19th-century writers called Lakota women virtually enslaved to their husbands, but were they? Or were they skilled artisans, valued by the community, and empowered within their marriages? It turns out the working woman of the modern West owes much to the skilled craftswoman of the Great Plains.
Special thanks to Dr. Jon Cleland Host for help in the preparation of this episode. Episode theme music courtesy of the The Eagle and the Raven Band, featuring Ki’ Earth Spirit.
Don’t forget to subscribe, rate, and review. Support the show on Patreon at www.patreon.com/btnewberg. Research, writing, editing, and production by B. T. Newberg. Logo Design by Rachel Westhoff. Additional credits, references, and more at www.historyofsexpod.com.
If you time-traveled a Victorian-era gentleman and lady to the present, and they saw modern Western women working, what do you think they would say?
They’d probably choke on their tea. [spitting tea sound] Women today make up a full half of the labor force, whatever we might say about equity in leadership, but in Victorian times, women working at all was a major no-no. Egads!
Now, women did work in Victorian times, but the thing was, it was seen as low-class at best, demeaning at worst.
What dystopia is this where men force women to labor like drudges?, they might exclaim. How crude! How barbaric!
Well, it seems our dyspeptic Victorians didn’t have to get in a time machine to experience this very same reaction. They had a rather similar reaction in their own day and age, but on the Great Plains.
The traditional gender roles of plains tribes like the Lakota baffled European and American settlers, who saw them through the lens of their own gender norms. They scoffed at Lakota expectations that women work, unlike their own delicate domestic goddesses. Consequently, they considered them something like sweat-shop workers, very nearly enslaved to their husbands.
However, they failed to notice that Lakota women were considered skilled craftspeople, rose in status independently of their husbands based on the quality of their craftsmanship, could divorce relatively easily, and self-determined their own fates to a relatively large extent. If observers had asked the Lakota themselves, they would have been told that men’s and women’s labor, though rigidly divided along gender lines, was not exploitative but complementary.
Oh, and by the way, they might also have been told that gender was not binary, that there was not only man and woman but also a third gender called winkte, but we’ll get to that in a future episode.
In any case, all of that, well… let’s just say it got lost in translation. Observers recoiled from Lakota gender norms, and railed against them in written accounts.
Later, in the reservation period, plains tribes like the Lakota found themselves forced to conform to Western gender norms. This led not to a rise in women’s status, as our Victorian observers would have expected, but to a decline. In fact, today, many are trying to revive a form of those traditional Lakota gender roles fit for the modern era.
So, what was it like to live and labor as a Lakota woman? Stripped of all the Victorian poppycock, what was life for women really like on the Great Plains?
That’s what we’re talking about in today’s episode. I’m B. T. Newberg, and this is The History of Sex.
I’d like to thank our Patreon patron Dave for making this episode possible.
I’d also like to thank Dr. Jon Cleland Host for help in the preparation of this episode.
Finally, our theme song for today comes courtesy of The Eagle and the Raven Band, featuring Ki’ Earth Spirit, whose talented front woman Blanca Iris Acuña belongs to the Taino tribe. We are trying to showcase Native artists in this series where possible, so a big thank you to them.
Folks, this the third episode in our series Sex on the Great Plains, focusing on the Lakota in the 19th century. For a general overview of Lakota gender norms, check out the first episode, and for the viewpoint of one member of the Lakota tribe today, check out the second. Today, we’re looking specifically at women. What was life for women like on the Great Plains?
Plains tribes like the Lakota boasted gender norms that befuddled settlers. They were once thought a textbook case of patriarchal exploitation. While I was not able to find a quote addressing the Lakota specifically, the view was applied to all the plains tribes generally, of which the Lakota were one. For example, in 1872 E.D. Neill wrote of the Lakota’s cousins the Dakota:
“…From early childhood they lead ‘worse than a dog’s life.’ Like the Gibeonites of old, they are the hewers of wood and the drawers of water for the camp… Uncultivated and made to do the labor of beasts” (quoted in Weist, p. 31)
Likewise, Fanny Kelly, who lived in a Dakota camp as a captive, remarked in 1873 on the “slavish” and “unceasing toils” of the women there (Weist, p. 40).
