Theda Perdue. Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998. xi + 252 pp. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8032-3716-2.
Reviewed by Andrew Frank (University of Massachusetts at Amherst)
Published on H-SHEAR (February, 1999)
Although its title implies otherwise, this is not a history that focuses solely on female life. Instead, Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835 rewrites the history of the Cherokee people both by placing women in the forefront and by showing how gender affected the Native culture and Cherokee-American relations. In the process, Theda Perdue recasts the history of the "most civilized tribe" in terms of persisting traditions. As Perdue demonstrates, the world of Cherokee men and the world of Cherokee women, although interconnected in many ways, remained separate entities throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It was primarily through the female domain and gender norms that cultural persistence prevailed.
This interpretation is a sharp break from earlier syntheses of the largest southeastern Indian nation. Rather than using William G. McLoughlin's framework of anomie and renascence, for example, Perdue shows how many innovations within Cherokee culture were adapted to fit into the traditional order. As a result, Perdue does more than uncover the unwritten history of Cherokee women, she also portrays Cherokee society from the bottom up. Those with formal political and economic power, usually highly acculturated men, fall outside the Cherokee mainstream and into the fringes of this volume. In their places, stand the majority of the Cherokee people, those women and men who rarely entered the historical records and whose participation in the Euro-American affairs was usually secondhand. The Cherokees never adopted American "civilization"; they merely adapted it to fit their needs and their preconceived ideas about gender.
In traditional Cherokee society, portrayed by Perdue as that which existed around 1700, men and women lived as completely separate people. Women farmed and controlled the domestic space, while men hunted and served as warriors. This squared with the Cherokee cosmology which had men and women balancing each other as complementary entities. Men and women came together to fulfill economic, political, and biological necessities, but their lives remained rather secretive from one another. Rigid prohibitions marked which arenas belonged to men and which ones belonged to women; those who deviated from these gender norms were viewed with hostility and suspicion. Even when in the same room, they tended to maintain social distance. Whether in the household, religion, or work, women and men occupied different spaces.
Cherokee women, in this gendered world, wielded most forms of power and authority. This resulted from the fact that Cherokees determined kin bonds through matrilineal clans and resided in households formed by extended matrilineages. Husbands, who needed to be of different clans than their wives, lived as outsiders in their wives' households and among their wives' kin. Because authority within traditional Cherokee society was organized locally, clans, and therefore women, had access to tremendous power. Women owned the farmlands, dictated when clans would retaliate in blood vengeance, participated in local councils, determined the fates of war captives, and enjoyed sexual freedom and autonomy. In this matrilineal and matrifocal society, the power afforded to the harvesters of corn can not be understated.
In the eighteenth century, Cherokee society had to adapt to the reality of having European neighbors. Perdue recognizes the changes that have been well documented elsewhere: the incorporation of Euro-American trade goods, the commodification of deerskins, the introduction of livestock, the rise of an acculturated economic elite, widespread intermarriage, a decline in village authority, the centralization of power, the creation of a written constitution, the adoption of race slavery, and the growth of Christian churches. Despite these countless "advances toward civilization," Perdue emphasizes the concurrent cultural continuity. Visually, the Cherokee countryside may have resembled the rest of the American South, but beneath the surface, Cherokee gender norms remained remarkably constant. Women incorporated animal husbandry within their traditional realm of farmers, and Cherokee herdsmen continued to "hunt" their livestock as if they were, as sometimes the case, still wild. Cherokee men refused to become yeoman farmers and accept what they saw as traditionally feminine roles. Instead, they chose to maintain their masculinity by turning to the labor of African slaves and white sharecroppers. Women continued to farm and men continued to hunt; Cherokee women and men still tended to live separately and in balance with each other. They performed "civilized" tasks, but they performed them in accordance to their own traditional gender expectations. Cherokees may have adapted many of the innovations of "civilization," but most rejected "civilized" definitions of masculine and feminine.
In addition, this new "civilized" world threatened to replace traditional Cherokee gender balance with hierarchy. For example, in the early nineteenth century, the centralized Cherokee government increasingly impinged upon the domain of women. As leadership increasingly passed into the hands of an economic elite, the laws and new National Council reflected the values of the acculturated men who created them. The Council, which tried to replace the functions of traditional clans, prioritized individual rights, personal property, and patrilineality. The council sanctioned the acceptability of paternal blood lines for inheritance and citizenship, and it acted against the traditional forms of justice which further minimized the centrality of clans. On paper, therefore, the Cherokee Nation had formally accepted many of the tenants of American "civilization." For the bulk of Cherokees, however, the matrilineal clan's power did not disappear. Matrilineal descent continued, women continued to control vengeance and justice, and a "communitarian ethic rooted in traditional Cherokee culture and preserved in women's roles ultimately prevailed, even in the male National Council" (p. 155). The clan and village successfully competed with individualism and patriarchy.
In this book, Perdue provides a remarkable example of ethnohistorical research. She has intermixed traditional historical resources--government records and personal letters--with oral traditions and anthropological theory. Her nuanced reading of everyday events and minor conflicts provides insights into the gendered assumptions that permeated Cherokee society throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This success is more remarkable considering the uphill battle her subject presents. Those who embraced the civilization plan dominated the political and economic life of the Cherokee Nation and therefore fill the historical records. The same cannot be said for female and unacculturated Cherokees. They lived largely shielded from the European observer and the interests of official sources. The gender prescriptions that segregated Cherokee women from Native men, naturally made them nearly invisible to Euro-American visitors.
Despite her challenging primary resources, Perdue persuasively shows how Cherokee gender norms served as the central means of resisting acculturation. In the process, however, she rarely confronts the construct of race. Although Perdue describes the eighteenth-century belief in mutable racial identities--thus the ability of Indians to become Americans--she rarely incorporates this mutability into her analysis. As several recent scholars have shown, race and gender have interconnected histories in the American South. The religious and secular assault on Cherokee culture in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century was premised on the idea of making Native women act like respectable white women. When it became clear that the Cherokees refused to abandon traditional gender norms, American reformers rationalized it with the ideology of an immutable Indian race. It remains the task of future scholars to unite race and gender in the history of the Cherokee people and Cherokee-American relations.
Cherokee Women is a gracefully written and convincing piece of ethnohistory. It is essential reading for scholars of Native America, the American South, the Early Republic, and Women's History. When it comes out in paper, hopefully sooner rather than later, undergraduates will also benefit from Perdue's persuasive use of gender to uncover the previously hidden histories and themes within Cherokee society. This new perspective reveals that most Cherokees never adopted American civilization; they adapted it to fit into their traditional world view. Although the title "most civilized tribe" might not fade from the historical lexicon, Perdue proves that it should.
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Andrew Frank. Review of Perdue, Theda, Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835.
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