Native American tribes, nations and cultures are as varied as those of any other "ethnic classification" in the world. The cultures of Native Americans varied from the nomadic, subsistence lifestyles of the Great Plains to the vast cities filled with art and culture of Latin America and everything in between. No generalization can be made about any part of Native American culture, including gender roles, though a basic overview of women's roles in the various nations can serve as a starting point for further research.
Women were an essential part of Native American cultures - in most nations, day-to-day activities included everyone save the very young. A woman's duties began while still clinging to her mother's skirts, learning what conduct and responsibilities would be expected of her. Throughout her adult years, she would fill the role required in her specific nation, generally including the care of children and the home, making weapons and clothing, and preparing food. In her old age, she would continue serving the rest of the community by offering advice to younger women and to men who were having any difficulties in their lives with wives and female relatives. This advice was repaid by the community in the form of prepared food, clothing, and other necessities that she may no longer be able to acquire for herself. Many nations gave elderly women the responsibility of watching very young children while their parents were out attending to their other duties, again repaid by the provision of necessities.
In some nations, the women were the ones to own land and possessions. Most often this was because, since it was the woman's job to manage the property and care for the possessions, it was decided that men would not be able to properly manage it by themselves. Additionally, the man remained in the home on the woman's good graces, and should he be expelled from the home the children stayed with the woman, so she needed the possessions in order to care for them.
Women were revered as the beginning of all life. Because of this, they had a special place in many ceremonies. In nations that practiced purification ceremonies such as the sweat lodge, women generally did not participate because they had the unique power of cleansing themselves monthly through menstruation. Today, women rarely set themselves apart from the community every month for spiritual cleansing at the same time as the bodily cleansing, so they are again included in purification ceremonies.
On the Great Plains, as well as other places, households could not be properly run without both a man and woman participating. This does not mean that everyone had to be married, but it did mean that strict adherence to kinship obligations was imperative to the health of the community. If a woman remained unmarried, it was the duty of her male kin to provide her with meat and protection, while she in turn helped prepare his food and help the other women he provided for with their duties. Men had the duty of making sure all their female relatives were taken care of and, if his wealth allowed it, to help care for others as well.
Some nations allowed and even encouraged multiple wives. This was an imperative in some communities, especially those wracked by disease or war, where there were not enough men to care for all the women. It was right for any man who had sufficient wealth to take care of more than one wife to take another. However, he also had to be able to treat all his wives with equal affection and be able to protect and feed them all. It was not abnormal for a man to take a wife, then to also take a widowed or unmarried sister who also needed care. In fact, taking wives within the first wife's family was considered ideal because they already had the love of kinship for one another, increasing the chances of domestic harmony.
Women were seen as equal partners in every marriage because of the specific duties assigned to each gender. Without equal participation of both husband and wife, the family could not be sufficiently cared for. Certain nations, especially nomadic Great Plains nations such as the Lakota, encouraged women to also learn the arts of horsemanship, hunting, and warfare. While they rarely were required to use these, it ensured that the tiyospaye (family, or community, group) would never be left undefended even when all the warriors were away.
The roles of women vary greatly from one nation to the next, but in every case they were a respected, indispensable part of every community. More often than not, the wife had much more authority in the home than the husband and could decide to put him out of the home if he failed in his obligation to her. It was the role of a loving wife to always treat her husband with respect and to advise him in many different facets of life. Many societies were distinctly matriarchal. Many advocates for women's equality think that the Native American nations were prime examples of the bondage of women because of their ties to the home and children. This sentiment is quite misplaced, as further research into nearly every Native American nation will reveal.
Thank you for reading my hub, I hope that it has been helpful. I would greatly appreciate it if you would take a moment to answer a question for me, so that I can continue writing about the things you want to learn. What is your single biggest question when it comes to gender roles or the family structure in Native American cultures?
Brenda J Moore on February 27, 2017:
I'm surprised by such a quaint overview of cultures as diverse from each other as those from countries on opposite sides of the globe. Please don't sugar-coat the roles and lives of women, its an injustice to the women of those cultures who were strong and were NOT on romantic pedestals of equality.
Bill on November 28, 2014:
My single biggest question is were there any domestic issues that we see more frequently among native americans than of other groups?
Linda Crist from Central Virginia on September 17, 2014:
Nice work. It's good to see both Native Americans and women getting the attention here on Hubpages. The old ways have much to teach and their loss is evident in today's world. Keep writing!
Bo Tipton from Cecilia, KY on December 18, 2012:
I appreciate the hub. All the women I know from my Choctaw family if you try to tell them they are going to have to do something or not do something you will get knots on your head. Contrary to what most people think there are many strong Native American women in many different nations. One of the best examples is Wilma Mankiller who led the Cherokee Nation for many years.
Linda Crist from Central Virginia on July 17, 2012:
Great hub! Native American culture has much to teach other ethnic societies, particularly the dominant caucasion society.
Haunty from Hungary on June 05, 2009:
This is very interesting. I think Native Americans could build an ideal society for themselves, because the weren't so numerous. It is always easier to conduct the rituals and keep the hierarchy and the roles in place when there are fewer people to manage/lead. Thank you for this.