Finally, an 1868 letter by Lt. George Palmer to the Chicago Tribune describes the Lakota’s neighbors on the plains, the Crow:
“The men are indolent and slothful, and look upon labor as degrading and only fit for women… They compel their women to do all the labor, and often reward the overworked creatures with neglect and cruelty,” (quoted in Weist, p. 36).
Palmer goes on to describe a woman’s work, saying she “must move the tepees from place to place, tan all the skins, gather wood, provide the winter supply of food, and take care of the ponies, papooses and dogs; while her lazy buck rides his horses or lies on soft robes in pleasant places, and occasionally pounds her with a club,” (quoted in Weist, p. 36).
Even today, depictions of Native American women in film tend toward either a princess or a menial, downtrodden drudge (Albers, p. 3), and the latter descends directly from Victorian-era accounts.
However, there’s something fishy going on here, because later ethnographic studies from the early 20th century report nothing of the kind. For example, Hewitt in 1910 and Grinnel in 1923 explicitly denied that women were slaves. Further, later interviews with actual Lakota women, including Pretty Shield, Iron Teeth, Plenty Coups, and Wooden Leg, denied experiencing overwork or disdain (Weist, p. 40).
So, what’s going on here? Historian Katherine Weist believes the perception of drudgery was due to Victorian notions of womanhood at the time. Settlers thought:
“…the proper roles of women were to provide nurturance, psychological support, and educational benefits to husbands and children – all activities considered appropriate to Euro-American women who were the models for what Indian women should become. In actuality, Euro-American women had lost many of the productive activities they had performed during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Due to an increase in industrialization, competition for jobs by large numbers of poor laborers, and the development of a middle class during the nineteenth century, many women no longer had their previous economic freedoms and became more dependent upon men. There arose around women a ‘cult of true womanhood’ characterized by the virtues of piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity” (Weist, p. 38).
Huh. So, it seems settlers saw plains tribes, along with many other peoples, through a peculiar lens. They took norms unique to their own industrial way of life as the standard for all women everywhere, and judged accordingly. Settlers, especially those of the middle and upper classes (who were the ones most likely to leave written accounts), recoiled at the treatment of women on the plains. Forgetting their own recent history of women’s labor, they believed women such delicate flowers that they ought not be asked to lift a finger. Consequently, when they saw women on the plains stretching and tanning hides, putting up and tearing down tipis, and trucking firewood, they nearly swallowed their kravats. [choking sound] “You couldn’t find a better example of women exploited by men,” they thought. ”These poor women are practically sweat-shop workers!”
But were they?
What was it really like to live and labor as a Lakota woman on the Great Plains? And how did it come to be that way? That’s what we’re going to find out next, but first we’ll take a short break, and be back after this.
Hey folks, we’ve got something special for you today: an audiodrama presentation of excerpts from a story by Yankton (that’s one of those tribes sometimes called Nakota) author Zitkála-Šá. Born in 1876, she was of the first generation raised in the boarding school system, which removed children from their parents, forced them to become Christian, and attempted to erase from them all trace of tribal ways – “Kill the Indian to save the man,” as it was once put. Zitkála-Šá became a stalwart activist against this system, as well as an accomplished author, editor, translator, educator, musician, and opera writer. This story, published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1902, evokes her traditional spirituality, and is entitled “Why I Am a Pagan.”
[sounds of the prairie]
WHEN the spirit swells my breast I love to roam leisurely among the green hills; or sometimes, sitting on the brink of the murmuring Missouri, I marvel at the great blue overhead. With half closed eyes I watch the huge cloud shadows in their noiseless play upon the high bluffs opposite me, while into my ear ripple the sweet, soft cadences of the river’s song. Folded hands lie in my lap, for the time forgot. My heart and I lie small upon the earth like a grain of throbbing sand. Drifting clouds and tinkling waters, together with the warmth of a genial summer day, bespeak with eloquence the loving Mystery round about us.
