Traditional Women's Roles
Traditionally, the influence and respect that Aboriginal women held in their societies not only gave them a voice, but kept them safe from woman abuse, sexual assault and stalking. Aboriginal 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. 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.
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 Aboriginal society.
Historically, woman abuse was present in Aboriginal 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 Aboriginal 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, Aborginal Domestic Violence in Canada, The Aboriginal Healing Foundation, 2003)
What can be generalized about the role of women in all pre-contact Aboriginal 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.