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.


Main article: Apache

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 and 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] Northern tribes like the Algonquian had a tendency for all members to be nomadic at times. Narragansett men traditionally help clear the fields and cultivate the crops and assist with the harvesting, but despite this extra contribution women still maintain their 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 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 men and women. Men and women have traditionally both had the final say over who they would end up marrying, though parents have usually had a great deal of influence as well.[5]


Main article: Hopi

The Hopi (in what is now the Hopi Reservation in northeastern Arizona), according to Alice Schlegel, have as a "gender ideology ... one of female superiority, and it operated within a social actuality of sexual equality."[6] According to LeBow (based on Schlegel's work), in the Hopi, "gender roles ... are egalitarian .... [and] [n]either sex is inferior."[7] LeBow concluded that Hopi women "participate fully in ... political decision-making."[8] According to Schlegel, "the Hopi no longer live as they are described here"[9] and "the attitude of female superiority is fading".[9] Schlegel said the Hopi "were and still are matrilinial"[10] and "the household ... was matrilocal".[10]

Schlegel explains why there was female superiority as that the Hopi believed in "life as the highest good ... [with] the female principle ... activated in women and in Mother Earth ... as its source"[11] and that the Hopi "were not in a state of continual war with equally matched neighbors"[12] and "had no standing army"[12] so that "the Hopi lacked the spur to masculine superiority"[12] and, within that, as that women were central to institutions of clan and household and predominated "within the economic and social systems (in contrast to male predominance within the political and ceremonial systems)",[12] the Clan Mother, for example, being empowered to overturn land distribution by men if she felt it was unfair,[11] since there was no "countervailing ... strongly centralized, male-centered political structure".[11]


Main article: Inuit


Main article: Iroquois


Main article: Navajo

The third gender role of nàdleehì (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]

Main article: Nez Perce people

The early contact period with the Nez Perce found communities with 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 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 the elders of both genders in the community.[16][17][18]


Main article: Osage Nation


Main article: Sioux

The Lakota, Dakota and Nakoda peoples are patriarchal and have historically had highly defined gender roles. In the 19th century, the men customarily harvested wild rice whereas women harvested all other grain (among the Dakota or Santee).[19] 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.[20] Usually winkte are homosexual, and sometimes the word is also used for gay men who are not in any other way gender-variant.[20]

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. ^ a b Schlegel, Alice, Hopi Gender Ideology of Female Superiority, op. cit., p. 44 n. 1.
  10. ^ a b Schlegel, Alice, Hopi Gender Ideology of Female Superiority, op. cit., p. 45.
  11. ^ a b c Schlegel, Alice, Hopi Gender Ideology of Female Superiority, op. cit., p. 50.
  12. ^ a b c d Schlegel, Alice, Hopi Gender Ideology of Female Superiority, op. cit., p. 49.
  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. ^ Jonathan Periam, Home and Farm Manual, 1884, likely citing USDA brief on "Wild Rice".
  20. ^ 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.