Native American Women

Jeffrey M Schulze. Women’s Rights: People and Perspectives. Editor: Crista DeLuzio. Perspectives in American Social History Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2010.

As one historian of the Native peoples of North America recently argued, “American history without Indians is mythology—it never happened” (Calloway 2004, 9). In recent decades, scholars have gradually begun highlighting the contributions American Indians have made in influencing, and often determining, the trajectory of U.S. history. The Indian perspective appears with far more regularity in the literature than it did only a couple of decades ago, and our understanding of America’s past is far richer for it. We have also witnessed a shift from Indian histories that dwell on Indians’ victimization and cultural decline to narratives that more thoughtfully explore relationships between Indians and Euro-Americans, relationships in which it is not always easy to discern who was really dictating the terms of accommodation and coexistence. But one problem persists: the absence of Native women’s voices. Although scholars have done an admirable job of correcting the imbalance between Indian and non-Indian voices in their stories of America’s past, their efforts have often yielded a portrait of American history in which a substantial portion of the equation remains unaccounted for.

By exploring a variety of Native American women’s historical and contemporary experiences, this chapter attempts to account for the other half of that equation. The picture that emerges, though still incomplete, contrasts sharply with the experiences of non-Indian women, since for Indian women the challenge has been not so much the pursuit of new and expanded rights, but rather the maintenance of existing rights. In other words, Indian women enter the American historical stage primarily as equals to their male counterparts, or at least enjoying a similar degree of authority and agency within their respective societies. The infiltration of Euro-American cultural values and prerogatives, however, threatened this arrangement, ultimately giving rise to ever more inventive strategies on the part of Native women to prevent their marginalization to the same social and cultural peripheries occupied by Euro-American women for much of American history. Although their efforts remain ongoing, a look at the historical record reveals a long and notable string of successes, some literally centuries in the making.

Recovering Native Women’s Voices

The recovery of Native American women’s voices from the American past remains one of the most difficult tasks a historian can undertake. European and, later, American men were often solely responsible for chronicling Indian-white relations. Thus, Indian historians have little more to work with than accounts of a postconquest world produced by individuals who were not always receptive to the Indian viewpoint. Further, since these men were most often interested solely in trade, war, and land acquisition, they had little incentive to document the experiences of Native women. And further still, because of the strict division of labor between men and women in most Native societies, non-Indian men rarely had sustained access to Indian women, leaving them with little opportunity to assess these women’s contributions to their communities. Thus, Euro-American men’s encounters with Native women most often went unnoted, either because they were so superficial or, as was sometimes the case, because they were merely sexual in nature.

Biographies of notable Indian leaders line library shelves, from Powhatan to Pontiac, from Cochise to Crazy Horse. Conspicuously scarce, however, are substantive accounts of Native women. Although Indian women were grandmothers, mothers, daughters, sisters, and wives, and although they produced foodstuffs, processed hides, traded goods they themselves often produced, and served as clan mothers, medicine women, and even warriors and chiefs, they have mostly been rendered silent by the passage of time. Instead, only a handful of Native American women have entered our national mythology, and most of these have done so as caricatures—as Indian princesses, “squaws,” or one-dimensional symbols of cross-cultural cooperation and accommodation—but rarely as flesh-and-blood human beings with their own agendas and agency.

In confronting this methodological problem, scholars have increasingly resorted to a creative reading of available sources in order to locate even passing glimpses of Native women’s perspectives in American history, a process that often entails an unusual degree of speculation. Scholars are also discovering the value of less traditional sources, including winter counts (painted representations of tribal history), calendars, and, perhaps most significantly, oral testimony. As writer-scholar and Oklahoma Choctaw Devon Mihesuah has argued, “If writers want to find out what Native women think, they should ask them. If they want to know about past events and cultures, they should do the same” (2003, 4). Once upon a time, scholars of Native America got their information almost solely from written source material, including government documents, tribal records, and the like, and would approach Native oral accounts skeptically, if at all. That pattern is gradually changing, and, again, our understanding of the American past is far richer for it. However, Mihesuah cautions that scholars who approach Indian women with the expectation of fashioning a homogenous Native women’s perspective will likely be disappointed. For example, during an interview with an elderly descendant of a prominent Cherokee leader, Mihesuah asked whether or not she spoke Cherokee and attended stomp dances. “Hell no, I’m no heathen,” she replied (Mihesuah 1998, 40). Not surprisingly, Native women do not speak with one voice.

