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The Legal Condition of Indian Women

March 29, 1888 — First Convention of the International Council of Women, Albaugh’s Opera House, Washington DC


The popular impression concerning Indian women is, that they are slaves, possessing neither place, property, nor respect in the tribe. This impression is confirmed by observing that women are the workers and the burden-carriers; that upon them falls all the drudgery of life. They are also said to be bought and sold as wives, and their life is without honor or happiness. In the face of this generally accepted picture of the Indian woman, I can hardly hope to greatly modify this opinion by the statement of facts. I must, therefore, ask you to receive what I say as from one who, having lived among the people, sharing their poverty in summer and in winter, has thus learned their social and religious customs. The Indian tribe is not a mere collection of men and women; it is a completely organized body, girt about by laws, unwritten, it is true, but rooted in the religion and time-honored customs of the people. The tribe is divided into clans or gens, each division having its location in the camp, and duties in the tribe. These clans are organized and subdivided, having appropriate officers to fulfill their rites and customs. These clans are based upon kinship, and are the fundamental units of the tribe. A man is born into his clan, into this family of kindred. In a large proportion of our Indian tribes the mother carries the clan—that is, the man belongs to the clan or kindred of his mother, not to that of his father. It is a general law among a large portion of the tribes that a man may not marry in his own clan. The family, as we understand it, can not exist in the tribe, as the husband and wife represent two distinct political bodies, so to speak, which can never coalesce, for neither the man nor the woman by marrying lose or change any of their rights in their respective clans. There are no family names in an Indian tribe. Of course, I do not refer to the customs which have been introduced by our race in many of the tribes, but to the native conditions unmodified by the white man, which conditions are to-day more or less potent in every Indian community. . . . Her children, if the clan follows the mother, are given names proper to her clan, and are identified with her kindred and not with that of their father. The child is never the heir of both his parents, since the claim of the clan into which he is born is primal, and that of the family, as we know it, secondary. For the same reason the wife never becomes entirely under the control of her husband. Her kindred have a prior right, and can use that right to separate her from him or to protect her from him, should he maltreat her. The brother who would not rally to the help of his sister would become a by-word among his clan. Not only will he protect her at the risk of his life from insult and injury, but he will seek help for her when she is sick and suffering. . . . The woman never, from her birth to her death, is without the strong protecting arm of her kindred, to whom she can appeal in the case of injury. . . . Should the husband prove tyrannical or lazy in providing for his family, the wife tells himto go back to his kindred, or if the pair are living in a lodge apart from her family she takes down the lodge and departs, leaving her husband to watch the dying embers of the fire. Her kindred will not send her back, nor would her husband be allowed to coerce her to live with him. It is true that Indian women are the laborers and burden-bearers. That is not because they are slaves, but because they belong to the non-combatant portion of society. . . . In olden times the women claimed the land. In the early treaties and negotiations for the sale of land, the women had their voice, and the famous Chief Cornplanter was obliged to retract one of his bargains because the women forbade, they being the land-holders, and not the men. With the century, our custom of ignoring women in public transactions has had its reflex influence upon Indian custom. At the present time all property is personal; the man owns his own ponies and other belongings which he has personally acquired; the woman owns her horses, dogs, and all the lodge equipments; children own their own articles, and parents do not control the possessions of their children. There is really no family property, as we use the term. A wife is as independent in the use of her possessions as is the most independent man in our midst. If she chooses to give away or sell all of her property; there is no one to gainsay her. When I was living with the Indians, my hostess, a fine looking woman, who wore numberless bracelets, and rings in her ears and on her fingers, and painted her face like a brilliant sunset, one day gave away a very fine horse. I was surprised, for I knew there had been no family talk on the subject, so I asked: “Will your husband like to have you give the horse away?” Her eyes danced, and, breaking into a peal of laughter, she hastened to tell the story to the other women gathered in the tent, and I became the target of many merry eyes. I tried to explain how a white woman would act, but laughter and contempt met my explanation of the white man’s hold upon his wife’s property. It has been my task to explain to the Indian woman her legal conditions under the law. . . . As I have tried to explain our statutes to Indian women, I have met with but one response. They have said: “As an Indian woman I was free. I owned my home; my person, the work of my own hands, and my children could never forget me. I was better as an Indian woman than under white law.” Men have said: “Your laws show how little your men care for their women. The wife is nothing of herself. She is worth little but to help a man to have one hundred and sixty acres.” One day, sitting in the tent of an old chief, famous in war, he said to me: “My young men are to lay aside their weapons; they are to take up the work of the women; they will plow the field and raise the crops; for them I see a future, but my women, they to whom we owe everything, what is there for them to do? I see nothing! You are a woman; have pity on my women when everything is taken from them.” Not only does the woman under our laws lose her independent hold on her property and herself, but there are offenses and injuries which can befall a woman which would be avenged and punished by the relatives under tribal law, but which have no penalty or recognition under our laws. If the Indian brother should, as of old, defend his sister, he would himself become liable to the law and suffer for his championship. . . . I crave for my Indian sisters, your help, your patience, and your unfailing labors, to hasten the day when the laws of all the land shall know neither male nor female, but grant to all equal rights and equal justice.