Gender roles in First Nations and Native American tribes

Published on November 4, 2010 by John

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Artwork by Victor Crisostomo Gomez
Artwork by Victor Crisostomo Gomez

This article concerns the “traditional” gender roles of some of the Native American, Canadian First Nation and Aboriginal peoples, and the Indigenous peoples of North America. The roles vary greatly from region to region and from tribe to tribe, and in some cases even from band to band within a tribe or people. Pre-Columbian era gender role traditions may be a historical heritage, and not in contemporary practice.

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In the traditions of the major Algonquian First Nations, a more or less egalitarian view of gender roles is taken. Chastity and marital fidelity are emphasized as honourable aspects of character, for both men and women. Historically, certain Algonquian bands were noted for the stability of their conjugal unions, as opposed to their serially monogamous Iroquois neighbours, whose marriages were often short-lived. The responsibility of caring for young children was shared between both parents to a greater extent among the Algonquians than among most other native groups.

Among the Ojibwa and Menominee, both in the past and on present-day reserves/reservations, agricultural activity is often based on the collaborative work of married couples. For example, the harvest of manoomin (wild rice) is done by couples in special canoes (traditionally made of birch bark, although in recent years some aluminum ones have begun to appear). One spouse, the “poler”, pushes the canoe with a directional pole, while the other, the “knocker”, sits or stands in the canoe and thrashes the rice against the rim beam (a process which can garner 200 kg of rice daily). The partners may take turns at knocking and poling, since poling is harder.

The Mississauga were considered “cast-off” by the Anishinaabe tribes because the Mississauga practised polygynous marriage, and violated other aspects of Midewiwin morality.

The Tidewater and Chesapeake tribes (ie: Powhatan and Nottoway people), although they spoke an Algonquian language, culturally shared less commonalities with other Algonquians. They were culturally closer to Southeast Indians, and had a gender-based division of labour more akin to that of the Southeast tribes.


Although the traditional Apache had different adult gender roles for men and women, the skills of both were taught to both boys and girls. They all learned how to cook, follow tracks, skin leather and sew stitches, ride horses, and use weapons. This was done because the Apache realized that new and unforeseen situations would require that gender roles change over time in order for the tribe to survive and adapt.

Dene – Athabascans

The Dene tribe (Athapaskans) of Athabascan speaking people, are patriarchal and patrilineal. During the 16th through mid-19th centuries, among the Dene in Alberta, married women were the first to go hungry if food was not available, and in the early trading era were often expected to carry burdens of meat or furs on their backs. According to historian Carl Waldman, the Chipewyan (Denesuline) Athabascan women were “at the mercy of their husbands”, and their lot was probably worse than the women of any other aboriginal tribe.


Gender roles vary widely among the Inuit. Early Inuit were likely very pragmatic and had few preconceptions concerning “appropriate” male and female roles.

Over time, various views of gender were developed, for example:

In the Baffinland Inuit settlements of the Frobisher Bay and Pangnirtung areas, “traditional” gender roles and ideologies are strikingly similar to and have been influenced by those of late 19th-century and early 20th-century Britain.

The Greenlanders and Caribou Inuit are very egalitarian with regard to gender.
There are no known “third gender” roles in Inuit culture, and almost throughout the Inuit cultural region male or female homosexuality was not respected.

Iroquois or Haudenosaunee

Although different roles were traditionally assumed for males and females, they overlapped to a significant degree. The Great Law of Dekanawida gives approximately equal rights to each sex. The chief was always male, but was elected by women.

In the Iroquois culture up until the middle of the 19th century serial monogamy was common among the Iroquoians. Although adultery was frowned upon, divorce and remarriage were not. Due to the Iroquois matrilineal system, children usually stayed with the mother rather than the father, if divorce occurred. Most divorced mothers quickly remarried.


The third gender role of Nadle (meaning “one who is transformed” or “one who changes”), beyond contemporary anglo-american definition limits of homosexuality, was part of the Navajo Nation society, a “two-spirit” cultural role. The renowned 19th century Navajo artist Hosteen Klah (1849–1896) is an example.


The Osage, although considered patriarchal like all Siouans, did not have rigidly defined gender roles. During the 18th century the care of corn and squash crops was done primarily by women, although men also participated, and men’s participation in the growing of these crops increased greatly during the 19th century. When the Osages sent expeditions onto the plains for trading and Bison hunting; the expedition groups were composed largely of men, but women were frequently found in the groups as well, according to contemporary writings of the French who traded with them.

Pacific Northwest Coast peoples

The wide variance in gender roles between Pacific Northwest Coast peoples has been a subject of sociological study for a century and a half, as is their different history of having gone directly from hunting-and-gathering to commerce and exploration.

The Haida are matriarchal or matrilineal, whereas many other Pacific Coast peoples are patriarchal, or patrilineal. The Kwakwaka’wakw are considered bilineal.

It was erroneously thought by many 19th-century anthropologists that the Kwakwaka’wakw were becoming more patrilineal as time went on, but studies of history show that the opposite was in fact taking place. (Some early anthropologists subscribed to the now-disproven hypothesis that all societies move from matriarchy to patriarchy as they advance.)

Of the inland Ktunaxa people, or “Kootenai tribe,” the early 19th century person Kaúxuma Núpika lived a third gender role of the culture, beyond contemporary anglo-american definition limits of homosexuality.

Puebloan peoples

Of the Puebloan peoples, the Tanoans and Hopi are matrilineal, with property inherited through the maternal line. Men do most of the agricultural fieldwork, except for corn planting which is a community event in which both men and women participate. The native Tanoan religious system, unlike Hopi mythology, was dominated by men, as was the tribe’s political system.

Spanish records and native traditions indicate that when the Pueblo settlements were being built (after those of the Ancient Pueblo Peoples during the 15th to 18th centuries), the work was done by both sexes: framing of the poles was the man’s role in pueblo-building, but the mixing of plaster and the concretion of walls were done by women. Hopi pueblos are said to have been built by men and women working together, although whether they followed this cooperation of labor is obscure.

Among the Hopi, unlike in many other tribes, the arts of weaving and leatherwork were not confined to women, but were done by men as well. Many Hopi husbands made moccasins for their wives, sometimes from the skins of jackrabbits they collected in hunting.

A third gender role of Lhamana (Ihamana), beyond contemporary anglo-american definition limits of homosexuality, is accepted by many Pueblo peoples, as part of the “two-spirit” cultural role. The 19th century Zuni person We’wha (1849–1896) is an example.


The Sioux are patriarchal and have historically had highly defined gender roles. In the 19th century, a number of ritualized customs pertaining to gender were recorded among the Sioux, e.g. that the women were to walk five feet behind the men in processions (among the Lakota), and that men customarily harvested wild rice whereas women harvested all other grain (among the Dakota or Santee).

A third gender role of Badés, beyond contemporary anglo-american definition limits of male or female homosexuality, is accepted by many Sioux, as part of the “two-spirit” cultural role. The 19th century Crow people Osh-Tisch and Pine Leaf are examples.

Source: Unabridged
Based on the collective work of, © 2014 Native American Encyclopedia.
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