Any discussion of Native American women must begin, then, with an acknowledgment that generalizations will only get one so far. Tribal values, gender roles and relations, physical appearances, and definitions of “Indianness” have constantly evolved, and continue to do so. Furthermore, cultural differences from tribe to tribe exist, particularly when it comes to religions, social systems, and economies. But although historical generalizations rarely stand up to the variety of human experience, one can nevertheless identify general patterns across Native societies that can help us better understand women’s rights and roles within them.

Gender Roles and Relations in Native Societies

Prior to colonization, Native American women lived in societies that were far less hierarchical than were those of Europeans. European society placed women somewhere between children and men in a kind of status hierarchy, a hierarchy that demanded women’s unwavering obedience, stipulated their dependence, and often relied on coercion for its maintenance. Native American women exercised far more autonomy and authority within their societies, enjoying more respect and prestige than did their Western counterparts. They also enjoyed specific domains in which to assert their authority. For example, Iroquois women were responsible for the control and distribution of foodstuffs within the community. If they disagreed with a decision to go to war, they simply withheld these supplies, thereby forcing men to reconsider their decision.

Although most, if not all, Native societies were organized along gender lines, gender roles could be quite flexible. These societies looked to gender to determine the nature of one’s participation in economic, political, and ceremonial activities. In general, men handled hunting and warfare, while typically serving as intermediaries between the tribal community and the outside world. Women, meanwhile, generally tended to the household, produced non-animal foodstuffs, and handled the distribution of food. They also bore and raised children, an undertaking that commanded a great deal of respect and reverence. Thus, women and men both had important, and often complementary, roles within their societies, with equal levels of power and prestige.

Although the gender divide was quite distinct, not all Indians felt pressured to strictly conform to it. In fact, many Native societies institutionalized what was in essence a third gender, often referred to as “berdache.” Indian societies knew that gender was a social construction that was not always dictated by one’s biological makeup. Instead, one’s gender depended on the type of work one did. Those Indian men who chose to eschew the kinds of work typically reserved for male tribal members simply adopted the symbols of femininity, including style of dress, while also taking on women’s work-related responsibilities. They were respected members of the community, and were often even taken as wives. And although the word “berdache” is typically used by scholars to refer to Indian men who did women’s work, it could go the other way. Although rare, some historical accounts discuss female chiefs, warriors, and even entire tribal councils.

Native American author Paula Gunn Allen has gone so far as to describe American Indian societies as “woman-centered.” As such, they have often been characterized by a kind of “free and easy sexuality,” a trait that early Euro-American visitors found troubling, but one that Allen argues helped produce “self-defining, assertive, decisive women,” which ultimately benefited the group as a whole by adding another level of social stability (Allen 1992, 2). For example, unmarried Cherokee women could enter into a sexual relationship with whomever they chose so long as they obeyed incest taboos and avoided intercourse with a member of their own clan or the clan of their fathers. As for married women, female infidelity was far less problematic and disruptive than male infidelity, since women had more of what one scholar called a “proprietary interest” in men than men had in women (Perdue 1998, 57). Thus, wayward husbands created more community disharmony than did wayward wives. In the case of female infidelity, then, Cherokee males most often ignored it and, in some cases, simply took another wife.

Aside from this surprising degree of social power, Native women were also believed to possess a great deal of spiritual power. For example, many Native societies secluded women during menstruation as another means of imposing social stability. The spilling of blood from the body was thought to have a polluting effect that could threaten the community’s spiritual and sexual equilibrium. Some groups also believed that menstruating women could jeopardize access to food sources, as was the case with Columbia Plateau peoples, who feared that women’s blood could potentially offend salmon and preclude their annual return. Thus, during menstruation, Native women often retired to menstrual huts placed at a considerable distance from their residences. Non-menstruating women would provide these women with food and, if necessary, perform their chores until the cycle was complete. “Any breach of the rules,” one scholar explained, “was an extremely serious offense” (Perdue 1998, 29). Although non-Indian visitors often mistakenly assumed that the community considered these women unclean, in reality they were believed to be particularly powerful and potentially dangerous while menstruating.

