Gender roles among the indigenous peoples of North America

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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.


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]

Eastern Woodland Societies[edit]

Men and women in eastern woodland societies had very specific work roles to fill and normally these roles were taught to them from a very young age. Men would provide for the tribe through hunting and fishing during the winter while the women would grow crops and forage during the summer. This division of labor determined the responsibilities for each gender in society. Since women spent more time at home they would partake in more of the daily chores around the house, this included cooking, preparing the skins brought back by men, taking care of the children, gathering wood and cultivating crops during the summer which would be the period of most strenuous work for them. Women in turn became the masters of the house, determining how things functioned in the private sphere and even determining how much of their resources were distributed.[2] There were exceptions to this however, northern tribes like the Algonquian had a tendency to be patrimonial and nomadic which meant they relied less on cultivated crops which in turn diminished the influence females had in those tribes. Females normally had a lesser status than men in the north but the majority of eastern woodland tribes were matrimonial, regardless, females had tremendous influence in their own household.

The men’s main responsibility was to provide his family with meat from hunting and fishing. These activities generally only took place during the winter and spring and in turn provided the male with much more free time than the women who had daily tasks to perform around the home no matter the season. Although the men generally had more leisure time than the women did, the time spent hunting tended to be more strenuous and took place over longer periods of time than the lighter daily tasks women performed.[3] This is not to say however that men only hunted and fished, men in certain tribes such as the Narragansett helped clear the fields and cultivate the crops and even assisted with the harvesting of them but despite this extra contribution women still maintained their authority in the home.[4] Among the Delaware (Le nape), men and women both participated in agriculture and hunting according to age and ability, although primary leadership in agriculture belonged to women, while men took responsibility in the area of hunting. Whether gained by hunting, fishing or agriculture, older Delaware women took responsibility for food distribution. Land management, whether used for hunting or agriculture, also was the responsibility of Delaware women.[5] Some European accounts describe the division of labor as sharply in the males favor but others who had examined them more carefully could see that this was not the case and that women in fact were content with their role and appreciated the work which the males performed.[6] Being in charge of the home, women typically had greater influence in the private sphere than the man had but even with less influence in these affairs the man could still be considered the one in charge of the family.[citation needed]

A number of social norms were present in eastern woodland societies which help demonstrate the balance of power held between men and women, marriage is a very good example of this. Men and women both had the final say over who they would end up marrying, parents generally had quite some influence over this process however since they were their elders and had to be respected. Both men and women could refuse a potential match up if they were not satisfied with it and both sexes were typically free to pursue a divorce if unhappy in a marriage. The one constraint against a gender in particular however was that a women’s parents could veto the marriage if they were not satisfied with the arrangement but not the man’s, this imbalance in equality is relatively minor however since the women still had the final say over a suitor and would on some occasions ignore their advice completely.[7]


Main article: Hopi people

The Hopi (in what is now the Hopi Reservation in northeastern Arizona), according to Alice Schlegel, had as its "gender ideology ... one of female superiority, and it operated within a social actuality of sexual equality."[8] According to LeBow (based on Schlegel's work), in the Hopi, "gender roles ... are egalitarian .... [and] [n]either sex is inferior."[9] LeBow concluded that Hopi women "participate fully in ... political decision-making."[10] According to Schlegel, "the Hopi no longer live as they are described here"[11] and "the attitude of female superiority is fading".[11] Schlegel said the Hopi "were and still are matrilinial"[12] and "the household ... was matrilocal".[12]

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"[13] and that the Hopi "were not in a state of continual war with equally matched neighbors"[14] and "had no standing army"[14] so that "the Hopi lacked the spur to masculine superiority"[14] 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)",[14] the Clan Mother, for example, being empowered to overturn land distribution by men if she felt it was unfair,[13] since there was no "countervailing ... strongly centralized, male-centered political structure".[13]


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.

Iroquois or Haudenosaunee[edit]

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.[15]


Main article: Lenape

Occupied for 10,000 years by Native Americans, the land that would become New Jersey was overseen by clans of the Lenape or Lenni Lenape or Delaware, who farmed, fished, and hunted upon it. The pattern of their culture was that of a matrilineal agricultural and mobile hunting society that was sustained with fixed, but not permanent, settlements in their clan territories.

