"Remember your birth, how your mother struggled to give you form and breath. You are evidence of her life and her mother's, and hers. Remember your father, his hands cradling your mother's flesh, and maybe her heart, too and maybe not. He is your life also." - Joy Harjo, Creek
As with other societies, AI/AN communities encountered gendered matters particularly over chores/obligations such as child rearing, hunting, gathering, trade, etc. Given that Native American Nations are not a monolith, gender roles are rather diverse and do not necessarily follow traditional gender roles as seen more frequently among Euro-Americans. Moreover, the concept and acceptance of a third gender/sex was embraced among some AI/AN groups. In the following discussion, it becomes clear that gender continues to be a salient status/characteristic that can have significant impacts within Indigenous communities.
Women and Power
Among Indigenous peoples, most tribes were patrilineal (tracing descent through the father’s line) while about 25% were matrilineal (tracing descent through mother's side). In many societies, women had considerable power and respect and often held positions of chief, physician, politician, and warrior (Benokraitis, 2014). However, post European contact, the concept of land ownership was introduced and land could only be held by men given historical laws of coverture which prevented women from owning/holding property. For example, following tradition, Cherokee land was passed down from generation to the next by the women. "This matrilineal pattern was abandoned in favor of the European pattern of men’s ownership when the Cherokee attempted (futilely, as it turned out) to acculturate and avoid relocation under the Indian Removal Act of 1830" (Evans, 1989; Healey & O'Brien, 2015). Moreover, early in their encounters with Europeans, the Indigenous societies of the Northwest were able to conduct trade on their own terms. They gradually shifted their focus from getting resources for their own subsistence to getting trade items. In some cases, this led to the over-exploitation of some resources. The Europeans did not like trading with women, a task in which they had traditionally participated. The arrival of missionaries in the nineteenth century further reduced the status of women, as they did not see trade as an appropriate role for women. As a result, the status of women became reduced. Formerly, women were held in high esteem in many Indigenous cultures; for example, the Iroquois Women's Council could veto any policy set forward by the Iroquois Confederacy. Nations such as the Hopi were matrilineal and matrilocal (a newly married/created couple lives with the wife’s/woman's side of the family), and clan names were chosen by women and that land stewardship followed the mother. In contrast and as a result of the trade with Europeans, the chiefs (men) became richer and their political power solidified because the Europeans preferred to work with one individual they saw as being in power.
Despite the efforts to keep AI/AN women from positions of power, there has been a modern resurgence of Native American women elected to positions of power. In 1985, Wilma Mankiller became the first female Cherokee Principal Chief, which she sustained for 10 years (Nagel, 1996). Given the glass ceiling breakthrough by Wilma Mankiller, more Indigenous women were recognized for their leadership and elected to office. Some current notable examples are Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) and Sharice Davids (Ho-Chunk Nation) both of whom represent the first two Native American women elected to U.S. Congress in 2018, as well as, reelected in 2020 (Aratani, 2020). Another important example is Winona LaDuke (Ojibwe) who was the first AI/AN woman to run on the presidential ticket, as the vice presidential candidate, with Ralph Nader both in 1996 and 2000 (Bitetti). The trend of AI/AN women in Congress continues as Yvette Herrell (Cherokee) was elected to the House of Representatives in 2020. Perhaps we will soon see a Native American woman as a Senator and/or as the President of the United States. President-elect Biden has nominated Deb Haaland for Secretary of Interior; this marks a significant shift for national politics as: she would be the first Indigenous woman appointed to a Presidential Cabinet, she has led environmental justice efforts, and this position represents coming full-circle with the centuries of inhumane treatment of Indigenous communities from the Department of Interior and formerly the Department of War.
