Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Women and their place in the Illiniwek Indian tribe.


In historical writing and analysis, PRESENTISM is the introduction of present-day ideas and perspectives into depictions or interpretations of the past. I believe presentism is a form of cultural bias, and it creates a distorted understanding of the subject matter. Reading modern notions of morality into the past is committing the error of presentism. I'm well aware that historical accounts are written by people and can be slanted, so I try my hardest to present articles that are fact based and well researched, without interjecting any of my personal opinions.


During the last years of the seventeenth century and the early decades of the eighteenth century, the French reported that Illiniwek men spoke disparagingly when they referred to women; the Europeans even concluded that Illiniwek women were the slaves of the men. Indian women have been referred to as the "Hidden Half" because the documentary records provided such a cloudy view of the female arena. The gender roles and status issues concerning Illiniwek women, however, have been made reasonably clear by Pierre Delliette, a nephew of LaSalle's lieutenant, Henri Tonti, other French officials, and various Jesuit priests. The considerable significance of women to the Illiniwek Indian tribe comes into focus through an examination of their role, power, and status.

{{The Illiniwek Indian tribe was a Confederacy of tribes [aka: Illinois (pronounced as plural: Illinois') and Illini]; consisted of the Kaskaskia, Cahokia, Peoria, Tamaroa, Moingwena, Michigamea, Chepoussa, Chinkoa, Coiracoentanon, Espeminkia, Maroa, and Tapouara tribes.}}
Woman and their place in the Illiniwek Indian tribe.
An investigation of absolute gender boundaries, complementary or secondary functions, and parity functions reveals the female role. Absolute boundaries, for example, clearly separated the gender functions. Women did not use male weapons, bows and arrows; did not engage in raiding war or the hunt; did not use the male accent; did not eat before or with the men; did not attend councils; did not dance in such ceremonies as the calumet dance or "the discovery" at funerals for important men; did not injure unfaithful husbands or expel them from the home; did not wear male clothing, tattoos, or hair styles; did not marry more than one spouse at a time; did not live in the home with men during menstruation or childbirth; did not bury other women with great ceremony; and did not torture prisoners until after men had finished. Women, however, did function effectively in a system their society reserved for them.

The labor requirements of the tribe's economic system encouraged the development of complimentary or supportive gender roles. Men hunted and fished and roamed far from their villages. The women gardened and gathered fruits and nuts and remained close to their homes. Europeans saw Illiniwek men as "all gentlemen" because they did no physical labor in their villages. Instead, they danced, gambled, feasted, engaged in religious activities, and manufactured bows and arrows. They earned status by becoming superior warriors and hunters-activities which required great strength and endurance. Women, on the other hand, raised children, gathered wood, tended their homes, tilled fields, prepared food, and dressed skins. They did not work harder than men, although the French thought that they did, and they did not even work as hard as colonial European women. The tribe's very survival, nevertheless, actually depended on female labor during those times when hunters were unsuccessful.

Women served in secondary rather than complimentary gender roles in such activities as warfare, hunting, and certain ceremonies usually associated with men. Because females were denied access to bows and arrows, for example, they did not participate in raids, the military expeditions of limited size which travelled stealthily and ambushed individuals or small groups of the enemy. Armed with clubs, however, women did join men in communal warfare expeditions in which hundreds of participants might noisily travel hundreds of miles to attack entire enemy villages.

Females also engaged in communal hunting, but weapons restrictions limited their participation here, too. The generosity requirements the culture placed on men, which obligated them to surrender possessions upon request, may explain why women would travel to the site of the hunter's kill, and then skin, butcher, and carry the meat back to the village. Even during communal buffalo hunts, custom limited women to preparing and transporting the meat.

Several ceremonies, including a game of lacrosse and the calumet dance, also included women as secondary performers. The summer communal buffalo hunt began with a ritual game of lacrosse, but few women played because the game was physical and dangerous. These female participants played the game in a defensive capacity. The women's part was also limited in the peace and recognition ceremony known as the calumet dance. Women with fine voices sang in choruses, which also included men, during the calumet dance, but they did not dance.
Kaskaskia Tribe of the Illiniwek.
Illiniwek women enjoyed parity with men in one most important venue access to supernatural power. Young girls sought, as did boys, the protection of a manitou (the "essence of supernatural power" represented by a bird, buffalo, or other animal) by participating in a vision-quest or dream-fast exercise. Women also became shamans, or priests and healers, and several times each year both female and male shamans sponsored a public ceremony. The members of this priesthood demonstrated their killing and curing powers during the rites. Shamans, as agents of supernatural power who could cause death, were obeyed because the Illiniwek feared them. The power of female shamans extended to the entire community.

