Research Paper on Native American Gender Roles


Historically, the development of human society was accompanied by the changing views on the gender roles and the perception of the concept of gender by members of human community. In this regard, the development of views of Native Americans on gender and gender roles is particularly noteworthy because, in the course of time, it has evolved considerably and the role of the European colonization in the process of this evolution can hardly be underestimated. In fact, Native Americans had their own unique concept of gender and their views on gender roles often varied from those of Europeans, especially in relation to the Berdache phenomenon. At the same time, it would be a mistake to estimate that the views of Native Americans on the theory of gender, including gender roles and the definition of the concept of gender was totally different from those of Europeans.

In fact, it should be said that Europeans laid emphasis and accelerated the developed of the existing stereotypes and biases in relation to gender roles, if they meet standards and norms established in Europe, while they suppressed all those norms and standards accepted in Native American tribes which did not meet European morals and norms. Nevertheless, even the European colonization has failed to eliminate the unique view of Native Americans on gender and Indian tribes preserved their traditions for a long period of time and, nowadays, it is even possible to observe a kind of revival of old traditions in the new socio-cultural environment.

Native American perspective on male/female gender roles

Speaking about the Native American perspective on the theory of gender, it should be said that Indian tribes inhabiting the continent before the arrival of Europeans and living in an isolated world, could not have failed to avoid the development of common stereotypes, norms and traditions in regard to gender roles and relationship between different genders, which were typical to other civilizations. In this respect, it should be said that many views, stereotypes and norms of Native Americans were similar to other people whom they did not even have contacts with, including Europeans. These similarities are particularly obvious in relations between male and females. The development and evolution of gender roles in Native American tribes was basically similar to those that took place in other parts of the world. On the dawn of human civilization in America, females played very important role in the development and survival of tribes, while males could not provide tribes with the stable supply of food and goods essential for the development of tribes.

However, in the course of the development of human society in America, the position of males have started to change and males started to play increasingly more important role, to the extent that they have started to play the dominant role in the life of Indian tribes. Nevertheless, certain elements of the past dominance of females in Indian tribes could be traced in their religious and spiritual views, especially in the worshipping of female goddesses and even the nature surrounding Native Americans was often viewed in terms of male/female relationships.

Nevertheless, it is important to underline that the Native American perspective on gender and gender roles was, to a significant extent, defined by their philosophy and mentality. Unlike European civilization, Native Americans have preserved their unity with nature and, in fact, they viewed themselves as a part of the surrounding nature. As a result, their gender roles and the concept of gender at large were viewed in terms of the natural predetermination. What is meant here is the fact that they viewed gender as the gift of nature or gods and, therefore, their gender views were viewed as being defined by nature and by some supreme laws which were established by gods and nature.

The position of males in Native American societies

Basically, Native American societies were characterized as male dominated societies, though the domination of male was probably not so obvious and strong as it was in Europe at the epoch when first Europeans had started to arrive in the continent. At the same time, it should be said that, as a rule, Native Americans lived in small communities where gender roles were clear and relationships between genders were regulated by traditions and established norms. As a rule, Native American tribes were headed by males who actually constituted the elite of Indian communities. In this regard, it is possible to refer to the most advanced Indian civilizations such as Maya, Incas, or Aztecs. In fact, these civilizations managed to create the most powerful empires in America and their social structure was very complicated, especially in comparison to other less developed Native American tribes, which had poor or no state organization at all.

At the same time, it is in the most developed civilization the dominance of males was particularly obvious and males occupied the top position in the social hierarchy. At any rate, rulers of Native American empires were male, priesthood was also predominantly male, while military forces represented a significant power without which the development and the progress of Indian empires was simply unthinkable. As a result, as the role of males increased, they concentrated the political, economic, military and religious power in their hands that determined their domination, which was particularly obvious in the most developed Native American civilizations.

In such a context, it is obvious that the major areas where males were particularly successful in Native American society was socio-economic, military and political activities. In fact, on analyzing the development of May city-states, as well as other prominent Native American civilizations, it should be said that the practically all spheres of social life of Native American societies were under control or influence of males. Basically, males were focused on socio-economic activities, but the development of Native American empires increased the demand for the military force which was supplied by males too.

