Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Women and their place in the Illiniwek Indian tribe.


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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 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 by examining their role, power, and status.

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The Illinois, aka Illiniwek and Illini [the Illinois is pronounced as plural: [ILL-IN-NOISE], was a Confederacy of Indian tribes consisting of the Kaskaskia, Cahokia, Peoria, Tamarais (aka Tamaroa, Tamarois), Moingwena, Mitchagamie (aka Michigamea), Chepoussa, Chinkoa, Coiracoentanon, Espeminkia, Maroa, and Tapouara tribes that were in the Algonquin Indian family. The Illinois called themselves "Ireniouaki" (the French word was Ilinwe). The Illiniwek village, La Vantum, aka Grand Village, was near today's Utica, Illinois.
Women 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 influential men; did not injure unfaithful husbands or expel them from home; did not wear male clothing, tattoos, or hairstyles; did not marry more than one spouse at a time; did not live in the house 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 complementary or supportive gender roles. Men hunted and fished and roamed far from their villages, and 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.

On the other hand, women 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 they did, and they did not even work as hard as European colonial 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 complementary 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 traveled stealthily and ambushed individuals or small groups of the enemy. Armed with clubs, however, women joined men in joint warfare expeditions in which hundreds of participants might noisily travel hundreds of miles to attack 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, limited customs 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 only some 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, including men, during the calumet dance, but they did not dance.
Kaskaskia Tribe of the Illiniwek.
Illiniwek women enjoyed parity with men in one of the most important venues, 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 animals) 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 priesthood members demonstrated their killing and curing powers during the rites. Shamans were obeyed as agents of supernatural power who could cause death 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 are 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 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 complementary 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 simple chastity. Young women were not supposed to talk with men to maintain their status as potential spouses, but many 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 from 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.

Even married women did not control their 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 family. 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 their husbands' homes, so delivery took place in the small menstrual huts nearby. New fathers honored new mothers in a ceremonial role reversal: the fathers cleaned the house, shook out the furs, and built a new fire. The Illiniwek loved their children, but the birth rate and infant mortality were low. Having a child elevated the status of a woman to the prestigious position of mother.

Mothers enjoyed complete 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 cradleboards. As they matured, mothers encouraged youngsters to develop those skills required for adult success. While boys practiced with their weapons and ran, swam, and wrestled, girls acquired those industrious work habits which might attract desirable husbands. Motherhood involves ensuring the continuity of society.

The role and power available to the men and women in Illiniwek society determined individual status. Men were their society's ceremonial, economic, military, and political leaders. Males who expected to acquire lofty community standing could develop exceptional skills 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 from raiding or hunting.

Males earned an improved position in the community over the years because they had demonstrated their capacity to survive in a most demanding career. The enhanced prestige of this elders-most of whom was 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, 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 that reflected success in the female role. The practice of tattooing women recognized individual proficiency, and 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 ax. 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, significantly, 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 multiple female statuses. The items in the home, those destroyed when clan marriage rights were ignored, were considered the manufacturer's property. In 1772, a Frenchman noticed that "husbands leave to the women to 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 needs to be more 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 married at age thirty; women married at about twenty-five. After completing the French, however, men married before the age of twenty and women before eighteen. This circumstance caused Delliette to report, "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, another Frenchman declared the number negligible a quarter of a century after Delliette noticed that unfaithful wives were numerous. These modifications indicate that contact with Europeans changed women's roles.

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, dressing skins and tilling fields. They wielded power in their female venue and in their role as shamans. Marriage customs, 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. However, the most important of the elements limiting female power and status was their lack of control over their own sexual activity.

When men made derogatory comments about women, they declared that the female role was inappropriate. They exhibited 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 Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D. 

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