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Running Head: INDIGENOUS GENDER ROLES
The Impact of Western Influence on Traditional Gender Roles among Aboriginal Australians and Native Americans Travis Sky Ingersoll Widener University: HSED 594
Indigenous Gender Roles 2 Introduction In this paper I will focus on gender roles, and how western invasion and colonization impacted those roles among the American and Australian continent’s aboriginal populations. To keep this report concise I will only offer a perfunctory overview of related topics, such as the Native American Two-Spirits, and the complex kinship systems of the Aboriginal Australians. Although these two topics are extremely relevant in the discussion of gender roles among indigenous populations, to thoroughly explore such topics would greatly exceed the size limitations of this paper. Recognizing the limitations of such a report, there are a few important points to make before diving into the subject at hand. First, most of the literature concerning Native American and Aboriginal Australian gender roles has been written by people of European descent, and not by the indigenous populations themselves. Second, by the time anthropologists and historians began documenting the behaviors of the indigenous people they met, it was typical that western influence could already be felt (Beatrice, 1985; Bonvillain, 1989; Broom, 1994; Muir, 2000; Murray, 1994). With that in mind, it is safe to assume that indigenous lifestyles viewed through the microscope of western eyes may be adulterated by western moral ideologies. The obvious way to gain a valid understanding of such a topic is to hear it from the mouths of the populations being examined, and from their own unique understanding of the world in which they live. However the lack of such documentation makes that task extremely difficult. Lastly, is the inherent difficulty with trying to generalize gender roles among Native American and Aboriginal Australian people. When talking of Native Americans, one must encompass the plethora of diverse peoples in both North and South America. On
Indigenous Gender Roles 3 the single continent of Australia, when Europeans arrived on its shores, there were more than 500 distinct Aboriginal tribes (Broome, 1994). Although within the many indigenous peoples of the Americas and Australia there exist veins of commonality, such as with creation myths and gender roles, there also are cultural differences that discourage overgeneralization. With those glaring limitations noted, what this report will try and establish is a generalized overview of Native American and Aboriginal Australian gender roles prior to the influence of Western society. Following that exploration will be a brief review of literature documenting western society’s impact on the gender roles of the American and Australian continent’s indigenous populations, both initially as well as in the present. This paper will conclude with my own reactions and insights gained from exploring this fascinating topic.
Native American Gender Roles Throughout North and South America, many of the native population’s creation myths appear to have led to the establishment of egalitarian gender roles within their societies. Where western ideologies, based primarily on Christianity, emphasized a singular male god, most indigenous American cultures emphasized the importance of both male and female deities. Under the moral authority of western religion, women were considered inferior, whereas with most Native American cultures women were viewed as equals to men (Bonvillain, 1989; Picchi, 2003; Tannahil, 1982). In Eskimo culture the most powerful deity was called Sedna. She was responsible for ensuring the survival of the Eskimo people through the yearly creation of the sea-life on
Indigenous Gender Roles 4 which they depended. Navajo people stressed the importance of women’s fertility, and of the spiritual bond between mother and child. Many Navajo mythical stories involve mother figures, such as the “Changing Woman,” who came when early humans lost their ability to reproduce. She mated with the Sun, producing twins, who eventually gave birth to all Navajo clans. Among the Iroquois, symbolism of female fertility and power was also expressed through their creation myths. According to Iroquois legend the female figure, “Aataensic,” was responsible for creating all life and is honored for being the caretaker of human souls (Bonvillain, 1989). Although some Native American religions talk of great female deities responsible for giving and sustaining life, many stress that the great spiritual beings were neither male nor female, but a combination of both (Powers, 2000; Williams, 1983). Such is the belief