Gender and Religion: Gender and North American Indian Religious Traditions

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To pursue the theme of gender in North American Indian religious traditions is to bring the construction of gender, long in process, of ancient civilizations into dialogue with the concerns of the present. It necessarily involves a task of identifying carefully what gender means in traditional native cultures and defining the ways, past and present, that this aspect of culture can be assessed. Moreover it requires a critical appraisal of the propriety and accuracy of the conclusions made by those interpreters who were not inside the culture. Especially it demands a clear presentation of the relation of gender and religion, because this varies greatly from Western to traditional cultures.

The Construction of Gender

The construction of genderindeed even the understanding of italways takes place in the wider project of imagining the shape of the cosmos as a whole. It is well known that the foundational insight of North American Indian traditions is that everything is dynamically alive, with relationships rather than rules as its laws. In such a world nothing and no one stands alone, but each is related to every other and the whole. Thus all is holy, sacred. The primary quality of each aspect is the spiritual nature of its being, which underlies the unique form that communicates its identity. This identity is not the external form but the complex reality of the inner life of that being. Gender as such is clearly related to this spiritual identity and is deeper than sexual marks of differentiation. These outer forms may change over a lifetime; the inner identity does not.

Significantly native peoples have a more diverse recognition of gender as it manifests itself in human life. Is it the early encounter with dualism that caused the western European world to see gender as only dual and complementary, male or female? Native peoples, over a long period of historical experience, recognized a third and even a fourth gender. Perhaps this cultural difference explains the cognitive dismay experienced by the European travelers as well as the curiosity of the early anthropologists and ethnologists. Among the distorted reactions were the harsh punishments dealt by the Spanish conquistadores and the Jesuits who were unable to distinguish sexual identity in native terms from unlawful sexual acts.

Proper recognition of the insights of earlier researchers should be given. The spectrum of those who studied Native American culture ranges from the onset of colonization into the twenty-first century and in manners as diverse as enlightened description (e.g., parts of the Jesuit Relations ) to hostile rejection of cultural forms. In the broad phylum of objective scholars, ethnologists and anthropologists (male and female) have contributed significant portrayals. Worthy of note is the work of Ruth Landes among the Ojibwa and Ruth Densmore's ambitious project to record (and thus preserve) the ritual music of many diverse peoples. The presence of such women in the ranks of social scientists opened the door to appreciation of women's contribution to culture and its core of religious meaning.

Despite the criterion of scientific objectivity, however, each observer brings a structured view of particular reality to the efforts to encounter and understand a different people. Thus in the New World, as in Asia, the predominant frame of reference was that of the Western world. It could not have been avoided in fact. But this perspective has often clouded the view of native peoples. It is certainly the case that the strong influence of Christianity caused the perception of women, of native religion, and of the central place of women in society to be distorted in perception and description. There are of course some great exceptions to this, but they are not the predominant view.

Female Concepts of Sacredness

A powerful example of cultural dissonance is reflected in the early views that native religious traditions were pagan and based on superstition. Scholars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (e.g., James Walker, Owen Dorsey, Ruth Benedict, and William Fenton), in their earnest efforts to portray and understand the meaning of the dense ritual complexes across the continent, rescued the great body of native religious insights from vanishing. The growing contributions of contemporary native scholarswomen and menhave created a more realistic and profound view of indigenous native religious beliefs and practices.

One particular aspect that merits attention is the fascinating dialogue between native concepts of the sacred and those of Western Christianity. In concert with the emergent feminist movement, women scholars have emphasized the particularity and richness of native concepts of the sacred. This is a large subject; thus it is only possible to give a few examples.

In one of the earliest works on gender in native America, The Sacred Hoop (1986), Paula Gunn Allen offers a richness of description as she strives to recover the feminine in native traditions. From her own perspective as a Laguna Pueblo woman, she describes the overwhelming feminine aspect of the southwestern peoples but also reveals the parallels in other areas of the country. It is clear from her reflections and memories that there is the closest connection between a creatrix, Thought Woman, and the structure of reality as it proceeds from her sacred work.

