traditions and beliefs to the children.
Some tribes were matrilineal, meaning that family lines were traced back throug the mother's side of the family. Some tribes were even matrilocal. This meant that when a man and woman were wed, the man went to live with the woman's family instead of the woman coming to live with the husband's family.
Some examples of women's status in Native American society:
*For Navahoes, sheep were the basis for wealth and all sheep were owned by the women.
*With many of the Plains Indians, the women owned the lodges (their homes) and everything in them.
*Pueblo women built and owned the houses and crops while the men worked the fields and supervised the religious aspects of the communities.
*The Sioux, Cheyenne, and Crow peoples all have stories of important and powerful women warriors.
Suggested Lesson Activities:
1. Research the following women. What can you learn about them and their place in Native American society? What tribe did they belong to? What are their good qualities? What are their strengths? What are their weaknesses? Were they typical of the women in their tribe? Give reasons for your answers.
Janet Campbell Hale
Beverly Hungry Wolf
Suzette & Rosalie La Flesche
2. Find some traditional Native American stories about women. Compare at least three of these stories to find out what place the women played in their tribes.
3. What are the definitions of matrilineal and matrilocal? How many different cultures or societies that you can find that use one of these systems?
4. Research at least three different Native American tribes to find out what the traditional clothing of the women looked like. Can you figure out why they used the materials they used? What were the advantages to each of the traditional costumes? What were the disadvantages?