Throughout the 16th to the 19th centuries, Native Americans in the Southern United States came in constant contact with varying European explorers and colonists, who not only recorded aspects of Native American society and culture, but also changed them, rather purposefully or indirectly. These records of Native American society give modern historians a glimpse into the lives and roles of Native Americans, including the roles of Native American women. Just as experiences of people vary by location in the modern day, the experiences, roles, and statuses of Native American women varied to some degree depending on where exactly in the South they were located, as well as on which group of Europeans they came in contact with. In general it seemed that most, if not all chiefdoms within the south were matrilineal, with everyday work being gendered but equally appreciated, and with women enjoying a rather equal, if not higher status than men. As Native American societies began to come in contact with Europeans, Indian women’s roles and status began to change, sometimes to their benefit, and sometimes not. As more groups of Europeans arrived and settled in the South, European women began to arrive and live with them, which allows for an interesting comparison between Native American women and European colonial women.
As stated, Native American women enjoyed an equal if not higher status than men in their society, which is a staunch contrast to the lives of colonial women, who were considered in all aspects to be subject to men and had very little equality or freedom within European society. As time progressed and Native Americans came to be more integrated into European society, there was a noticeable decrease in the Native American woman’s autonomy as well as social status and equality, making her much more comparable to the European woman, which served not only to “civilize” these Native American people, but also to promote a patriarchal system within Native society that better complemented the newfound European societies in the area.
The first Europeans to arrive in this time period were the Spanish in the 16th century. De Soto entered the Southern United States during the late Mississippian period and was one of the last to see the Mississippian world before its collapse. The world De Soto found was one that was one dominated by chiefdoms who had a Mico, or chief, that could be of either gender, showing that Native American women, unlike European women, could hold the highest office of their form of government. Kinship affiliations were all important in the Mississippian world as they determined one’s social rank as either a chiefly elite or non-chiefly elite. In sharp contrast to European society, Chiefdoms were matrilineal, meaning that their society was based off of their relation to women. Some chiefdoms, such as the Natchez, believed that the matrilineal line came from a female deity known as the Sun Woman. This religious context of the matrilineal line allowed women to not only be important politically but also ritually, as they were considered to be supernatural in nature, which allowed some women to not only be exempt from regular mundane activities, but also gave them a sense of mysticism that helped them keep their subjects loyal to them and made the seem like they knew the secrets to maintaining balance within society, which was all-important. In fact, scholars believe that religion and politics were likely inseparable, which was of great benefit to the matrilineal chief who’s right to rule seemed divinely ordained. This control through mysticism was exemplified by the Lady of Cofitachequi in South Carolina, who had a divine right to rule through the matrilineal line and used her seemingly supernatural image to keep her subjects in line. In 18th century Arkansas, Native women participated in ceremonial planting, which was central to religion and allowed women to be in the center of society, keeping them powerful.
Beyond ruling, women were also responsible for growing and cultivating food, which gave them immense power as farming villages were the foundation of the Mississippian economy, and was largely based around corn agriculture. This importance of agriculture as the base of the economy allowed chiefdoms to be largely self-sufficient, which meant that trading and other commercial activities were often for material and prestige goods which were used to show the power of the owner. As the Spanish advanced into the region, they became increasingly dependent on obtaining food from Native Americans, whether this was through gifts from the people or by holding a mico hostage and forcing tributaries to give up their food. With this dependence on food came the dependence on Native American women, who, as stated, were the ones that controlled food from its growth to its processing. The Spanish came to rely on Native American women even more as they advanced into South Carolina in the later 16th century. They recognized Indian women as being less threatening than their male counterparts and were more keen to rely on them as guides, translators, and sexual partners, which elevated the role of women not only in the eyes of the Europeans, but also in the eyes of other Native Americans, who understood that their women were the key bridges between their society and European society.
Native American women became even more important as the French and the English moved into the south and began setting up colonies. As the English moved into the Southeast, particularly in the area between North Carolina and Virginia, some men noted that the Native Americans did not differ from the Europeans because of any inherent characteristics, but rather were more “savage” due to their environment and lack of education. The best solution to this “savageness”, in the English mind, was intermarriage as well as Christian conversion. Because of this desire to intermarry, Native American women became even more crucial to the English and to the Indian community. For the English, the only way to acquire land as a foreigner was to marry an Indian woman, as she not only controlled the agriculture in the area, but she was also the door to familial connections, which were required if a European man wanted to make a living within the community. Native American women also provided the European man with status within her community in a way that Native American men could not. Since chiefdoms were matrilineal, one’s status within a Native American society was dependent on women, meaning that if a European man married an Indian woman, he would gain her familial ties and would be moved into her household, which was crucial since men could not maintain their own separate households. Furthermore, European traders needed to marry Native American women because Indian women controlled the production of food and because chiefs were very careful about making sure that European traders were not able to become too independent, meaning they forced them to marry Indian women in order to have access to food. Marrying into a Native family also produced a form of customer loyalty to the trader from his wife’s family. Without the support of a native wife, a white trader was often doomed from the start, as he had no guarantee of either food or business.