system of Native American peoples who revered the Two-Spirits. Within the Two-Spirits, the creators are said to have instilled the spirit of both man and woman, creating a third gender, who act as intermediaries between the polarities of male and female. The TwoSpirits were said to have been created for the purpose of improving society through their creative ingenuity, their spiritual power, and their ability to act as go-betweens for addressing relationship issues between men and women (Williams, 1983). Within the South American continent, many of the pan-Andean peoples’ supernatural beings were conceptualized as possessing both masculine and feminine traits, and sometimes having both male and female bodily forms. The main Inca god “Virococha” is an example of such a being. Virococha produced two lines of deities, one male and one female, who in turn created all human men and women. This “founding couple” spiritual paradigm provided the basis for the belief in gender parallelism, which lies at the root of
Indigenous Gender Roles 5 most pan-Andean religions (Picchi, 2003; Powers, 2000). In contrast, western societies emphasized a “founding father,” which inevitably led to the suppression and subjugation of women around the world (Tannahil, 1982). Gender roles within most Native American societies, on both continents, were primarily based on the specialization of labor. However, the spirit of a person was more significant than their physical sex. This attitude was reflected in the way transgender men and women of many indigenous North American societies could permanently assume the role of the opposite sex (Williams, 1983). Although men and women were assigned gender-specific tasks, those tasks were seen as equal in contribution to their groups. The allocation of tasks specific to one’s gender created a system of reciprocity that fostered the interdependence of the sexes. Since both the men and women’s work were equally valued, neither sex was seen as superior (Blackwood, 1984; Bonvillain, 1989; Picchi, 2003). In addition each sex highly valued the other since the group’s health and survival could not be maintained without one or the other (Powers, 2000). In general men were assigned the tasks of hunting, fishing, weapon and tool making, while women spent their time making clothes, preparing food, and foraging for plants, fruits, nuts and small animals that provided their group’s main source of sustenance. Women were also responsible for taking care of the children. However such roles were fluid, in that men would help with the tasks of childrearing and domestic chores, while women would at times participate in the hunt (Blackwood, 1984; Bonvillain, 1989; Powers, 2000; Williams, 1986). Also notable, although uncommon, are the documentations of women warriors (Blackwood, 1984; Carneiro, 2002).
Indigenous Gender Roles 6 Throughout Native American societies, from the tip of Alaska to the mountains of Peru, women and men both played important roles in politics and religion. Although in many Native American societies men held the top-most positions in politics and religion, there existed cultures where women were on top of the spiritual and social hierarchies. In fact, as Inca society broadened its borders throughout South America, they came upon cultures that were completely female dominated (Poweres, 2000). In North America, both Navajo and Iroquois ideologies emphasized women’s fertility and the power of the mother/child bond. This way of thinking greatly influenced their daily lives, as well as through the expressions of rituals and myths (Bonvillain, 1989) The Navajo clan mother was at the center of all in matters of spirit and politics (Kluckhohn & Leighton, 1962). Matrilineal clans allocated the lands on which the Navajo farmed. In addition, each clan’s epicenter was a matri-local residence where husbands of the clan mother’s daughters would relocate to after their wedding ceremonies. Political and social decisions were equally worked through by men and women together, although typically the clan mother’s input weighed heaviest (Downs, 1972; Bonvillain, 1989). The Iroquois were much like the Navajo with regards to land allocation and postmarriage matri-local residences. Iroquois women had an even greater role in their people’s welfare, in that they controlled and were in charge of distributing the goods of both men and women. Although men were the clan’s primary traders and warriors, they relied on the women to supply them with the food they needed while away. In the political realm, although male chiefs were responsible for representing the voices of both their clan’s men and women, it was the clan mothers’ who chose which men would take on that important role (Bonvillain, 1989).