Native women consistently and diligently worked to enhance their status not only within their own societies, but also, with the advent of colonization, within Euro-American society. For example, Native women were not above using their role as mothers and caretakers to exert influence over politics and diplomacy. Writing to Benjamin Franklin in 1787, a Cherokee woman named Katteuha called for an end to conflict between their two nations, stating, “I am in hopes if you Rightly consider it that woman is the mother of All—and that woman Does not pull Children out of Trees or Stumps nor out of old Logs, but out of their Bodies, so that they ought to mind what a woman says … I am in hopes you have a beloved woman amongst you who will help to put her Children Right if they do wrong, as I will do the same” (Shoemaker 1995, 9). By highlighting her reproductive capacity, a primary source of authority within her society, Katteuha hoped to establish credibility in the diplomatic arena. Thus, although Native women’s roles within their society were often carefully proscribed, they retained the right to behave in ways that ran counter to gender-related expectations.

Myths and Realities of Contact and Conquest

Despite the centrality of women in Native societies, however, early European accounts of Indian women typically characterize them as either drudges, laboring under the thumb of male oppressors, or as voluptuous and promiscuous sex objects, who exist solely for men’s pleasure. In the absence of substantive source material from the colonial period, a great deal of mythologizing has filled the vacuum, resulting in a skewed understanding of Native women’s historical experiences in early American history. The story of Pocahontas, for example, is one of many popular and persistent, though notoriously misleading, myths involving colonial-era Native women. Despite owing its genesis to scanty documentary evidence that reveals more about the Euro-American male perspective than it does anything else, the myth has nonetheless proven stubbornly durable. Recent scholars, however, have taken these shreds of evidence and tried to creatively fashion a more meaningful interpretation of Pocahontas’s life, one that offers deeper insight into Native women’s of overlooked contributions to colonial American history, their responses to European contact, and the predicaments they faced, as the Euro-American presence threatened not only Native gender roles, but also Native survival.

Pocahontas has long been cast as the “sexy savior” of the Jamestown settlement, an Indian “princess” who befriended and ultimately saved the lives of the earliest colonists (Richter 2001, 76). The most resilient version of her story imagines Pocahontas as the favorite daughter of the powerful chief Powhatan. Just as she is developing a romantic attachment to the Englishman Captain John Smith, her people attempt to take Smith’s life in an inexplicable act of aggression. Pocahontas, however, intercedes at the last moment, throwing herself across a prostrate Smith, begging her father to spare his life. The romance between Pocahontas and Smith blooms from there, until Smith is injured and forced to return to England to seek medical care. In his absence, a devastated Pocahontas gradually learns to love again. The target of her affection this time is the tobacco-growing Englishman John Rolfe. Pocahontas eventually marries Rolfe, converts to Christianity, adopts the name “Rebecca,” bears Rolfe a child, then accompanies him, with child in tow, to England, whereupon she contracts a mysterious illness and dies. Pocahontas, then, is cast as a kind of hapless romantic with a seemingly insatiable interest in, and attraction to, her non-Indian neighbors. By submitting to intermarriage, the myth tells us, she acknowledged the lure of English society and ultimately forsook her own people for the promise of a better life.

The more realistic story of Pocahontas’s life, however, contains much less romantic intrigue but says a lot more about Native politics and diplomacy, along with women’s roles within them. To begin with, her name was not Pocahontas. She, in fact, had two names. Her public name was Amonute, while her real name, which would have been known solely by her kin, was Matoaka. “Pocahontas,” meanwhile, was most likely either a nickname or a simple descriptive term that meant “playful one” or “mischievous girl.” As for the romance between Pocahontas and Smith, Pocahontas was a child of about 10 at the time of Jamestown’s founding in 1607 and, thus, her feelings for Smith likely amounted to either a detached curiosity or, at most, a vague fondness. As for the attempt on Smith’s life, Smith was almost certainly an unwitting bit player in a native drama of ancient vintage, one in which Powhatan demonstrated his authority over Smith and, by extension, the English, in order to ensure their incorporation into his realm as subordinates. As for Pocahontas’s relationship with Rolfe, she had actually chosen a husband from among her own people in the years following Smith’s departure. In 1613, however, the English took her captive. Although Rolfe was evidently genuinely smitten with Pocahontas, whether or not Pocahontas, then only about 15 years of age, requited his love is simply unknowable. She likely viewed a union with Rolfe as a way out of captivity.