Native Women became more important in their own communities due to the desire to intermarry as well. Marriage allowed Native women to learn more about European culture without becoming Europeanized, and she was able to pass on this information to her chief who was then better able to understand the intentions of these new people and act accordingly. Chiefs recognized that intermarriage was a way to capture white loyalty to the tribe as well as produce powerful mixed blood children who would represent a blending of the two cultures but would not be subject to their white father’s authority, as Southeastern Indians did not consider a child’s father or his relatives to be blood relatives of their children. It was common for chiefs to be greatly involved in these intermarriages between native women and white men, and would actually regulate these marriages by controlling European’s access to native women and only presenting them with women from the family of the chief or other powerful families. With this new regulation of marriage came the loss of a native woman’s sexual autonomy that she enjoyed among the men of her own society. Because sex with European men was something that affected the entire Native community instead of just the particular woman’s family, women were not allowed to freely engage in sex with white men, which seemingly equated them with European women, who were absolutely not allowed any sexual autonomy, especially if they were married.
European women intermarried with Native Americans as well, but their experiences were quite different than their male counterparts. European women did not typically move from their colonial society to marry native men, but rather were typically captured at a young age and brought up in the chiefdom, becoming fully integrated into Native society. Because native societies were typically matrilineal, European women brought into these societies would obtain the same rights as Native American women, and would actually become more equal and powerful than they were in their prior patriarchal society.
The exact opposite would happen when Native women married white men and were subject to European rules, as was the case with Mary Musgrove in Georgia. Mary first married a white man to seal a peace treaty between the Coweta and the British. This type of intermarriage was used often in order to create kinship ties between Natives and Europeans. She married again in 1735 to a low status Englishman, possibly thinking she could control the marriage because he was of lower status, but was incorrect in this thinking as she was subject to English patriarchal rule, and therefore could never be of a higher status than her husband. Mary found herself subject to English rule once again when she was given a gift of land by a Creek chief but was unable to obtain it due to her inability to obtain a sanction from British authorities. Ironically, Mary found herself subject to an English law that did not allow for her to own property without a proper sanction, as well as a law that did not allow the English to transfer any land to Native Americans, making it impossible for her to obtain her land at all. Mary married an Englishman once again and was able to improve her social status as a Native American woman in colonial society, but also found that she had new limits on her status that resulted in the loss of respect for her as a person due to her gender, as well as the new need to have her husband speak for her and promise to “control her behavior” when she acted in a way that was deemed inappropriate for colonial women.
This subjection of Natives to European laws and standards as well as the subjection of women to men was a common theme in the development of relations between Natives and Europeans. As time passed, many Native societies that had once been chiefdoms had transformed into confederacies, which were still matrilineal but did not allow women to hold governmental positions of power. The chiefdom of Cofitachequi in South Carolina and the chiefdom of the Creeks were both transformed into confederacies over time, likely due to the fact that the European societies that they were encountering were patriarchal and did not respect women leaders. Native women in Tennessee after the Revolutionary War found themselves being subjected to increasing attempts by Europeans to force European gender roles on native society. Native Powhatan women found that their authority within their own society and European society declined due to relations with the English. Native American women in French New Orleans found their importance being snuffed out as the French turned the area towards plantation based agriculture instead of one based on trade and as Louisiana governors began attempting to regulate and restrain French and native intermarriage.
As Native Women’s power declined, they found their positions to be more equal to those of European colonial women. Colonial women in all of the European societies moving into the south were dominated by the patriarchal system. While Native Women enjoyed sexual autonomy and could get divorced rather easily, colonial women were not recognized as actual people outside of their marriage, and had absolutely no sexual autonomy. Colonial women, similar to Native American women, were essential for reproduction and the growth of the community, but unlike Native Women, colonial women and their children were subject to the rule of the father. Perhaps one of the biggest initial differences between Native and Colonial women is how they were viewed by their respective societies. Native Women were well respected within their communities, as their communities were not only matrilineal, but women were also in charge of producing and processing the food and in reproducing for the survival of the chiefdom. Therefore, native women had every ounce of respect that men had, and were never patronized or looked down upon because of their sex. Colonial women had a completely different experience. European men did not place importance on women in the same way that Native Americans did. While they did recognize the importance of women as reproductive bodies, they also considered them to be inherently frail, jealous, disorderly, and quarrelsome. They considered them to be unable to understand the consequences of their own actions, and believed that when women were “acting out”, it was because their husband had been unable to control them. While Europeans originally saw Native American women as hardworking, graceful, and beautiful, over time their Eurocentric views found a place among Native society, and they began to see them too as promiscuous, and “subject to wantonness”. It is clear that over time, Native Americans were becoming more and more subject to Eurocentric ideas, and because of that, Native American women, who initially enjoyed an increase in importance thanks to European men, were now being subjected to the patriarchy and were beginning to witness the decline in their status as well as the decline of Native American status in general.
A reoccurring theme in the history of the Native Americans throughout the Southern United States is that as time went on, Native American women, as well as Natives in general began to see a loss in their status as they found themselves in continuous contact with Europeans. While Native women were initially respected, at least to some extent, by Europeans and were considered different than their European counterpart, they gradually began to be pushed into the same situation as European women, one where they were considered inferior to men. On the opposite end of the spectrum, as European women were in contact and were within Native society, they were able to gain more freedoms and respect than they were in their own colonial society. Overall, As Natives and Europeans came into contact, Natives status declined due to the patriarchal views and the intense desire of land of the Europeans, and European men gained both status and wealth as they subdued and “civilized” the Natives and took over their land for monetary gain.