Villages were established and relocated as the clans farmed new sections of the land when soil fertility lessened and when they moved among their fishing and hunting grounds by seasons. The area was claimed as a part of the Dutch New Netherland province dating from 1614, where active trading in furs took advantage of the natural pass west, but the Lenape prevented permanent settlement beyond what is now Jersey City.

"Early Europeans who first wrote about these Indians found matrilineal social organization to be unfamiliar and perplexing. ... As a result, the early records are full of 'clues' about early Lenape society, but were usually written by observers who did not fully understand what they were seeing."[16]


The third gender role of nàdleehì (meaning "one who is transformed" or "one who changes"), beyond contemporary Anglo-American definition limits of Gender, 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.[17][18][19]


The Osage, although considered patriarchal like all Siouans[citation needed], did not have rigidly defined gender roles[citation needed]. 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[citation needed], according to contemporary writings of the French who traded with them[citation needed].

Pacific Northwest Coast peoples[edit]

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 ender.[20]

Puebloan peoples[edit]

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.[21]

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.[22]

A third gender role of Lhamana (Ihamana), beyond contemporary Anglo-American definition limits of gender, 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.[23][24]


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).[25]

A third gender role of Badés, beyond contemporary Anglo-American definition limits of male or female gender, 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.[26][27][28][29]

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, 136-139
  4. ^ James Ax tell, The Indian Peoples of Eastern America: A Documentary History of the Sexes, New York, Oxford University Press, 1981, 123
  5. ^ Gun log Fur, A Nation of Women: Gender and Colonial Encounters Among the Delaware Indians, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009, 87
  6. ^ James Ax tell, The Indian Peoples of Eastern America: A Documentary History of the Sexes, New York, Oxford University Press, 1981, 137-138
  7. ^ James Axtell, The Indian Peoples of Eastern America: A Documentary History of the Sexes, New York, Oxford University Press, 1981, 74-75
  8. ^ 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).
  9. ^ LeBow, Diana, Rethinking Matriliny Among the Hopi, op. cit., p. [8].
  10. ^ LeBow, Diana, Rethinking Matriliny Among the Hopi, op. cit., p. 18.
  11. ^ a b Schlegel, Alice, Hopi Gender Ideology of Female Superiority, op. cit., p. 44 n. 1.
  12. ^ a b Schlegel, Alice, Hopi Gender Ideology of Female Superiority, op. cit., p. 45.
  13. ^ a b c Schlegel, Alice, Hopi Gender Ideology of Female Superiority, op. cit., p. 50.
  14. ^ a b c d Schlegel, Alice, Hopi Gender Ideology of Female Superiority, op. cit., p. 49.
  15. ^ A History of the Native Americans, passim.
  16. ^ This quote is from Lenni-Lenape's Society section.
  17. ^ Franc Johnson Newcomb (1980-06). Hosteen Klah: Navaho Medicine Man and Sand Painter. University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-1008-2.
  18. ^ Lapahie, Harrison, Jr. Hosteen Klah (Sir Left Handed). 2001 (retrieved 19 Oct 2009)
  19. ^ Berlo, Janet C. and Ruth B. Phillips. Native North American Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-284218-3 . pg. 34
  20. ^ Salmonson, Jessica Amanda. (1991) The Encyclopedia of Amazons. Paragon House. Pages 39 and 267. ISBN 1-55778-420-5
  21. ^ A History of the Native Americans, 2001.
  22. ^ American Indians Yesterday and Today, Grant, 1958.
  23. ^ 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
  24. ^ . accessed 7/4/2010
  25. ^ Jonathan Periam, Home and Farm Manual, 1884, likely citing USDA brief on "Wild Rice".
  26. ^ Will Roscoe (2000). Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 25, 35. ISBN 0-312-22479-6
  27. ^ Sabine Lang (1998). Men as women, women as men: changing gender in Native American cultures. University of Texas Press. p. 117. ISBN 0-292-74701-2
  28. ^ Thomas D. Bonner (Ed.): The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, Harper & Brothers, New York, 1856, p. 201–203, 403
  29. ^ Edwin T. Denig: Five Indian Tribes at the Upper Missouri, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1961, p. 195–200

Sources and further reading[edit]