Traditional Gender Roles
Traditionally, the influence and respect that Indigenous women held in their societies not only gave them a voice, but kept them safe from woman abuse, sexual assault and stalking. Indigenous women’s responsibilities included providing for themselves, their children, relatives, the sick, elderly, disabled and the community at large. Women are seen as the creators of life and involved in all things that dealt with creativity, from planting and harvesting, to giving birth and raising children. Women were the nurturers and the sustainers of their communities, building and maintaining housing and supervising family affairs. Land and crops belonged to them, rather than their husbands or brothers.
Historically, many nations were women-centred and matrilineal, meaning a child’s ancestry was traced through her mother, and the family property was passed down through the female line, from mothers to daughters to granddaughters. In some cases, this was also true of family names. In many nations, not only did a woman own the land, she owned the dwelling her family lived in. Married couples stayed with the woman’s family and if subject to abuse or exploitation, a woman’s blood relatives defended her. These societal factors are a testimony to the power and influence women held in traditional Indigenous society.
Historically, woman abuse was present in Indigenous society prior to European contact, but not nearly in the same volume or frequency it is today (as recently as 2002 it has been reported that between seven and nine out of every 10 Indigenous women in some communities had been abused in the past two or three years.) Traditionally, when an abuse occurred, the abuser was confronted immediately by his male relatives or those of his victim. If the abuse continued, punishment could be severe, including banishment, castration and death. (p.11, Aboriginal Domestic Violence in Canada, The Aboriginal Healing Foundation, 2003)
The term “warrior” has been applied to the men from Indigenous communities. Some Nations use this term, others do not. In either circumstance, the “warriors” of our communities have been misrepresented for many years. It is true that in the past, our men were to use force when necessary for the protection of our people and many became proficient in the skills of war. However, in most of our Indigenous cultures in North America, the use of force or war, was a last resort and was actually a rare occurrence. It was a difficult undertaking emotionally, mentally and spiritually, not to mention being difficult physically and dangerous.
Our cultural teachings are based on peaceful and respectful living, while interacting with family and during communication. The underlying basis of all our people’s way of life teaches us to be kind to one another, to help where we can and to have healthy, loving relationships. Each Nation may have its own symbolism, its own way of saying it. However, underneath these specifics is the common theme of peaceful and respectful relations.
Men and women had specific roles in the habitats that they lived in. These roles were complimentary and both were necessary for the continuation of the family, the community and the Nation. Neither male nor female could fulfill their role without the other fulfilling their own. Specifically, men were to be the protectors and game providers of the community.
Our women had the most important role, they carried and gave birth to our children then had the bulk of the raising and nurturing responsibilities of those children. Our men had the complimentary and supportive role of ensuring that the women had everything they needed to accomplish their childcare roles. During the time of pregnancy, many of our cultures encouraged husbands to let go of some of their male responsibilities to spend time with their wives so they could understand women in pregnancy. Our men were also taught how to take up the responsibility of child care and nurturing when necessary and also for the enjoyment of it. In most cases, men were not opposed to showing love and affection for their partner and children in many ways, like during childcare and while nurturing them. It was the responsibility of both men and women to teach children.
In the time before puberty, young boys were encouraged to spend time with their female relatives so that they would have an understanding of women. Young girls were also encouraged to spend time with their male relatives for the same purpose. This encouraged open and thoughtful communication in later years.
When a boy reached the age of puberty it became the responsibility of his father, uncles, other male relatives and friends to teach him what he needed to know to become a man. He would be taught how to make his tools for work and hunting. He would be taught what he needed to know about living away from the community, in the bush, forest or plain, wherever it may be that they will need to know how to survive. They would be taught about plants and medicines, what type of woods are good for certain tools, what types of animals are good for hunting and how to use the various parts of the animal. Interwoven with all these practical teachings were spiritual teachings and teachings about relationships and their responsibilities as men. They were taught how to apply these teachings to their daily lives. Interwoven in all these teachings are the principles of peace, respect, kindness, caring and love.
Men were traditionally hunters for the community, with women skinning, packing and preparing the hunt. In the spring, women would join the men in fishing. Men’s traditional duties (hunting, conducting trade, defending the community) required them to often be away, so their social position was sometimes weaker than that of women.
What can be generalized about the role of women in all pre-contact Indigenous cultures is that, while men and women had different responsibilities to creation, one was no less important than the other. Men and women were considered equals with very different characteristics and responsibilities, and each was necessary to make life complete.