Women clearly exercised power within the female sphere of activity. For example, women led age-groups of females responsible for fulfilling such customs as burying females. Father Jacques Gravier, a Jesuit priest, referred to "Those who govern the young women and the grown girls..." While women did not ordinarily wield leadership in arenas reserved for men and therefore did not become chiefs, the sources do identify one female civil chief for a small winter village. Her position, however, reflected the hunting successes of her male relatives.

The case of this female chief suggests that women generally enjoyed some standing but little real power beyond their own realm. It "is implausible to argue that women may have less visible prestige but an equal claim on dominance," noted anthropologist Nancy Datan, "as it must also be posited that women are content with power so subtle that its effects are difficult to detect.

It is far more parsimonious," she concluded, "though less pleasing, to concede that women have unequal access to power." While women did wield authority in their own sphere, their power in the tribe was simply not equal to that of men.

Several criteria reflected their power and established the status of Indian women: division of labor, plural marriage, marriage gift exchange, divorce, motherhood, and control over sexual activity. The complimentary nature of Illiniwek work roles, where women did not hunt and men did not gather, required that everyone marry. A man's skill as a hunter determined the number of wives he might take, but his secondary wives were the first wife's sisters, nieces, and aunts; a woman did not have more than one husband at a time. Divorce was easily arranged when one or both partners agreed to live apart, but often couples worked through their problems for the sake of their children. A divorced man whose partner was blameless could expect retaliation from the members of the woman's clan if he took a replacement wife from another clan. While men and women shared the right to divorce, both parties were constrained by children and clan privileges.

Although the French saw them as promiscuous, the Illiniwek did subscribe to a concept of simple chastity. Young women were not supposed to even to talk with men in order to maintain status as a potential spouse, but many of them nevertheless did engage in premarital sexual activity. A first wife outranked secondary wives, and the courtship process to select a first wife was indirect and most important. An absent suitor's father or uncle would lead his female relatives loaded with valuable gifts to the prospective bride's home. These gifts included kettles, guns, skins, meat, "some cloth, and sometimes a slave..."

The marriage gifts would be returned if the girl protested or if her parents or brother objected to the union. Negotiations could involve as many as three trips-each with more valuable gifts made by the suitor's family. When a bride accepted a suitor, she and her relatives would travel to the groom's home with their own gifts. Although men did conduct the formal negotiations, the bride and her mother played a prominent role in the decision. The value of the marriage gift exchange delayed and frustrated poor suitors, and illustrating the value of a first wife, a husband continued to send presents to his wife's brother even after marriage. The marriage began without ceremony when the bride and groom agreed to live together.

Women, even married women, did not control their own sexual activities because their brothers motivated by gifts could force them into extramarital relationships. Husbands who punished or killed unfaithful wives or their lovers were often attacked by the families of the injured parties. A feud might be averted only if husbands were "to cover the dead" by providing presents to the grieving families.

Women did punish men who violated clan marriage rights, and these men accepted the discipline without retaliating. As with divorce, a widower who took another bride too quickly from a different clan could find his possessions destroyed by the female members of the original wife's clan. The enforcement of clan rights reflected both the economic importance of marriage and the power of women while protecting their sphere.

Much of the female arena revolved around childbirth and child rearing. Women were not permitted to deliver their babies in the homes of their husbands, and so delivery took place in the small menstrual huts located nearby. New fathers honored new mothers in a ceremonial role reversal: the fathers cleaned the home, shook out the furs, and built a new fire. The Illiniwek loved their children, but the birth rate was low and infant mortality was high. Having a child elevated the status of a woman to the prestigious position of mother.

Mothers enjoyed full control over youngsters because men were absent so often, but they also had full responsibility for protecting them from raiders, animals, and accidents. Diapering infants with moss and swaddling them in skins, mothers attended to their chores with infants fastened to their backs on cradle boards. As they matured, mothers encouraged youngsters to develop those skills required for success as adults. While boys practiced with their weapons and ran, swam, and wrestled, girls acquired those industrious work habits which might attract desirable husbands. Motherhood involved ensuring the continuity of the society.

