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Modern Home-Making
and the Indian Woman

c. October 12-17, 1911 — First Annual Conference, Society of American Indians, Ohio State University, Columbus OH


Were I to follow my own desire I should be quick to accuse myself of presumption in speaking on so weighty a theme as “Home-Making and the American Indian Woman,” subjects which have puzzled many minds, but I reassure myself with the thought that I am only responding to my assignment to this task by the honorable Committee which prepared the programme of this First Annual Convention of the American Indian Association.

Reversing the order of the subjects of the title let us ask, first, what was the Indian woman of the North American continent?

To judge from her share in the arts, the culture and the manifold activities of the life of her people, she was a most magnificent savage and barbarian, yet she was none the less a woman — human, noble, patriotic, — and above all a mother — fond, loving, careful, religious, — whose tireless devotion and self-sacrifice to home, husband and dependent children yield the first place to that of no other woman.

The North American Indian woman lived under great differences of climatic and other environmental conditions, for she occupied the entire continent from the cheerless Arctic wastes to the regions of the torrid zone, and in this vast territory there were great tree less tracts, broad, barren and waterless plains and valleys, and rich forested lands; and in this varied habitat the flora and the fauna differed greatly; and it was in this vast territory of propitious and of hostile environments the North American Indian woman kindled the fires of her home and those of sacred altars to her many gods.

In a large number of tribes she was on an absolute equality with her sons and brothers in the exercise and enjoyment of the several rights and patrimony of her people; and by exceptional environ mental conditions she established matronymical or matriarchal institutions, in which she was supreme in the choice of her rulers, who were of course her sons and brothers, and whose title to office were hereditary in her own right and over which she had the absolute right of recall. She herself in some cases exercised executive functions in the various activities of her people.

The division of labor between the woman and her sons and brothers began with the establishment of the first home. And it must be remembered that this division was based on consideration of sex, — on motherhood; and it was emphasized by the invention and use of fire. The woman remained by the fire to feed and keep it alive to warm her home and offspring and also to broil the meat and to bake the roots and the tubers prepared for the food of herself and her family.

The American Indian woman, or as she has been aptly called the Amerindian woman, was the fruit-gatherer and the berry-picker, the nut and the acorn collector, and the harvester of grass seeds and wild rice, mesquite beans, and every edible member of the surrounding flora; she gathered oysters, clams, and other shell fish, and in some regions she dried the oysters for future use; she was also a fisher-woman as well, catching various kinds of fish and eels; of the latter many hundred weight have been found cured and stored in the larder of the lodge ; she was not only the food gatherer, but she and her daughters were also the water-carriers and the guardians of the springs of water and pools of fresh water.

As a founder of Social organization, the American Indian or rather Amerindian woman had to suffer the pains of motherhood, and in most cases she bore this travail alone and without the presence and encouragement of the father of her offspring, for her mother, aunts, or possibly, her elder sister, acted as midwife and nurse.

In those regions where nature was niggard of her gifts of food and drink and shelter there often arose the question whether the new-born creature should or should not be permitted to live; and the mother was often the one to raise this question; this was frequently the case with the Eskimo woman; if, however, as elsewhere, it was permitted to live it was carefully nursed and educated in the duties of a woman of her people. Its education usually ended with the age of puberty.

In Mexico, according to the codices there were near the temple buildings used as seminaries for the nurture of girls, over which presided matrons or vestal priestesses; these buildings were guarded by day and by night by old men; the girls could not leave their apartments without a chaperon; and if one broke this regulation her feet were pricked with thorns until the blood flowed; the girls of these seminaries swept the precincts of the temple and kept the sacred fire in it alive; they were taught featherwork, and were instructed how to spin and how to weave mantles and other useful articles of great beauty ; they were required to bathe frequently and to be skilled and diligent in all duties of the household; they were taught to speak with reverence, to humble themselves before their elders and to maintain a modest and reserved demeanor at all times.

The textile industry of the American Indian woman may be conveniently divided into basket-making and weaving; in addition she spun, netted, looped, braided, sewed, and embroidered. Baskets of splints, of bark, of grass, of bast, of skins, and of roots, according to locality and need are found; some baskets were woven on a warp, and others were sewed by the continuous stitching of a coil; the types, the fineness and the beauty of the designs and decorations are unsurpassed by the art of the women of other races, Unrivalled too in beauty and workmanship were the mantles and the head dresses of featherwork and of the skins of rare birds of brilliant plumage.

The dressing of a skin was not a short or easy process; the kind of skin and the object in view largely determined the process through which it was carefully put to prepare it for use. The hides of deer, wolves, foxes, buffalo, musk oxen, antelopes, bears, raccoons, walrus, moose, elk, beavers, gophers, muskrats, seals, skunks, squirrels, porcupines, hares, opossums, alligators, tortoises, birds of all kinds, fishes, and reptiles, and authentic tradition says, of human beings, were some of those which the primitive American Indian woman employed in her many industries. And it must not be forgotten that all the tools required in the various processes to make them articles of use were designed and made by her own hands.

