Thursday, December 2, 2010

First Nations and American Indian Societies and Gender: a primer for whites

image of map, available to be seen larger, is from here
The above map might more accurately be called: 

Nations of The Indigenous Peoples 
of the North American Region

But I expect things I encounter about First Nations peoples and American Indians that are not from the people directly to be inaccurate most of the time.

I just heard the news that the prominent, famous actor who is from the U.S. but lives in France has been cast in yet another terribly racist role: that of Tonto. The actor's name is Johnny Depp and he has gone from being someone whose work I respected, to being among my least favorite actors. He keeps doing work that is so grotesquely racist that it is stunning to me that such films, as the Pirates of the Caribbean series, are still able to be funded. It's not surprising to me that they are funded; just stunning. That anything so racist is funded by Hollywood comes as no surprise whatsoever. I hope the producers and Johnny Depp are targeted for protest and boycott. The last thing I want to see is any movie about "The Lone Ranger" and his "sidekick" Tonto--perpetuating the racist/genocidal mythology that "it's all good" between the White Man and the Red Man, or, in the case of the image below, the whiter man and the greyer man.

image of "Tonto and The Lone Ranger" is from here

"Tonto" was played by First Nations athlete and actor, Jay Silverheels, Mohawk, born on the Six Nations of the Grand First River Nation, Ontario in 1937. In the early 1960s, assisted in the establishment of the Indian Actors Workshop in Echo Park, California as a place where American Indian actors could develop their acting skills. The workshop is still active. Jay died in 1980 at the age of 67. I think the white guy had a name and a a life too. The horse was named "Silver" in the TV series, "The Lone Ranger". Both characters' histories go back to a late 1930's serial.

But it's not really all that good--I mean between the White Man and the Red Nations. It's mostly quite atrocious, actually, if the whole ugly truth is to be told. It's particularly atrocious for the American Indian and First Nations women who are systematically raped and prostituted by and for the White Het Man. And the sooner Hollywood gets that straight and responsibly, not exploitively, portrays that reality accurately (and not with Kevin Costner as some sort of white hero, either) the better.
Even outside of Hollywood, stereotypes abound in white dominant culture about what it means to be American Indian. Growing up, within white-dominated queer culture, I heard tale of "the Berdache" as a great example of how much more liberal Native Americans were--you know, all those Native Americans who shared one culture that had this place in it for the Berdache.

About that term, from Wikipedia, *here*:
The term berdache is also used to indicate "two-spirit" individuals, but is increasingly considered outdated and inappropriate. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, 4th. ed., berdache is North American French, tracing back, through European French, Italian, Arabic, Persian, Middle Persian, and Old Iranian, to Proto Indo-European welƏ, "to strike, to wound"; making the term "berdache" a linguistic relative of such words as "Valhalla", "Valkyrie" and "vulnerable".

There are, in fact, many indigenous terms for these individuals in the various Native American languages — including Lakota winktje and Navajo nádleehí (Burrus & Keller, 2006: p. 73).

Berdache is a generic term that was used primarily by anthropologists in the past (no longer an accepted concept or term within the field). It is a loan from French bardache implying a male prostitute or catamite. The word's origin is complex: the French derives from the Spanish bardaxa or bardaje / bardaja via Italian bardasso or berdasia via Arabic bardaj: البَرْدَجُ" meaning "captive, captured" from Persian bardaj < Middle Persian vartak < Old Iranian *varta-, cognate to Avestan varəta- "seized, prisoner," formed from an Indo-European root *welə- meaning "to strike, wound." The term berdache is widely considered offensive, due to its roots.

Use of the term has widely been replaced with two-spirit (except in scholarly literature,) which originated in Winnipeg, Canada in 1990 during the third annual intertribal Native American/First Nations gay and lesbian conference. It is a calque of the Ojibwa phrase niizh manidoowag (two spirits). It was chosen to distance Native/First Nations people from non-natives as well as from the words berdache and gay.
The concepts of gender and "traditional" gender and sex roles--if by that we mean "Western white heteropatriarchal" gender and sex roles--are culturally-specific and temporally relative ideas and realities. The atrocious racist/misogynistic/heterosexist reality of the last half-millennium especially but also for far longer than that, is that many, but not all, Indigenous/Aboriginal/Native/First Nations peoples have been invaded and occupied by whites and their customs, religions, and languages. Invasion came with variations: colonisation of people who lived on land before whites came, and mass murder of those people. Colonisation was done by white women and men. Mass murder was usually done by white men.

