A matrilineal society: Khasi women

Anthropology: Gender Roles in Indigenous Cultures

Gender identity and gender roles will always remain a relevant subject no matter what century we live in. Who created or assigned these ‘roles’? Was there any sense in assigning strict roles to only a particular gender? Who decided that a person’s gender should be a limiting factor to their rights? Would the functioning of society collapse if maybe, just maybe, someone dared to question the roles and decided they wanted a different place in the world?

Women have come a long way from wearing the rib- crushing, lung- squeezing corsets and stirring soup to shattering the glass ceiling and claiming their place in society (while wearing heels and having period cramps). Likewise, men have come a long way from the pressures of ‘being a man’ to wearing dresses and makeup and flaunting it. Transgender people, from being outlawed by society, are now earning rights that cis people take for granted. Yes, we can cautiously agree that gender norms are being shattered across the world.

But let’s backpedal a bit here. While we’re talking about gender norms, the general assumption made is that it’s about mainstream society. What about the indigenous cultures or the ethnic groups that have roamed the earth way before us? Do women and men occupy equal roles or are they limited by not just gender here, but culture and tradition too?

Gender norms and indigenous tribes

In different indigenous cultures, there exists different gender roles and responsibilities. Traditionally, women were held in high esteem by their respective tribes and had equal rights and access to property and natural resources. Women could be the chief of the tribes, handle the harvest and go hunting, while men would take care of the children and the household. Neither was thought to be more superior to the other- both their roles were essential in keeping the tribe or family intact. Gender equality and equity were cherished.

However, most of this changed when the colonialists showed up with their patriarchal norms. Colonialists invaded the native lands and enslaved many of the tribes, leading to a loss of traditional practices. The loss of ownership over their land and natural resources lead to the loss of indigenous women’s traditional rights. The laws of the tribes weakened. Gender roles were forcefully switched. Men became the sole inheritors of the land, house and other properties. Women became the carers of the household and family. Leadership roles became dominated by men.

While many tribes now follow the above mentioned system, there are exceptions too. In some tribes, women occupy a high social position in the community and are not inferior to that of the men, while in some others, both genders are granted equal status and roles. Yet in other cultures around the world, the tribe is matriarchal, where the rights to the properties, leadership roles and decision making are exclusively women’s.

A look at a few indigenous tribes from around the world will further enlighten us on gender roles.


An Apache man in traditional clothes. Credit@ Cardus

In traditional Apache tribes, men were the warriors and hunters, while women were in charge of the children and household duties. But despite this division, children, regardless of their gender, are taught all the skills when they’re growing up. All children learned to cook, ride horses, use weapons, follow tracks and hunt and skin leather. This enabled them to be prepared for any situation in the future, be it to protect the tribe or to adapt according to the times and take up any role in the community. The gender roles of adults did not mean one was superior to the other. The roles of men and women were mutually supportive. Both were vital for the proper functioning of the community. Men were responsible for warfare, hunting and ceremonies, while women took care of the children and prepared the food and clothes. Although an Apache woman becoming a warrior was rare, riding, hunting and defending their villages were necessary skills.

Tribal art also saw the division of labour based on gender. While men made the tools for hunting and warfare, women made the baskets and pottery.

Plains Indian Tribes

The evolution of gender roles among the Plains Indian tribes is interesting. Traditionally, both women and men played equally important roles in the community. But when the colonialists arrived, they were aghast at the community’s way of life.

Native People of the American Great Plains
Members of the Plains Indian Tribe. Credit@ National Geographic

According to the colonialists, women were supposed to be bound to the house or family and be protected by men. This was the exact opposite to what the women in the Plains Indian tribes did. Women of the tribe shared much of the work load. They took care of the crops- cleaning the fields, planting, hoeing and harvesting. They dug pits to store food. They were the ones who erected and dismantled the lodges and tipis for the tribe to live in. Besides this, other roles included collecting firewood and wild plants, hauling water, cooking, transporting the possessions or harvest (usually on foot), going hunting for bison, making essential household items like food and pottery and taking care of the children. The work load only increased during the early nineteenth century as the fur trade saw an increase in the demand for robes and dressed skins. Regarding the ceremonies and political roles, women played a more subordinate role. But at the same time, they were held in high esteem for what they do in the community, and they held the ropes to what they did. They owned the lodges and the tipis they built with their bare hands, the fields, seeds and harvest which they could trade as they pleased. Women had the right to divorce their husbands, which meant an unkind husband could be homeless with only his weapons and horse to his name. Women were in charge of religious items and crafts, and they were also the healers of the community.