The role and power available to the men and women in Illiniwek society determined individual status. Men were the ceremonial, economic, military, and political leaders in their society. Males who expected to acquire lofty community standing could develop exceptional skill as either warriors or hunters, but the warrior's success outranked that of the hunter. The tribe acknowledged the status of individual achievers with public rituals such as the first-kill feast, the warrior's pounding-the-post ceremony, and elaborate burials. Women were ineligible for the recognition available to men derived from either raiding or hunting.

Males earned an improved position in the community through the years because they had demonstrated their capacity to survive in a most demanding career. The enhanced prestige of these elders-most of whom were shamans-allowed them to eat before others, officiate lacrosse games, decide the fate of war prisoners, participate in an elder's council for advising chiefs, and serve as town criers. Even with this lofty status, however, old men worked in the fields with the women, thus implicitly acknowledging the importance of the female contribution to the tribe's welfare.

Women earned status in a system reserved for females-a system which reflected success in the female role. The practice of tattooing women probably recognized individual proficiency. Men wore tattoos illustrating the weapons employed to acquire military triumphs. It is reasonable to assume that women wore designs representing tools with which they had been successful, such as the spade, the spindle, and the axe. Implements reserved for men-bows and arrows-outranked those utilized by women.

Even though the primary male economic contribution-meat-outranked that of females, the status of women was still substantial because of the quality and quantity of the tribal diet. Without meat, the Illiniwek only thought they were starving, but female subsistence products meant the group would survive. Another factor conferring status might have been female ownership or control of their fields. The evidence for this claim is indirect, such as the female work bees required when women needed to spade up their fields, but it is significant that field ownership is not included in any list of male status criteria.

Europeans developed low opinions of Illiniwek women when they saw them engage in arduous physical labor in their villages. Control over the products of their labor, however, suggests considerable female status. The items in the home, those destroyed when clan marriage rights were ignored, were considered the property of the manufacturer. In 1772, a Frenchman noticed that "husbands leave to the women the say as to the buying and selling" of such female manufactured trade items as dressed "deer and buffalo skins."

The labor issue is clouded by the question of ownership of the home. Although women manufactured the family home, husbands "owned" or controlled it because it was the product of more than one wife's labor. A divorced wife would have left her former husband's remaining family with a badly damaged dwelling if she had been able to remove her contribution to it. Because women controlled only part of their work product, this labor issue does not add much to clarify the question of female status.

It is difficult to measure changes in Illiniwek social practices because the tribe endured tremendous population losses after coming into direct contact with the French in 1673; fewer Indians resulted in fewer documents concerning them. However, rather interesting adaptations became observable for several marriage customs. For example, before meeting Europeans, Illiniwek men had become eligible to marry at age twenty-five but did not actually marry until age thirty; women married about age twenty-five. After meeting the French, however, men married before age twenty and women before age eighteen. This circumstance caused Delliette to report that "The old men (the conservators of tribal traditions) say that the French have corrupted them." The tribe also experienced a decline in husbands taking more than one wife and in the rate of divorce. Finally, a quarter of a century after Delliette noticed that unfaithful wives were numerous, another Frenchman declared the number negligible. These modifications indicate that contact with Europeans resulted in a changed role for women.

The industrious role and considerable power of Illiniwek women established their high status in the Illiniwek tribe. They attained social standing by bearing and nurturing children, constructing and tending homes, gathering wood and preparing food, and dressing skins and tilling fields. They wielded power in their female venue and in their role as shamans. Marriage customs, the marriage gift exchange, and divorce options also testified to their lofty position in the tribe. Limits on female activity, however, illustrated the greater power and status of men. Women did enjoy considerable influence and standing in a system reserved for them, but they were ineligible for the higher status positions available for men.

The subordinate position of females was emphasized in those conventions which prohibited their use of weapons reserved for men, their absence from raiding and the hunt, and the second class status of their subsistence contributions. The most important of the elements limiting female power and status, however, was their lack of control over their own sexual activity.

When men made derogatory comments about women, they were declaring that the female role was inappropriate for them, and they were exhibiting the inveterate male habit of gendering male enemies as female or effeminate. Despite the derisive comments of men, however, Illiniwek women understood-even if the French did not-that they were the slaves of the men.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D. 

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