At the center of all is Woman, and nothing is sacred without her blessing, her thinking. She is a spirit who pervades all, who created all reality and languages. This originating power is female in her primacy and potency. She is the mother of all, and as her surrogate, Mother Earth enfolds and nurtures all creation. (Allen, 1986, pp. 1314)

Thus the Keres people see her as the source of all life, bringer of corn, agriculture, weaving, social systems, religion, ritual, memory, and so on. In her vast presence she is honored as Mother and Father of all peoples and all creatures. Her power is manifest in generativity and so is much broader than maternity. Earth and women are linked as homologous parts of creation; their sacred role stems from their relation to Thought Woman.

The Constructs of Gynecocracy

Allen then demonstrates that this feminine aspect of the sacred is related to social structures of gynecocracya distinctive feature of native society that she sees as the predominant form of North American peoples before the coming of the Europeans. This is borne out by the current structures of Pueblo life, especially the Hopi, but also by the central role held by women in the confederacies of the Northwest and Southeast. Less obvious to the British was the powerful role of women among the Iroquois, but early records of encounter noted the high place of women among the Creek and Cherokee, because they were encountered in diplomatic missions.

There is a rich and growing literature on the subject of gender by native scholars and interested others. Credit should be given to one of the first pioneers, the Lakota anthropologist Beatrice Medicine. She initiated work by native women (e.g., Paula Gunn Allen, Patricia Albers, Marla Powers) who set about telling the stories of women in Native America. This is not to say that early students did not depict the life and development of native women. The shifting of history, however, ensured that what most caught their attention were the men who, throughout the nineteenth century, emblazoned across history the image of the heroic warriors and buffalo hunters who were fighting for the very survival of their culture.

In reality survival of a tribe depended on the full cooperation of all its members. Because biology makes women the bearers of children, they are also the keepers of the hearth. Yet in many native societies this was only one aspect of a much broader area of responsibility. All over the continent women have traditionally been associated with the earth. As previously noted, all reality is gendered, and the connection of women to the great source of nurture that is the earth reveals the enormous holiness and power with which she is endowed. This powerful connection appears in many nations in the great stories that preserve their heritage. Thus in the Iroquois origin story the Sky-Woman is the first of the People Above to begin the process of external creation. As she falls from the Sky World, she is supported by birds with their wings outstretched until at last a creature of the waters offers her a resting place. Her rescuer is Grandmother Turtle, and it is from the initial encounter of these persons that Iroquois life begins. The theme of women's power continues, as Sky-Woman's child gives birth to the twin sacred persons who will establish the full creation. Similarly in the Lakota story of the White Buffalo Calf Woman a Sacred Woman comes from Wakan Tanka and brings the great gift of the Sacred Pipe, then and now the symbol of the people's link to the Great Mystery. In the Cheyenne story of creation Maheo, the All-Father, makes man and woman from two ribs taken from his side (implying an equal origination). And among the Navajo, Changing Woman is crucial to the creation of the Navajo and their world. Her presence is believed to ensure cosmic balance, and each girl is initiated into her role and image during Kinaaldá, the female initiation rite.

These stories attest to the high regard for the feminine in creation. This respect traditionally had great influence in shaping the life roles of native women. It is well known that the Iroquois League valued the advice and wisdom of women so much that the representative sachems could not be named or selected without the consent of the women. Historically women had the power to temper the balance of power of the war chiefs by counterbalancing them with men who sought peace. Even in the early twenty-first century the proper protocol for Atatarho, the chief of the sachems, is to have a woman as his mediator. Thus the traditional customs witness to the essential balance of male and female to ensure right order.

Among the agricultural peoples (e.g., the Hopi), the women owned the fields and therefore the store of food that was the source of their people's lives. Women were also expected to have talents in craft making (beading, pottery), and often there is a mythic person who is considered to impart this gift (e.g., Spider-Woman, Double-Faced Woman). The power of female fertility received great respect; in fact periods of fertility necessitated that a woman stay away from ritual spaces as well as from hunters and warriors. Her power was viewed not as impurity but as a power capable of interfering with and subverting male power. A woman was viewed by many nations as the heart of her people. The Cheyenne say it well: "A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground."

