Native American Sociology: Introduction to Gender & Family Relationships

Gender is not sex. Sex is the biological (man, woman). Gender is the social role assigned to a particular sex (male, female). It should be noted that the belief in only two sexes and gender classes by mainstream Americans is not the same around the world. In fact, there is a 3rd sex (although Americans are reluctant to accommodate these people, and therefore, the 3rd sex is usually not acknowledged). Many Native Peoples did acknowledge these persons as rightfully their own separate sex. And when it comes to gender, many Native American groups are known for their 3rd, 4th, and 5th genders. Most common were men who carried out the male gender role and women who carried out the female gender role. There was also, in many Native communities, the 3rd sex which persons were sometimes assigned their own gender role. Their were also men who identified with the female gender role, and women who identified with the male gender role. Many may be surprised to learn how individualistic and ”’¹…”accepting’ many Native cultures were. It should not come as too much a surprise for anyone who knows the importance of dream-guessing, dream fulfillment, and vision quests, which only illustrate the People’s belief in importance of being individuals. Most Native societies were indeed individualistic while still communal.

Matrilocal and Patrilocal Residence
Matrilocal and Patrilocal are two great terms that need to be in every museum guide’s arsenal when interpreting Native American cultures. Matrilocal residence is when a husband moves into his wife’s family’s home, or near her family’s local (ex. her clan’s longhouse, or her ”’¹…”hometown’ village). Patrililocal residence is when a wife moves into her husband’s family home, or near his family’s local. Many Indian societies stuck to practicing one or the other as custom. Some Native cultures were known to have practiced a “honeymoon period” matrilocal residence that could last a few years before the couple moved to his family’s home or village. And still others never committed to a sanctioned social pattern of residency. For these folks, living among the bride’s or groom’s family was just a matter of personal preference for the couple and their relatives. *Please note: Just because a society practices matrilocal residence does not mean they are automatically matrilineal (and vise versa with patrilocal and patrilineal). These practices are not codependent, although in the Northeast many do go hand-in-hand.

Matrilineal, Not Matriarchal
It is a common misconception that Native American societies whose clan membership (family name) passed through the women’s lines are matriarchal. This does not mean they are matriarchal, however, this does mean that this society is matrilineal. Matrilineal descent is when clan membership, property, and/or hereditary titles are passed in the family from mother to child. As one might guess, when clan membership, property, and/or hereditary titles are passed from father to child, this is called patrilineal descent (also does not mean patriarchy). Both matrilineal and patrilineal practices may be found in one Native community, for example, while clan membership may be passed from father to child (patrilineal), the title/position of village leader may be passed through the women’s lines (nephew becomes elected because his mother’s brother or father was the previous statesman).

Social Status Based on Relation
A woman in a male-dominated society was usually judged more or less important based on her relation to respected and powerful men. A large part of Western society, seems to inherently assume other cultures automatically do the same (a clear-cut example of this is the imaginative Indian ”’¹…”princess’ ‘” she only has worth based on her father, a chief, falsely likened to a ”’¹…”king’). We have partly misunderstood the real workings of matrilineal relationships in Native societies because many have not explored these networks on their own terms. The truth is a man who receives his title through female lines would be without influence had it not been for her lineage. A man’s inherent status, in a matrilineal society, was based on his relationship to the women of his family.

Unlike Europeans of the time, most Native Societies of the Northeast did not practice inheriting titles or status through marriage. An Iroquois matron’s husband had no special place based on her position, and neither did a Delaware village leader’s wife gain any special title. A famous woman chief of New England, who provided warriors for King Philip’s War, was the second of three wives of her husband (who was a ”’¹…”common’ man ‘” not a leader). Her husband and “sister wives” had absolutely no titles inherited by their marriages/relation to her. While these spouses were undoubtedly respected, and indeed may have helped their partner entertain diplomats and help see to their community’s needs too, they never became kings, queens, princes, or princesses with power, just because of marriage.

Marriage and The Strongest of Bonds
Many of us think of our spouses as our “better half,” and our marriages the strongest bonds we will ever make with another person. We expect a spouse newly widowed to be most pained member of the family. We feel our bond to be ”’¹…”natural,’ and therefore universal, but in truth, relationships and even aspects of love are culturally influenced. Not all peoples think or ”’¹…”feel’ the way we do in the same situations. Marriage among the Native People was, many times, not considered the strongest relationship two people could have. As one Fox widow recalled, she was very sad after the death of her husband, and publicly morning her loss was no problem, as she was seriously distraught. However, she mourned too much. She couldn’t help her feelings. She mourned so much she had to hide it because people began to talk. They said she was disgraceful morning so much, too much ‘” acting as if she had lost a brother (1). Indeed, in her culture, the loss of a sibling was considered to be the loss of a closer bond than a spouse. Sisters and brothers were of the same clan, and their relationship was considered to be emotionally stronger than that of a wife and husband.

Fathers, Father Figures, and Matrilineal Societies
A boy learning to use a bow and arrow may drum up an image of a father patiently teaching his son learning to hunt. There is nothing wrong with this image as fathers were teachers to their children, and especially important in a young man’s upbringing. Men taught boys how to become good husbands and fathers, providers and protectors, and admirable, well-minded persons who respected both natural and supernatural beings. The only miss here is that it was not just fathers who played the fatherly role in matrileal societies. When clan membership passed down from mother to child, a father and son were not of the same clan, however, a boy and his maternal uncle(s) were both of the same clan. For many, this meant that uncles and nephews (mother’s brothers) of the same clan were considered ”’¹…”closer’ than fathers and sons of different clans. It was not unusual for uncles to teach their nephews life skills just as much as the boys’ fathers. This also meant that men had duties to not only raise his children, but also help raise his sister’s children. This practice helped to reinforce clan relationships, and established stability for children (ex. divorces were not as devastating, and children were still well provided for in the case of a parent’s death, which was certainly not the case of many Euro-American widows who needed to remarry just to feed their children).
*Note: Native societies relied more on extended family much more than many Europeans and white Americans. This offered more security for children, so that in the case of parents’ death, they would not become orphaned, which was definitely a threat for many white children of the times.

(1) Example from “The Indian Peoples of the Eastern Woodlands: A Documentary of the Sexes” by James Axtell