In all cultures, both women and men are tasked with societal responsibilities, some more than others, which optimize how they live, love, and grow. In traditional Native American societies, women have always played an integral role, from decision-making to agriculture and spiritual practices.
While in certain cultures, the men traditionally assumed the majority of power and honor, this is not the case for many Native tribal cultures where the opposite sex is equal in all things.
Women were and still are essential to the lives of Native tribes, providing an invaluable source of strength and wisdom.
While we cannot make a generalization about the role of women in traditional Native societies, let’s explore some of the ways that women helped shape their communities in the past and how their contributions continue to be felt today.
Women’s Roles In Decision-Making
Many Native tribes are all about gender equality.
Within traditional Native American societies, women were often involved in decision-making processes. This role was held partly because women were symbolic of creation and life, and with this responsibility came essential roles within the group, such as more social and political authority.
For example, in some tribes, women held equal or even higher status than men and were respected as influential leaders, such as in the ancient Greek culture. In other tribes, women were consulted for their opinions and advice regarding important matters such as war or negotiations with outsiders.
The tenacious and dynamic Native American women of the past influenced future decision-makers.
Fast forward to modern society, and we have had several courageous women in leadership positions who have made waves. Wilma Mankiller, Ladonna Harris, Deb Haaland, Sharice Davids, and many more have made and continue to make much-needed changes in U.S. policy, which affect other women and Indigenous people.
Women’s Roles In Agriculture
Agriculture was and is still a way of life for Indigenous communities. Not only did Native women take care of entire communities by cultivating various crops and cooking meals for the masses, but they also had a hand in agricultural innovations. Land, water, and sky are all sacred to Native communities, and it was an honor for women to utilize skill and knowledge to provide for the tribe – and still is.
Historically, women in Native American societies took on most agricultural labor, which is especially true for tribes whose main source of subsistence was crop farming; women tilled the land, planted crops, harvested them at the appropriate times, and stored food for winter months. This labor was primarily done by hand since modern technological advancements were not yet born.
Before Europeans arrived, Native women had already perfected the art of cultivation.
According to historians, “…Women were the leaders in crop development, the experimentation necessary to invent new, better crops. It was women who discovered that the “three sisters”—corn, squash, and beans—grew best when planted together, and it was women who created the many varieties and uses of corn—blue corn, popcorn, flour corn, etc.—that we still enjoy today.”
Today, brilliant and compassionate Indigenous women work on food sovereignty issues, such as those with the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance. Their call to action entails, “NAFSA is dedicated to restoring the Indigenous food systems that support Indigenous self-determination, wellness, cultures, values, communities, economies, languages, families, and rebuild relationships with the land, water, plants, and animals that sustain us.”
Native women will always be a part of agriculture across the country.
Women’s Roles In Spirituality
Women also played a prominent role in spirituality among traditional Native American societies. They held positions such as ceremonial medicine women or shamans and acted as healers who used plants and herbs to cure physical and spiritual illnesses. Medicine women had skills and knowledge beyond the ordinary, which allowed them this position.
They understood the land and water and how to incorporate them into the holistic healing of the body and mind. Shamans who were women had a deep connection to the spirit world, which allowed them to heal through rituals, song, dance, and other mystical ways.
An Indigenous woman named Sweet Medicine Nation is a modern-day medicine woman.
“Through indigenous ceremony and education at the non-profit organization she founded called Four Winds Foundation, she offers opportunities for people to experience [a] deep connection with nature and spirit and to focus on indigenous perspectives and present-day needs to preserve lands and original waters.”
In many tribes today, honorable and powerful women hold spiritual roles in their communities.
Although roles varied from tribe to tribe, it is clear that Indigenous women had a major impact on traditional Native American societies. The decision-making, agricultural, and spiritual contributions continue to be seen today amongst modern Native Americans who carry on their traditions with pride while honoring the legacy of their ancestors before them. We are responsible for recognizing these vital contributions, so they will never be forgotten!
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Last Updated on March 8, 2023 by Paul G
2 Comments on “The Role of Women in Traditional Native American Societies”
As a schoolgirl in the 1950’s I had few role models of notable women. I loved history and social studies and the only two female heros I had were Molly Pitcher and Sacajawea. I loved everything I ever could learn about Sacajawea and so was devastated as a fifty year old adult to read the biography of Sacajawea and learn howAmn much she had been mistreated and traded between tribes, then taken by William Clark on the Lewis and Clark expedition. After the expedition her life with her son was so sad and poverty ridden that I could not read the second half of the book.
I have always wanted to think of indigenous women in the roles you have described but have had to believe otherwise.
Thank you for the article on the role of Indigenous Women. Unfortunately in our European society women are assigned roles in most cases, that are less than inclusive. As usual we non Native people can learn so much healthy interaction with all of our Worlds health. Kenard Burchette