[sound of a yellow-breasted warbler chirping]
Yellow Breast, swaying upon the slender stem of a wild sunflower, warbles a sweet assurance of this as I pass near by. Breaking off the clear crystal song, he turns his wee head from side to side eyeing me wisely as slowly I plod with moccasined feet. Then again he yields himself to his song of joy. Flit, flit hither and yon, he fills the summer sky with his swift, sweet melody. And truly does it seem his vigorous freedom lies more in his little spirit than in his wing.
With these thoughts I reach the log cabin whither I am strongly drawn by the tie of a child to an aged mother.
[sound of a yapping dog]
Out bounds my four-footed friend to meet me, frisking about my path with unmistakable delight. Chan is a black shaggy dog, “a thorough bred little mongrel,” of whom I am very fond. Chan seems to understand many words in Sioux, and will go to her mat even when I whisper the word, though generally I think she is guided by the tone of the voice. Often she tries to imitate the sliding inflection and long drawn out voice to the amusement of our guests, but her articulation is quite beyond my ear. In both my hands I hold her shaggy head and gaze into her large brown eyes. At once the dilated pupils contract into tiny black dots, as if the roguish spirit within would evade my questioning.
[sound of footsteps and a creaking chair]
Finally resuming the chair at my desk I feel in keen sympathy with my fellow creatures, for I seem to see clearly again that all are akin.
The racial lines, which once were bitterly real, now serve nothing more than marking out a living mosaic of human beings. And even here men of the same color are like the ivory keys of one instrument where each represents all the rest, yet varies from them in pitch and quality of voice. And those creatures who are for a time mere echoes of another’s note are not unlike the fable of the thin sick man whose distorted shadow, dressed like a real creature, came to the old master to make him follow as a shadow. Thus with a compassion for all echoes in human guise, I greet the solemn-faced “native preacher” whom I find awaiting me. I listen with respect for God’s creature, though he mouth most strangely the jangling phrases of a bigoted creed.
As our tribe is one large family, where every person is related to all the others, he addressed me:
“Cousin, I came from the morning church service to talk with you.”
(The Native preacher goes on to tell her of the reward of Heaven, the punishment of Hell, and the folly of the old beliefs.)
I offered midday meal to the converted Indian sitting wordless and with downcast face. No sooner had he risen from the table with “Cousin, I have relished it,” than the church bell rang.
[sound of church bells and footsteps departing]
Thither he hurried forth with his afternoon sermon. I watched him as he hastened along, his eyes bent fast upon the dusty road till he disappeared at the end of a quarter of a mile.
Still I would not forget that the pale-faced missionary and the hoodooed aborigine are both God’s creatures, though small indeed their own conceptions of Infinite Love. A wee child toddling in a wonder world, I prefer to their dogma my excursions into the natural gardens where the voice of the Great Spirit is heard in the twittering of birds, the rippling of mighty waters, and the sweet breathing of flowers. If this is Paganism, then at present, at least, I am a Pagan.
[sounds of the prairie]
Alright, we’re back. Now, what was it like for women on the Great Plains? Were Zitkála-Šá and her sisters among the plains tribes really drudges, as the Victorians would have us believe?
Women Among the Lakota
As we heard in the first episode of this series, for the Lakota, tasks were divided along gendered lines. This is not uncommon for pre-modern cultures, nor for modern ones for that matter – after all, Euro-American culture was arguably even more strictly divided at the time, but we’ll leave that as it lies. So, it’s not surprising to find a strict gender-coding of tasks. However, it seems plains tribes like the Lakota at this time were especially pronounced in this respect relative to other Native American tribes in North America. Anthropologist Raymond DeMallie explains:
“In symbolic terms, the distinction between male and female was the single most important attribute for defining an individual in Lakota culture. Sex differences were emphasized in virtually every aspect of life. Masculinity and femininity were marked most importantly by behavioral differences. Sexual division of labor was very rigid and it may be said that behavior itself was the most important criterion differentiating male from female.” (DeMallie, p. 238)
As the Lakota adapted to life on the plains, gender roles broke down around bison, divided between hunting and processing. To sum up what we learned in our first episode:
If you were male, you were in charge of hunting. You scouted for bison, spied out the herd, organized the approach, made the kill, and transported it back to camp. You also defended and enlarged the tribe through raids and warfare.
