How were relations between the sexes characterized in traditional Native American societies? 

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rrteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

We should remember that the phrase "Native Americans" describes a vast array of people from Chile to the Arctic Circle, so any generalizations about gender roles have to be prefaced with the stipulation that they do not apply to all Native American groups. However, many Indian societies--indeed most that English settlers came in contact with along the Atlantic coast--were what anthropologists refer to as "matrilineal." This meant that one's standing in society, and especially their clan affiliations, were "passed down" from the mother. This, of course, was dramatically different from European societies, which were without exception patrilineal, with young men inheriting titles, property, and social standing from their fathers. Indian societies also featured a different gendered division of labor than European societies. Native women in many groups performed agricultural labor in particular with little help from men. This was viewed by Europeans as evidence of the laziness of Indian people, and was used as an excuse to expropriate their lands. Among many Native societies, women played prominent political roles as well. They participated in councils of war, and they were the final word on whether to adopt or execute war captives, a role that carried immense prestige. So while we cannot generalize about all Native peoples, many North American Indian societies featured gender roles that were very different from Europeans.

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