Women and Health
In the 1970s, medical doctors from the United States Public Health Service’s Indian Health Services branch, whose mandate is to provide health care on Indian reservations, often forcibly, sterilized, without their knowledge or consent, more than 25,000 American Indian women on several reservations. This practice of forced sterilizations continued into the 1990s. The rationale was that the women were too poor to manage children and that the doctors and nurses were providing indispensable help to these women by limiting their child bearing. A further argument was that sterilization was prevention for fetal alcohol syndrome in alcoholic American Indian women. How far should government go in protecting us from ourselves? Does the government have a legitimate concern regarding what we do with our bodies? Should the poor be prevented from having children? Should alcoholic or drug addicted women be allowed to get pregnant?
Gender and Ethnicity
Two-Spirit (also two spirit or twospirit) is a modern umbrella term used by some Indigenous North Americans to describe gender-variant individuals in their communities.The term was adopted in 1990 at an Indigenous lesbian and gay international gathering to encourage the replacement of the anthropological term berdache. It is a spiritual role that is recognized and confirmed by the Two-Spirit’s Indigenous community. While some have found the term a useful tool for intertribal organizing, not all Indigenous cultures conceptualize gender this way, and most tribes use names in their own languages. While pan-Indian terms are not always appropriate or welcome, the term has generally received more acceptance and use than the term it replaced.
Third and fourth gender roles traditionally embodied by two-spirit people include performing work and wearing clothing associated with both men and women. Not all tribes/nations have rigid gender roles, but, among those that do, some consider there to be at least four genders: feminine woman, masculine woman, feminine man, and masculine man.
The presence of male-bodied two-spirits “was a fundamental institution among most tribal peoples” and, according to Will Roscoe (1991), both male- and female-bodied two-spirits have been documented “in over 130 North American tribes, in every region of the continent."
Before the late twentieth-century, non-Native (e.g., non-Native American/Canadian) anthropologists used the generic term berdache/bərˈdæʃ/ to identify an Indigenous individual fulfilling one of many mixed gender roles in their tribe, but that term has now fallen out of favor. Anthropologists primarily used it to identify feminine Native men. Its etymology, however, has meant that it is now considered outdated and potentially offensive: it derives from the French bardache (English equivalent: "bardash") meaning "passive homosexual," "catamite" or even "male prostitute." Bardache, in turn, derived from the Persian برده barda meaning "captive," "prisoner of war," "slave." Spanish explorers who encountered two-spirits among the Chumash people called them "joyas," the Spanish for "jewels."
Use of berdache has generally been replaced by the self-chosen two-spirit, which, in 1990, gained widespread popularity during the third annual intertribal Native American/First Nations gay and lesbian conference in Winnipeg. Two-spirit is a term chosen to express the Native/First Nations’ distinct approach to gender identity and variance in contrast to the imposed non-Native in addition to replacing the otherwise imposed and non-Native terms of berdache and gay.
“Two-spirited” or “two-spirit” usually indicates a Native person who feels their body simultaneously manifests both a masculine and a feminine spirit, or a different balance of masculine and feminine characteristics than usually seen in masculine men and feminine women.
Two-spirit individuals are viewed in some tribes as having two identities occupying one body. Their dress is usually a mixture of traditionally male and traditionally female articles, or they may dress as a man one day, and a woman on another. According to Dr. Sabine Lang (1998), a German anthropologist, many tribes have distinct gender and social roles. Some specific roles sometimes held by male assigned at birth two-spirits include:
- conveyors of oral traditions and songs (Yuki);
- foretellers of the future (Winnebago, Oglala Lakota);
- conferrers of lucky names on children or adults (Oglala Lakota, Tohono O’odham);
- potters (Zuni, Navajo, Tohono O’odham);
- matchmakers (Cheyenne, Omaha, Oglala Lakota);
- makers of feather regalia for dances (Maidu);
- special role players in the Sun Dance (Crow, Hidatsa, Oglala Lakota).