A crucial part of any study of gender rests on the ways it is constructed in any society. Before the advent of sociology and psychology, this issue was considered a natural dimension of traditional education. As such it was taught in an imitative and exponential way, not as part of logical discourse (though this too had its place, specifically at puberty ceremonies, in which care was given to define sexual and gender roles). But traditional education involves a broader method than classroom learning. An entire clan group was responsible for imaging the roles adults have in contributing to the support of the whole group. Thus an intensive web of instruction accompanied a child from earliest years to the major threshold of adult initiation. This was true for girls and boys in a framework that allowed notice to be taken of those who did not quite fit the category.

Women in Rituals

The place of women in rituals, and the links perceived between them and the rationale and goal of the ritual, is perhaps most strikingly seen in rites of initiation. One strong example (representative of many others) can be found in the Navajo ceremony of Kinaaldá. In origin and purpose it illustrates the feminine aspect of ritual practice as well as the connection between such rites and the common good that ritual aims to support. The rite of Kinaaldá derives from the Navajo story of their creation or emergence. In it a powerful spirit, miraculously placed on the earth's surface, creates the first humans from her own flesh. She is called Changing Woman because she embodies all the seasons of life as well as of nature. She is unvaryingly benevolent and continues to nurture her people, especially through Blessingway, the chantway that is her gift, and through Kinaaldá.

What occurs in this Navajo ritual is a careful process intended to make the pubescent young girl a Navajo woman in potency and reality. This is accomplished by molding the girl into the image of Changing Woman and encouraging her to earnestly begin to emulate her model's qualities as woman through her contributions to the people. Thus physical strength, endurance, creativity, fruitfulness, and many skills and qualities are transferred to her during this special time when she is especially open to formative influences. The initiate is instructed to invite Changing Woman into her life, and in the realism of Navajo belief, this does happen. Thus the young woman is considered to be a special source of power for life and healing during this time. The rich ceremonial details of dress, painting, and ritual acts portray the transformation of the young girl into this powerful and benevolent spirit. Through this she is prepared to contribute to her people in life-giving ways throughout her life.

The remembered traditions of the peoples of North America reveal that the role of women in society and ritual is of utmost importance. Thus the varying ways of conducting the sun dance on the Plains insisted on the presence of the Sacred Woman at the heart of the ritual. This example demonstrates that, even in cultures that in historic times were seen as masculine (i.e., the warrior tradition that was so obvious to the invaders from the east), the whole could not be complete without the sacred presence of women. Any study of the elaborate ritual acts that made up the sun dance shows the profound understanding that the feminine is a necessary, constituent part of cosmic reality. Thus it is complementarity, rather than emphasis on a male or female hierarchy, that most accurately represents the religious understanding of native peoples of North America.

The sun dance represents not only thanksgiving for the gifts of life but also a primary moment to bring healing to the people. The role of healing is central to indigenous religions and in North America involved both genders. Because it was a uniquely important spiritual calling, this role was usually entered through a call in a dream or a vision and a period of specific instruction by an elder, experienced religious authority. This vocation was not restricted to men, but a different path was usual for women. In the many stories that exist of medicine women, it is clear that they could not exercise their full spiritual power until they were past menopause. Specifically, although they could offer herbs for healing, they were not to engage in the profound act of spiritual healing. Similar to the principle that menstrual blood could interfere with the exercise of power, in carrying out her role the medicine woman did not risk the conflict of sacred powers. Among the many tribes in which the medicine tradition was inherited (nonlinearly), women also served the people. In some places (e.g., California) only women became medicine people.

Women in Society

The role of males in traditional native societies varied with regard to geographical location, modes of subsistence, and the shape of major cultural myths. But seen against the broad background of the prehistoric past, all had internalized the primary occupation of ancestorsthe endeavor to win survival through hunting. The skills and perceptual acuteness needed for successful hunting created an ideal that perhaps found its apex in the Plains Indian buffalo-hunting culture. But strong masculine images were noted in most cultures Europeans encountered, and these emerge in the accounts shared by the people themselves as they surveyed their oral histories. Here, as with the female gender, the essence of the male person was regarded as in process and as eventually completed in a spiritual encounter with sacred power. This reveals that the virtue associated with the strong male image were not merely natural but part of a complex relationship with the creative power that fills all life.

