A Nation of Women (part II)

November 15, 2013

This is a continuation of my summary of Gunlog Fur’s book A Nation of Women: Gender and Colonial Encounters Among the Delaware Indians. This week’s focus is the position of women in Delaware cultures.

A note on terminology. The peoples of what is now southeastern New York, eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and northern Delaware were diverse loosely organized tribes who usually (but not always) spoke similar Algonquian languages. Some of the tribes with larger populations included the Unami-speaking Lenape, the Munsee, and the Mahican, but there were many others. Trade and treaty relations with Europeans, as well as dislocation patterns, created the polity known today as the Delaware. The word “Delaware” comes from the name the English gave to that river. Fur does not like to use the word “Delaware” for people of this region in their initial contact with Europeans for a variety of reasons, the most obvious one being that the word did not yet exist. Although Fur appears to have thought carefully about which name she uses in each context, I am not going to switch back and forth between “Delaware,” “Lenape,” and “Munsee” in these short blog posts because it would become too confusing for the reader. If you want a more nuanced version, you will have to read the book. The hard fact of the matter is that while some words are better than others in discussing colonial-era history in this region, no word is completely correct.

At time of European contact, Delaware cultures were matrilineal. Children belonged to the mother’s family. Men moved in with the wife’s family after marriage but maintained obligations to their maternal clan. Divorce was not uncommon and could be initiated by either party.

Women cared for small children, gathered wild vegetable foods, cleaned game, prepared food, and did most of the agricultural work. They made storage containers for food and implements for cooking and planting. They made clothing and spun hemp for rope and nets. Women kept track of astronomical data that guided planting and other activities. They gathered herbs and practiced herbal medicine. Children worked with their mothers and her female relatives.

Men hunted and fished, cleared land for planting, built lodges, and trained for warfare. They wove fishing nets and fashioned and maintained tools involved in hunting and war. Old men and children guarded planted fields from predators.

These activities were not strictly divided by sex, however, and women commonly engaged in hunting and occasionally in war. Men would also perform activities assigned to women, such as sewing or spinning. During key activities, such as harvest, large scale hunts or seasonal food gathering, everyone participated. Fur points out that it makes more sense to think of spheres of responsibility rather than division of labor when discussing work done by men versus women. There was cross-over in almost every area. Women and men dressed essentially the same, except during certain labor or ceremonial activities. Men often wore a distinct hair style.

Women and men spent a significant amount of time in sex segregated or mostly sex segregated groups. Able bodied men would spend weeks away from the village on hunting expeditions, and women had their own sex segregated activities. Women retreated from village activity during their menstrual periods to a place set aside for this.

Land belonged collectively to all Delaware, but management and decision-making around land use–both agricultural land and land used in hunting–rested with the women. The lodge-style houses, which sheltered many generations, belonged to the women. Decisions on food distribution, including game procured by men, were made by women. Since the Delaware were subsistence level farmers and hunter/gatherers, the distribution of food was a significant sphere of influence. When trade began with the Europeans, it was primarily trade of agricultural and household goods, conducted by women, which gave women further control over the distribution of resources. Women effectively determined whether prisoners of war lived or died, since decisions regarding adoption, including adoption of adults, rested with women in their capacity as mothers. Peace making was directed primarily by women, although that changed with European contact.

Whether explorers, traders, missionaries or warriors, European men found Delaware power structures difficult to fathom. This might indicate that Delaware cultures were nonhierarchical, that many decisions involved the larger group and not just the designated individual or council, or that decisions were significantly influenced by women. Fur offers data supporting all these suppositions. Indications of rank were remarkably absent in Delaware cultures, even when compared to other northeastern Algonquian tribes. There were no differentiations in burial, for example, and there were no status markers of personal adornment. This does not necessarily mean that Delaware cultures were completely nonhierarchical; only that there were no outward signs of social hierarchy that could be discerned by Eurocentric perception.

The chiefs were usually, but not always, male. There were lots of chiefs. There was a war chief and a peace chief, a chief for the maternal clan, a chief who welcomed strangers to the village, etc. etc. Some of these offices delineated duties for the husband and the wife, so they might also be conceived as being held by a couple. The chief chose and trained his successor, who was almost always from his maternal clan. Sons did not succeed fathers. The chiefs answered to the village council, which was composed of men and women. The council was expected to refer to the community as a whole on important decisions. Ability to influence others in the community tended to rest on experience, wisdom, age, and position as maternal clan leader.

In making important decisions the Delaware placed significant weight on dreams and visions as related by the individuals who experienced them. This will be discussed in the next part of this summary, on early Delaware interactions with Christianity.

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