"Sell a country! Why not sell the air, the clouds, the great sea, as well as the earth? Did not the great spirit make them all for the use of his children?" - Tecumseh, Shawnee chief
As mentioned earlier and described by Tecumseh's quote above, the idea of land ownership, as a commodity, was not common among AI/AN tribes. Utilizing Max's Weber definition of social class (groups of people who rank closely to one another in wealth, power, and prestige), a poignant picture emerges of the historical class background of Indigenous communities (Ritzer, 2015). Despite efforts to resist colonization and land theft, American Indians had to adapt to the patrilineal land ownership imposed by Euro-American colonizers and their government. In the face of great discrimination, expulsion, and even genocide, AI/AN were systematically and intentionally stripped of their wealth, power, and prestige. Although the impacts of this historical mistreatment continues to affect Native Americans' social class, there has been a rise in upward mobility among some tribes.
Race, Class, and Education
The interactive effects of race, class, and education are quite stark for many Native Americans. In 2012, American Indian and Alaska Natives accounted for only 2% of the total U. S. population, yet their poverty rate is disproportionately higher despite having high school completion rates in the 80% range. Figure 5.3.2 provides a comparison of poverty and education rates of American Indian and Alaska Natives (AI/AN) in contrast to the total U. S. population; note that the experiences of the Choctaw Nation, one of the "5 civilized tribes," compares more closely to the total population than the Dine (Navajo Nation).
One possible explanation of the intersection between race, class, and to some extent, education is the split-labor market theory: a theory that suggests that the labor market is divided into two tiers in which the upper tier consists of higher wages, safer working conditions, job stability, and the opportunity to be upwardly mobile while the lower tier consists of lower wages, less safe working conditions, job instability, and very limited opportunities to be upwardly mobile. This division happens to be racialized since the upper tier tends to be predominantly represented by Euro-American people and the lower tier is most frequently represented by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC).
Contributors and Attributions
- Aratani, L. (2020). Record number of native American women elected to congress. The Guardian.
- Benokraitis, N.V. (2014). Marriages and Families: Changes, Choices, and Constraints. 8th ed. Boston, MA: Pearson.
- Bitetti, D. (n.d.). Winona LaDuke: Activist, Author & Politician.
- Burrus, V. & Keller, C. (2007). Toward a Theology of Eros: Transfiguring Passion at the Limits of Discipline. New York, NY: Fordham University Press.
- de Vries, K.M. (2009). Berdache (Two-Spirit). In J. O'Brien (Ed), Encyclopedia of Gender and Society. Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications.
- Estrada, G.S. (2011). Two spirits, Nádleeh, and lgbtq2 Navajo gaze. American Indian Culture and Research Journal 35(4), 167-190.
- Evans, S.M. (1989). Born for Liberty: A History of Women in America. New York, NY: Free Press.
- Flannery, K. & Marcus, J. (2012). The Creation of Inequality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Gilley, B.J. (2006). Becoming Two-Spirit: Gay Identity and Social Acceptance in Indian Country. Omaha, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
- Healey, J.F. & O'Brien, E. (2015). Race, Ethnicity, Gender and Class: The Sociology of Group Conflict and Change. 7th ed. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.
- Jacobs, S., Thomas, W., & Lang, S. (1997):Two-Spirit People: Native American Gender Identity, Sexuality, and Spirituality. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
- Lang, S. (1998). Men as Women, Women as Men: Changing Gender in Native American Cultures. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
- Medicine, B. (2002). Directions in gender research in American Indian societies: two spirits and other categories. In W. J. Lonner, D. L. Dinnel, S. A. Hayes, & D. N. Sattler (Eds.), Online Readings in Psychology and Culture. Bellingham, WA: Center for Cross-Cultural Research, Western Washington University.
- Nagel, J. (1996). American Indian Ethnic Renewal: Red Power and the Resurgence of Identity and Culture. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
- Ritzer, G. (2015). Introduction to Sociology. 3rd ed. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.
- Roscoe, W. (1998). Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.
- Roscoe, W. (1991).The Zuni Man-Woman. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press.
- Steingass, F.J. (1892). A comprehensive Persian English dictionary, including the Arabic words and phrases to be met with in Persian literature. London, UK: Routledge & K. Paul.
- Williams, W.L. (1986). The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Cultures. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.