The Evolving Role of Women in Native Culture and the Modern American Family

The strange thing about different cultures is many similarly perceive the man as the strong one; man comes first, the woman second. The man brings home money, the woman keeps a clean house, cooks the food, goes shopping, cleans the clothes, and becomes a home nurse or a teacher. In ads from the ’50s and ’60s, we don’t see women doing what’s considered a “man’s thing” like fixing a car, having a beer, mowing the lawn, playing pool. They are depicted doing something in the kitchen or doing something sexy. Sometimes I ponder not only the way a woman’s role in society is developing, but the way both men and women are “supposed” to be in this melting pot of cultures and the hodgepodge world of different views we live in.

Even though we’ve come a long way from the clean cut man and his wife with shoulder-length hair wearing an apron, a typical family of one boy and one girl who sit on their plastic covered furniture eating TV dinners while watching Bonanza, there’s still those who lag behind, and keep going on about “man” and “woman” duties.

I had the incredible misfortune of being a child of those times of transition, even though things were actually starting to change. Men were portrayed unshaven in cigarette ads, women were more open about their sexuality, and more importantly, women started to take on jobs that men usually did, sometimes to break boundaries or show “they could do it.”

My mom wasn’t like this; she didn’t have a college degree, but somehow ended up in front of a computer as a programmer, and she did it well. She was a first generation Oneida/Iroquois, off-the-reservation woman who worked her way up to supervisor as a computer programmer when my family not only needed the money to keep things running smoothly, but when she wanted to leave the semi-boring life of the housewife, behind … or so she thought. Typically, it’s hard to not only work a full week, but be expected to have the kids’ clothes cleaned, supervise them to do their homework, and have dinner on the table at a precise time.

My dad came from a hard Irish/Italian upbringing in Astoria, Queens, where the woman stayed home and kept things in line while the man worked at every hour to bring more money home to ensure everyone’s well being. Everything was expected to be in place when he got home, and if it wasn’t, there would be a problem within the household. It wasn’t uncommon for this to be the structure of many families during the ’50s and early ’60s.

I’ve seen couples from both genders given roles as scapegoats and targets for aggression. One takes the role of the aggressive, and one is given the role of the passive. Be it the man who comes home in a bad mood and yells at his wife all night because he hates his job, hates his house, complains about how his life isn’t worth living, or the woman who waits for the man to come home so she can yell at him for not making enough money, not paying bills on time, not providing enough, or not spending enough time with the kids.

It may not be a “Native American” way, but my family on my mom’s side, mainly my grandfather, always thought that girls/women should be treated more honorably. He put the women first. If there weren’t enough beds in a room, the woman got to sleep on the bed while the man and the children had to sleep on the floor. If there was a quarrel with two children, he would always give the upper hand to the girl. If it was a girl and boy arguing, my grandfather would tell the boy to shut up or leave the girl alone.

And God forbid a boy hit a girl, you’d better expect that the boy would get a spanking. Or if two boys were quarreling or fighting, they would be left to finish it out and resolve it by themselves.

Historically, in my tribe the role of women was a lot more meaningful than “Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.” And it was different from even some primitive tribes that didn’t feed the women if the hunt didn’t go well. It was the Iroquois women who actually worked much like a Congress of sorts for the tribe.

The Iroquois women voted on who became chief and who remained so, even having the power to take the title away or “dehorning” the Tadadaho or “Chief of Chiefs,” which was a title given to the main leader of the Onondaga sub-Iroquois tribe. If the acting Tadadaho had done wrong, or wasn’t deemed good enough to lead the people, the women could vote on taking the deer horns off, thus shaming him, since it was usually done hastily when the chief was found to have done something that the women did not approve of.

The women were called “Clan Mothers,” including a grand clanmother, one of the oldest in the tribe, and usually at least one woman from each clan. The main clans of the Oneida are the wolf, bear, and turtle. But in the Iroquois Confederacy, there’s also deer, hawk, snipe, eel, beaver, and heron. Since the clanmothers had the ultimate say, essentially the women were overseers of the tribes.

Even the way an individual was placed into a clan was matrilineal. If your dad is wolf clan, and your mom is bear clan, you’re considered bear. If your mom is from the Onondaga tribe, and your dad was from the Oneida, then you were considered Onondaga. It is still this way today (even though it involves money as well, typical American bullshit). If your dad is non-native, and your mom is, then you are considered part of the tribe’s enrollment and can receive benefits because of it, such as health care and student loans. And you wouldn’t believe the trouble it’s caused in many a Native community, among families even.