A perhaps incalculable number of whole cultures and nations were destroyed; in North America alone it is estimated that between 70-90 million people were savagely and barbarically slaughtered by the creators of modern "civilisation" and that this slaughter was part of the meaning and value of "being civilised" and/or "Christian". Many nations and cultures so invaded still survive and have had to negotiate survival in the presence of the occupying force, usually euro-anglo-white. Both women and men of anglo-white-euro-Christian descent and belief have played various sadistic and criminal roles in the destruction of Indigenous peoples, particularly but not only in what Westerners/whites call North America.

Prior to and also since invasion, there have been many varied ways of being gendered, sexed, and/or expressing sexuality. Some of these forms of relating and being were not constant over the course of one's lifetime. Some were modified according to economics--not capitalist economics, but "economics" as in "what a people needed to do to survive". If what we call "men" were needed to cook and sew, then in some instances men cooked and sewed. If what we call "women" were needed to slaughter non-human animals and engage in warfare with enemies, then in some instances they did so. I have written a while ago about one "woman" as the white West defines this term, who did fight with the males of her people. Her name was Lozen, she was Chihenne-Chiricahua Apache, and her story is *here*.

It is a serious problem of subjective language and worldview that when white Westerners tend to "study" other peoples, we tend to impose our own values, assumptions, worldviews, and philosophies onto the people we are studying. This can manifest in many ways that make meeting with other people and sharing ideas and concepts difficult if not impossible, because rarely do whites and Westerners seek to give up our own views of things and "check them at the door" when entering the spaces of other societies. So we tend to collapse or condense what we see that may be more diverse than what we "know" into pre-packaged categories we bring with us. Societies have existed and still do exist that are matrilineal and matriarchal, or one or the other but not both.

Assumptions by some whites and Westerners that "only patriarchy" exists now is wrong, and racist. Assumptions by some whites and Westerners that there are only two genders or sexualities are wrong and racist. Assumptions by some whites and Westerners that gender is only a dominator-hierarchy for all people living on the Earth is wrong and racist. What is not common to human history, much as some white het men fear it, is this: a matriarchal society which subordinates men to women. This is not evidenced in societies known about or written about. What appears to be the case is that some patriarchal societies were and are especially brutal to women. Some of these patriarchally brutal societies were Indigenous. Most current patriarchal societies that are pro-rape and pro-male supremacist are not Indigenous.

I recommend reading what follows, if you are white and non-Indigenous, ethnically or racially. When you are finished, I imagine that you, like me, will find it far more difficult to make assumptions about "Native Americans honoring a third gender" or "not honoring a third gender", or "embracing homosexuality as well as heterosexuality" or "not embracing homosexuality as comparably valuable to heterosexuality". This is because "homosexuality", "heterosexuality", and "gender" are, in and of themselves, anglo-white-euro concepts that don't apply to all peoples, especially to people who do not rise out of those regions where white-anglo-euro people lived or live, or once colonised or colonise to this day.

I'll note that terms like "Sioux" and "Iroquois" are not Indigenous terms chosen by the people who are called those national names. They may have been appropriated, but what we know is that their linguistic heritage is French, not Indigenous North American. That is what what appears below offers alternative names for the people who are sometimes called "Iroquois" and "Sioux". In one case the non-French term was provided by Wikipedia. In the other case I added the non-French terms.

What follows is, by and large, from Wikipedia. Please click on the title to link back to the source web page.

Gender roles in First Nations and Native American tribes

This article concerns the "traditional" gender roles of some of the Native American, Canadian First Nation and Aboriginal peoples, and the Indigenous peoples of North America. The roles vary greatly from region to region and from tribe to tribe, and in some cases even from band to band within a tribe or people. Pre-Columbian era gender role traditions may be a historical heritage, and not in contemporary practice.



In the traditions of the major Algonquian First Nations, a more or less egalitarian view of gender roles is taken. Chastity and marital fidelity are emphasized as honourable aspects of character, for both men and women. Historically, certain Algonquian bands were noted for the stability of their conjugal unions, as opposed to their serially monogamous Iroquois neighbours, whose marriages were often short-lived. The responsibility of caring for young children was shared between both parents to a greater extent among the Algonquians than among most other native groups.