Indigenous Gender Roles 7 In South America, staying true to the Inca doctrine of parallelism, property, wealth, ritual status, and other resources were passed down from mother to daughter and from father to son. In this way women were assured access to the means for their survival, independent of men. Both religiously and politically men and women had access to status and power, although women were not usually permitted to be at the upper most echelons of authority. However, like with the Iroquois and Navajo, often the men who gained access to supreme authority did so with the help of prominent women (Powers, 2000). Around the 16th century, the egalitarianism of most Native American peoples would come under attack with the arrival of foreigners upon their shores. The European emphasis on Christianity and male dominance would permanently alter the lives of most indigenous Americans. When the Spanish explorers arrived in South America they quickly began to push their agenda of male supremacy and sexual oppression, which had a disastrous effect on the status of South American women (Picchi, 2003; Powers, 2000; Tannahil, 1982). Under the Spanish colonial regime, women would become stripped of their autonomy, and the gender-parallelism that governed the Inca society would be left in ruins. The Spanish, being a patriarchal war-like society, was built upon a foundation of Christian evangelicalism. The Spanish soldiers and missionaries would not tolerate women holding power economically, politically and/or religiously. As a result, women began to lose their status on all levels. Their matrilineal access to resources was obliterated, being replaced by male-centered organizations. Although women did put up resistance, and used whatever means were at their disposal, over time the Inca men would come to
Indigenous Gender Roles 8 internalize the male-centered ideologies of their conquerors, which led to a pervasive atmosphere of male-superiority (Powers, 2000). On the continent of North America, the constant stream of incoming colonizers would also significantly alter the gender roles of the indigenous populations. Christian missionaries, like those in South America, preached of strict gender roles and the subjugation of women. Within this atmosphere of sexual suppression there was no place for the Two-Spirits, who through western eyes were nothing more than sinful sodomites (Williams, 1986). In fact, all expressions of gender variance were oppressively squelched. Just as with the invasion of South America, the patriarchal ideologies of North American colonizers persistently eroded the status of Native American women. Male dominance was preached and even forced upon the indigenous peoples through government-funded re-education programs. This pressured acculturation eventually resulted in Native American rejection of cross-gender roles (i.e. a third gender), and the adoption of the male-centered ideologies of the colonists. Over time, as western colonization spread, the traditional gender-allocated system of reciprocal labor would be replaced by a market in which the demand for male-labor dominated. So not only was the spiritual role of women depreciated through the emphasis of a supreme male God, but women’s means of contributing equally to their people’s livelihood was also stripped away (Bonvillain, 1989; Williams, 1986). At this time I find it necessary to communicate the fact that not all Native American peoples were as egalitarian as the Iroquois or the Navajo. As with anything, there were exceptions. For instance, many tribes in the North American plains, as well as the Aztecs
Indigenous Gender Roles 9 further south, were more war-like in nature. This atmosphere of testosterone-fueled bravado created an atmosphere of male dominion and female submission. For those indigenous Americans, more negative consequences would be felt in other areas of their lives than with gender roles. In fact, their gender roles would change little, marked mostly by the loss of male status and their ability to provide (Bonvillain, 1989; Medicine, 1985; Tannahil, 1983). One would hope that over time, with the advent of information-spreading technology like the internet, the negative effects that western society had on Native American gender roles would begin to reverse themselves. However, literature on contemporary Native American gender roles, on both continents, suggest that very little of the deleterious effects caused by western ideologies have been reversed. In fact, the volume of literature pointing at the need for further research on indigenous American gender roles, the need for greater advocacy for Native American women’s rights, and the push for Native American educational programs to promote gender equity illustrates this reality (American Indian Resource Center, 1992; Goodman, 1993; Herring, 1999; Medicine, 1985; Vinding, 1998).
Aboriginal Australian Gender Roles Much like the creation myths of many Native American societies, the Aboriginal Australian myths incorporate the important role of the female gender. According to Aborigines, life began when superhuman beings, encompassing the characteristics of man, women, , as well as human and animal, broke from the confines of the cold and barren Earth, and breathed life unto the land, waters, and sky (Broome, 1994). From
Indigenous Gender Roles 10 those early superhuman beings, the great male and female ancestors of all Aboriginal Australian people were created. Those early ancestors not only were responsible for the creation of all Aboriginal peoples, but also passed down gender specific knowledge of sacred places, rituals, and rules of kinship. Many of the mythical female ancestors were dignified, powerful, and awe-inspiring. According to Aboriginal legend, these first female creators at one time possessed all the sacred rites and emblems, which would eventually be divided among both men and women (Strehlow, 1947). These early female ancestors first circumcised the male ancestors, and taught them how to properly circumcise their youth, a ritual which would become the traditional role of the male gender (Broom, 1994; Dussart, 1992). Although females of Aboriginal creation myths held as much, and at times even more, power as their male counterparts, Aboriginal society would end up being more male dominated. Much like the indigenous peoples of the Americas’, the Aborigines’ gender specific specialization of labor revolved around the hunting and/or fishing of men, and the foraging, food preparation, and domestic responsibilities of women. Also like Native Americans, Aboriginal men and women participated equally in the production of tradeitems and utilitarian instruments. Similarly, both men and women’s roles in the survival of the kinship groups within their territory was seen as equal and reciprocal (Broome, 1994). However, in Aboriginal societies there were clear-cut divisions between men’s and women’s roles (Maher, 1999). For women this included all aspects of reproduction, including menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, contraception, abortion and female ceremonial business. The strict domain of Aboriginal men included conflicts, the land,