In the division of labor which we have seen was equitable, the woman became the burden-bearer of the family, a task which she shared with her growing children; many devices for carrying infants were invented and utilized, as well as those adapted for the carrying of meat, skins, fish, fuel, water, and even clay for pottery; and splints, bark, fibres, reeds, grasses and tough roots were collected and carried home on the back of the woman to be utilized in her many crafts in husbandry housekeeping and the textile arts, as basket-maker, planter, tailor, and shoemaker.

In the process of washing and mixing her clay for making pots, she carefully assorted it for different kinds of ware, the coarser grades of clay for the ruder ware and the finer material for her more artistic and pretentious productions; thus a delicacy of feeling, the training of the judgment, and a keen sense of color, were gradually developed in the conscientious pursuit of her craft.

The beauty and the exquisite workmanship displayed in the deco ration and in the designing of the many productions of her handicraft show clearly that her artistic taste has grown apace with the development of the various departments of her industry.

The American Indian woman with her children was the agriculturist of her people ; she cleared with the aid of fire and her brothers her fields and there she planted the corn of many varieties, the beans of divers species, the yams, the sunflowers, and the squashes and sometimes the tobacco. And when the tender plants sprouted she was ready to care for them by keeping down the weeds and by supplying them with sufficient earth; it was she, too, who harvested these crops when they were matured, and she stored them for the sustenance of her family.

This work in the field was a part of her division of labor between her brothers and herself, and usually no man felt called upon to aid her, except when a public emergency might arise.

The great importance of this one industry of the American Indian woman can be appreciated when it is learned that in many of the tribes it supplied from one-half to three-fourths of the visible available food supply.

Language. — In her capacity as linguist, the American Indian woman in the region north of Mexico had developed with the aid of her sons and daughters fifty-eight entirely distinct and unrelated stocks of languages which comprised about seven hundred dialects in this region. These languages and dialects were the treasure- houses of the poetry, knowledge and wisdom of her sons and daughters, — the sages, prophets and philosophers of her people; into them she talked the mythology and the religion of her people, a rich and limitless unwritten literature of which any other race might well be proud, and the Maya and the Aztec woman had aided in devising and developing hieroglyphic systems of writing which modern scholarship is still unable to decipher. Into the terms of these varied languages and dialects the American Indian woman and her sons have woven with infinite and sacred care and aptitude the life histories and the wisdom of their myriad gods and creators, and these stories, traditions and legends they have dramatized into vast and complex systems of ceremonies and imposing rituals.

The American Indian woman was thus the patron of religion. In the observance and conservation of these rituals and ceremonies in honor of her gods consisted her religion and worship. Professor Mason aptly says: “It will be a genuine surprise and we shall fail after long inquiry, if the fundamental ideas of the female pantheon in primitive life be not the four duties or functions that have been and must remain the peculiar province of woman’s activity, to wit:

1. “The bearing and nurture of children; the maiden, the wife, the mother (the tutor of her children in all arts, crafts and wisdom).”

2. “The nourisher of the human family, the one who gives food.”

3. “The maker of the fireside, the house, the home.”

4. The clothier of men, the spinner, the weaver, and, indeed, general guardian of peaceful industry and practical wisdom.”

One of the most erroneous and misleading beliefs relating to the American Indian woman is that she was both before and after marriage the abject slave and drudge of the men of her tribe.

This false view, due largely to inaccurate observation and mis conception of American Indian institutions, was perhaps correct, at times, as to a very small portion of the tribes, and only where the environment afforded only the barest necessities and needs of life, and, sometimes, withheld even this scanty meed.

The American Indian woman being domestic, industrious, unselfish, provident, adaptive to existing conditions, and artistic in her tastes, is well equipped for the making of a modern home, — one’s own dwelling-place of a time not ancient or remote, — the making of an abiding-place of the present time of domestic affections, of love, of tenderness, of peace that is not ruffled nor broken by the turmoils and tempests of life.

A home is not an outright gift of God, but with His merciful help it is acquired in time by a slow process of building upon fixed laws of life and nature.

The first and most important things about a modern home is a house, and a house to be a true home must be adapted to the requirements of its occupants, to their position in society and to their means and income.

The modern home need not necessarily be large, but it must be of such size as to afford the largest measure of convenience and of the ordinary comforts of life.

Of course, the woman alone cannot make such a home. The man who is to share it with her must cooperate with her in working out the details of home-making; each has a part to perform, and happiness in the home cannot be attained unless the duty of each is faithfully fulfilled.

Among my people, the Chippewa of the great Algonquin stock of languages, each sex has its own peculiar sphere of duty.