Nonetheless, by marrying Rolfe, Pocahontas was fulfilling a traditional function within Native society, forging kinship ties in order to seal an alliance between her people and his. It was a diplomatic marriage into which Pocahontas likely entered out of a sense of duty. It did not take her long to realize that the English either misunderstood the terms of the union, or decided not to adhere to them, because relations between them and Pocahontas’s people deteriorated rapidly in the ensuing years, particularly following her death in exile in 1617. By 1646, in fact, the English had executed Powhatan’s successor, Opechancanough, and her people had been forced to flee to the perimeters of the ever-expanding English settlements due to nearly constant conflict. Thus, despite Pocahontas’s best intentions, the English refused to play by native rules. It was a lesson Indians would learn again and again as non-Indian invaders expanded into lands to the west.

Native Women in a Euro-American World

Contact and colonization, then, dramatically affected Native women’s lives, forcing them to devise new strategies to prevent their marginalization in the ever-evolving social, economic, and political order. Although it is tempting to approach Native women’s history as the story of Western concepts of gender winning out over Native ones, there are simply too many exceptions to this trend to do so. Native women sometimes gained as much as they lost, in terms of authority and agency. Although no two Native women experienced colonization the same way, one can locate broader patterns in Native women’s responses to their changing circumstances as Euro-America encroached.

Perhaps surprisingly, many Native women fared quite well, at least initially. For example, Native women were key players in the early fur trade, an enterprise that helped drive the North American economy, especially in the Great Lakes region, from the late 17th century until the mid-19th century. They took the lead in processing hides, they manufactured and sold pemmican (a kind of buffalo and berry jerky eaten by the traders), and they sometimes served as bilingual intermediaries between Indians and their European trading partners. In some cases, their role as intermediaries involved the bonds of marriage. Traders often welcomed these unions, since Native women were well versed in not only cooking, sewing, and shoemaking, but in canoeing and trapping, as well. This arrangement did not last long, however. First of all, by the early 1800s, the population of the furbearing animals that were central to cross-cultural trade had been decimated. Secondly, the practice of taking Native wives fell by the wayside as European traders gradually gained access to white ones. Incoming white women, in fact, were often appalled by the degree of racial intermingling in frontier settlements, with one recent arrival insisting on relocating to an area where there were not so many “jet black eyes and high cheek bones” (Van Kirk 1983, 240). Thus, gender and racial biases on the part of Europeans gradually rendered Native women’s participation in the fur trade a thing of the past.

The Cherokees offer another example of the complicated ways in which the lives of Native American women changed in the wake of colonization. Until the 1830s, the Cherokees inhabited lands in the present-day Southeast, primarily in the state of Georgia. Although gender roles within Cherokee society were often carefully and firmly proscribed before their disruption by whites, the system was far from hierarchical. Women were charged with tasks that were of paramount importance to the group’s survival. Not only did they care for the household, tend to communal crops, and process and produce trade goods, but they also took charge of war captives. Women alone decided who would be adopted to replace relatives lost in battle, and they also decided who would be executed to avenge those same deaths. Women were further used to determine tribal membership. A child of a Cherokee mother, for example, would always be a Cherokee, no matter the ethnicity of his or her father. The reverse, at least according to tradition, was not true. Thus, women were responsible for the clan’s perpetuation.

The first Euro-American traders began arriving in Cherokee country in the late 17th century, and the most sweeping changes to Cherokee culture and society occurred over the course of the 18th. Incoming whites failed to grasp the importance of both genders to the group’s maintenance. As white men increasingly pursued relations with Cherokee men around matters of warfare and trade, Cherokee men assumed greater importance within Cherokee society, as well as in the broader regional, colonial, and global economies. Men’s roles as warriors took on heightened significance in Cherokee society as the Cherokees were drawn into wars involving rival European nations. At the same time, European trade introduced a range of European-produced goods into Cherokee society, including iron hoes, brass kettles, and European-style clothing, goods for which Cherokee men traded slaves and deerskins. Since Cherokee women came to rely on these goods to keep their households functioning, they also came to depend on Cherokee men as intermediaries between themselves and non-Indian traders. Thus, Cherokee men became disproportionately responsible for the group’s maintenance, to the detriment of Cherokee women.