Indigenous Gender Roles 11 male anatomy, and male religious ceremonies. With their respected role as keepers and protectors of the land, men came to dominate Aboriginal politics and religious affairs. Each Aboriginal man and woman was intimately tied to their land and the life upon it. Early Aborigines believed that each person was part of an animal totem. When a woman realized that she was pregnant, it was understood that the spirit of an animal close by had impregnated her. Upon reaching adulthood, men primarily would have to perform ceremonies yearly at the site of their sacred totem, to keep the balance of life in order, and to promote the health of his totem animal and his people (Broome, 1994; Jolly, 2004). The gender roles of Aborigines would be taught through a process of initiation into adulthood, which would begin around the ages of 10-12. Boys spent many years acquiring the skills necessary to hunt and defend their future wives. This was also a time of pain and tests of endurance. For many boys, part of the initiation process included having one of their front teeth pulled out (Macintyre, 1999). Female ceremonies were less elaborate and lengthy than for males. Adolescent girls were taught how to live off the gatherable bounty of the land. They were taught the skills of being good sexual partners and matters of reproduction. When they became mothers, they were the ones responsible for instilling within their children a deep respect and love for the land on which they lived, and their cohabiting life forms (Broome, 1994). According to Aboriginal kinship law, everyone living within your group is considered family. For example, all of your father’s brothers are also your fathers, and all of your mother’s sisters are also your mothers. The rest of the clan becomes your aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, etc., regardless of any true blood relation. The kinship group behaved as
Indigenous Gender Roles 12 parts of a unified whole, where everything one did was for the benefit of the entire group. Within these kinship groups, women and men perceived themselves as interdependent. However, due to religious law, a man was tied to the land on which he was born. This meant that when a woman married a man, she was obligated to live in his territory (Broome, 1994; Berndt & Berndt, 1982). Every kinship clan was ruled by its eldest male members. Many of the most important aboriginal ceremonies were open only to men. And it was the men that possessed and guarded their people’s sacred religious items. It was believed that the powerful spiritual forces at play were too dangerous for women to get involved with. Although men dominated politics and religious ceremonies, women held their own rituals mostly revolving around fertility. The rituals of Aborigines involved song, dance and body painting (Berndt & Berndt, 1982; Broome, 1994; Dussart, 1992). Although women could wield influence as to who became married to whom, marriages were typically arranged by men. Some Aboriginal men had multiple wives, however monogamy characterized most Aboriginal marriages. This was mostly due to resource limitations, for a husband was required to reciprocate in many ways to his wife’s family. Once married a man could lend his wife out to another man with the expectation of reciprocation in some form. This could be done without the wife’s consent. Although Berndt and Berndt (1982) wrote that this was not always a bad situation for the woman involved, it does demonstrate how unequal traditional Aboriginal gender roles were. Another example of inequality concerning Aboriginal gender roles is the fact that only women had to obey food and speech taboos upon the death of a spouse. This was a rule
Indigenous Gender Roles 13 created by the men to ensure that a dead husband would be properly mourned (Dussart, 1992). With the arrival of Captain Cook in the late 18th century, the lives of Aboriginal Australians would begin to be drastically changed. Through arrogant ethnocentrism, and the gross miscalculation of the continent’s indigenous population, the entire continent would be labeled, “terra nullius,” which means an uninhabited place. This would lead to the Aborigines’ land being taken away, attempts at genocide, and the near destruction of traditional aboriginal culture. The survivors would become isolated on the social, economic and geographical boundaries of mainstream society (Maher, 1999). Although every other aspect of Aboriginal existence was drastically altered as a result of colonization, as with prominently male-centered Native American cultures, traditional gender roles changed little for Aborigines (Broome, 1994; Macintyre, 1999). According to contemporary literature on gender roles among Aboriginal Australians, what has significantly begun to change is the status and power of Aboriginal women in relation to that of Aboriginal men. In an article on the politics of Aboriginal female identity, Dussart (1992) states that no longer do men have the ultimate say with regards to who marries whom. Women are beginning to marry out of love, and not due to traditional kinship law. Also, the tradition of imposing food and speech taboos on widows is also becoming challenged by more Aboriginal women (Maher, 1999). In a more recent article by Dussart (2004), it is shown that Aboriginal women are now at the forefront of revitalizing traditional Aboriginal spiritual ceremonies and rites, thereby elevating their role within Aboriginal politics and religion.