What the men were in charge of was of creating the weapons for hunting or warfare and tending to the horses. They hunted on more dangerous grounds for bison. They invaded enemy camps and stole horses and won honours. Almost all the political, leadership and religious roles in the community were occupied by men.

Generations of gender roles observed the Plains Indian communities were turned topsy- turvy, thanks to the colonialists. The arrival of the colonialists meant the arrival of their patriarchal norms. Their capture of the natives’ land led to the loss of individual rights and tradition. Men were forced into taking up the work load while women were bound to their homes, in keeping up with the colonialists’ concept of a ‘civilized’ community. This shift of gender roles can be seen till date.

Lenape tribes

Members of the tribe in traditional attire. Credit@ The Centurian

The Lenape, also known as the Delaware people, are indigenous to the North-eastern Woodlands. Among the Lenape, both women and men too up agricultural work and hunting according to their ability and age. Primarily, men took up hunting while women held the leadership in agriculture. What was brought into the community- whether hunted meat or fruit, fish or agricultural produce-it was the women’s responsibility to distribute in the community. Women were also in charge of the land management and could decide if it was to be used for hunting or for agriculture. Men built the houses and canoes, but the ownership of the homes went to the women. Women made the pots, wove clothes and made hides for shelter. Both of them had a basic medicinal knowledge for curing common ailments.

Khasi tribes  

A matrilineal society: Khasi women at work

The term Khasi refers to several indigenous tribes of Meghalaya, India. They follow a matrilineal society. Women dominate almost all walks of life- social, political and economic. It is the youngest daughter in the family who inherits all the property. The man moves into his wife’s home after marriage. If the couple has no daughters, then they adopt and pass their property to her. The birth of a daughter is celebrated with much pomp, while the birth of a son is just acknowledged. No social stigma or judgment is passed if a woman remarries or has a baby out of wedlock. Women enjoy an independent life and many choose not to get married.

Narragansett tribe

Men of the Narragansett tribe. Credit@ Indianz. Com

The Narragansett people are an Algonquian American Indian tribe native to Rhode Island. In the tribe, men were hunters and warriors and fought wars to protect their families. The women were responsible for the agriculture and farming activities, besides taking care of the kids and cooking. The authority of the household belonged to the women. Men made weapons and tools. Both women and men had active roles in artwork, music, storytelling and practising traditional medicine. In the earlier days, Narragansett chiefs were always men, but now, Narragansett women can be a chief too. Both genders had an equal say in marriage.

Pueblo cultures

Pueblo men during a ceremony. credit@ Study.com

Pueblo tribes are North American Indian people. Gender roles in Pueblo cultures depended on whether it was the Western or Eastern Pueblos. Generally, both sides held the women in high esteem while, at the same time, the roles varied. Among the Western Pueblos, the inheritance system was based on the female line, so the house and property belonged to women. It was the opposite in the Eastern tribes- men owned the property. In both tribes, men and women participated in artwork, storytelling, music and traditional medicine. Women gathered food and took care of the family and home. Men did dominate politics, hunting, war and agriculture, but women had important roles in religion and governing the tribes too. The religion of the tribes worshipped powerful female gods who created the earth, and this was incorporated into their daily life too- women had a lot of freedom when it came to politics and governance. The roles of women and men were seen as complementary and sacred.

In what is now the mesa-top Pueblo of Acoma, men with effeminate physical attributes or personal tendencies were known by many names including mujerado, qo-qoy-mo, and kokwina. They dressed and lived like women, had relationships with men, and fulfilled women’s roles in the community.

