Selu vs Eve: Unchanging Cherokee Women in a World of Change

Theda Perdue’s book Cherokee Women is an amazing in read on many levels. In her introduction she states that Cherokee Women have been mistakenly lost in the historical narrative, due to a lack of understanding on the part of Euro-centrically minded authors and historians. She points out that much of the evidence that is cultivated to tell the story of the Cherokee people is based on religiously and gender biased journals written by missionaries and features only those Cherokees who chose to acculturate European ways of life. While she spends a great deal of the book explaining the day to day lives and practices of the Cherokee people, what could rightly be called more of an ethnography than a history, the reader becomes grateful for the information when they begin reading Part Three of the book.

I will admit that after reading Part One and Part Two, I was beginning to doubt her claim that Cherokee women did not lose their power when they met “civilization.” I felt that all the evidence she provided pointed to the fact that they were absolutely losing their power. The world around them was changing, and they were having a hard time holding onto their power as leaders in a matrilineal society. Their very identity, power, focus, purpose, and image were being judged and found lacking. It seems reasonable that when faced with that much opposition, any person would begin questioning whether they should change who they are.

Then came the glorious Part Three! This section of the book discounted all the journal evidence and provided quantitative evidence to show how they only reflected the lives of about 7% of the Cherokee population (pg 171). The majority of men and women remained in their traditional roles. Perdue’s conclusion is this: “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.” Though the outside European world threatened to push them into obscurity, as is done to women in most “white” histories, the Cherokee women simply took what they wanted from the Europeans, that which would make their jobs easier, and adapted it to fit their lives. They refused to made pariah’s in their own communities. They refused to relinquish their power. I found it especially interesting that even when the National Council wrote laws to exclude women from politics, quite deliberately, those laws barely lasted twenty years before they were repealed, or others were made that overthrew them. Even before that time, however, women were consulted regularly.

I found the discussion of gender roles between the Cherokee women and the European women most enlightening. Cherokee women were proud of their ability to give life. It was their greatest power. In fact, they were secluded while menstruating or pregnant, because they were believed to hold too much power to contain – so much that they might accidentally kill someone. European women, on the other hand, were considered unclean and typically hid away during those times as moral society did not want to acknowledge sexual activity. I also thought it interesting how Cherokee women viewed sin as a natural part of life that was to be “rebalanced” through ceremonial ritual. This is spectrum opposite of the Puritan women we read about in Reis’s book Damned Women, who worried so much about sin and being forgiven that they often confessed to consorting with the devil because they saw no hope for their salvation. Where Christian women would have the Cherokees become subservient helpmates who, did nothing more than keep house and fear God, the Cherokees enjoyed a much fuller lifestyle. They cared for their families, their community, and strangers. They maintained important relationships with their extended families, and took and active role in helping to preserve the lands and culture of the Nation. They had a relationship with the religion that allowed them to make choices freely and deal with the consequences, good or bad, without fear of spiritual death. As Perdue puts it, “Selu had met Eve, but she had not surrendered.”


One thought on “Selu vs Eve: Unchanging Cherokee Women in a World of Change

  1. Excellent post! (and very entertaining to read).

    What about internal change vs. external change? It seems hard to imagine that Cherokee women’s roles would not change over the course of 100 years. Does portraying them as unchanging (in the face of European-American encroachment) risk making assumptions about Cherokee (and other American Indian) women that they are someone outside of history/a relic of the past?


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