Atlantic History Native North American Women
by
Rose Stremlau
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0139

Introduction

Prior to the 21st century, I would not have been able to compile a bibliography of this length and depth on Native North American women in the Atlantic world. With a few prominent exceptions, ethnologists, anthropologists, and historians did not consider Native women to be worthy of scholarly attention until rather recently. Reflecting the growth of the fields of women’s history and American Indian history since the 1970s and their intersection with new areas of inquiry into gender, sexuality, sustainability, and (de)colonization since the 1990s, the body of scholarship about Native North American women in the Atlantic world is emergent and vibrant. Scholars have answered some initial questions: dispelling centuries of denigrating stereotypes, we generally agree that women had high status in most Native North American societies, which conceptualized gender roles as complementary, respected individual autonomy, and valued ethics of reciprocity. We continue to disagree, however, about the pace and extent of European colonization’s ultimate impact on Indigenous women. Some suggest the decline in women’s status was precipitous and swift. Increasingly, scholars emphasize the resilience of Native cultures and the ability of people to adapt and sustain traditional values, such as gender egalitarianism, well into the 19th century and sometimes even beyond it. Many historians of Native peoples in the United States and Canada would suggest that the most consistent and methodical assault on women’s status occurred in the assimilation era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a period beyond the scope of this article. A few notes on organization: first, while most Oxford Bibliographies on the Atlantic world cover the colonial period through the end of the Civil War, I have included materials through the removal era of the 1830s, an end point that makes more sense when considering this literature. Second, I integrated scholarship about Indigenous women throughout those regions of North America that directly interacted with European and African newcomers through the nexus of the Atlantic. I have organized sources by region and included important works on Native women from the Gulf to the Great Lakes and east to the Atlantic in this article. Third, I consciously decided to include several sources written by Native women that discuss the early-21st-century impact of the historical processes discussed in this literature. As a non-Native woman and historian, I appreciate that the questions we scholars ask about status and survival, loss and change, and persistence and resistance are far more than intellectual exercises for Native people in the early 21st century. Their voices should be a part of any discussion we have.

General Overviews

In a call to be useful to Indigenous women, published in the form of a literature review in the feminist journal Signs in 1980, folklorist Rayna Green asked, “While most of the studies of Pocahontas and her sisters [referring here to the trope of the Indian princess] focus on the ways in which they [the Native women to whom non-Indian scholars have devoted attention] helped non-Indians defeat their own people, where is the serious study of such women as cultural brokers, working to create, manage, and minimize the negative effects of change on their people. . . ?” (p. 266). Green’s not-so-subtle sarcastic analysis remains useful to familiarize readers with main themes. Begin with Green 1980, followed by Niethammer 1996, an at times uncritical synthesis of the first century of anthropological and ethnographic literature to which Green refers. Niethammer 1996 nonetheless serves well as a primer. Next, read Kugel and Murphy 2007 beginning with the general introduction and that to each section. Kugel and Murphy have collected excerpts from important works, most published in the late 20th century. This anthology thus starts where Green’s review stopped. Most of the scholars included are listed elsewhere in this article. In addition to work by Green on representation, readers can learn about Native women’s role as cultural mediators and symbolic centers of community, the origins of their traditionally high status, their varied roles as leaders, and their interactions with settlers through trade and missionization. Conclude with Scully 2005, a critical article calling attention to continued reliance on the “myth model” of welcoming young Native women whose cooperation legitimizes colonization. Scully suggests that these heterosexual origin stories of the “indigenous woman helpmeet” are unique to the Atlantic world and absent from other settler societies. She theorizes that we perpetuate them and appropriate Native women’s stories to obscure settler violence and fabricate Indigenous consent. Scully’s work thus calls attention to ongoing weaknesses in the literature and challenges scholars to consider the complexities of Indigenous experiences apart from European male migrations and relationships.

  • Green, Rayna. “Native American Women.” Signs 6.2 (Winter 1980): 248–267.

    DOI: 10.1086/493795E-mail Citation »

    To provide context for contemporary scholarship, Green (with tongue in cheek) reviews academic and popular writing about Native women produced in the United States and Canada since the 17th century. Concluding that Native women have “neither been neglected nor forgotten,” Green identifies themes and questions important to non-Indians that have dominated the literature (p. 249). She concludes with a call for relevant, respectful research and engagement with Native communities.

  • Kugel, Rebecca, and Lucy Eldersveld Murphy, eds. Native Women’s History in Eastern North America before 1900: A Guide to Research and Writing. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007.

    E-mail Citation »

    Leading historians gathered classic texts by important scholars into this collection. They pair readings together in two sections. In the first, they focus on theories exploring identity, perception, gender roles, egalitarianism, and feminism. In the second, they elaborate upon methodology, emphasizing biography, gender studies, and oral history.

  • Niethammer, Carolyn. Daughters of the Earth: The Lives and Legends of American Indian Women. New York: Touchstone, 1996.

    E-mail Citation »

    Niethammer, a journalist, drew her research from early anthropological scholarship. Niethammer challenges stereotypes and contextualizes women’s lives into diverse societies that accorded them security and independence. She organized chapters by life stage from birth through elderhood and then by themes including warfare, spirituality, and sexuality. Although not exclusively focused on peoples of the Atlantic world, Niethammer’s summary of dated anthropological literature remains useful.

  • Scully, Pamela. “Malintzin, Pocahontas, and Krotoa: Indigenous Women and the Myth Models of the Atlantic World.” Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History 6.3 (Winter 2005).

    DOI: 10.1353/cch.2006.0022E-mail Citation »

    In her comparative analysis of three Indigenous women, Scully draws attention to the continued construction of historical narratives of the Atlantic world as stories of heterosexual conquest in which Native people and homelands are feminized and penetrated.

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