Gender and Culture Shift in Native Life

Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835.  Theda Perdue (1998)

Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835 explores the ways that Cherokee culture changed as white Americans (colonists and later citizens) pushed westward through Cherokee country. Theda Perdue successfully proves her thesis; “in the eighteenth century women may have become more secure in some roles—as farmers and as socializers of children, for example—and in the nineteenth century, Cherokees incorporated aspects of Anglo-American culture into their lives without fundamentally altering values or totally restructuring gender (9).” To prove this, Perdue provides the reader with a foundational understanding of the way that Cherokees understood gender, and gender roles- as actions and fulfillment of social roles. By beginning the book with the tale of Selu and her role as corn-goddess, and earth mother, Perdue gives us a baseline for what we believe traditional gender roles and responsibilities would have been for Cherokee women. In following the changing economic and political world that the Cherokees found themselves immersed in at the end of the eighteenth century the audience can begin to fully grasp the breadth of changes that were beginning to occur in Cherokee lives.

Statue of Selu on The Corn Mother’s Temple


It is crucial to highlight that Perdue doesn’t claim that gender roles, or women, were unchanging over time; rather she emphasized the ways in which women adapted traditional gendered expectations to allow their culture to survive. Perhaps the most detrimental to female autonomy, because of the changing economic and political atmosphere, was the decline of the matrilineal clan as the center of Cherokee life. When life was centered around the clan, and family, women would have held significant power over resources, and relationships; as the focus of life began to shift towards an Anglo-American ideal of domesticity the Cherokee women began to lose their authority. In contrast, Cherokee men began to value individual wealth and property as part of the adoption of Anglo-American culture, which put them in a position of power over their children- something that Perdue argues they would have not had before this shift in economic power. I found it fascinating that Perdue provided examples of both how this was embraced by fathers, and how this acculturation was not universal as many maternal uncles or mothers continued to be the primary authority over the lives of children.


This new shift in cultural and economic power resulted in many Cherokee children being sent to missionary schools so that they would be able to succeed in this new society. In my undergraduate work, I read excerpts from Zitkála-Sa’s, American Indian Stories (1921), in which Zitkala-Sa describes the missionary school experience, and the struggle of living in two separate cultures simultaneously. When initially setting out to read Cherokee Women, I expected to see similarities between Perdue’s research and Zitkala-Sa’s anecdotal writing; however, Perdue’s discussion of cultural genocide which the Cherokee found themselves facing that made Zitkala-Sa’s writing, and Perdue’s, much more effective and powerful. I found Perdue’s exploration of the missionary school perhaps the most fascinating part of the book, likely because of my previous readings on it. I had not realized that the schools depended so heavily on parental cooperation for continuing operations—something that Zitkala-Sa does not go into. I would like to find some more readings that look at how the children managed to straddle the two distinct cultures- or even refused to submit to the missionary school’s codes of conduct.

Zitkala-Sa (Red Bird) was Lakota and wrote extensively in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Daniel Richter’s Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America (2001), is considered crucial to reexamining the history of the United States as Richter shifts the focus out towards the non-native world, from the Native “center” of the narrative. Perdue managed to do this before Richter through incorporating firsthand accounts by Native individuals, and weaving them in with Cherokee religion to build a tangible world in which the women she is studying lived in. In addition to shifting the focus of the narrative, Perdue created a piece of work that is crucial to any discussion of Cherokee life with her discussion of gender and social structure. While my counterparts each wrote about specific pieces of the book which they felt were most important to Perdue’s thesis, I think that it is her definition of gender in Cherokee life, and how it shifted along with internal and external forces that is the most important (and interesting) addition to the historiographic discussion of native life, and gender history.


One thought on “Gender and Culture Shift in Native Life

  1. Great post! I really like your use of missionary schools to connect Perdue and Zitkala-Sa. Are they discussing the same time period? How had missionary schools change from the Cherokee experience to Zitkala-Sa’s? How were the Cherokee and Lakota beliefs and experiences different?


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