Throughout the history of Native American tribes and culture, women have held a vital role within their societies.
Jamie Oxendine’s presentation “Native American Women: Culture and Activities” closed MCCC Women’s History Month events.
“Now most of the things I’m going to say are in general because since I’m a man I can only speak of some things in general. Obviously, I am not a member of the women’s lodge, but I can give you some ideas of our culture,” Oxendine said.
Oxendine is a Native American author, speaker, and education consultant. He is a member of the Lumbee tribe in North Carolina.
When Oxendine spoke of Native America, he included both North and South America, which he calls The New World.
“I like to use it [The New World] because for all of the other parts of the globe, it was new to them,” Oxendine said.
Oxendine spoke about many tribes that were in the Northeast, near the Great Lakes. These include the Anishinaabe, Potawatomi, Odawa, and Ojibwe.
“They have villages right here on the River Raisin. In fact, the Odawa were right near the famous Battle of the River Raisin,” Oxendine said.
First, Oxendine introduced the Eastern Woodlands, a matriarchal and matrilineal society.
“The clan system was dominated by the women,” Oxendine said. “Women own the home. Women held the authority in the home. Women control the agriculture and women ran the political power.”
Additionally, matriarchal societies in the Eastern Woodlands were inspiration for the United States’ democracy and Constitution.
“There was a balance of power among the men and women of the Eastern Woodlands. This balance of power was the blueprint for the United States democracy and our Constitution.
“Everybody had a vote and everybody had to agree on the majority rules, whether something would happen,” Oxendine said.
“Everybody had to vote, including the women’s council.”
However, the U.S. has changed the intent of this original democracy. In the Eastern Woodlands, Oxendine described the democracy as a triangle with the point facing down.
“The people are at the top, the elected officials at the sides, and the dominate elected official was at the bottom. We turned it upside down in the United States. Now the people are at the bottom, not important, the elected officials get all the power and the person at the top, the president, is treated like royalty”
In the Great Plains and the Southwest, tribes often recognized three genders: Male, Female, and Two-Spirit. Two-Spirit could mean a person who dressed and acted the role of the other sex, but was not homosexual. Or the title could refer to a homosexual person. However, this term did not mean the same as transgender.
Two-Spited people were considered very valuable to the culture.
“Most Native American societies treated them with great respect because it was believed they had the spirit of both men and women. So they were very powerful,” Oxendine said.
Oxendine also pointed out the importance of Native American women, such as Sacagawea.
“It was because of this woman that Lewis and Clark succeeded,” Oxendine said.
“Think, Lewis and Clark, veterans of the American Revolution, great travelers themselves, needed a woman to help them find the way. She didn’t get credit for it until 1990 when she’s finally put on a dollar coin.”
Oxendine explained that women are credited with creating many necklaces, baskets, and moccasins.
Oxendine also showed photos of his friends. One woman was dressed as a modern jingle dress dancer. This dance was named for the jingles on the clothing and came from the Anishinaabe.
“She is covered in what is known as the Great Lakes style of beadwork, which is mostly floral,” Oxendine said.
Additionally, Oxendine displayed an outfit that he made to represent women after Europeans came to the Americas. He showed a cape shirt, leggings, skirt, and bag.
Oxendine also informed listeners of false Native American stereotypes. For example, they have facial hair and they are not lactose intolerant. Additionally, they do not have Shamans or Peace Pipes.
Oxendine stresses that people should take many different DNA tests to determine any Native American lineage, as these tests are unreliable and can be for entertainment. However, DNA tests will not tell your race or culture as Native American tribes and cultures cannot be distinguished by DNA.
There are 573 federally recognized tribes in the United States, with 63 being state recognized tribes. However, these numbers still make up less than .09% of the population.
“We are still a forgotten people. Every time I turn on any type of news, we are other. If we are even listed at all,” Oxendine said. “Everybody is remembered except the indigenous people of America. Even to this day, most of the time when I fill out applications for anything—including my insurance—I have to check other. Truly sad."