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In a classic case of sexual stereotyping, Joseph Gilfillan, an Episcopalian missionary, described the Chippewa Indians in Minnesota c. 1900--the tall, graceful male bounding through the forest, unburdened except for his bow and arrow, while behind him plodded the "short, stodgy, rotund" female, bearing a tremendous burden on her back, atop of which rode a small papoose. In Gilfillan's mind, the woman's stature was exemplar of her destiny since women over generations had been squashed down by burden bearing.(1)
Although feminists might deny this equation of anatomy and destiny, the fact is that the female reproductive function is a crucial factor in determining a woman's social role in tribal societies. Women bear children who carry on the culture of the group. They also gather wild foods and thus acquire status in the economic terms of contemporary society.(2)
Scholars may analyze the roles of Indian women in academic paradigms, but the women themselves are lost in the babble of theories. One way to recover their identity is to examine the origin stories of Indian tribes. Women are the creators of the world. Their lives carry the meaning of the great human cycle of life, death, and rebirth, an ongoing process that Christianity forces into a linear paradigm of individual sin, guilt, death, and redemption.
When Indian tribes first encountered European colonists, women played a major role in contact. The results of that contact, the spread of European diseases, the introduction of livestock, of alcohol, were the beginning of historical change in a linear sense for Indian tribes. In the southeast, the "Lady of Cofitachequi" greeted Hernando de Soto in 1540 in what is now the state of Georgia. She gave him her own string of pearls--as a sign of good will, as a sign of welcome, as a sign of appeasement, as a way of encouraging him to move on? There are no words from the lady herself about her motives and intentions.(3)
It is significant that it was a woman who represented her province. Matrilineal descent was common among Southeastern tribes. Although women generally influenced events indirectly rather than through public rule, they were powerful members of their societies.
The equation of femininity and power is best expressed in the story of the origin of corn among the Creeks in Oklahoma. A woman fed her family every day with a delicious food, but she would not reveal its source. One day her two sons decided to follow her as she went to get the food. They discovered that she was rubbing skin from her body and shaping it into grains. Horrified, they confronted her and accused her of being a witch. She told them that since they had discovered her secret, they must kill her, drag her body around the ground, and then bury her. They did so, and the next Year they found corn growing from her grave and where her body had touched the earth.(4) This story has layers of meaning. It connects birth and death, femininity and fecundity, land and women. Things must die so that other things might live. This theme of women dying to produce corn is widespread among agricultural tribes. It emphasizes the power of women and their place in their own societies.
While Indian and European men negotiated treaties, traded, and waged war, Indian women lived with Europen men, translated for them, and bore their children. They gave their consorts a special entree into their communities. They were the major mediators of cultural meaning between two worlds. As the roles of Indian men changed in response to changing subsistence patterns, the roles of women persisted, largely misinterpreted by European male observers. Their functions as child bearers and contributors to subsistence were not threatening to white society and were less affected than those of Indian men. In situations of contact, women often became the custodians of traditional cultural values.(5)
A certain historical mythology has grown up around Indian women that often obscures those values. Instead, women's actions are seen through the veil of European assumptions about women's roles and motivations. Even today, in American history books, Pocahontas continues to lay down her body if not her life to save John Smith and assure the survival of the Jamestown colony. Sacagawea stands, pointing west, the leader of the Lewis and Clark expedition.(6)
History has stereotyped Indian women as the hot-blooded Indian princess, a la Pocahontas, or the stolid drudge that Gilfillan described. Pocahontas and Sacagawea become heroines because their actions ultimately benefited the advancement of American society. Explicitly, their actions contributed to the loss of Indian land and destructive changes in Indian culture. Implicitly, however, their motives arose from their own cultural values. How, if at all, can we read their histories in their own terms?(7)
Historians themselves have begun to question whether it is possible to understand the intentions of the author of any historical document, given that cultures change over time. The motivations of a seventeenth century European adventurer such as John Smith may be as difficult for a modern scholar to comprehend as the intentions of a young Algonquian girl of that same era.(8)
Pocahontas, daughter of Powhatan, and John Smith become familiar figures to practically every school child in the country. Within the stereotype of Indian women, Pocahontas acts out of passion for the brave white hero, Smith. But what "really" happened? The story originates with Smith himself, in his General History, published in 1624. This account included many rather florid details of events that he had presented in much briefer and earlier books that he had published. He was taken captive after killing two members of …