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

Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835. By Theda Perdue (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1998. xi plus 252pp.).

In the records of white traders, colonists and Indian agents who observed Native peoples in the "New World," Native women are slaves, beasts of burden, whores, or simply of no account. And it is their impressions, not the voices of Native people themselves, that have informed much of the historiography of Native America. In the l980s and 1990s, historians with one foot in Native American history and the other in women's history, began to tell a different story about Native women. Patricia Albers' and Beatrice Medicine's The Hidden Half: Studies of Plains Indian Women was an early contribution in this area of study (1983) [1]. Nancy Shoemaker's notable edited collection, Negotiators of Change: Historical Perspectives on Native American Women (1995), comprises several essays that propose new theoretical models and explore new theses in the study of Native women's history. [2] In her own essay in this fine collection, Theda Perdue begins to sketch out her emerging theory of Cherokee women's history, which appear s fully formed in her new book, Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835.

Theda Perdue declares in the introduction to Cherokee Women that she has undertaken a narrative of Cherokee history that places women at the center, and in so doing, has produced an account necessarily different from those written before by respected scholars in the field. Perdue is cognizant of the perils of her endeavor. She points out that the European and Anglo-American men who kept records about Cherokee women's lives had no real access into what not only was a foreign culture, but also would have been a separate women's sphere within that culture. Yet Perdue is dependent upon these accounts for her material. At times she faces these perils head on, broadening her approach by positioning herself in the field of Ethnohistory that combines historical and anthropological methods. At other times, as she describes Cherokee women's menstruation rituals or beliefs about pregnancy based on the accounts of Anglo men, she allows her critical analysis of the weaknesses of her sources to fade into the background.

Along with the problem of sources, Perdue struggles to avoid the shortcomings of other historians who have mapped out Native women's history in rigid and one-dimensional ways. The notion that Native women enjoyed perfect equality with men until Europeans taught Native men sexism is common, even among scholarship that seeks to privilege women's history. This argument, termed the "declension model," suggests that Native peoples lived static lives until the big bang of European colonization, that Native men were the passive recipients of Anglo world views about gender, and Native women had little agency in their dealings with whites. At the same time, the more recent argument that Native women experienced cultural persistence rather than undergoing cultural erasure in the wake of the European invasion also has its limitations--the possibility of emphasizing Native women's perseverance in a way that overshadows the real violence and disruption of colonialism and oppression. Theda Perdue attempts to stake a posit ion between these two poles in her account of Cherokee women's history, and most often she does so with success. Perdue's concluding sentence sums up her approach: "The story of Cherokee women, therefore, is not one of declining status and lost culture, but one of persistence and change, conservatism and adaptation, tragedy and survival." (p. 195) Rather than presenting an either/or history, Perdue offers a history that encompasses two arguments, two major themes, two simultaneous realities. Cherokee women did retain Cherokee values and cultural ways; and Cherokee women did change and adapt their lives to new circumstances.

Perdue's book is a history of women in the Cherokee Nation and a history of gender relations among Cherokees and between Cherokees and whites. Additionally, it is a survey of Cherokee history from 1700 to Removal, richer for its focus on women's experience. She tells this multifaceted story of cultural continuity and change in an engaging and clear style. The study is organized thematically and chronologically, moving from a description of gender relations and community in pre-contact Cherokee society, to trade and war in the context of European expansion in North America, and finally to Cherokee responses to American "civilization" programs. Because of its style, range, and focus on gender, the book serves as an introduction to Cherokee history as well as a revision of previous works in the field.

Perdue begins her account with a discussion of the Cherokee world view circa 1700, which she insists is central to any understanding of gender relations among Cherokees. She explains that Cherokees sought balance and harmony in every aspect of life, including relations between women and men. Using the early myth of Selu the corn mother and Kana'ti the hunter, Perdue demonstrates the Cherokee understanding of complementary gender roles and expectations.

Beyond including cultural myths to support and illuminate her argument, Perdue counters historical myths in her account. Challenging the notion that Cherokee women were little more than beasts of burden, she stresses the trials of both farming and hunting, as well as the power and status women gained from their role as primary food providers. Further, she explains that while women maintained the household and performed duties such as gathering wood, cooking, and making household items, women owned the home and items that they produced. Taking on another myth, that the Cherokee aversion to menstrual blood proves the subjugated status of women, Perdue points out that Cherokees' belief in balance maintained that bodily fluids belonged inside the body rather than outside. Therefore, they viewed any escape of bodily fluids as both dangerous and powerful; this belief and its attendant rituals held for both menstruating women and men who spilled blood in the hunt and warfare. As this careful analysis suggests, a ma jor contribution of Perdue's book is her ability to ground her discussion of Cherokee gender roles in the belief system, matrilineal kinship system, and everyday lives of the Cherokees.

The next third of the book looks at ways Cherokee women and men acted and reacted in the context of white encroachment and pressures. Here Perdue traces the impact of trade, increased warfare, dislocation and civilization programs on the culture, values and status of Cherokee women. She explains that in the mid-1700s Cherokee men's power increased as hunting and trade--men's traditional duties--became more central to Cherokee survival. At the same time, she argues that in the midst of this shift Cherokee women retained their influence and accustomed roles. In a thoughtful and innovative interpretation, Perdue suggests that Cherokee women may have even gained power in this period, as men were away for longer stretches of time, allowing women greater control over town life.

As Perdue's account continues into the 1800s, the period of civilization programs and the development of the Cherokee Republic, her argument for the persistence of women's status seems at times strained. She is hesitant to lay bare the full impact of men's growing power as well as women's diminished political voice and lack of access to the market. Perdue rightly points out that politics and commerce did not define the whole of Cherokee culture and that women had always maintained a sphere of influence outside those arenas. However, she does not fully acknowledge the growing centrality of politics and commerce to Cherokee lives or the encroachment of men into women's sphere as men took up farming and passed legislation that challenged the rules of matrilineal kinship norms.

Perdue's care in relating Cherokee women's maintenance of status leads to contradictory statements in the later chapters. At the same time, her struggle to keep the dual framework of continuity and change in sight and the tensions that struggle produces, leads to a history that is complex and revealing of its inherent contradictions in the telling.


(1.) Patricia Albers and Beatrice Medicine, The Hidden Half: Studies of Plains Indian Women (Lanham, MD, 1983).

(2.) Nancy Shoemaker, ed., Negotiators of Change: Historical Perspectives on Native American Women (New York, 1995).
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Miles, Tiya
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2000
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