In February of 1757, the great Cherokee leader Attakullakulla came to South Carolina to negotiate trade agreements with the governor and was shocked to find that no white women were present. “Since the white man as well as the red was born of woman, did not the white man admit women to their council?”
Attakullakulla asked the governor. Carolyn Johnston, professor at Eckerd College and author of Cherokee Women in Crisis; Trail of Tears, Civil War, and Allotment, 1838-1907, says in her book that the governor was so taken aback by the question that he took two or three days to come up with this milquetoast response: “The white men do place confidence in their women and share their councils with them when they know their hearts are good.”
Europeans were astonished to see that Cherokee women were the equals of men—politically, economically and theologically. “Women had autonomy and sexual freedom, could obtain divorce easily, rarely experienced rape or domestic violence, worked as producers/farmers, owned their own homes and fields, possessed a cosmology that contains female supernatural figures, and had significant political and economic power,” she writes.
“Cherokee women’s close association with nature, as mothers and producers, served as a basis of their power within the tribe, not as a basis of oppression. Their position as ‘the other’ led to gender equivalence, not hierarchy.”
One of the hardest things for the colonists to comprehend was the Cherokee kinship system. It was based on the matrilineal structure—the oldest social organization known to man (woman?) in which lineage is traced through the mother and maternal ancestors. The most important male relative in a Cherokee child’s life was his mother’s brother, not his father. In fact, the father was not formally related to his offspring.
According to Theda Perdue, professor at the University of North Carolina and author of Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835, white men who married Indian women were shocked to discover that the Cherokees did not consider them to be related to their children, and that mothers, not fathers, had control over children and property.
Women owned the houses where the extended family lived, and daughters inherited the property from their mothers. In order to prevent white men from marrying Indian women for profit–as the Cherokee land was coveted by white colonists–the husband’s Cherokee citizenship was revoked if he decided to leave.
“Should a white man abandon his Cherokee wife without good reason, he forfeited Cherokee citizenship and paid a settlement determined by the Cherokee Committee and Council for breach of marriage,” writes Fay Yarbrough, associate professor at the University of Oklahoma in Race and the Cherokee Nation: Sovereignty in the Nineteenth Century.
Johnston points out that in the traditional Cherokee culture, men and women had different roles, different ritual spaces and different ceremonies. Men were hunters, and women were farmers who controlled the household. Both were responsible for putting food on the table. In the winter, when men traveled hundreds of miles to hunt bear, deer, turkey and other game, women stayed at home.
They kept the fires burning in the winter-houses, made baskets, pottery, clothing and other things the family needed, cared for the children, and performed the chores for the household. “Perhaps because women were so important in the family and in the economy, they also had a voice in government,” Perdue writes in Tar Heel Junior Historian, a magazine published by North Carolina Museum of History.
“The Cherokees made decisions only after they discussed an issue for a long time and agreed on what they should do. The council meetings at which decisions were made were open to everyone including women. Women participated actively. Sometimes they urged the men to go to war to avenge an earlier enemy attack. At other times they advised peace. Occasionally women even fought in battles beside the men. The Cherokees called these women ‘War Women’, and all the people respected and honored them for their bravery.”
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