If you were female, you were in charge of processing. When the bison carcasses were brought back to camp by men, they were handed over to you for everything else necessary. Thus, your roles included cooking meat; drying meat into jerky; tanning hides; fashioning hides into clothing, bedding and tipi dressings; decorating hides; crafting utensils, tools, and implements; and generally manufacturing bison into every other product necessary for survival, comfort, and trade on the plains. You also did beadwork, and quillwork using dyed porcupine quills. When it came time to move the camp, it was your job to strike and pack the tipi, guard it during the move, and erect it again upon arrival. Finally, you gathered firewood, fetched water, and cared for children (DeMallie, p. 238).
This gendered division between the hunting and processing of bison meant the male sphere was largely outside the camp, the female sphere inside. To Victorian observers, this appeared dangerously close to their own breakdown of male and female spheres, so they mistook Lakota women for mere domestic servants. They saw men coming back from the hunt and then lounging around on soft hides while the women did all the work, and assumed the one was virtually enslaved to the other. They failed to recognize that the Lakota way was less like slave and master, and more like two departments of a factory. Each provided the other with the goods necessary for their department to function: men procured the raw goods that women turned them into refined products.
Lakota women were not slaves to their husbands. To see that, consider first that women were usually able to choose their own mates, as DeMallie explains:
“Although the ultimate decision as to whether a girl should marry a particular suitor was the responsibility of her male relatives, particularly her brothers, in theory and normally in practice, girls were allowed to make their own decisions as to whom to marry” (DeMallie, p 251).
Next, consider that women could divorce their husbands easily:
“Divorce was simple in Lakota society and could be initiated by either husband or wife. The tipi belonged to the woman and the children usually went with their mother in the case of divorce” (DeMallie, p. 251).
Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like it would be a strange thing indeed if a slave could run from bondage so easily, yet did not do so.
Notice also that DeMallie says the tipi “belonged to the woman.” He doesn’t mean this figuratively, but literally. Married couples continued to own property separately, and everything pertaining to the home including the tipi belonged to the wife. She might own livestock as well.
In light of this, it becomes clear that Lakota women, far from being enslaved in the home, were actually masters of the home. Unlike traditional Western norms, where women are domestics but men are the householders, Lakota women were themselves the householders. They could take their tipi and go, leaving a man shivering in the cold.
Not only were women empowered to pick up and leave if unhappy with their husband, but they earned social status independently from him as well. Citing a Lakota man named Long Knife again, also known as George Sword, DeMallie writes:
“Sword leaves no doubt that the work of men was considered to be more glorious and highly honored than the work of women. But it is equally clear from his account that Lakota women were accorded a full measure of respect for the performance of the work appropriate to their sex” (DeMallie, p. 238).
That performance attached to the quality of their craftsmanship. As historian Mary Jane Schneider describes:
“The manner in which a woman could obtain wealth and status through her craftwork, is analogous to the manner in which a man obtained wealth and status through brave exploits. … Women counted robes and tipi covers in much the same way that men counted coups” (Schneider, p. 116).
This might have manifested similarly to a custom found among the neighboring Blackfoot tribe, with whom the Lakota shared many customs in common. As historian Royal Hassrick explains, among the Blackfoot:
“Women took pride in the number and quality of robes they dressed, often keeping records and referring to them when about to perform a ceremony. … Accomplishments were recorded by means of dots incised along the handles of the polished elkhorn scraping tools. The dots on one side were black, on the other red. Each black dot represented a tanned robe; each red dot represented ten hides or one tipi. When a woman had completed one hundred robes or ten tipis she was privileged to place an incised circle at the base of the handle of her scraper” (Hassrick, quoted in Schneider, p. 115).
Whether the Lakota followed their Blackfoot neighbors in this particular custom is difficult to say, but we do know that Lakota women were honored for their work. Hassrick adds:
“The Sioux also had a quilling contest in which output was measured and the four top women were publicly honored” (Hassrick, quoted in Schneider, p. 115).