With the introduction of other cultures, alcohol, drugs, and other hardships put upon the Iroquois people, many lost that old way of thinking. It since was replaced by views that many Americans, not just Native, are subjected to. And since many children grow up influenced by their surroundings, it’s no wonder why the role of women isn’t as sacred as it used to be. Think about it — did media such as daytime soap operas impact some of the young viewers who are in relationships today? Where did the modern romantic “affair” really come from?

I see in my people how distant this way of life has become from our older traditions. Trust me, growing up I’ve seen men beat up their girlfriends, pulling out their breasts in front of us kids, all drunk, One even knocked a woman’s teeth out, and she scooped them up and threw them down for everyone to see.

Fortunately, I had many women around me that wouldn’t take any shit like that, even if it meant leaving the man before that kind of craziness ensues. I claim to believe I was taught the right way–not only that you respect a woman, but from the good and the bad I saw alike, I held women to a standard that earned that respect.

One good example of the strong women in my family was my great-grandmother, Oneida Native American Mary Winder, At a time when women weren’t looked at as prime candidates for leadership, Mary led a fight, passed down from her father Wilson Cornelius, to win back lands that were originally “given” to the Oneidas by George Washington in the Treaty of Canandaigua in 1794.

Here was a woman, a mother of 11, having little formal education and who couldn’t speak English until she attended public school, yet still had the cojones to stand up to lying, cheating politicians. I mean, here’s someone who would be told back then to be quiet in the presence of  a man, particularly a white man. Yet she persisted in following up on the original treaty and what was owed to the Oneidas. And not through violence or protests, but merely from writing letters to Washington to ask the federal government to recognize and honor the original treaty and its guidelines.

Of course politicians break laws and ignore certain things, even on a grand level such as this, but it’s usually a hard thing to ignore when the paperwork is right there signed by one of the main forefathers of the United States. This treaty is still honored today — at least in the handing out of the “treaty cloth” which I still receive annually from the government. It is a sort of annuity to basically say the Six Nations of the Iroquois could be on their lands undisturbed by non-Indians. To me, the cloth is just what it is, a piece of cloth.

Now don’t get me wrong, this is not a case of “the white man stole the Indian’s land” type shit most people are sick of hearing. This was a large piece of land that was given to the Oneidas for helping Washington’s troops when they fought against the British, and supposedly as long as we receive this cloth, the treaty is supposed to be in effect. After so many years of broken laws, lies, murders, and God knows what else, the reservation was narrowed down to a measly 32 acres. It consists of mainly a number of disheveled trailers overrun with alcohol, drugs, and violence.

Mary fought with every bit of her life right to her death in 1954. Three years after Mary’s death, the official filing of the land claim was put into effect and a great victory was won for the Oneidas in the mid ’90s. It seemed that Mary’s struggle paid off. But the Oneidas didn’t get their land back, and the sum of the basic land worth (just under a billion dollars, but the land would be worth way too much to even consider now) was overturned when George W. Bush came into power. Now, with the help of Oneida owned casinos, large acquisitions of land have since been put into trust for the future of the Oneida people.

I’ll be frank with you, a lot of the Native women I see nowadays are still tough as nails. Sometimes it can even be a problem, because no one generally wants to be overshadowed by anyone. When domestic violence happens, I believe it can sometimes result from a man not being able to take orders from a strong woman.

But I think that a majority of natives (all that I’ve seen so far) have made a special place for women, validating ALL of what a woman does, including as a mother and the pain of childbirth. As a man, I still find it strange that though I hear birth is worse than an abscessed tooth, even some of the weakest women accept this pain like something to look forward to.  If it really is like pulling your top lip up over the top of your own head, could it be a natural instinct to bear children and endure this pain?

Being from the Oneida/Iroquois Native American tribe, my mother came from a flim flam of roles women were put through before men and women finally, FINALLY got it. There IS no actual role in a family. The only way things in life can go smoothly is to avoid a format for the woman’s or the man’s role, and instead to build a role according to each person’s needs, family, and surroundings. Be it a woman who brings her son to a baseball game, or a man that shows his daughter the correct way to make eggs sunny side up, it is what you make of it.


Photograph of Oneida Native American Mary Winder (digitally altered by Noel Benson)


Noel Chrisjohn Benson
Noel Chrisjohn Benson is a sculptor/jeweler/writer/actor and overall artist from the New York band of Oneida/Iroquois tribe (Wolf Clan). His art pieces are in half a dozen museums, including the Iroquois Indian Museum in Howes Cave, NY, as well as the Institute of American Indian Arts Museum in Santa Fe, NM. He has written for “Eyapaha Today” a sub newspaper for “Native Sun News” as well as “Come to Woodstock” from the town in Upstate NY. He is currently working on his novel “The Blank Canvas,” as well as a book/reference to the Who’s Who in Contemporary Native American Art.