Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835. By Theda Perdue. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998. xi, 252 pp. $40.00. ISBN 0-8032-3716-2.
"Without a woman, the dance could not have taken place" (p. 2). This statement, part of a crucial metaphor in Theda Perdue's study of Cherokee women, refers to an incident she observed at a Cherokee stomp dance in Oklahoma in the summer of 1993. Late in the evening, when most dancers were weary, a male singer led a group of young men to the fire at the center of the dance ground. The singer tried to coax others to join them, but for an awkward interval no women came forth. As bystanders began to wonder if there would be another round of dancing, a female dancer moved in behind the singer and, using the heavy turtle shell rattles on her legs, "set the rhythm and permitted him to sing" (p. 2).
In the stomp dance, as in all facets of traditional Cherokee life, women and men follow anciently prescribed roles that complement each other and make it possible for Cherokees to live balanced lives. Perdue examines the interplay between the Cherokees' desire for balance, their creation of a symmetrical society, and their construction of gender. Her thesis is that important elements of their traditional definition of gender survived numerous assaults from Euro-American influences and remain vital today. In her words, "the story of most Cherokee women is not cultural transformation ... but remarkable cultural persistence" (p. 11).Before European contact, the Cherokees practiced a gender-specific division of labor: women farmed and men hunted. This fundamental separation of responsibilities empowered women even as it stimulated the emergence of a distinct women's culture. As heads of matrilocal households women owned considerable property-the house itself, adjacent storage buildings, a kitchen garden, and produce from allotted portions of communally owned cornfields. A kinship system based on matrilineal clans was the source of Cherokee identity and the sinew of society. Motherhood was a social as well as a biological function: "Only those who belonged to Cherokee clans ... only those who had Cherokee mothers were Ani-Yuna Wiya, the Real People [Cherokee] " (p. 59). Women exerted political influence by participating in community council meetings, and they had significant roles in Cherokee ceremonial life. "Beloved Women," elders with supernatural powers, exercised essential spiritual authority, while "War Women," who gained status by accompanying men to battle, possessed the right to decide if captives lived or died.
The arrival of Europeans and the subsequent establishment of the United States disrupted Cherokee life but failed to destroy its foundations. The deerskin trade brought men to the forefront economically, and male-dominated European methods of diplomacy diminished the importance of women in political negotiations. Christianity and "civilization" rested on hierarchical, patriarchal relationships, which missionaries attempted with mixed success to impose on Cherokee families.
Previous studies of the impact of Euro-Americans on Cherokee society have concluded that the importance of women declined dramatically after contact. Cherokee Women proves otherwise. Perdue goes beyond the usual emphasis on economics and politics to examine cultural dynamics. She skillfully uses ethnohistorical methods to demonstrate that although changes occurred, essential values persisted. Women became preservers of Cherokee traditions, and thev remain so today. Pointing to the recent leadership roles of Wilma Mankiller in Oklahoma and Joyce Dugan in North Carolina, Perdue concludes, "these women did not become chiefs by succeeding in business or law; they became chiefs because they embodied the values of generations of Cherokee women, values apparently still honored and respected by men and women alike" (p. 195).
Cherokee Women is a valuable addition to the growing scholarship on American Indian women. Nonspecialists interested in native people will enjoy its clarity of style and organization. Specialists and students (particularly those in graduate courses) in American Indian studies, women's history, and United States history will appreciate its challenging themes, fruitful methodology, and astute analysis of sources. Perdue provides a model for future scholarship on the place of women among other native peoples-those non-Cherokees who lived in Alabama, for example. The major disappointment with this study is that it ends with the onset of Cherokee removal from the Southeast. There is a definite need to bring the story of Cherokee women into the twentieth century. Certainly, their dance goes on.
Auburn UniversityCopyright University of Alabama Press Apr 2000
Cherokee Women Had Important Influence in Daily Life of Tribe
ARKANSAS TERRITORY — As Cherokee children of the 1820s sit around the wood stoves in the kitchens of their farmhouses on the Cherokee Reservation between the White and Arkansas rivers, they learn the history of their tribe. Their mothers tell them how important women and children were to the tribe in the old days when all the tribe lived east of the Mississippi River.
In the 1500s, the Spanish explorers Hernando de Soto and Juan Pardo, met women chiefs with “considerable power among the southeastern Indians. Cherokee beloved women” were people of influence; like Nancy Ward, who spoke in council meetings and conducted negotiations.
The Cherokees were a matrilineal tribe, which means daughters could inherit things from their mothers. So women could own property separately from their husbands, such as a house that a daughter inherited from her mother.
The matrilineal clans owned the agricultural fields they farmed, and women often sold food and other goods to the European explorers and settlers.
Work among the Cherokees was divided between women and men. The work year was divided into two seasons — the warm and the cold. During the warm season, women grew food plants in the kitchen gardens near their houses and grew corn in the larger agricultural fields. Men fished and did some hunting during the warm season. The cold season was the main times for men to hunt, while the women collected wild foods and firewood.
Besides growing the food plants, women ran the household, cooked, and made baskets and pottery. They ground corn into meal in large wooden pestles or bowls, by pounding it with a mortar.
They also cured animal skins, after the men had dressed the skins in a preliminary way. The women often smoked the hides and sometimes used natural dyes to color them yellow, red, green, blue, or black. The women then sewed the skins into clothing, using an awl and sinew like a needle and thread.
Cloth for clothing was also made by the women. They wove, twined, and plaited plant and animal fibers with their fingers into pouches and sashes. On an upright loom ‘with suspended threads they Wove capes, called mantles, of buffalo, rabbit, or opossum hair or the fiber from plants such as nettle, hemp, mulberry, or cane.
Sometimes they made a very light and warm cape by first weaving a net cloth, then attaching to the net small turkey, swan, or duck feathers.
Children helped the women collect wild vegetables, berries, fruits, nuts, and seeds. There were some wild foods available every season of the year. Little girls also helped with housework, tended the gardens, and learned to make pottery and baskets.
Boys learned to hunt by going hunting with the men. Boys liked to compete in bow-and-arrow shooting contests and in foot races. They learned to play “chunkey,” a game based on throwing spears at a rolling, wheel-shaped stone. When they were older, they played a ball game that was an important part of town life.