Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Raiding and warfare were an integral part of the men's role among Plains Indian nations, but it was by no means uncommon for women to engage in these activities as well. Their motivations were the same as those of the men: revenge, defense, and a desire for prestige and wealth. Most frequently, a woman would join or even lead a war party in order to take revenge for relatives slain by some enemy. Women would also take up arms to defend their camp against hostile intruders. In other cases, women, by means of visions, received the command to go to war. Capturing horses and other property on a raid also brought great prestige to both men and women.

The term "woman warrior," while commonplace, is misleading. To be a warrior was a lifetime occupation for Plains Indian men, but most women who went to war did not pursue a warrior's life permanently. Many women went to war only once or twice in their lives. Others were married and accompanied their husbands on war or raiding parties, especially while the couple was still young and childless. Some women served as sentries and messengers; others fought in battle alongside the men, counted coup, and took scalps. Eventually, they quit warring and raiding, raised children, and did their share of work within the gendered division of labor. In this they differed from the female two-spirits, or berdaches, who took up the culturally defined man's role completely and permanently.

In some cases, however, success as a warrior would pave a woman's way to a quasi-masculine role and status. The war deeds of Woman Chief, who lived among the Crow around 1850, were so daring that the men invited her to join their council meetings, where she ranked as the third leading warrior in a group of 160 lodges. She became an accomplished trader and hunter and eventually married four wives, who processed the hides and did the other standard women's chores around her lodge. Another example is Brown Weasel Woman, a Piegan female warrior. A major battle with an enemy tribe brought her–the only female in her tribe's history to be so honored–a man's name, Running Eagle, that was reserved for famous warriors.

The role of the woman warrior was socially accepted wherever it occurred among the Plains nations. The same holds true for other role alternatives in which women could gain prestige by exhibiting behavior culturally defined as masculine. The prestige system of the Plains cultures was clearly male-dominated, centering on warlike activities and personality traits considered masculine. It is true that Plains Indian women could gain great prestige by excelling in women's occupations such as beadwork and agriculture, by assuming certain roles in ceremonies, and by expressing culturally valued ideals of femininity. Yet the masculine prestige system was the measure for both sexes. Even feminine achievements were sometimes expressed in masculine terms. Within that system, however, women could compete for the prestige associated with war and raiding on equal terms with men and did so if they had the inclination.

Sabine Lang Hamburg, Germany

Hungry Wolf, Beverly. The Ways of My Grandmothers. New York: Quill Books, 1982.

Lang, Sabine. Men as Women, Women as Men: Changing Gender in Native American Cultures. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998.

Medicine, Beatrice. "'Warrior Women': Sex Role Alternatives for Plains Indian Women." In The Hidden Half: Studies of Plains Indian Women, edited by Patricia Albers and Beatrice Medicine. Washington DC: University Press of America, 1983: 267–80.

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