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Native Americans and Gender: Not all Bias Looks the Same

Native American Boarding Schools 19th Century

I just recently learned that Eastern Native American tribes begin their expressions of thought in a good way.  So, I am dignifying the following blog post, largely about Native American understandings of gender, with the following introduction:

I hope this piece of writing dignifies the experiences of Native Americans and represents their understandings of the world in a profoundly respectful and honored way. May my good words reflect my gratitude for their understanding of the world and the expanded insights it has given me. I am sure I have much more to learn from them.

I learned about this inspiring tradition while reading several articles on gender and gender and education in Native American communities. This was not only refreshing but an excellent reminder of the differing ways that people, communities, ethnicities frame knowledge and their understandings of the world. Therefore, it should be no surprise that different cultures also have different responses to gender. And, it should also be no surprise that every culture MUST have a response to gender. Gender is an essential component of social construction and there is no social construction without gender. It would be impossible to imagine that a group of human beings who have formed a human community could say we have no context or framing for gender. How human communities are aware of gender and its impacts certainly varies.

While Native American cultural norms are by no means monolithic, being as diverse as the regions to which they lived and settled, their relationship to gender was largely misunderstood by Western settlers and expansionists. Many tribes, because of a profoundly different set of value markers, associated power structures with women. Their responsibilities as, “agriculturalists, mothers, distributors of food, doctors, among other roles...enabled the healthy well being of the community as a whole.” The importance of this status in the eyes of the community led to assumptions of power and responsibility in other realms typically associated with men in Western paradigms. Clan mothers were responsible for choosing who represented them in Tribal councils.  Cherokee women, “had the final vote over whether war would be waged because they had the most to lose from the battles.”*(See source below)

As Western schooling systems were imposed on the Native American nations, the assumptions of the purpose of these schools and their concurrent structures regarding gender went from bad to catastrophic. The early programs, at least located within the communities themselves, were based on a fairly standard curriculum of Western traditions of knowledge and content acquisition. Success in these often tribal run schools was based largely on socio-economic factors which more or less mirrored what was going on in the rest of the country and one could argue, still does.

The most damning accounts from the boarding schools’ staffs and faculties was that they believed that native women had too high a sense of self worth and this too needed to be a component of the “work” done on these young girls and women.

They also assumed that Native Americans were inferior, were not likely able to obtain a degree beyond high school and therefore were best headed toward education as training, not education to expand the mind and human horizons. The early women’s seminaries were identical to the men’s, but as the federal government became more involved, as with the rest of the country, courses in domestic work were emphasized over academics and Western gender norms of separateness and patriarchy were inculcated into the programs.

Boarding School Cheerleaders

With the financial struggles of the tribes and the nations, Cherokee tribes lost control over their local school systems and a series of boarding schools were established with the stated purpose to “remove the Indian, save the child.”  In other words, their primary intent was to indoctrinate, ripping children away from the indigenous cultural and social experiences. Thus, the idea of boarding schools. Over the next 50 years, over two generations, Native Americans were taken away from their land and local communities and taken away from the norms and languages that made up their character and identity. By the time students had stepped out of these programs, they were now foreign to their own communities, discriminated against in the dominant class of Western power structures, and many were victims of physical and sexual abuse at the boarding schools.

It should be no surprise that women faced the double dilemma of needing to be “rehabilitated” both in terms of their cultural heritage but also aligned to Western gender constructs as well. The women were not allowed access to many parts of the curriculum, in particular the trade and vocational fields which would have at least guaranteed some form of financial independence. The most damning accounts from the boarding schools’ staffs and faculties was that they believed that native women had too high a sense of self worth and this too needed to be a component of the “work” done on these young girls and women.

All education has within it a certain level of indoctrination associated with the choices of knowledge acquisition and methodologies applied. When you say yes to one curriculum or approach, you are also saying no to another. The lesson we can learn from the destructive approach brought to Native American education in the United States is that we can either begin by understanding the origins and identities of the child we are given in trust to educate or we can impose ourselves onto the child, and in the process, take something of great strength and value, turning it from an asset into a liability. Women and men have great virtues and strengths precisely because of gender identification. The implicit and explicit assumptions and biases associated with gender then lead to poor and unproductive choices in terms of how we shape a child’s education. Those gender assets should be utilized as leverage for furthering a child’s education to the greatest extent possible, not used as a weapon for keeping them down.

*Calhoun, A. Goeman, M. & Tsethlikai, M. (2007). Achieving Gender Equity for American Indians. p.527. In: Klein, S.S. (2007). Handbook for Achieving Equity Through Education. New York, NY.: Routledge.

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