Indigenous Gender Roles 14 Since the gender roles of Aboriginal women were traditionally inferior to those of Aboriginal men, at least in my Eurocentric understanding, it is no surprise that men would lose out in light of changing times. According to Jones (1993), in present day Australia, although all Aborigines are disadvantaged citizens in relation to white Australians, Aboriginal men earn less and have higher unemployment rates than Aboriginal women. It is also noted that white Australians tends to treat Aboriginal women better than Aboriginal men. The reason for this has not been fully explored, but I suspect it has something to do with the way white Australians view traditional Aboriginal gender roles. Although the European colonization of Australia proved disastrous to the Aborigines and their way of life in general, it seems to be producing some positive outcomes for Aboriginal women regarding gender equity.
Conclusion Throughout my exploration of Native American and Aboriginal Australian gender roles, I have noticed just how important creation stories are to the establishment of equity among the world’s men and women. In the book Sex in History by Tannahil (1983), it was proposed that male dominance over women began with the domestication of animals. This may be true, but it also appears that many societies either missed the lesson or decided to ignore it. I can’t imagine that the domestication of plants and animals came after the ancient relatives of native North and South Americans began walking across the land bridge between Asia and what is now Alaska. In my opinion, religion is the primary root of gender inequality. Although Christianity served the first blows to the egalitarianism of many Native American societies, those cultures with enough indigenous
Indigenous Gender Roles 15 pride to initially resist the doctrine of male-supremacy would eventually have their sense of gender parallelism altered through the forces of economics (Bonvillain, 1989; Picchi, 2003). What I also learned was contrary to my original supposition regarding the gender roles of Native Americans. I thought that, at least in North America, gender equality was a universal aspect of Native American life. I was surprised to find that many of the indigenous Plains peoples were primarily male dominated. I was also surprised to find that there existed societies in South America where women were the supreme rulers, giving credence to my fantasies of the Amazonian women warriors who populated my childhood fantasies. With regards to Aboriginal Australians I had learned, as an exchange student in Australia, the sad history of Aborigines as a result of European colonization. I had also learned of their kinship systems and of their relations to the lands on which they lived. What I had not learned were the details of their gender roles and initiation rites. The similarities between Native American Plains people and Aboriginal Australians are striking. In both societies the people traveled following the animals on which they preyed, and were characterized by frequent tribal warfare. So it appears that even when creation stories promote gender equity, the harsh realities of life tend to tip the scales towards the gender whose hormone-driven characteristics better ensure survival. In the present, the entire globe is moving towards greater gender equality, recognizing gender variance, and the acceptance of atypical sexual orientations. Although this process is happening much too slow in my opinion, one can not deny that a movement is under way. Could this simply be due to the weakening religious control within our
Indigenous Gender Roles 16 planet’s technologically advanced societies, or is it a natural step in our evolution as a social species? If it is part of a natural, social evolution to move towards gender parallelism, then it is safe to say that the results of European colonization and the spread of Christianity not only retarded our evolution, it actually knocked us back many centuries, if not millennium! Within our planet’s indigenous populations, this move towards gender equality will be for some the beginning of a completely new reality. This is evident in the rising status of Aboriginal women within Aboriginal society. For others, such as the Iroquois, Navajo, and many other native North and South Americans, it will be a move back towards the more traditional. I believe that we are, as a planet, evolving towards the gender parallelism and gender variance understandings that were once a part of many enlightened indigenous populations. There is a paradigm shift under way, with regards to the understanding of gender and sexuality. When Mark Pope, an openly gay Native American with a heritage of twospirited people, can be voted in as president of the American Psychiatric Association, you can tell we’re moving in the right direction (Pope, 2003). I have faith in the human race, and as a future sexologist will do my best to help facilitate this much needed change in gender relations, as scores of others in various academic fields are doing right now.
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