Among the Ojibwa and Menominee, both in the past and on present-day reserves/reservations, agricultural activity is often based on the collaborative work of married couples. For example, the harvest of manoomin (wild rice) is done by couples in special canoes (traditionally made of birch bark, although in recent years some aluminum ones have begun to appear). One spouse, the "poler", pushes the canoe with a directional pole, while the other, the "knocker", sits or stands in the canoe and thrashes the rice against the rim beam (a process which can garner 200 kg of rice daily). The partners may take turns at knocking and poling, since poling is harder.

The Mississauga were considered "cast-off" by the Anishinaabe tribes because the Mississauga practised polygynous marriage, and violated other aspects of Midewiwin morality.[citation needed]

The Tidewater and Chesapeake tribes (ie: Powhatan and Nottoway people), although they spoke an Algonquian language, culturally shared less commonalities with other Algonquians. They were culturally closer to Southeast Indians, and had a gender-based division of labour more akin to that of the Southeast tribes.



Although the traditional Apache had different adult gender roles for men and women, the skills of both were taught to both boys and girls. They all learned how to cook, follow tracks, skin leather and sew stitches, ride horses, and use weapons. This was done because the Apache realized that new and unforeseen situations would require that gender roles change over time in order for the tribe to survive and adapt. [1]


Dene – Athabascans

The Dene tribe (Athapaskans) of Athabascan speaking people, are patriarchal and patrilineal. During the 16th through mid-19th centuries, among the Dene in Alberta, married women were the first to go hungry if food was not available,[2] and in the early trading era were often expected to carry burdens of meat or furs on their backs. According to historian Carl Waldman, the Chipewyan (Denesuline) Athabascan women were "at the mercy of their husbands", and their lot was probably worse than the women of any other aboriginal tribe.



Gender roles vary widely among the Inuit. Early Inuit were likely very pragmatic and had few preconceptions concerning "appropriate" male and female roles.

Over time, various views of gender were developed, for example:
  • In the Baffinland Inuit settlements of the Frobisher Bay and Pangnirtung areas, "traditional" gender roles and ideologies are strikingly similar to and have been influenced by those of late 19th-century and early 20th-century Britain.[citation needed]
  • The Greenlanders and Caribou Inuit are very egalitarian with regard to gender.
  • There are no known "third gender" roles in Inuit culture, and almost throughout the Inuit cultural region male or female homosexuality was not respected.[citation needed]

Iroquois or Haudenosaunee

Although different roles were traditionally assumed for males and females, they overlapped to a significant degree. The Great Law of Dekanawida gives approximately equal rights to each sex. The chief was always male, but was elected by women.
In the Iroquois culture up until the middle of the 19th century serial monogamy was common among the Iroquoians. Although adultery was frowned upon, divorce and remarriage were not. Due to the Iroquois matrilineal system, children usually stayed with the mother rather than the father, if divorce occurred. Most divorced mothers quickly remarried. [3]



The third gender role of Nadle (meaning "one who is transformed" or "one who changes"), beyond contemporary anglo-american definition limits of homosexuality, was part of the Navajo Nation society, a "two-spirit" cultural role. The renowned 19th century Navajo artist Hosteen Klah (1849–1896) is an example. [4][5][6]



The Osage, although considered patriarchal like all Siouans, did not have rigidly defined gender roles. During the 18th century the care of corn and squash crops was done primarily by women, although men also participated, and men's participation in the growing of these crops increased greatly during the 19th century. When the Osages sent expeditions onto the plains for trading and Bison hunting; the expedition groups were composed largely of men, but women were frequently found in the groups as well, according to contemporary writings of the French who traded with them.


