The historical record and the general conventional wisdom about the role and place of women in indigenous society has been largely determined by white historians, clergymen, and others who viewed women from a western, colonial point of view. Most primary records speak of women in highly derogatory terms, often casting them as nothing more than beasts of burden and nearly slaves to men. This is especially the case of Indian women who were attached to European men, whereby they were viewed by settler society as something less than human at times – with terms like ‘sauvage’ or ‘sauvagesse’ being used to describe them. While the Europeans maintained a generally negative view of the Indian women they sometimes took as ‘country brides’ – perhaps leading to the desire of mixed-blood children to often attach themselves to their native communities, or later to become an independent ‘Metis” nation in the Red River region – the status of women in the traditional Indigenous cultures was much different and one that was (more or less) egalitarian.
In most indigenous cultures, labor was a process wherein each person played a role that, while not the same, was equally important and valued. For instance, while hunting and trapping were tasks carried out by men, the processing of the food and the tanning of hides was a female domain. This did not mean that the women were performing as workhorses for the men, but rather that they were doing what they did best and making sure that the hides were processed correctly in order to gain the highest prices at the trading posts. Even more so, women had an ownership stake in these furs and hides and it was reported by many fur trade journals that Indian women were very shrewd negotiators – often better than the men.
Women were the experts at gathering wild plant foods and medicines; during canoe building, while the men fashioned the frame of the birch-bark canoe and made the paddles, the women were the experts at sewing the bark and sealing the seams to create a watertight boat.
During large-scale hunts, women were an essential part of the action. As soon as the men killed a large number of buffalo, they were quickly relegated to a subservient role to the women who led the effort in skinning, tanning, making pemmican, and more, with men acting as ‘fetchers’ and general laborers for the women. Women knew how to best build lodges; they were valued for their skill at fashioning beautiful clothing for their families; they were the artists of the people, making beautiful beadwork, quillwork, and decorations; and they were the on-the-ground leaders at the annual maple and wild rice gathering efforts of the people.
If we are to decolonize as Indigenous people, we need to cast off the European ideas that women were nothing more than chattel and draft animals. While this might have been true for some of the early Indian women who had the misfortune of being selected as wives by voyageurs and traders, that was not their actual role in traditional society.