The delicate gender balance within Cherokee society was also offset by changes in how men conducted both the hunt and warfare. As for the hunt, the act once held a great deal of spiritual significance. The Cherokees would, through ceremony, announce their intentions to kill their game, but promised to do so in a way that would prepare the animal’s spirit for the afterlife. Once the exchange of hides and skins with outsiders became an economic imperative, however, the goal of the hunt became killing as much game as possible. The change that this brought on was subtle, but significant: once divested of its spiritual significance, the hunt became a way for Cherokee men to establish their dominion over the animal world. A hierarchy of sorts was thus taking shape, and the balance between men and women within Cherokee society was increasingly offset. Similarly, warfare was not a facet of Cherokee life that owed its impetus to the arrival of whites. Still, warfare had once amounted to little more than small-scale coordinated raids on enemies, conducted by war parties of two or three Indians, with the intention of exacting vengeance for previous deaths, and often of taking captives. Very rarely would casualties result from these raids. By the mid-18th century, however, war parties had grown to contain as many as one hundred members, while what once were small raids became violent, destructive paramilitary operations that could result in numerous casualties. The English presence was at the root of these changes, since they often pressured or even bribed Cherokee men to attack neighboring tribes. Meanwhile, the act of going to battle lost its spiritual significance as the ritual complex associated with battle fell by the wayside. Since it was often conducted at the whim of outsiders on short notice, warfare no longer required preparatory ceremonies. While women had once figured prominently in these preparatory ceremonies, now their participation was no longer required.

Following the American Revolution, Cherokee society was again transformed, this time by U.S. government efforts to assimilate the Cherokees into Euro-American culture. With the formation of the Cherokee republic, some Cherokees, men mostly, embraced the federal government’s civilization program, recognizing value in adopting the Euro-American political system, in converting to evangelical Protestantism, and in turning to, as one scholar has phrased it, “the acquisitive individualism of nascent capitalism” (Perdue 1998, 185). Even given these sweeping changes, however, certain aspects of Cherokee culture remained intact, and Cherokee women, by and large, continued to enjoy a great deal more prestige, authority, and agency than their Euro-American counterparts. This was because U.S. officials failed to supplant one of the cornerstones of Cherokee culture: the maintenance of a communal land ethic, which had long been the responsibility of women. The Cherokees’ insistence on holding tribal lands in common, as opposed to dividing them into privately held plots, ensured that women would remain central to the Cherokee republic. Thus, while some amount of cultural modification seemed inevitable, the Cherokees refused to wholeheartedly embrace Euro-Americans’ concept of civilization. In the end, however, the Cherokees’ refusal to fully conform to Euro-American expectations led U.S. officials to conclude that the group was failing to submit to their authority. In the 1820s, the Cherokees became the targets of a new federal policy that called for their removal to lands to the west. From this point forward, U.S. federal Indian policy would dramatically shape the lives of Indian peoples as it wavered between an emphasis on segregation and assimilation, and Native women would emerge as key players who adjusted to, coped with, and resisted these currents.

Native Women and U.S. Federal Indian Policy

As the 19th century progressed, many Native women found their rights and prerogatives increasingly impinged upon by U.S. federal Indian policy. The earliest policy currents hammered out by the new nation often focused on assimilation, or the integration of Indians into the Euro-American mainstream. Government officials, missionaries, and reformers attempted to minimize differences between Indians and non-Indians through education, conversion to Christianity, and participation in the regional economy. Proponents of assimilation drew directly from 18th-century Enlightenment ideals that stressed the environment in explaining Indians’ seeming backwardness. Assimilation advocates believed that Indians and whites were essentially equal, but that Indians had not enjoyed the benefit of a Western-style education, nor had they been given the opportunity to learn from the example of whites.

In implementing their assimilationist policies, 19th-century reformers often targeted gender relations first. They attempted to restructure the Native American family according to the ideology of separate gender spheres, which relegated women to a submissive, dependent role as domestic caretakers of the private home. Reformers working amongst the Cherokees, for example, leveled an attack on polygamous and serial marriages, common practices within many Native communities, and insisted on Anglo-style domestic unions. They enjoyed a remarkable degree of cooperation from Indian women on many fronts, particularly when it came to entrusting missionaries with their children’s education, but Cherokee women often failed to meet the missionaries’ expectations when it came to domestic relations. In some cases, polygamous and/or serial marriages proved hard habits to break, their most vocal proponents often being the Cherokee political elite (who were most likely to have multiple wives); in other cases, the missionaries’ insistence on ending polygamy meant that many women and children were abandoned, as Cherokee males attempted to conform to the outsiders’ expectations. “In the war on ‘savagery,’“ one scholar deftly observed, “women and children suffered collateral damage” (Perdue 1998, 177).

