Women’s Power to Give: Their Central Role in Northern Plains First Nations

JoAllyn Archambault and Alice Beck Kehoe


Among the two leading First Nations of the Northern Plains, North America, Blackfoot (Niitsitapi) and Lakota (Sioux), women are crucial to bringing blessing and power to their communities. In both nations, men go out fasting to gain some power to live, while women’s innate reproductive capacity indicates they are born with greater power.1 Women not only give their communities the next generation, and homes, but access to Almighty power via their central role in ceremonies.

For Blackfoot, women’s reproductive capacity extends beyond childbearing to making the home, clothing, containers, and processing food. The legend of the First Marriages describes men as without ability to make any of these necessities, having nothing but their bows and arrows and flint knives. Women, in contrast, made fine lodges, clothing, and cuisine. Pitying the men, the women took them into their lodges as husbands. Traditionally, Blackfoot women owned their homes (tipis) and furnishings. Men lived with them on sufferance. The Blackfoot Sun Dance (Okan) is led by a priestess, the Holy Woman, and without such a woman willing to sacrifice her earnings and comfort to offer the Okan and carry out fasting and prayers, this most important of Blackfoot ceremonies cannot be performed. The Okan is technically the ritual of a medicine bundle (the Natoas). All major Blackfoot ceremonies are based in medicine bundles, and only women can open the bundles, hand

Before her death, Dr. Beatrice Medicine prepared a paper on this topic for this volume. Unfortunately, she had not yet sent it to the editor, and it could not be found among her papers in her home. We have attempted to reflect our dear and esteemed colleague’s views in this chapter and deeply regret that readers will not have her own presentation.

J. Archambault

Department of Anthropology, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, USA A.B. Kehoe (*)

Marquette University, Milwaukee, WI, USA e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2017

M. Joy (ed.), Women, Religion, and the Gift, Sophia Studies in Cross-cultural Philosophy of Traditions and Cultures 17, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-43189-5_7

out the holy objects inside, and rebundle them afterward. Therefore, Blackfoot men’s access to traditional ritual performances is mediated by women, whose ability and willingness to act in this capacity are a gift to their communities.

For Lakota, holy pipes are links between humans and the Almighty. Knowledge of the pipe and principal ceremonies was brought to Lakota by the White Buffalo Calf Woman, who was actually a bison heifer. She gave both the pipe and ceremonies and the gift of her bison people to sustain the Lakota. Another legendary personage for Lakota is Double Woman, who can be dangerous to men but gives artistic power and visions of designs to women who approach her. These human women then can give objects of beauty to their families and communities.

From a woman’s perspective, men’s flamboyance in dancing and battle indicates not leadership but a lesser position. Women’s roles command respect. Unfortunately, Western ethnographers did not, as a rule, realize the dependence of Northern Plains First Nations on women’s gifts.

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