The position of females in Native American societies

The position of females was not so significant, especially, in the most advanced Native American civilizations. It should be pointed out that females gender roles were often limited by households, though it is impossible to estimate that females were totally excluded from social activities. In fact, they preserved opportunities to participate in socially significant activities, but the development of Native American and the growing complexity of the social hierarchy in the most developed Indian states gradually led to the decreasing role of females as socially active members of local communities. Instead, they were forced to concentrate mainly on their households and families. It is important to underline the fact that such a shift from social life to the household and family life occurred under the impact of the changing socio-economic environment, in which Native American females proved to be less competitive compared to male who started to gained the dominant position in Native American societies.

Nevertheless, it should be said that the deteriorating position of female of Native American societies was determined by objective factor and physical differences between males and females, such as the inability of females to be equally effective warriors as males were. At the same time, females were not really oppressed intentionally, but it was rather an evolutionary process which gradually defined the gender roles which were strictly followed in Native American communities.

The uniqueness of Native American perspective on gender roles

At first glance, the dominating role of males and the oppressed position of females could be viewed similar to the gender roles established in Europe and other parts of the world. However, it is necessary to underline that Native American society had a different view on gender roles. To put it more precisely, Native Americans, as it has been just mentioned above, viewed the dominant position and the focus of females on households as the logical and natural process, but, unlike European, for instance, Native Americans basically stood on the ground that the relationship between males and females are established not by some social norms or rules that are created uniquely by humans, but, instead, they believed that these norms are created by nature and gods.

Furthermore, it should be said that the substantial dominance of males over females was basically the characteristic of the most developed Native American civilizations that had a very complicated social structure. In this respect, it is necessary to emphasize the fact that there are not many Native American civilizations that had such a complicated social structure as Mayas, or Aztecs had. In actuality, the overwhelming majority of Native Americans lived in rather poorly developed societies. What is meant here is the fact that the social structure of many Native American tribes was very simple and people lived in accordance with the existing traditions and norms that were transmitted from one generation to another.

Obviously, the development of Native American societies influenced significantly the concept of gender and gender roles that were established in Indian tribes. In fact, the absence of the complicated social structure and hierarchy in Native American tribes was another important factor that minimized possible negative effects of the differentiation of gender roles in society. What is meant here is the fact that the majority of Native American societies were comprised by relatively small communities where there were no written restrictions and norms, instead, there existed only traditional norms and rules, which all member of the community should obey. In this respect, the dominance of males was not so pressing on females in such small communities compared to more developed Native American civilizations of Aztecs, for instance, or European civilization. As a result, members of the community both males and females were relatively free in their gender roles, though traditionally maternal functions of females were superior to their social functions and often decreased the opportunities for females to take an active part in social life. But again, it is necessary to remind that in a small community, where there was no complicated social hierarchy, females had more opportunities to influence socially important decisions because the life of such small communities was determined by the entire community and not by the selected group of people, or socio-economic and political elite, as was the case of more developed Native American civilizations and European countries.

In addition, it should be said that nature played an extremely important role in the life of Native Americans and naturally influenced their perception of the concept of gender and gender roles. As a result, Native Americans perceived gender as a gift of nature. This means that they did not attempt to construct some kind of male-female opposition, or restricted significantly other gender. Instead, Native Americans perceived themselves and each other as they were created by nature and, what is more, they did not attempt to replace nature. In such a situation, the relationship of males and females were deprived of significant tension and contradictions, though, it is an undeniable fact that males and females fulfilled the different gender roles in Native American societies.

The Berdache phenomenon

Obviously, Native Americans developed their unique concept of gender and perceived gender roles, to a significant extent, in different way than Europeans and other peoples did. In this respect, it should be said that the Native American perspective on the theory of gender was different from European one, for instance, in regard to the number of gender and the concept of gender at large. It is important to underline that Native Americans developed the concept of multiple gender. Unlike many European cultures, which have a definite view on gender as male-female opposition, Native Americans stood on the ground that there could be more than two genders. In such a way, it is possible to speak about the multiple gender that differentiates consistently Native American societies. This concept is really unique and, in this respect, it is possible to refer to the Berdache phenomenon which was an important part of the socio-cultural life of Native Americans.