So, in short, Lakota women were lauded for their craftsmanship in a manner akin to the war and hunting glories heaped on men, and may even have displayed their glories prominently, similar to the Blackfoot hide-scraper custom.
Thus, it is difficult to maintain with the Victorians that Lakota women were virtually enslaved to men. They owned their own property, could leave their husbands readily, and won honors for their skill. The Victorian charge of sweatshop drudgery just doesn’t track.
Another thing that misled Victorian observers was the Lakota practice of polygyny, where one man might have multiple wives. While this can and often does lead to inequality among the sexes, it can also contribute to greater independence for women. As we heard in our previous episode “Go West, Young Woman”, Mormon women in polygynous arrangements had to be self-sufficient during times when their husband was away on business or with another wife. Similarly, Lakota women were quite capable of supporting themselves while the men were away on long hunts or raids.
Further, a new wife could bring prosperity to the whole family. Another wife in the household meant dividing the work, a prospect not entirely unwelcome to existing wives. It also meant expanding production. According to historian Katherine Weist, among the Lakota’s cousins the Dakota, who were deeply involved in the fur trade, one man could bring in more furs than two women could feasibly tan (Weist, p. 43). I have to imagine the case for Lakota bison hunting was similar, if not more so. Therefore, another wife meant another coworker, which meant increased production. Bison hides were desirable trade goods, so more wives meant more wealth for the whole family – again, not entirely unwelcome.
There were some downsides, of course. Jealousy was a common theme. To cut down on that, however, Lakota polygyny was sororal, meaning one man might marry multiple sisters or cousins (Weist, p. 43). This was preferred so that the wives might be more likely to get along. At the same time, however, it also made it possible for the wives to present a united front against the husband when necessary. Thus, wives in polygynous arrangements were in this respect bolstered with allies.
For further support, wives could call on other relatives for backup. Unlike the modern West, Lakota did not live in nuclear families, but in extended family units called thiyóšpaye. Thus, if in need of aid against their husband, wives could muster the whole extended family, which might very well be their own birth family, since a married unit might live with the thiyóšpaye of the husband or that of the wives.
Thus, Lakota polygyny did not necessarily spell inequality. In some ways, it fostered independence, prosperity, and empowerment.
We should also remember that this was a population decimated by smallpox and other diseases. While this may not have been the initial reason for polygyny, it must have helped. Since a man can theoretically impregnate all his wives at once, whereas a woman with multiple husbands can usually only carry one of their children at a time, polygyny can help a recovering population.
So, in the big picture, the division of labor and practice of polygyny, which made the Victorians’ parasols pop inside out [popping sound], was not the virtual slavery that was claimed. On the contrary, it was an arrangement that valued women’s labor, accorded them honor on the merit of their craftsmanship, empowered them within the family, provided a measure of self-determination, and aided the recovery of a decimated population.
All of that notwithstanding, it’s true that Lakota arrangements were unequal in some respects. Women did do a lot of work. I mean childrearing alone is a full-time job, and then you’ve got processing hides, carrying water, gathering firewood, cooking, cleaning, making clothes… I mean, it just sounds exhausting, right? So, what did Lakota women themselves think of this arrangement? Did they feel it was unfair?
The answer is: no, apparently not. DeMallie summarizes the typical Lakota view:
“…the ultimate aim of all the men’s glorious activities in war and hunting that took them far from the comforts of camp was the continuation of society. From the Lakota point of view, the glory was recompense for the suffering required. In a culturally real sense, it was men who subordinated themselves to women, resisting sexual temptations and the comforts of home to risk their lives in war and hunting and to humiliate themselves before the powers of the universe to beg for spiritual help to enable them to accomplish their duties as providers and protectors” (p. 261).
Interestingly, this view frames equality not as a question of labor but of risk. Sure, women did a lot of the work, but men accepted much of the risk. That, for the Lakota, was a fair trade-off. As Yankton anthropologist Ella Deloria wrote in 1944:
“A woman caring for children and doing all the work around the house thought herself no worse off than her husband who was compelled to risk his life continuously, hunting and remaining ever on guard against enemy attacks on his family” (Deloria, quoted in DeMallie, p. 238-239).