The U.S. government’s emphasis on assimilation was by no means sustained, however. Instead, for much of the 19th century, federal Indian policy teetered between two seemingly contradictory currents: removal on the one hand and assimilation on the other. When the project of assimilating Indians did not produce immediate results, as in the Cherokee case, policymakers developed the reservation system as a way to remove Indians from the perimeters of white settlement, thereby freeing up Indian lands for whites. By 1850, thousands of Indians, mostly from the Southeast and Midwest, had been relocated, either peacefully or otherwise, to small reserves west of the Mississippi River, the most infamous example being the Cherokees’ Trail of Tears ordeal. Women might have actually fared better than men in making this transition to the reservation system. Men’s roles, such as hunting and conducting warfare, required mobility. Confinement to the reservation meant that they could no longer participate in these activities. Women, however, could continue in their roles as mothers and caregivers. Thus, their contributions to the community’s maintenance remained a source of authority and prestige, even as their male counterparts underwent a painful period of adjustment. Still, the transition was not entirely painless for Native women. Attacks on their position within their respective societies began early, as Indian agents made a habit of distributing sorely needed provisions only to male heads of household. Many also had to contend with the sudden presence of Euro-American female reformers, whom the U.S. government employed to educate Native women in what it considered to be women’s domestic responsibilities. Thus, the reservation experience could be just as demeaning for women as it could be for men.

Among the most significant federal policy developments, and among the most detrimental to the status of Indian women, was the 1887 Dawes Act. The act was another in a long line of assimilation-minded policies. Its primary goal was to supplant the communal style of land ownership that had long characterized Native American societies and to convert Indians into yeomen farmers. The new policy ultimately proved destructive, however, resulting in the loss of millions of acres of Indian land to whites. Reflecting the gender bias of policymakers, the Dawes Act placed the interests of Indian men above all others’, granting them sole title to allotted lands. Thus, Indian women who lost their husbands or male heads of households, who decided to divorce, or who simply lived alone, were ignored when officials assigned allotments, and thus often remained landless and dependent on others.

The federal government supplemented the Dawes Act with a renewed push toward assimilation through education. During the latter years of the 19th century, reformers established both on-and off-reservation boarding schools, and often left Indian parents with little choice but to send their children to these schools. Indian children were then transformed physically, a process that included cutting their hair and dressing them in Anglo-style clothing. Then the task of enforcing a rigid sexual division of labor began: Indian boys learned potential occupations like carpentry and farming, while girls learned domestic skills, such as sewing, cooking, and cleaning. They were forbidden to speak their native language, and many lost touch with both their tribal families and their Indian identities. Not surprisingly, however, some students and their families resisted reformers’ efforts. It was not unusual, for instance, for parents to encourage their children to run away, which was evidently a frequent occurrence, and reports from some schools are peppered with references to “mysterious” fires on school grounds, fires likely set by disgruntled students. In private, students also engaged in what one scholar called “clandestine acts of cultural preservation,” sharing legends, folktales, and stories taught to them by elders (Adams 1995, 233). Indians also commonly worked to maintain Native religious traditions, as was the case with a group of Ponca girls who continued holding midnight peyote meetings at their boarding school. Federal Indian policies, however, would continue to dramatically affect the lives of Native American women well into the 20th century, serving as one of many factors that catalyzed their political mobilization and inspired their creative expression.

Native Women in the 20th Century

Over the course of the 20th century, Native American women became more visible than ever in American culture and politics, sometimes in their more traditional capacity as caretakers and repositories of tribal history and culture, and sometimes as nationally recognized and path-breaking writers, artists, political activists, and tribal leaders. As Native American women increasingly acquired literacy, they began committing their thoughts and their life stories to paper more frequently, ultimately producing a vital literary tradition. Anna Moore Shaw’s A Pima Past (1974), Beverly Hungry Wolf’s The Ways of My Grandmothers (1980), and Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed (1973) shed light on Native women’s roles within their societies. Seminal works such as Gretchen Bataille’s American Indian Women (1987) and Paula Gunn Allen’s The Sacred Hoop (1986) supplemented these earlier efforts, along with a host of works by authors like Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich, Linda Hogan, and Joy Harjo, among many others. Writings like these, as Paula Gunn Allen has said about her own work, have helped Native women “affirm [their] identity and [their] heritage and to make peace with the tortures of an Indian woman’s life in the first three quarters of the twentieth century” (Allen 1992, ix).

