Cherokee Women Upsetting the Patriarchy

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I found this book illuminating in almost every aspect.Not only does Perdue provide a detailed, enthnographic description of Cherokee religion, culture, daily life, and gender roles, but she also presents a historical argument that traces the effect of European contact on both men and women of the Cherokee nation. In Cherokee Women, Purdue means to show that the attempt of the new U.S. government to force civilization on the Cherokee people, and specifically the cult of domesticity on Cherokee women, was never fully actualized. Thus, Perdue argues, Cherokee women actively adapted aspects of European culture to fit their own lives and worldview and fought to keep their culture alive despite the changes being forced upon them. While some of this argument gets lost in the middle of her book, Perdue effectively makes this point at the end as she specifically discusses missionary attempts at complete conversion and the resilience in the Cherokee’s belief in Selu, the Cherokee corn mother.

In Part One of her book, Perdue lays the foundation for her argument. By explaining the original dynamics of Cherokee culture and beliefs, she is able to present a description and argument for change (or adaptation, rather) over time. Part of what allowed Cherokee women to keep their resilience, according to Perdue, was their worldview of opposites and balance, a belief she explains in Part One. She tells readers that the sun was female, and the moon was male. Women farmed, and men hunted. Blood, a lifeforce from the inside, represented power when it came to be outside the body. Men and women are both connected to this power through their separate gender roles in Cherokee society; Men shed the blood of others and took life while women shed blood themselves to give life. Though much of Part One read more like an ethnography than history because of a lack of written sources from the Cherokee themselves in early years, Perdue is able to effectively use Cherokee legend and myth, as well as interpretations of outsider information to provide a starting point for understanding how Cherokees viewed gender and functioned within their gendered society.

For me, one of the strongest and most interesting points Perdue makes about Cherokee adaptation to “civilization” is the Cherokee failure to fully adhere to Jeffersonian agrarianism. Cherokee women were traditionally in charge of agriculture and farming, and men viewed that type of work as specifically gendered for women. This became a problem, Perdue explains, once those promoting civilization meant for Cherokee men to become the farmers in the Cherokee nation. Essentially, women used the advanced agricultural tools meant for male farmers, and men became, according to Perdue, the middle men for Cherokee women’s labors. Before reading this book, I had learned some of what civilization looked like for the Cherokee people, but I was not aware of the agricultural implications as part of the failure of the civilization program and the finalization of Cherokee relocation.

In all, Perdue’s monograph proves a very informative and enlightening contribution to the worlds of women and Native American studies. Using fairly scant sources, Perdue is able to construct a narrative of not only Cherokee culture, but the larger American society as a whole. Though the end seemed somewhat rushed, her conclusions are still reasonable and understandable given the context placed at the beginning of the book. In Cherokee Women, issues of power, masculinity, economy, and religion are tackled in an effective and coherent way.


One thought on “Cherokee Women Upsetting the Patriarchy

  1. Fascinating post! When you say Perdue constructs a “narrative of not only Cherokee culture, but the larger American society as a whole,” can you be more specific? Is this a rewriting of the narrative of American history?

    Also, I’m interested in your observations on agriculture. What was the impact on Cherokee women (their status, status of their labor, work lives) for Cherokee men to become the middle men (managers, traders?)?


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