The myths tell of the first peoples looking for a homeland and sources of life. They are portrayed as knowing their weakness and welcoming the interventions by gods or spirits who come to assist them.

A paradigmatic story comes from the Navajo, who fall into error regarding the essential balance of men and women, male and female, in life on Mother Earth. They are gently led to reunite by the intervention of a spirit who manifests the vitality and rightness of that balance in himself. In the Lakota story of extended beginnings, the prototypical warrior, Stone Boy, works arduously to make the earth safe for the people, and in the story of the founding of the League of the Hodenosaunee, the prophet Deganawidah finds it necessary to temper the uncontrolled warlike nature of Atatarho, whom he defeats by skillful diplomacy. A powerful transformation takes place when the ferocious warrior chief surrenders his passions and agrees to be the servant of allthe chief of chiefs who holds the council fires together. The Iroquois honor this memory of the shift from uncontrolled aggression to diplomatic means to achieve harmony both within and around them.

Because the male was required to support not only his family but all those in need, much depended on developing a pattern of learning that relied on fostering certain verities. Courage was paramount, but skill in tracking, patience in waiting, and the will to endure privationsoften for long periods of timewere also crucial. These skills, although important, are minor compared to the habits of mind and soul. Thus many people valued generosity and altercenteredness and viewed the whole as contributing to the attainment of honor. Much was expected of the man, and the burden this could impose was often felt as heavy. Anthony F. C. Wallace's study of the Seneca, based on a lifetime of work by others, such as William Fenton, illustrates how such pressure was in need of a means to release it without shaming the warrior. He notes the wisdom of a community that paid great attention to dreams, seen as early as the 1600s, as "wishes of the soul" and the acumen of soul that instituted a way private dreams could be enacted at the Midwinter (New Year's) Festival and answered in appropriate ways by the community. It is important to note here that the Iroquois, remembered by history as fearsome warriors, were actually part of a matriarchal society and that one of the most highly regarded warrior societies on the Plains was that of the Cheyenne, who were renowned for their courage and discipline and spirit of sacrifice. Their allies and friends the Lakota remarked that the Cheyenne women deserved as much honor as their men, being famed for their character and the extraordinary companionship, which they provided in peace and war.

The activities that occupied warriors concerned the support and defense of the peopleboth very serious responsibilities. They were also encouraged to hone their skills in sports and gaming and did so with relish, but the reality of their role was never far from their minds. Even though the level of aggression was magnified greatly by the dislocations and impact of colonization, raiding had a large part in life on the Plains and the severely impacted Northeast. One example shows what was really at stake in such skirmishes. Many peoples vied for honor by successfully getting away with horses or other goods by skillful stealth. The highest honor in fact was credited to the person who had the bravery to get close enough to a living enemy to touch him or her and escape with his or her own life intact.

More seriously, in the epic years of the final battles for freedom of the northern Plains Indians, the Lakota and Cheyenne each had a band of volunteers who joined sacred societies such as the Kit Fox Society or the Dog Soldiers. Each man had vowed to defend his people to the point of death. The Dog Soldiers wore a sash that, dismounting, they tied to the ground in the forefront of the battle. They understood the price and were willing to pay it. The descendants of the warrior societies of North American Indians have volunteered to fight in the major battles of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. They have continued to distinguish the vital heritage from which they come.

Gender Recognition

Because sacred power is inextricably related to gendered living, it is not surprising that the freedom and creativity of that sacred power is ultimately the key to gender in Native America. Although the roles of women and men are clearly defined, they also are not strictly limited to sexual identity. It is not uncommon to find men, as among the Hopi, who do the weaving or to find women who are capable of excelling in manly arts. Apparently it is hard to limit the creative power of the sacred. Thus no one was surprised when a sister of a Cheyenne warrior, seeing him struck from his horse in battle, raced to take his place. Though Buffalo Calf Road Woman is vividly remembered, it was viewed as natural for her to assume that role.