Naturally, such a view on the concept of gender produced a profound impact on the attitude of Native Americans to people which did not meet the standard, European definition of gender, i.e. male or female. In such a situation, children, who were born physically male or female and yet showed the proclivity for the opposite gender, were encouraged to live out their lives in the gender role, which fit them the best. Actually, these children may be defined by the term “Berdache”. Consequently, on developing the concept of gender, Indians, according to specialists, “have options not in terms of either/or, opposite categories, but in terms of various degrees along the continuum between masculine and feminine” (Williams, 1986, p.80).

In Native American communities, Berdache was the one who was defined by spirituality, androgyny, women’s work and male/male homosexual relationships (Roscoe, 1998, p.328). The berdache could adopt the clothing of women, associate and be involved with women, do the work normally associated with women, marry a man and take part in many spiritual ceremonies of the tribe. At the same time, the concept of bedrache was referred not only to males but also to females, though the evidences of female versions of the bedrache are rarer compared to those of males.

The attitude of Native Americans to bedraches perfectly reflects the Native American perspective on the theory of gender. In fact, unlike Europeans, for instance, Native Americans did not excluded members of society that were different from the “norm”. Instead, they highly appreciated this difference and contributed to the integration of representatives of different or third gender into the normal social life. What is more important, Native American communities provided ample opportunities for its members to chose freely the gender roles they preferred the most. In such a way, Native American societies were not restricted by gender opposition or strict norms, though it should be pointed out that there still remained certain traditions that regulated the norms of males and females behavior and lifestyle, though Native Americans were free to chose which model of behavior they would follow. In this regard, their personal choice and internal state was the basis for the decision made by Native Americans.
In such a context, the difference of Native Americans was viewed rather as a gift than a problem. Basically, the traditionalist Native American view on berdaches compared to European view may be summoned up as follows: “we don’t waste people the way white society does. Every person has their gift” (Williams, 1986, p.124).

At the same time, it should be said that berdaches were even in a privileged position compared to traditional representatives of male and female genders. In fact, berdaches have a larger opportunity of choice compared to males or females. For instance, being physically born a male, a berdache could freely lead a female lifestyle and he could be treated as a female. In contrast, traditional males and females were deprived of this opportunity, though normally they did not really want to change their gender role. Consequently, by the Indian point of view, someone who is different offers advantages to society precisely because he or she is freed from the restriction of the usual (Roscoe, 1988, p.171). Obviously, this is an absolutely different view on the world at large and on the theory of gender in particular.

Naturally, European colonizers that arrived in America could not accept such philosophy and they started to change traditional Native American view on gender and gender roles. However, in spite of significant changes in the traditional perception of Native Americans of the concept of gender, they still often attempt to defend their traditional view on berdaches. For instance, the Zapotec Indians around the Oaxaca area in Mexico, staunchly defend their berdache’s right to adopt different gender and sex roles because “God made them that way” (Roscoe, 1998, p.274).


Thus, taking into account all above mentioned, it is possible to conclude that the Native American perspective on the theory of gender is quite different from the traditional European perspective, which is, at the moment, widely spread and is dominant in the Western world as well as in America. Basically, Native American concept of gender and gender roles was less restricted by male/female gender opposition and, instead, offered the possibility of gender freedom, especially for bedraches, who could chose the gender roles that met their internal inclinations and needs. In spite of the dramatic impact of Europeans on the American culture, Native Americans have, to a significant extent, preserved their uniqueness in their views on gender and gender roles. At the same time, the Native American perspective on the theory of gender is worth noting since even nowadays it is consistently more liberal and democratic compared to the conservative European or western perspective which tends to view gender relations as the male/female opposition.

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Bataille, M., G. and K. Mullen Sands. (1984). Native American Women: Telling Their Lives. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press.
Jacobs, Sue-Ellen, Wesley Thomas, and Sabine Long. (1997). Two-Spirit People. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
Roscoe,Will. (1998). Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Roscoe, Will. (1988). Living the Spirit: A Gay American Indian Anthology. Complied by Gay American Indians. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Roscoe, Will. (1991). The Zuni Man-Woman. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
Williams, Walter L. (1986). The Spirit and the Flesh, Sexual Diversity in the American Indian Culture. Boston: Beacon Press.

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