Native Women's Authority Loss and Gender Biases

William Blais

Chapter four of Kim Anderson's A Recognition of Being: Reconstructing Native Womanhood entitled "The Dismantling of Gender Equity" discusses the loss of authority that colonialism and capitalism imposed on Native women. As a matter of fact, before the colonial period, women were considered very important in the indigenous communities. While the men were out hunting and trapping, women would take care of the children, prepare food and were the ones who would perform the agricultural work, however as Anderson points out: "Although men and women had their spheres of work, they were not restricted in engaging in each other's work, if it became necessary." (Anderson, 2000)

The valuable work of women in the communities was very well-respected. Since they were involved in agriculture, they had authority over the land. Even though this was never really a struggle to determine the ownership of the land before the European invasion, women were the keepers of food and this gave them great power because food is the most important resource of all. Men were bringing meat and women would either cook it or make sure it did not go to taste with different preserving techniques. Nevertheless, with colonialism knocking at the door, women were removed of some of their powers as the Europeans did not want to do business with women, they demanded only men. From the Europeans point of view, this was unconceivable to have women as leaders and so they decided to impose their patriarchal culture into the indigenous communities. Still, women were advising their husband about how to deal with the Whites.

In the political sphere, women's opinions were considered very important for the well-being of the community. In the Iroquois's political system, their authority was great as they would choose the deposing chief. Some council had men and women as chiefs, they were chosen according to their ability to make good decision and they were not judged according to their gender, as opposed to Western society were gender biases are a common factor still today. If some Native political system did not include women's opinions for whatever reasons, their husbands would carry their demands and suggestions which were taken very seriously.

After the Indian Act in 1876, native communities lost a tremendous amount of power on the political level. European settlers were now deciding what Natives were allowed and not allowed to do. Consequently, women were dispossessed of their authority within the community as they were not allowed to be actively involved in the political councils and decision making process. Their authority was later dismantled even more with the establishment of catholic patriarchal marriage which states that the woman is the husband's propriety. The Indian Act also banished the native women who would marry White men from their right to live on a reserve and White women who would marry Native men were given Indian status.

The goal of all these disempowerment strategies towards women was to destroy the culture starting with highest authorities which were the women. They were considered to be "life givers" as they raised the children and educated them in order for them to strengthen the community from generation to generation. Subsequently, disempowering women weakens the indigenous culture and is an attempt to annihilate the main source culture transmission with the aim of assimilating the Natives.

Another attempt to assimilate and to weaken the Native societies was to prohibit any manifestation of spirituality. Women are again great carriers of knowledge and had the role to bring spirituality to their people. Native religion advocates a balance between men and women which was troublesome for European settlers who tried to impose their culture upon the Natives. In fact, they still do. First, they did it through the residential school system and nowadays the Catholic Church has contaminated many communities, Natives have lost their religious customs and now worship the colonizer's God.

Finally, in early Native culture men and women worked hand in hand executing the essential duties like trapping, hunting, cooking, raising children, etc. Women were hold in high esteem and were treated as equal if not as superior to men. They were considered essential to perpetuation of the culture because they were assigned to raise the children. However, when the European colonizers arrived to America and saw the place women occupied in the Native hierarchy they tried to break this by depriving them of their authority in the community by ways of laws and other strategies; strategies that destroyed the indigenous culture and led to a more easy and effective assimilation.


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