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Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835.

Theda Perdue. Cherokee Women Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835. Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1998. 253 + xii pp. Notes, bibliography, index. Cloth, $40.00.

Prior to European Contact, Cherokee women were not dominated by men. In fact, men had no authority over women. Cherokee society was matrilineal, and women's power emanated in part from the clan. Clan membership was determined by women, and without clan membership, one had no rights. In addition, women were primarily responsible for agriculture. Females were descendants of Selu, the Corn Mother, and this connection "between women and corn gave women considerable status and economic power because the Cherokees depended heavily on that crop" (p. 25). Indeed most public Cherokee ceremonies, especially that of the Green Corn, were associated with farming, while none were directly related to hunting. Women's power extended even to war, and "war women" completely controlled the destiny of captives. There were few areas that women's power did not touch.

While the "Dean of Cherokee History," William McLoughlin, often wrote about the profound change that women experienced through Contact and the "civilization" program, Perdue argues that McLoughlin focused on the Cherokee elite rather than typical Cherokee females. Most Cherokee women persisted in following traditional ways. Change did not completely bypass the average Cherokee woman, but "their cultural persistence ... is at least as significant as change" (pp. 185-86).

Women's association with land and their opposition to selling it strengthened the Cherokee "concept and commitment to common land holding as well as the Nation's refusal to negotiate removal" (p. 186). In fact, removal advocates viewed Cherokee women as "emblematic of the failure of the civilization program" (p. 186). Politicians who sought removal often pointed to the failure of Native people to farm "as justification for dispossessing them" (p. 188). Indeed, the real problem with Native societies was the fact that women, not men, farmed. Secretary Albert Gallatin estimated only about one-third of Cherokee men tilled the soil.

Although in the early decades of the nineteenth century the Cherokees imitated the United States with a constitution, written laws, and a centralized government, clans continued to exercise some role in Cherokee government. Even James Mooney, noted nineteenth-century anthropologist, believed that women of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians were the dominant partners in marriage. One interesting event, not covered by Perdue's time span but supporting her thesis, concerns a 1920 election. In that year in Jackson County, North Carolina, Cherokee women, voting for the first time, turned out in greater numbers than Cherokee men, perhaps asserting some of their traditional political power.

Perdue's book takes the reader from pre-Contact through removal, and argues persuasively that the election of Wilma Mankiller of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma in 1985 and of Joyce Dugan of the Eastern Band of Cherokees in 1995 as principal chiefs illustrates the tradition of Cherokee women exercising power. "They became chiefs because they embodied the values of generations of women, values apparently still honored and respected by men and women alike" (p. 195).

Perdue's work gives us tremendous insight into the history of the Cherokees and the ways in which Cherokee culture persisted through their women. Perdue often praises the "Dean of Cherokee History," William McLoughlin, who helped make her a better historian. Now with Cherokee Women and her other numerous publications, it seems obvious that Cherokee history has a new "Dean."

WILLIAM L. ANDERSON, Western Carolina University
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:The American Indian Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1998
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