The significant role that women played in many Native American communities is often forgotten. While recovering culture includes seeking to restore songs, ceremonies, stories, and traditional knowledge, women should play a central role in future community and national relations. Many nations like the Iroquois were matrilineal and some say matriarchal, meaning that for many issues women ruled. Scholars often debate whether one tribe or another was matrilineal or patrilineal. There are some Indian nations, like the Southern California Takic speaking nations, that were patrilineal. Nevertheless, even among the Takic nations, a women’s birth clan ensured that she was respected and honored by her patrilineal in-laws.
In some cultures, like the Muskogee speakers of the southeast, the world is divided into upper-lower, sky-earth, white-red, or male-female cosmic powers. The world of people was influenced by both male and female spiritual powers. Balance between the two cosmic powers was the desired state that helped ensure balance, harmony, well-being, good crops, good hunting, and victory over enemies. The role and social-cultural position of women varied among tribal communities in as many ways as each indigenous nation had its own creation teachings, ceremonies, and relation to the sacred. Each nation needs to understand its specific feminist history.
In the contemporary world, male and female relations are much more ambiguous within many Indian communities. The frequent reports of family abuse visited upon children and spouses does not conform with the understandings we have about the past relations of respect and honor held between men and women.
In many Indian communities, women were held to be in more direct contact with the sacred, since women brought new spirit beings, children, into the world. Men do not have such power, and men engaged in ceremonies, sought spirit helpers, and engaged in sacrifice to communicate with the spirit world. Women and men often are understood as different, but complementary spirit beings that need to maintain harmony and order for the well-being of children, family, and community. Male and female relations embody cosmic order, and if they are out of order, so are cosmic relations.
How did we lose the sacredness of women and the complimentary cooperation of men? This is perhaps a different story for each community. Certainly during the colonial period, Europeans did not value women politically, economically, socially or spiritually. Young men were preferred as trappers, warriors, and economic partners to the Europeans. Women and elders tended to lose control over economic relations and were politically and spiritually pushed to the margins. Conditions on reservations emphasized male dominance over females, and curbed the power of women by discouraging clans and extended family relations and obligations. Creation teachings began to change under direct and indirect influence of European and Christian ways. While the evidence is difficult to interpret now, it appears that the creation teachings of many Indian communities started to incorporate male creators that supplanted past female creator figures. For example, Ojibway and Shawnee creation stories focus on “Our Grandmother” or Nikomis, and the female creator Sky Woman. According to some accounts already by the 1800s, the female characters in the creation teachings start to be replaced by male creator figures. In some cases, Adam and Eve themes emerge where female subordination and marginalization are justified by disorderly acts, similar to Eve’s offering of the apple of knowledge to Adam in Genesis.
Recovery of culture, community, and sacred order requires respectful and spiritual relations within the family, between husband and wife, mother and child, and grandparent and grandchild. Women have always been complimentary partners with the men in upholding the community and nation, if not cosmic order. Recovering the meaning and spiritual character of the feminine should be a central concern for tribal communities. Carrying on indigenous ways of respect for women is a lasting gift to future generations and a positive example for all peoples.