In light of that, the Lakota felt their rigidly-divided gender roles were not exploitative but complementary. As anthropologist Patricia Albers summarizes:
“…the ideal relationship between men and women was based on principles of complementarity. Under these principles, the members of each sex were expected to be proficient in their respective work activities and self-sufficient as well. Work autonomy and prior claims on the products of one’s labor, however, did not mitigate against voluntary sharing between the sexes. For just as each sex was accorded a certain degree of independence from the other, men and women were expected to be generous and willingly share the products of their respective labors” (p. 189).
In other words, men and women worked together. They were each masters of their own domain, but did not for that reason abandon each other. They shared the fruits of their work, and together made a greater whole.
This view was apparently held by both men and women. If the division of labor were perceived as unfair by one party, one might expect it necessary for the other to enforce it upon them. However, this was not the case. Deloria explains:
“The sexual division of labor was strictly upheld. Women doing the work of their husbands, or men doing the work of their wives, prompted ridicule from other Lakotas. It was dishonorable for both partners” (Deloria, quoted in DeMallie, p. 238-239).
So, commitment to the division of labor was mutual. Not only that, but it was often women who enforced it upon men:
“If a man was found doing what was considered women’s work, the women would ridicule him and attempt to dress him in women’s clothes” (Walker, quoted in DeMallie, p. 238-239).
So, there you have it. In the view of the Lakota themselves, men and women were not unequal, or at least not drastically so. They were equally committed to the arrangement, and enforced it upon each other enthusiastically.
So, in the end, were the Victorians and Euro-American settlers right to consider Lakota women drudges very nearly enslaved to their husbands?
The answer is no.
In fact, in a very real sense, Lakota women presage the modern Western woman proud to take part in the work force. We in the modern West can look back to Lakota women among our foremothers.
Well, that’s all I’ve got for you today, folks. I hope you learned something; I certainly did. We’ve got still more coming for you in this series. Next up, we’ll take a look at the third gender in Lakota society, the Two Spirits tradition of the winkte, which reveals that Lakota gender relations were not nearly so binary as they may appear. That’s what’s slated for next month.
If you like what we’re doing here on this show, you can support us by subscribing, rating, and reviewing on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. Or you can pledge on Patreon, where $5 a month gets you a portrait in the time period and culture of your choosing. I will draw you as a wanderer of the plains, hunting on horseback or hauling your handcrafted tipi. Or whatever you want, I’ll make you look awesome, I promise.
And by the way, the proceeds from Patreon collected during this series will be donated to One Spirit, a volunteer organization helping the Lakota meet their goal of achieving food sovereignty and self-sufficiency in their communities.
Just go to www.patreon.com/btnewberg. That’s patreon.com/btnewberg.
Alright, I’ll see you next month. I’m B. T. Newberg, and this is The History of Sex.
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Williams, Walter L. “Persistence and Change in the Berdache Tradition Among Contemporary Lakota Indians.” Journal of Homosexuality, 11(3-4), 1986: pp. 191-200.
Zitkala-Sa. “Why I Am a Pagan.” Atlantic Monthly, 90, 1902, pp. 801-803. Retrieved Apr 26, 2022, from: https://web.archive.org/web/20110212153707/http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-new2?id=ZitPaga.sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/parsed&tag=public&part=1&division=div1
Episode theme music courtesy of The Eagle and the Raven Band (feat. Ki’ Earth Spirit)
Other audio from:
“Wind Blowing Through Grass” from Nature Sounds
“Glass Breaking Sound Effect” from Free Sound Effect
“American Yellow Warbler Sound Effect” from Bango Music
“Dog Panting Sound Effect” from Nagaty Music
“River Stream” from Web Adventure
“Moving Chair” from Alexander Refsum Jensenius
“Umbrella Opening” from Fesliyan Studios
“Church Bell Sound Effect” from Free Sounds Library
“Floor Walking Chair Getting Up Standing Up” from Spectral Sound Effects
All narration and voice acting by B. T. Newberg
Eagle silhouette from Open Clipart