Women increasingly entered tribal politics during the second half of the 20th century, as well, serving on councils, working as administrators within on-reservation Indian programs, and communicating directly with U.S. policymakers in their efforts to change the exploitative tenor of U.S.-Indian relations. Native women also began capitalizing on their more traditional role as caregivers within their societies to tackle challenges facing their communities, such as poverty, unemployment, alcoholism, and infant mortality, entering institutions of higher education to specialize in fields like education, health care, and social welfare.

As for political activism, the largest and most visible Indian rights organization during the second half of the 20th century was the American Indian Movement, or AIM. Founded in 1968, AIM worked to address problems plaguing both urban-and reservation-based Indians, including police brutality, alcoholism, unemployment, poverty, and political apathy, by mobilizing public opinion through protest and maintaining a positive presence within reservation communities. Many Native women, however, felt that AIM was failing to adequately represent their interests. In the mid-1970s, Native women organized WARN, or Women of All Red Nations. An influential organization, WARN was most concerned with issues like domestic violence and forced sterilization of Native women, a shocking but very real Indian policy initiative carried out by the Indian Health Service. These women also worked to shore up Native cultures and protect Native rights more generally, supplementing the efforts of AIM. As WARN cofounder Madonna Thunderhawk, a Hunkpapa Lakota, explained, “Indian women have had to be strong because of what the colonialist system has done to our men. I mean, alcohol, suicides, car wrecks, the whole thing. And after [AIM’s 1973 siege of Wounded Knee village at Pine Ridge, South Dakota], while all that persecution of men was going on, the women had to keep things going” (Josephy, Nagel, and Johnson 1999, 52).

Although deeply concerned with issues affecting Native women’s lives, many Indian women responded to the late-20th-century women’s liberation movement with ambivalence. Indian women were already powerful members of their respective societies, and many viewed feminists’ new emphasis on women’s rights as irrelevant, and even potentially damaging to cultures that emphasized gender balance. Instead, they often preferred the labels “tribalist” or “activist” to the label “feminist.” As Pima-Maricopa Vivian Jones explained, “I have no personal interest in feminism or ‘women’s issues.’ It’s more important to be part of the community” (Shoemaker 1995, 230).

Native women have also worked toward reservations’ economic development, the protection of treaty rights, and the strengthening of tribal sovereignty, while also serving as more general social and environmental activists. Wilma Mankiller, the first female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, and Ada Deer, who famously led Wisconsin’s Menominee Indians in opposition to the federal government’s efforts, via the termination policies of the 1950s and 1960s, to sever the trust relationship between itself and reservation Indians, are prime examples. As Devon Mihesuah concluded, “Native women today are a far cry from the stereotypical images of the ‘princess’ and the ‘squaw drudge’“ (Mihesuah 2003, xix).

Yet challenges remain. The gradual loss of status among Native American women in the centuries following contact has ultimately manifested itself in subtle but significant ways. For example, among Florida’s Seminoles and New Mexico’s Santa Domingo Pueblos, custom dictates that those women who marry white men forfeit their right to live on the reservation. The same rules, however, do not apply to Native men who marry white women. Thus, gender inequality is no longer a foreign concept to some Indian women. Native women also still contend with the legacy of stereotypes. Particularly troubling for many is the term “squaw,” which still appears in popular vernacular and on maps. It is a term many Native women find insensitive and demeaning.

Among the more pressing problems throughout Native America, however, remains the steady social and economic deterioration of many reservation communities. As Standing Rock Sioux and scholar Flo Wiger stated, “Let’s face it, on our reservations, we haven’t had jobs, we haven’t had choices. We will do whatever we have to do to survive” (Katz 1995, 3). On the Navajo reservation, for example, the effects of alcohol and drugs have been devastating, the breakup of multigenerational families has left Indian youth isolated and disillusioned, and the lack of educational opportunities, coupled with the lack of opportunities to apply an education, has produced an apathetic, uninspired younger generation. Native women have and still are capitalizing on their roles as mothers and caretakers within their societies to address these problems, however, while also stepping outside of these roles to formulate wholly new approaches in nontraditional arenas. Thus, Native women have consistently played central roles within their communities, despite centuries of painful cultural adjustments and both the erosion and evolution of their rights. As the artist Emmi Whitehorse recently revealed after reflecting upon her childhood on the Navajo reservation, “The female owned everything, the woman ran everything.” Another Navajo woman added to that, “For the most part, they still do” (Katz 1995, 11).