The Acknowledgment of Women and Their Gifts

Both Blackfoot and Lakota recognize women’s crucial role in enabling their communities to survive. Blackfoot, who speak an Algonkian language, have lived on the Northwestern Plains for many centuries, probably millennia. Lakota speak a Siouan language, quite unrelated to Algonkian, and are the Western components of an alliance with Dakota and Nakoda stretching from the upper Mississippi River through the Dakotas. Historically, both Blackfoot and Lakota depended on hunting bison, although Dakota in the Eastern Plains also raised maize and harvested wild rice. European contacts, initially with fur traders, began in the late seventeenth century. As European colonization pushed westward, so did Midwestern First Nations at the frontier, moving into territories already populated by other Indian nations. Complicating issues of territorial domains was the series of severe epidemics, particularly smallpox, decimating the Indian nations every generation from at least 1780 until final conquests and establishment of reservations a century later. The popular image of both Blackfoot and Lakota is of fierce warriors on horseback contesting the country against white homesteaders.

Confrontations and negotiations between men representing Anglo governments and First Nations men who were acknowledged as leaders have dominated ethnographies and histories. Anglo officials did not admit women to participate in treaty conclaves, nor give women official roles in the early reservations. Late nineteenth- century ethnographies conducted on the reservations are full of stories of men’s war exploits. Women’s activities are described as mundane matters and accounts of marital and extramarital relations given from men’s point of view, without any balancing from women’s point of view. These include, for example, gang rape by a husband and his comrades, or mutilation, to punish an adulterous wife. Our pictures of Northern Plains First Nations women are also skewed by ethnographers’ inability to distinguish slave women - such as the famous Sakakawea who accompanied

Lewis and Clark’s expedition, 1804-1806 - from both commoner and aristocratic women in First Nations communities.

The breakthrough in rectifying conventional skewed pictures of Plains Indian gender roles came in a session at the 1977 Plains Conference. Organized by Patricia Albers and Beatrice Medicine (herself Lakota), papers in the session were subsequently published under the title The Hidden Half (Albers and Medicine 1983). The papers emphasized that Northern Plains First Nations patterned gender roles into complementary spheres. Men were expected to go out hunting, to raid enemies for plunder, and to act as soldiers defending territory. Women owned the tipis, household furnishings, and domestic utensils. In addition, they manufactured tipis, clothing, and containers. They harvested plant foods and medicines and processed all food and hides, embroidered and decorated clothing and objects, and cared for children and for holy objects. This long list of what pertains to women, compared to the short list of men’s responsibilities, correctly indicates women’s central role in maintaining their communities. It was not uncommon for women to go out with hunting or war parties, although only a few women rejected domestic duties in favor of regular participation in war excursions (Medicine 1983). Blackfoot tell a legendary history succinctly revealing their understanding of the relative worth of men and women for communities:

The men and the women of the ancient Peigans [Blackfoot] did not live together in the beginning. The women ... made buffalo-corrals. Their lodges were fine. Their clothes were cow-skins. Their moccasins were of the same. They tanned the buffalo-hides, those were their robes. They would cut the meat in slices. In summer they picked berries. They used them in winter. Their lodges all were fine inside. And their things were just as fine..

Now, the men . were very poor. They made corrals. They had no lodges. They wore raw-hides and antelope-hides for robes.. They did not know, how they should make lodges. They did not know, how they should tan the buffalo-hides. They did not know, too, how they should cut dried meat, how they should sew their clothes. One useful thing of theirs were their bows and arrows. They had flint-knives.. After a long while their chief told them: Let us look for the women. (Uhlenbeck 1922: 167-70, reprinted in Eggermont- Molenaar 2005:326-27)

The story then describes how these pitiful men sat near the women’s camp and the corral where they were butchering bison. The chief of the women decided that she and her band would each select a man for a husband and bring him into her lodge. She went up to the men’s chief, the foolish and impulsive Napi (Dawn [-of-time] Man). He disdained her in her work dress. She went into her lodge, cleaned up, and put on her finest clothes. Now Napi wanted her. Haughtily, she chose another man, ignoring the eager Napi who valued fancy clothing over the work dress of an industrious woman.

It is clear from this legendary history that Blackfoot considered women to be entirely self-sufficient, able to corral bison for themselves as well as to prepare all the appurtenances of comfortable living. It is clear, too, that women give men the opportunity to live comfortably. In the community, women link with men in begetting and raising families, joining and participating in all-comrade societies, and tending holy pipes and other “medicine bundles” (such as the Natoas). In Blackfoot religious ceremonies, women give men opportunity to connect with spiritual power.

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