To the man belongs the duty and obligation of protecting his family, — his wife or wives and their offspring and near kindred, and to support them with the products of the chase and of the fishery; to manufacture weapons and wooden utensils, and commonly to provide suitable timbers and bark for the building of the lodge. These activities required health, strength and skill. The warrior was usually absent from his fireside on the chase, on the warpath, or on the fishing-trip, weeks, months, and sometimes years; and he was subjected to the hardships and the perils of hunting and fighting, and to the inclemency of the weather, often without food and shelter.

To the woman belongs the duties required in the home, in the lodge. Taking care of the children and attending to the cooking, the sewing, the making of mats, baskets, and pottery, and utensils of bark; she also gathered and stored edible roots, seeds, berries, and plants, for future use and present consumption; the smoking of meats and fish and eels, brought by the hunters ; when on the march it was the duty of the woman to care for the camp and its equipage and the family belongings, in which labor she was of course assisted by the children and such men as were incapacitated for more active service. Sowing and cultivating the crops was chiefly the duty of the woman, although she was at times assisted by the men.

The woman was industrious, frugal, loving and affectionate, and performed her duties willingly and cheerfully. She was not a drudge and slave of her husband and the men of her tribe. She was treated with the respect, the esteem, gentleness and loving con sideration she so richly merited and appreciated.

Her native artistic ability enables her to beautify her home in many ways with the materials which the modern merchant has to sell. It was my good fortune to visit the home of a woman of Indian blood, in which paintings both in water color and oils richly adorned the walls and a large number of embroidered sofa pillows of exquisite beauty graced the sofa, and in which I saw a profusion of embroidered center and individual pieces, as well as fine drawn work which adorned the dinner table, and pieces of hand-painted china bonbon dishes, fruit dishes and vases tastefully placed here and there; and there I also saw curtains of net filled in with darning cotton with designs of artistic beauty, two of which had been originated by my hostess, and the draperies which hung in the space of the folding doors between the front and back parlors were of fish net, edged with tassels of her own handiwork. All these things were the product of this noble woman’s own hands and industry. This woman took pride in saying that everything in her home except the furniture, carpets, the piano, and the housekeeping utensils, had been made with her own hands or those of her sister.

This woman in addition to this did all her own cooking of meats, vegetables, pastries and breads; she too preserved all the fruit, and prepared all the pickles, jellies and jams used in her household.

She had two children and did all the sewing for them and her self. In this manner she was doing her full share in the home-making; she was a good wife and a good housekeeper.

This is, I am proud to say, only one example of many happy homes among people of Indian blood wherein the woman by her natural industry and thrifty domestic management has done her part in the making of home.

In the home I visited the husband was a printer. He toiled hard to support his little family, often denying himself of personal com forts in order that he might bring some pleasing gifts to his wife or children ; he counseled with and confided in her concerning his business and plans ; he realized that woman’s quick intuition often sees at a glance what a man is slow in discovering. And so even though she did not give him great aid in his business, she was thereby made happy by being taken into his confidence, and on the other hand, he was inspired by her trust and encouragement.

With the training derived from her mother’s experience in cutting up the meat products of the chase, the Indian woman possesses a knowledge which enables her to purchase the exact piece of meat she may want for a certain dish. I remember many a beef roast I was sent to market to purchase was turned into a potroast or a stew by my mother while I was learning to market, because she recognized that that particular piece or cut of meat that I had carried back to her was not suitable for the oven roast which she had desired.

But the environments of the primitive life of the American Indian woman have in large measure changed. Conditions have be come transformed and so new environments have been created; new institutions, customs, laws and beliefs have gradually displaced the old, the ancient; here lies the difficulty with the modern American Indian woman, — her people are no longer independent and self- governing; she must change her motives and ideals in life and so adjust herself as well as she may to these novel surroundings which have, unsolicited, been brought to her door by peoples of the eastern hemisphere; her outlook upon life must now be in large measure from new viewpoints. New values must be given to the facts of life. To secure welfare and happiness she must adapt and wisely adjust her inherent and acquired talents to these modern surroundings. Many of the things that were useful and necessary, yea, sacred, to her own mother, must now be laid aside. Methods of producing, securing and preserving shelter and the necessaries of life must be adopted or changed or discarded altogether to meet the new conditions of life on this continent.

And the American Indian woman who fails to realize this duty and obligation to her race in her home-making fails completely to read aright the signs of the time.

In short, the peculiar customs, laws, beliefs and institutions of her ancestors which do not comport with these changed conditions and which have come into collision with those which are better adapted to secure welfare and happiness under modern conditions of life, must be laid aside; let them rest with the glorious deeds and attainments, the heroism and the patriotism of her ancestors, in the hall of fond memory.



Source: Report of the Executive Council on the Proceedings of the First Annual Conference of the Society of American Indians, (Society of American Indians), 1912, pp. 58-67.