More tellingly the recognition of other genders can be traced to a similar foundation. This aspect of gender has been captured in some early accounts, mostly in an objective way. Women such as Ruth Benedict (18871948), Alice Kehoe, Ruth Landes (19081991), Margaret Mead (19011978), and Ruth Underhill (18831994) actually strove to present sensitive descriptions based on intensive conversations in the field. But the real breakthrough occurred only in the last quarter of the twentieth century with the work of Walter Williams, Sabine Lang, and Paula Gunn Allen among others. What their contributions reveal is that a large range of gender issues have escaped the net of scholarship. The reasons are understandably many. So much of native culture has been interpreted by outsiders looking in that the deepest parts of sacred traditions have been carefully guarded. Part of that reality is the long-standing recognition of the existence of more than two genders, framed by the steady opposition of Christian Euro-Americans. Sadly some of these prejudices have crossed over during the difficult period of forced education that had assimilation as its goal. Traditional language, customs, and values were targeted for extinction. An inevitable part of this was the imposition of mores that are culturally alien to the native peoples. Thus the subject of diverse models of gender is often met with embarrassment, and some persons whose identity is neither male nor female have met with intolerance on their own reservations.

There is, however, a powerful lesson to learn from the traditional understanding (admittedly complex) of gender diversity. The kinship circle, which embraces all of life for a native person, includes a variety of gendered persons whose place in the community is determined by careful identification of recognized gender characteristics. Thus the designation of someone as a winkte among the Lakota or as a nádleeh among the Navajo rests on qualities that indicate a person's role in society rather than sexual identity. Growing contemporary research reveals a traditional past in which wide gender variety was regarded as part of the natural order. In some societies such persons were believed to possess special powers that could help the community flourish. The term two-spirit, in favor at the beginning of the twenty-first century, has been chosen to indicate the connection of such persons to the spiritual world, in particular their special place in ritual.

Early anthropological research brought the biases and categories of the Western worldview to the study of gender variances. Faced with a complex image of wide diversity in this area, the reports of these scholars could neither embrace nor appreciate the rich universe of meaning they had encountered. One example is the common use of the French term berdache, which is not only taken from a foreign context but is also burdened with a specific meaning (e.g., homosexuality, transvestism, hermaphrodism) unsuited to the broader universe that emerged at early encounters. Although this term was intended as a positive description of North American Indian customs, it could not begin to translate the rich diversity in balance with a view that all things are in dynamic process toward the cosmic purpose of everything that existshozho. The rich diversity in gender is not exceptional but rather a vital dimension of a multifaceted reality. The classification given by Wesley Thomas at the 1993 Wenner-Gren Conference in Washington, D.C., offered four main classifications known by the Navajo: feminine female, masculine male, masculine female (nádleehi ), and feminine male (nadleehi ). He notes that a crucial difference separates Western and traditional Navajo concepts relating to gender, sexuality, and sexual relationships. Thus a relationship between a female-bodied nádleeh (masculine female) and a woman or one between a male-bodied nadleeh (feminine male) and a man are not seen as homosexual in traditional Navajo culture.

That gender was distinguished from sex is clarified in a seminal paper (never published but widely circulated) by the highly regarded Lakota anthropologist Beatrice Medicine in 1979, revised as part of Patricia Alber and Beatrice Medicine's, The Hidden Half: Studies of Plains Indian Women (1983). Beatrice Medicine notes that the traditional vocation of the winkte included roles as ritualist, artist, specialist in production of women's crafts, herbalist, seer, namer of children, and (perhaps most interesting) rejection of the warrior's role. Among the highly disciplined Plains Indians, the warrior's place was greatly esteemed. To reject it required conviction and courage. Thus the winkte occupied a unique place in traditional Lakota society, as did the equivalent in many other cultures. It was Beatrice Medicine's intent to examine the changes wrought by urbanization imposed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. For the young men and women transplanted to urban and intertribal settings, adaptation was a difficult process. One of the dimensions of native life that did not transfer well was the area of gender diversity. In a larger society unable to deal with ambiguities, labels were hastily applied. The distinction between gender and sex is perhaps too foreign for general acceptance, and certainly the circumstances of invasive cultural drifts onto the reservations complicated this area of culture. Thus the traditional context has been harder to retain, both on and off traditional lands. Medicine sadly notes that native winkte have experienced discrimination not only in the mainstream society but also at home. Thus a dimension of native spiritual understanding that has so much to offer the Western world has suffered a unique form of repression. The emerging voices and research in the twenty-first century of mainstream gay activists and their eagerness to lift from oppression victimized others holds a promise of a battle that could result in a better resolution.

