Cherokee Women 2 Essay, Research Paper
Although its title says otherwise, this is novel is not a novel that focuses solely on female life. Instead, Cherokee Women rewrites the history of the Cherokee people by placing women in the forefront and by showing how gender affected the Cherokee culture and their relations with Americans. In the process, Theda Perdue tells the history of the “most civilized tribe” in terms of continuing traditions. As Perdue demonstrates, the world of Cherokee men and the world of Cherokee women, although interconnected in many ways, remained separate throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It was primarily through the female domain and gender norms that cultural persistence prevailed.
This interpretation is different from earlier ideas of the Cherokee. Perdue shows how many innovations within Cherokee culture were adapted to fit into the traditional order. As a result, Perdue does more than uncover the unwritten history of Cherokee women, she also portrays Cherokee society from the lowest levels to the top. Those with formal political and economic power fall outside the Cherokee mainstream and into the fringes of their society. In their places, stand the majority of the Cherokee people, those women and men who rarely entered the historical records and whose participation in the white man s affairs was usually secondhand. The Cherokees never adopted American “civilization”; they merely adapted it to fit their needs and their fixed ideas about gender.
In traditional Cherokee society around 1700, men and women lived as completely separate people. Women farmed and controlled the home, while men hunted and were warriors. This squared with the Cherokee cosmology which had men and women balancing each other as complementary entities. Men and women came together to fulfill economic, political, and biological necessities, but their lives remained rather secretive from one another. There were certain understood guidelines that told what belonged to women and what belonged to men; those who deviated from these gender norms were viewed with hostility and suspicion. Even when in the same room, men and women tended to maintain social distance. Whether in the household, religion, or work, women and men occupied different spaces.
Cherokee women wielded most forms of power and authority. This resulted from the fact that Cherokees determined kin bonds through matrilineal clans and resided in households formed by extended matrilineages. Husbands, who needed to be of different clans than their wives, lived as outsiders in their wives’ households and among their wives’ kin. Because authority within traditional Cherokee society was organized locally, clans, and therefore women, had access to tremendous power. Women owned the farmlands, dictated when clans would retaliate in blood vengeance, participated in local councils, determined the fates of POWs, and enjoyed sexual freedom and autonomy. In this society, the power afforded to the farmers of the fields cannot be understated.
In the eighteenth century, Cherokee society had to adapt to the reality of having white neighbors. Perdue recognizes the changes: the incorporation of Euro-American trade goods, the sudden need of deerskins by other peoples (whites), the introduction of livestock, the rise of an economic elite, widespread intermarriage, a decline in village authority, the centralization of power, the creation of a written constitution, the adoption of race slavery, and the growth of Christian churches. Despite these countless “advances toward civilization,” Perdue emphasizes the simultaneous cultural stability. Visually, the Cherokee countryside may have resembled the rest of the American South, but beneath the surface, Cherokee gender norms remained remarkably constant. Women incorporated animal husbandry within their traditional realm of farmers, and Cherokee herdsmen continued to “hunt” their livestock as if they were still wild. Cherokee men refused to become farmers and accept what they saw as traditionally feminine roles. Instead, they chose to maintain their masculinity by turning to the labor of African slaves and white sharecroppers. Women continued to farm and men continued to hunt; Cherokee women and men still tended to live separately and in balance with each other. They performed “civilized” tasks, but they performed them in accordance to their own traditional gender expectations. Cherokees may have adapted many of the innovations of “civilization,” but most rejected European ideas of masculine and feminine.
In addition, Europeans threatened to replace traditional Cherokee gender balance with hierarchy. For example, in the early nineteenth century, the centralized Cherokee government increasingly imposed upon the domain of women. As leadership increasingly passed into the hands of an economic elite, the laws and new National Council reflected the ideas of the men who created them. The Council, which tried to replace the functions of traditional clans, prioritized individual rights and personal property. The council sanctioned the acceptability of paternal bloodlines for inheritance and citizenship, and it acted against the traditional forms of justice that further hampered the idea of the traditional central Cherokee clan. On paper, the Cherokee Nation had formally accepted many of the basic ideas of American “civilization.” For the bulk of Cherokees, however, the matrilineal clan’s power did not disappear. Matrilineal descent continued, women continued to control vengeance and justice, and a “communitarian ethic rooted in traditional Cherokee culture and preserved in women’s roles ultimately prevailed, even in the male National Council” (p. 155). The clan and village successfully competed with the white man s ideas of individualism and patriarchy.
In this book, Perdue provides a great example of ethno-historical research. She has mixed traditional historical resources, government records and personal letters, with oral traditions and ideas from anthropology. Typical European writings of everyday events and minor conflicts provide insight into the gendered assumptions that permeated Cherokee society throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This success is more remarkable considering the uphill battle her subject presents. Those who embraced the civilization plan dominated the political and economic life of the Cherokee people and therefore fill the historical records. The same cannot be said for female Cherokees. They lived largely shielded from the European observer and the interests of official sources. Since Cherokee culture made men and women segregated, naturally it made women nearly invisible to European visitors.
Perdue’s persuasive use of gender helps to uncover the previously hidden histories and themes within Cherokee society. This new perspective reveals that most Cherokees never adopted American civilization; they adapted it to fit into their traditional worldview. Although the title “most civilized tribe” might not fade from the historical dictionary, Perdue proves that it should.