Hopi tribes

Kids from the Hopi tribe. credit@ www. reference. com

The traditional Hopi tribes of north-eastern Arizona are both matriarchal and matrilineal. The community was egalitarian- neither gender was superior to the other. Both women and men played active roles in community management and politics. Mothers and grandmothers play a central role in the household, family and clan structure. Women are the pillars of the tribe and the upholders of the Hopi culture and traditions. Women have their own religious and social sects into which they are initiated. During ceremonies, men and women have equal responsibilities. Since the clan is matrilineal, the man marries into the woman’s family. Clan membership is passed down through the females. Women owned the land and property, and if she died, her property is passed down to her daughter. The husband has no share in it- he moves back into his mother’s or sister’s house. The women are the senior members of the clan and all the decisions regarding the community are taken by the women.

Iroquois tribe

Man and woman from the Iroquois tribe. credit@ Wikipedia

The Iroquois tribe or Haudenosaunee are an indigenous confederacy in northeast North America. Like the Hopi tribe, they followed a matrilineal system. Women were the keepers of the culture- they defined the social, political and economic norms of the community. Women dominated the leadership roles. While they were the primary chiefs of the tribe, the appointed men for less important roles and ensured that the fulfilled their responsibilities. The Clan Mother was the ultimate power.


Two women of the tribe with their woven baskets

A Native American ethnic group, the Kalapuya were a patriarchal society made of bands or villages. The political and social sector was dominated by a man or a group of male leaders. The primary chief was usually a male with the greatest wealth. Women leaders did exist, but they were primarily involved in spiritual leadership. The men in the tribe were responsible for hunting, while the women and the children set up the camps and gathered food. The women were responsible for sustaining the tribe, as the majority of the Kalapuya diet was of gathered food. They also took care of cooking, preserving and storing the food. While men did dominate social life, women were involved in the community and could express their opinions. When a man wished to marry a woman, it involves paying a bride price to her father.

Men were responsible for hunting, fishing, warfare, making weapons and canoes. When children attain puberty, they learn the assigned roles from their parents. The young boys would join their fathers during the hunting sessions and learn how to use the tools. The girls would stay behind with their mothers, learning the household chores, cooking and weaving.

Nez Perce communities

Nez Perce women and children. Credit@ Wikipedia

The Nez Perce tribes are indigenous North American Indian people. They had specific gender roles in the community. The governing bodies of the villages, composed of the council and headman, were all male. The men were in charge of making the tools and weapons for hunting, fishing and protecting the tribes. Women were in charge of domestic chores like taking care of the household, children and making the utilitarian tools required at home. Harvesting medicinal plants was the women’s responsibility as they had deep knowledge of it. Children joined the women in harvesting agricultural crop and gathering fruit. Although women did participate in political matters, their household responsibilities held them back from holding office. The elders (both women and men) were responsible for teaching the children and passing down the traditional knowledge. Marriages are arranged by families.

Ojibwe cultures

Elders of the Ojibwe community

The Ojibwe are currently living in southern Canada and the northern Midwestern United States. Traditionally, men and women have specific roles in most Ojibwe tribes. Men are the hunters of the tribe, and feats honouring the first kill of men are held. Women gather wild plants and fruits. Women build the lodges, process the hides into clothes and dry the hunted meat. In modern times, all the members of the community participate in this work regardless of their gender. Both men and women had equal rights to property. Both are involved in wild rice harvesting (one of the important activities of the community), beadwork, storytelling, music and practicing traditional medicine.

Sioux tribes

Sioux tribe members. credit@ Wikipedia

Generally, the Sioux tribes have strictly defined gender roles. Leadership are passed down through the males. Children belong to the father. Men travelled beyond the villages as hunters. Both men and women owned property. The women took care of the household and made the clothes. Both men and women had equal roles in making decisions. Sexual preferences were flexible in the tribe. Men who took up traditionally feminine duties, clothing or mannerisms were named as wíŋtke (homosexual).

Gender roles vary according to the time, place and culture of indigenous tribes. But one’s gender and role in the tribe does not lessen one’s status in the community. Every member is seen as a vital part of the community, whose activity is important for the proper functioning of the tribe.


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