Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Traditionally, Plains Indian gender roles were well defined, and men's and women's responsibilities were equally crucial to the functioning, even the survival, of their societies. Consequently, both men and women were respected for doing their jobs well, although this is not how early European American observers saw it.

Such observers, coming from societies which held that women–gentlewomen, that is– should be cloistered and protected, were aghast at the workload that Plains Indian women carried. They witnessed them, from varying societies and at various times of the year, clearing fields, planting, hoeing, and harvesting; digging cache pits and storing food; erecting and dismantling lodges and tipis; collecting wild plants and firewood; cooking, hauling water, and washing dishes; transporting possessions, generally on foot, on bison hunts; making household items, including pottery and clothing; and child rearing. This workload increased during the first half of the nineteenth century as the fur trade raised the demands for dressed skins and robes. Meanwhile, the European American observers, often only transitory travelers, saw Indian men sitting around the village or encampment, smoking, gambling, perhaps mending a weapon or caring for a horse. The men seemed to have all the power; the women seemed to do all the work.

Visitors who lived with Plains Indians for more extended periods of time, including early anthropologists like Alice Fletcher, saw a much more complex division of labor and distribution of authority. There is no doubt that Plains Indian women worked hard, but they were held in high esteem for the elemental role they played in supporting village life. Among the farming Indians of the eastern Plains at least, women provided most of the food in most years; even in the bison-hunting societies of the western Plains they provided significant amounts of food through collection of wild plants and berries, and they processed the meat obtained on the hunt.

While it is true that the women generally played a subordinate role in ceremonial life and lacked formal political power (you will look in vain for a Plains Indian woman's signature on a treaty with the United States), they had types of political power that contemporary American women lacked. In the agricultural societies–the Pawnees and Omahas of Nebraska, for example–they owned the lodge, tipi, and its contents; the fields, seeds, and implements of production; and they had the right to trade their surplus crops. On the bison hunts they often made the decision on where to camp, and in the lodge the senior wife (for sororal polygamy was the norm) was the main decision maker. Women also had the right to divorce, and since they owned the lodge, an unkind husband could find himself homeless, with only his horse and weapons to his name. Women were also held in high esteem for their craft work, they played an important role in healing (especially in problems associated with childbirth), and they took care of religious items, a responsibility of the highest order.

Men's roles were equally misunderstood by early European American travelers. Men were responsible for hunting, defensive and aggressive warfare, manufacturing of weapons, and nearly all societywide political and religious operations. Observers who saw Indian men in their villages saw them "off work," although often they did help the women in the fields or in the construction of a lodge. Men's work took them away from the village, and it was dangerous. They hunted on increasingly contested bison ranges and journeyed hundreds of miles to enemy encampments to steal horses and to win honors. The reciprocity of the gender roles is made clear by the hard facts of Indian demography: in most, if not all, Plains Indian societies in the mid–nineteenth century there were far more women than men. Women often died at an early age, worn down by a life of hard work and frequent childbearing, but men died in greater numbers and at earlier ages, victims of their dangerous occupations. Only in the late nineteenth century, when wars among the tribes and with the United States were curtailed, did the gender ratios equalize. By that time men and women alike were equally likely to die from diseases caused by poverty, such as tuberculosis.

The gender roles devised over generations by traditional Plains Indian societies persisted for so long because they worked to keep the family and the band or tribe intact. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, the Canadian and U.S. governments launched a concerted attack on the traditional roles of Indian men and women: Indian men were to become farmers or blacksmiths, and Indian women were to become housewives, in keeping with European American concepts of "civilized" divisions of labor. Indian extended families were to be fragmented into nuclear families, each occupying an individual allotment. These imposed changes were resisted, but Indian men's traditional roles were fast disappearing, and as the weight of supporting families fell increasingly on the women, so did relative power. This shift has continued to this day.

On Plains reservations and reserves in the early twenty-first century, women are more likely than men to have completed high school and to hold jobs outside the home. They are often the chief providers for the household, while Indian men frequently take over the child care, cooking, and cleaning. Such changes bring with them benefits, such as increased authority for women and closer father-child relationships for men, but they also bring the stresses of added responsibilities and altered self-images.

David J. Wishart University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Albers, Patricia, and Beatrice Medicine. The Hidden Half: Studies of Plains Indian Women. Washington DC: University Press of America, 1983.

Billson, Janet Mancini. "Standing Tradition on Its Head: Role Reversal among Blood Indian Couples." Great Plains Quarterly 11 (1991): 3–22.

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