Gender roles among the indigenous peoples of North America

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Traditional gender roles among Native American and First Nations peoples tend to vary greatly by region and community. As with all Pre-Columbian era societies, historical traditions may or may not reflect contemporary attitudes. In many communities, these things are not discussed with outsiders.


Traditional Apache have a number of gender roles, however the same skills are learned by both females and males. All children traditionally learn how to cook, follow tracks, skin leather, sew stitches, ride horses, and use weapons.[1]

Eastern Woodland Societies[edit]

Eastern Woodland communities vary widely in whether they divide labor based on sex. In general, like in the Plains nations, women own the home while men's work may involve more travel.[2] Narragansett men in farming communities have traditionally helped clear the fields, cultivate the crops and assist with the harvesting, whereas women hold authority in the home.[3] Among the Lenape, men and women have both participated in agriculture and hunting according to age and ability, although primary leadership in agriculture traditionally belongs to women, while men have generally held more responsibility in the area of hunting. Whether gained by hunting, fishing or agriculture, older Lenape women take responsibility for community food distribution. Land management, whether used for hunting or agriculture, also is the traditional responsibility of Lenape women.[4]

Historically, a number of social norms in Eastern Woodland communities demonstrate a balance of power held between women and men. Men and women have traditionally both had the final say over who they would end up marrying, though parents usually have a great deal of influence as well.[5]


The Hopi (in what is now the Hopi Reservation in northeastern Arizona) are traditionally both matriarchal and matrilineal,[6] with egalitarian roles in community, and no sense of superiority or inferiority based on sex or gender.[7] Both women and men have traditionally participated in politics and community management,[8] although colonization has brought patriarchal influences that have seen changes in the traditional structures and formerly-higher status of women.[9] However, even with these changes, matrilineal structures still remain, along with the central role of the mothers and grandmothers in the family, household and clan structure.[10][11]


The Haudenosaunee are a matriarchal society. Traditionally, the Clan Mother has held the ultimate power over all decisions, though her specific role has varied by Nation. In this structure the men under her are the Chiefs, serving primarily in a diplomatic capacity. Tradition holds that she has the power to veto any idea proposed by her chiefs, and that both the naming traditions and transfer of political power are matrilineal. [12]


The third gender role of nádleehi (meaning "one who is transformed" or "one who changes"), beyond contemporary Anglo-American definition limits of gender, is part of the Navajo Nation society, a "two-spirit" cultural role. The renowned 19th century Navajo artist Hosteen Klah (1849–1896) is an example.[13][14][15]

Nez Perce[edit]

During the early colonial period, Nez Perce communities tended to have specific gender roles. Men were responsible for the production of equipment used for hunting, fishing and protection of their communities as well as the performance of these activities. Men made up the governing bodies of villages which were composed of a council and headman.[16][17][18]

Nez Perce women in the early contact period were responsible for maintaining the household which included the production of utilitarian tools for the home. The harvest of medicinal plants was the responsibility of the women in the community due to their extensive knowledge. Edibles were harvested by both women and children. Women also regularly participated in politics, but due to their responsibilities to their families and medicine gathering, they did not hold office.[16][17][18]

Critical knowledge regarding culture and tradition were passed down by all the elders of the community.[16][17][18]



