Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835

Perdue, Theda. Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998.

Historian Theda Perdue presents a compelling portrait of Cherokee women from the beginning of the eighteenth century to the forced removal of the tribe in 1835 from the southeastern United States to what would later become Oklahoma. Despite the title, this is not simply the history of Cherokee women, but also reveals the intersections of gender with race and class and the impact of capitalism and imperialism on societies organized on communitarian, redistributive, decentralized principles. Her work demonstrates the methodological advances and increasing sophistication of gendered historical analyses over the past three decades. She argues that the study of native women must be approached on two levels: “We must pay attention to how women and men related to each other within their own societies, and we must look at ways in which those relations became part of the larger debate over Indians and Indian policy” (p. 11). Perdue does not merely restore Cherokee women to their history—she places them at the center of the Cherokees’ world, and documents their vital role in the persistence of Cherokee culture even as their people were continuously buffeted and battered by enormous economic, political, and social changes, epidemic disease, and military violence.

Perdue opens with a discussion of sources and methodology and points out that most of the eighteenth and nineteenth-century historical texts present serious obstacles to obtaining a clear, complete portrait of the roles and significance of native women because they were written by European men. These male observers often possessed a limited view of Indian society and had little contact with native women and an even more inadequate understanding of their social roles, especially because their perspective was shaped by European gender roles and expectations. Thus, she uses an approach called "ethnohistory" that combines history with anthropology and ethnography, and uses archeology, oral traditions and histories, and “upstreaming” in addition to texts. Perdue describes upstreaming as "following cultural patterns from the known present to the less well understood past." (p. 8)

Perdue is also reacting to the work of previous scholars, such as William McLoughlin’s interpretation of Cherokee history in terms of anomie and renascence, Cherokee Renascence in the New Republic (1986), and Angie Debo’s The Road to Disappearance: A History of the Creek Indians (1941). Perdue believes that the declension model is problematic because it focuses on a few specific markers of loss and decline, such as military defeat and land cessions, and thus obscures other important cultural features.

The myth of Kana’ti and Selu (the Corn Woman or Corn Mother) reflected and shaped the complementary and balanced nature of gender roles in Cherokee society, which was based on a sexual division of labor.1 Men hunted and women farmed; they engaged in different tasks and performed different rituals and any crossing of these boundaries was always potentially dangerous—although men did assist with some agricultural tasks and women sometimes engaged in warfare. Men furnished meat from their hunts, and later traded deerskins for desirable trade goods, but women provided the bulk of Cherokee subsistence. This clearly gave them greater economic and social power, in contrast to the lower status of the native women examined by Sylvia Van Kirk in Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670-1870 (1983), who did not farm at all and relied much more heavily on male hunting for daily sustenance.

Moreover, the Cherokees were matrilineal, meaning that Cherokee identity and kinship were traced solely through the maternal line—a father and his relatives were not considered to have “blood ties” with his children. Cherokee communities were originally bound together only through kinship, particularly clan divisions, and not political structures. Political organization, such as the rise of influential chiefs and the Cherokee Republic, only occurred after contact and primarily resulted from European attempts to centralize and control Indian society, or the increasing emphasis on wealth as a marker of status as male Cherokees became more deeply involved in the market economy.

After contact with Europeans, Cherokee men’s increasing participation in trade and warfare began to threaten the traditional gender balance. Male hunting provided the deerskins that could be traded for desirable European goods such as kettles, hatchets, and textiles, and warfare became disconnected from its traditional purpose of avenging the death of a member of the maternal kinship line as the Cherokees were drawn into European imperial rivalries. Warriors began to dominate Cherokee society, and the treaties that ceded Cherokee lands were negotiated by men. However, Perdue emphasizes that men continued to depend on women to farm, raise the children, and maintain the community; indeed, their importance and influence may have increased because the men were absent for such long periods. But “foreign policy came to dominate Cherokee politics, and gender rather than kinship came to determine political participation” (p. 108). And of course, no matter how “civilized” the Cherokees became, in the end, the Anglo-Americans remained determined to expel all the Indians from their midst.


1 For more on the Cherokee myth of Selu and Kana'ti, see "Selu and Kana'Ti" - or "The Origin of Game and Corn" at http://www.ferrum.edu/applit/bibs/tales/selu.htm; "The Corn Woman" at http://www.cherokee-nc.com/legends.php?Name=The%20Corn%20Woman.

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