Clearly, there is an innate link between gender and North American Indian religious traditions. Due to its limited scope, it can only be a summary of an exceedingly rich field. Through the early efforts of anthropologists and ethnologists to describe and understand them, through the great generosity of the people who were convinced of the need to speak, and now through the growing numbers of Native Americans who are speakers for themselves, a rich tapestry of variegated beauty is emerging. Their world is so much older than that of Euro-Americans, and their insights into the nature of reality enrich the story of the world's religions. They speak of wholeness, of complementarity, mutuality, and of harmony. Their image of difference is one that strives for unity yet preserves distinctness as the proper order of creation.

See Also

Cosmology, overview article; Gender Roles; Gynocentrism; Lakota Religious Traditions; Mead, Margaret; Navajo Religious Traditions; North American Indian Religions, overview article; Shamanism, article on North American Shamanism.


Albers, Patricia, and Beatrice Medicine (Lakota). The Hidden Half: Studies of Plains Indian Women. Lanham, Md., 1983. An early sociological study of the life and culture of Native American women.

Allen, Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop. Recovering the Feminine in Native American Traditions. Boston, 1986. An engaging exposition of the depths of the feminine dimension in Native, American traditions, especially in the Southwest, by a Laguna Pueblo scholar.

Bataille, Gretchen M., and Kathleen Mullen Sands. American Indian Women: Telling Their Lives. Lincoln, Neb., 1984.

Beck, Peggy, and Anna Lee Walters. The Sacred: Ways of Knowledge, Sources of Life. Tsaile, Ariz., 1977.

Deloria, Vine, Jr. God Is Red: A Native View of Religion. New York, 1973. Revised edition, Golden, Colo., 2003.

DeMallie, Raymond, and Douglas Parks, eds. Sioux Indian Religion: Tradition and Innovation. Norman, Okla., 1987.

Irwin, Lee, ed. To Hear the Eagles Cry: Contemporary Themes in Native American Spirituality. American Indian Quarterly 20, nos. 34 (1996) and 21, no. 1 (1997).

Hall, Robert L. An Archaeology of the Soul: North American Indian Belief and Ritual. Urbana, Ill., 1997.

Hazen-Hammond, Susan. Spider Woman's Web: Traditional Native American Tales about Women's Power. New York, 1999.

Jacobs, Sue-Ellen, Wesley Thomas, and Sabine Lang. Two-Spirit People: Native American Gender Identity, Sexuality, and Spirituality. Urbana, Ill., 1997. An intriguing report of a conference designed to bring Native Americans into dialogue with scholars of the dominant society on gender issues in contemporary America.

Lang, Sabine. Men as Women, Women as Men: Changing Gender in Native American Cultures. Austin, Tex., 1998.

Powers, Marla N. Oglala Women: Myth, Ritual, and Reality. Chicago, 1986.

Schwarz, Maureen Trudelle. Molded in the Image of Changing Woman: Navajo Views on the Human Body and Personhood. Tucson, Ariz., 1997.

St. Pierre, Mark, and Tilda Long Soldier. Walking in the Sacred Manner: Healers, Dreamers, and Pipe-CarriersMedicine Women of the Plains Indians. New York, 1995.

Vecsey, Christopher, ed. Religion in Native North America. Moscow, Idaho, 1990.

Wallace, Anthony F. C. The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca. New York, 1970.

Williams, Walter L. The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture. Boston, 1986.

Kathleen Dugan (2005)

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