The Lakota, Dakota and Nakoda peoples, in addition to other Siouan-speaking people like the Omaha, Osage and Ponca, are patriarchal or patrilineal and have historically had highly defined gender roles.[19][20] In such tribes, hereditary leadership would pass through the male line, while children are considered to belong to the father and his clan. If a woman marries outside the tribe, she is no longer considered to be part of it, and her children would share the ethnicity and culture of their father.[20] In the 19th century, the men customarily harvested wild rice whereas women harvested all other grain (among the Dakota or Santee).[21] The winkte are a social category in Lakota culture, of male people who adopt the clothing, work, and mannerisms that Lakota culture usually considers feminine.[22] Usually winkte are homosexual, and sometimes the word is also used for gay men who are not in any other way gender-variant.[22]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 100 Native Americans Who Shaped American History, Juettner, 2007.
  2. ^ James Ax tell, The Indian Peoples of Eastern America: A Documentary History of the Sexes, New York, Oxford University Press, 1981, 107-110
  3. ^ James Ax tell, The Indian Peoples of Eastern America: A Documentary History of the Sexes, New York, Oxford University Press, 1981, 123
  4. ^ Gun log Fur, A Nation of Women: Gender and Colonial Encounters Among the Delaware Indians, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009, 87
  5. ^ James Axtell, The Indian Peoples of Eastern America: A Documentary History of the Sexes, New York, Oxford University Press, 1981, 74-75
  6. ^ Schlegel, Alice, Hopi Gender Ideology of Female Superiority, in Quarterly Journal of Ideology: "A Critique of the Conventional Wisdom", vol. VIII, no. 4, 1984, p. 44 and see pp. 44–52 (essay based partly on "seventeen years of fieldwork among the Hopi", per p. 44 n. 1) (author of Dep't of Anthropology, Univ. of Ariz., Tucson).
  7. ^ LeBow, Diana, Rethinking Matriliny Among the Hopi, op. cit., p. [8].
  8. ^ LeBow, Diana, Rethinking Matriliny Among the Hopi, op. cit., p. 18.
  9. ^ Schlegel, Alice, Hopi Gender Ideology of Female Superiority, op. cit., p. 44 n. 1.
  10. ^ Schlegel, Alice, Hopi Gender Ideology of Female Superiority, op. cit., p. 45.
  11. ^ Schlegel, Alice, Hopi Gender Ideology of Female Superiority, op. cit., p. 50.
  12. ^ Thomas, Katsithawi. "Gender Roles among the Iroquois" (PDF).
  13. ^ Franc Johnson Newcomb (1980-06). Hosteen Klah: Navaho Medicine Man and Sand Painter. University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-1008-2.
  14. ^ Lapahie, Harrison, Jr. Hosteen Klah (Sir Left Handed). 2001 (retrieved 19 Oct 2009)
  15. ^ Berlo, Janet C. and Ruth B. Phillips. Native North American Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-284218-3 . pg. 34
  16. ^ a b c "Gender Roles" at the Nez Perce Museum, United States Department of the Interior, Parks Service; accessed 5 April 2016
  17. ^ a b c Colombi, Benedict J. "Salmon and the Adaptive Capacity of Nimiipuu (Nez Perce) Culture to Cope with Change" in the American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 36, No. 1 (Winter 2012), pp. 75-97. University of Nebraska Press; accessed 5 April 2016
  18. ^ a b c "History of CTUIR" at Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation; accessed 5 April 2016
  19. ^ Medicine, Beatrice (1985). "Child Socialization among Native Americans: The Lakota (Sioux) in Cultural Context". Wicazo Sa Review. 1 (2): 23–28. doi:10.2307/1409119. JSTOR 1409119.
  20. ^ a b Melvin Randolph Gilmore, "The True Logan Fontenelle", Publications of the Nebraska State Historical Society, Vol. 19, edited by Albert Watkins, Nebraska State Historical Society, 1919, p. 64, at GenNet, accessed August 25, 2011
  21. ^ Jonathan Periam, Home and Farm Manual, 1884, likely citing USDA brief on "Wild Rice".
  22. ^ a b Medicine, Beatrice (2002). "Directions in Gender Research in American Indian Societies: Two Spirits and Other Categories by Beatrice Medicine". Online Readings in Psychology and Culture (Unit 3, Chapter 2). W. J. Lonner, D. L. Dinnel, S. A. Hayes, & D. N. Sattler (Eds.). Center for Cross-Cultural Research, Western Washington University. Archived from the original on 2003-03-30. Retrieved 2015-07-07.