Allocation of Tasks. Division of labor by age, gender, and talent was as universal among Native Americans as it was elsewhere in the world. Children were incapable of performing most adult activities and lacked the knowledge and experience of those who were older. The old lacked the strength of younger adults, but they became respected elders who advised the village or group on matters of diplomacy, warfare, spirituality, and history. Few Indians became full-time craft specialists, such as pottery makers or basket weavers, but those who had special talents engaged more often than others in that particular activity. Other part-time specialists included political leaders, shamans, and war chiefs. Although age was important in determining the jobs that sixteenth-century Indians performed, gender provided the main dividing point in the allocation of labor.
Gendered Work and the Raising of Children
In the early seventeenth century French missionary Gabriel Sagard described how Hurons trained boys and girls to do adult tasks:
[I] fa mother asks her son to go for water or wood or do some similar household service, he will reply to her that this is a girl’s work and will do none of it... Just as the little boys have their special training and teach one another to shoot with the bow as soon as they begin to walk, so also the little girls, whenever they begin to put one foot in front of the other, have a little stick put into their hands to train them and teach them early to pound corn, and when they are grown somewhat they also play various little games with their companions, and in the course of these small frolics they are trained quietly to perform trifling and petty household duties.
Division of Labor. As with cultures the world over, Native Americans separated work according to gender. In most cases women farmed and gathered, while men hunted, warred against enemies, and traveled far and wide on trade missions. Some important exceptions to
this general rule existed. Among the Pueblo peoples men did most of the farm labor, while women owned the fields and produce; and in nearly all Indian societies some women fought enemies as readily as men. Usually everyone, regardless of gender, contributed to planting crops in the spring and helped with the harvest in the autumn. At such crucial times the demands of village survival outweighed the rules of a gendered separation of labor. Nevertheless, among some groups men would never be caught performing “women’s work” such as hoeing fields or gathering nuts and berries. Other areas in which a gendered division of labor was maintained included the construction of shelters. Where buildings were small, women tended to build them; where they were large, men most likely did the work. Almost universally women cured animal skins, fashioned clothing, and made pottery and baskets while men assembled bows, arrows, knives, and clubs.
The Work of Children. As soon as children could walk and carry small items they began to help in daily chores. For boys this meant hunting small game animals and birds while learning how to use the bow and arrow and developing the physical fortitude necessary for warfare. Girls accompanied their mothers into the fields and helped in household chores. They learned to plant and weed corn, gather firewood, fetch water, make clothes, weave mats and baskets, and fashion pottery. Indian parents let children have a relatively free rein and offered positive reinforcement to shape their behavior. Unlike the European custom of negative reinforcement by corporal
punishment, native cultures used public shame and ridicule on children who misbehaved.
Gretchen M. Bataille and Kathleen Mullen Sands, eds., American Indian Women: Telling Their Lives (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984).