Pacific Northwest Coast peoples

The wide variance in gender roles between Pacific Northwest Coast peoples has been a subject of sociological study for a century and a half, as is their different history of having gone directly from hunting-and-gathering to commerce and exploration.[citation needed]

The Haida are matriarchal or matrilineal, whereas many other Pacific Coast peoples are patriarchal, or patrilineal. The Kwakwaka'wakw are considered bilineal.[citation needed]

It was erroneously thought by many 19th-century anthropologists that the Kwakwaka'wakw were becoming more patrilineal as time went on, but studies of history show that the opposite was in fact taking place.[citation needed] (Some early anthropologists subscribed to the now-disproven hypothesis that all societies move from matriarchy to patriarchy as they advance.)[citation needed]

Of the inland Ktunaxa people, or "Kootenai tribe," the early 19th century person Kaúxuma Núpika lived a third gender role of the culture, beyond contemporary anglo-american definition limits of homosexuality. [7]


Puebloan peoples

Of the Puebloan peoples, the Tanoans and Hopi are matrilineal, with property inherited through the maternal line. Men do most of the agricultural fieldwork, except for corn planting which is a community event in which both men and women participate. The native Tanoan religious system, unlike Hopi mythology, was dominated by men, as was the tribe's political system. [8]

Spanish records and native traditions indicate that when the Pueblo settlements were being built (after those of the Ancient Pueblo Peoples during the 15th to 18th centuries), the work was done by both sexes: framing of the poles was the man's role in pueblo-building, but the mixing of plaster and the concretion of walls were done by women. Hopi pueblos are said to have been built by men and women working together, although whether they followed this cooperation of labor is obscure.

Among the Hopi, unlike in many other tribes, the arts of weaving and leatherwork were not confined to women, but were done by men as well. Many Hopi husbands made moccasins for their wives, sometimes from the skins of jackrabbits they collected in hunting. [9]

A third gender role of Lhamana (Ihamana), beyond contemporary anglo-american definition limits of homosexuality, is accepted by many Pueblo peoples, as part of the "two-spirit" cultural role. The 19th century Zuni person We'wha (1849–1896) is an example. [10][11]


Sioux or Lakota or Dakota or Santee

The Sioux are patriarchal and have historically had highly defined gender roles. In the 19th century, a number of ritualized customs pertaining to gender were recorded among the Sioux, e.g. that the women were to walk five feet behind the men in processions (among the Lakota), and that men customarily harvested wild rice whereas women harvested all other grain (among the Dakota or Santee).[12]

A third gender role of Badés, beyond contemporary anglo-american definition limits of male or female homosexuality, is accepted by many Sioux, as part of the "two-spirit" cultural role. The 19th century Crow people Osh-Tisch and Pine Leaf are examples. [13][14][15][16]


See also



  1. ^ 100 Native Americans Who Shaped American History, Juettner, 2007.
  2. ^ Waldman & Braun
  3. ^ A History of the Native Americans, passim.
  4. ^ Franc Johnson Newcomb (1980-06). Hosteen Klah: Navaho Medicine Man and Sand Painter. University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0806110082.
  5. ^ Lapahie, Harrison, Jr. Hosteen Klah (Sir Left Handed). 2001 (retrieved 19 Oct 2009)
  6. ^ Berlo, Janet C. and Ruth B. Phillips. Native North American Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-284218-3 . pg. 34
  7. ^ Salmonson, Jessica Amanda. (1991) The Encyclopedia of Amazons. Paragon House. Pages 39 and 267. ISBN 1-55778-420-5
  8. ^ A History of the Native Americans, 2001.
  9. ^ American Indians Yesterday and Today, Grant, 1958.
  10. ^ Aldrich, Robert & Wotherspoon, Garry, editors (2001). Who's Who in Gay and Lesbian History, from Antiquity to WWII. Routledge, London. ISBN 978-0-415-15983-8
  11. ^ . accessed 7/4/2010
  12. ^ Jonathan Periam, Home and Farm Manual, 1884, likely citing USDA brief on "Wild Rice".
  13. ^ Will Roscoe (2000). Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 25, 35. ISBN 0312224796
  14. ^ Sabine Lang (1998). Men as women, women as men: changing gender in Native American cultures. University of Texas Press. p. 117. ISBN 0292747012
  15. ^ Thomas D. Bonner (Ed.): The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, Harper & Brothers, New York, 1856, p. 201–203, 403
  16. ^ Edwin T. Denig: Five Indian Tribes at the Upper Missouri, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1961, p. 195–200

Sources and further reading


  1. I'm curious how you'd arrive at such a conclusion. Does holding white men accountable for the crimes committed by us over the last 500 or more years equal "hating white men"? I think it means I view white men as capable of being ethical, moral human beings.