Role of Women

According to [white] folklore, the Indian women did the work, especially the gardening, while the men fooled away their time on hunting and warfare. This is at best a half truth, for this division of labor between the sexes involved equal responsibility and hard labor for both. Women farmed, not because they were made to, but because they, not the men, owned the farmland and its produce.

Farming had been invented by women, not by men, and agriculture remained the women’s responsibility. Among primitive non-farming peoples, such as the Australian aborigines, women are not physically fitted for hunting, and so they gather wild vegetable foods to supplement animal foods taken by the men. At a similar stage in the dim Indian past, women, presumably, discovered that they could plant and cultivate some of the wild seed they had gathered. This discovery revolutionized Indian life throughout most of the Americas. Because women had been the first farmers, and because they were as capable of gardening as men could be, they monopolized this important part of the economy. In earlier times when the family depended on the hunter for food, woman’s role, because she was a gatherer, was secondary. As farming developed, however, hunting became less important; agriculture made larger populations and town life possible, and there were now too many people on the land for them to feed themselves on wild game. Farming remained a woman’s monopoly, and the women completely controlled the major food resources for the community. In light of this, we can readily understand the well known fact (astounding to [white] patriarchal ancestors) that Indian women were dominant and self sufficient and men sub- sidiary and dependant. Far from being an oppressed field hand, the Indian woman was a matriarch who owned her own house and fields, controlled the food supplies of the household, and held greater authority than any man within the family and community. Within her sphere, the man was of secondary importance and apt to be dominated by women on any important matter.

Mother Earth and Mother Corn were female supernatural who controlled the fertility of the garden; they were women’s deities, and the natural forces they controlled could only be exploited by women. As in most other parts of the world, woman’s status and importance reflected in part her economic importance to the society in which she lived; where women are not economically productive and where they are regarded primarily as ornaments, they quickly descend to the status of slaves; where they play major roles in food production and contribute proportionately to their society, their status and privileges can surpass those of men.

The Indian woman — regarded in native ideology as mother and gardener — was the central and most important member of the household; rather than being a mere drudge, she held an elevated position which is difficult for us to imagine. In terms of blood money (paid, by custom, to prevent the taking of blood revenge), a woman was worth twice as much as a man: when the family of a killer was required to make formal payment to the family of the victim, Indian law determined that the sum be doubled if the slain were a woman. The Indian woman held a more privileged and equal position in her society than women do in any European or American community today. (This article was originally written in 1953.) In terms of normal human compensation, her status was proportionate to her responsibility and her labor. Many white women who were taken captive in warfare and who had become members of Indian communities refused to be ransomed; they would not return to the drudgery and subordination accorded women in colonial society.

…Women’s particular roles had religious significance. The responsibilities of garden and hearth were delegated to women by the Creator; the crops were a gift to women from the supernatural in return for labor and proper conduct in life. The agricultural activities of women, and of deities con- cerned with agriculture, were central themes in Indian ritual.

Source: “The American Indian As Hunter”, 1990
by John Witthoft of the  Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission