Conflicts in Identity


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Jennifer Loft

Global Gender Studies

While there is a plethora of research on Iroquois history regarding land and treaty rights, as well as the disconnection between Iroquois people and their language and culture, the specific effects of colonization on the Iroquois’ economic system and its subsequent gender roles are often neglected. The eradication of the traditional Iroquoian system of economics has created some of the most adverse effects on the lifestyles and psyches of Iroquois men and women. By examining a multitude of historical and contemporary research regarding the Iroquois and facets of their economy, the changes experienced at the hands of the colonizers, as well as the negative effects these changes elicited in Iroquois men and women, are illustrated as showing how detrimental the loss of culture and tradition are to the Iroquois people, specifically in terms of increased sexual violence against Iroquois women. While sexual violence against Iroquois women is just one example of how colonization has differently affected the sexes, this paper not only identifies the striking disparities that Iroquois men and women have experienced due to colonization, but shares the overlap sustained by being members of a colonized nation. This will hopefully generate future research on the subject leading to a more expansive and comprehensive understanding of Iroquois history.
Iroquois men and women have been intensely and adversely impacted by the effects of colonization. While a large focus on Iroquois history tends to center around land and treaty rights, as well as the disconnection between the Iroquois and their culture and language, I find it necessary to concentrate on the effects of colonization in terms of the economic system and its subsequent gender roles. Due to a change in economic gender roles generated by the forces of colonization, Iroquois men and women have experienced drastic but different effects from the institution of colonization. Also important is the discussion of sexual violence against Iroquois women, as there is a heavy aura of silence that tends to surround the complication of sexual violence against Native American women from tribal nations across the United States and Canada. Three out of four Native women will experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime, but they face barriers in reporting violence, as well as in the juridical system, limiting opportunities for recovery.

The changing state of the Iroquois economy deconstructed traditional gender roles, leading to a forced adaptation of the white settlers’ ways, as well as the creation of negative psychological effects on Iroquois men and women living in these communities. A change from the collective mentality that was a staple of Iroquois culture to the individualistic mantra of the nearby white residents both directly and indirectly impacted Iroquois men and women. The men lost their ability to hunt and provide for their families in traditional ways and while the women were still able to partially maintain the agricultural system, they were no longer farming in a collective fashion with a large group of women. Due to the combination of changing economic status and other adverse effects of colonization, Iroquois men and women have been enormously impacted by the arrival of white settlers, although they have been affected in quite different ways.

It is important to begin the argument by briefly explaining the Iroquoian economy and gender roles prior to colonization, followed by a description of the alterations that took place in Iroquois society at the hands of the white settlers. The new economic roles generated in Iroquois society will be explained, as well as the difference between the traditional ideology of collectivity and the contemporary notion of individualism. That will be succeeded by a description of the effects on Iroquois men and women caused by the modification of the economy and corresponding gender roles. Finally, the argument that Iroquois men and women have been differently impacted by the change in economy and gender roles will be analyzed by inspecting the dissenting results both men and women experience, taking a special interest in a discussion of sexual violence against Iroquois women.
Iroquois society prior to colonization
Iroquois society is one of balance, with men and women performing symbolic roles that complement the other sex. As Audrey Shenandoah states, “The balance of everything in Creation is what allows us to continue to be” (Knapp 1992: 6). The Iroquois economy was once a collective effort that saw men doing the majority of hunting and women performing the majority of agricultural work. A man of good character was someone who was a good hunter and warrior, hospitable, and truthful. A woman of good character, on the other hand, was someone who was a good farmer, housekeeper, and mother (Stites 1978).

The importance of women in Iroquois society was designated by the systems of matrilocality and matrilineality, as well as by the significance of clan mothers that has continued for centuries. Iroquois nations that were matrilocal saw the men leaving their homes to live in the household of their wife’s family once they were married. Matrilineal societies traced a family’s descent through the women’s side of the family.

Clan mothers were, and still are, some of the most respected members of Iroquois society and hold the highest positions of authority, leading the matrilineal clan (Jacobs 1991). The eldest eligible woman is the clan mother, and she must perpetuate the ways of her people, teach the ways to her people, and look out for large numbers of people in her community. Their duties are to deal with community and nation affairs, as well as the spiritual aspects of their communities (Knapp 1992). These duties represent the high reverence and respect for women that has been traditionally found in Iroquois societies.

Agriculture was the economic basis of Iroquois society prior to colonization. While men helped to prepare the land for cultivation, the rest of this agricultural work was performed by women— it was considered “demeaning” for men to execute the remaining duties (Brown 1970). The concentration of women working in agriculture resulted in a community consciousness and solidarity between women. The ability to work together resulted in females providing greater proportions of food to the family diet. Women sought to help other women in their communities, contributing to this balance of roles between people. Besides working together in the fields, Iroquois women participated in communal child care, cooking, and taking care of the households. This exemplified how sharing and cooperation were paramount social values of the Iroquoian economic system (Mann 2000).

Gender roles revolving around the economy were quite profound prior to colonization; men and women each had specific, but equal and cooperative, functions in contributing to society. Men performed numerous tasks besides hunting and clearing the land, such as shaping articles from wood and stone, trading, performing religious duties, and going to war (Billard 1974). Ownership was quite different in Iroquois society, as land was communally owned and capitalistic styles of ownership in mainstream society were not yet introduced. Men did not have the ability to “own” property in this manner, unlike women. While the land, the house, and the objects in the house were considered the objects of women, men could only regard their weapons, tools, and clothing as their own (Brown 1970). As opposed to contemporary mainstream society where children are considered to be property of their fathers, children in Iroquois society prior to colonization belonged to their mothers (Stites 1978).

Women possessed duties pertaining to agriculture, the household, and children, and were secure in their role as women. Men, for example, relied heavily on the women for their own wellbeing: “Without wives we are reduced to a wretched life” (Stites 1978: 29). Women gathered food resources, tended the fields, prepared game the men hunted, collected firewood, created pottery, cared for the children, cooked, minded the household, tanned skins, and managed the camps while the men were gone hunting (Shafer 1941). Women were able to choose the chiefs, dispose of them, and had the final say in whether a captive would be adopted or put to death (Billard 1974). It seems as if Iroquoian women enjoyed more privileges and possessed greater freedom than women from other tribes. If this was the case, it was due to the important place agriculture held in their economic life, as well as to the distribution of labor, which left the entire cultivation of the fields and the acquisition of the greater part of the food supply to the women. This does not mean that the roles of women were any more important than the roles of men. Although different, they generated balance in the community, as everyone has a role in helping to maintain a peaceful and productive society.

Modification of Iroquois society due to the influence of white settlers
The coming of white settlers created chaos in all the old systems, which were for the most part superbly healthy, simultaneously cooperative and autonomous, peace-centered, and ritual-oriented (Allen 1986). In the European’s eyes the Iroquois’ “mixed crops, irregular plots, and scrabbling in the ground” did not count as proper farming (Billard 1974: 118). The upheaval of traditional Iroquois society created an entirely new economic society dependent upon strict gender roles modeled after white standards. This new system was generated out of a sequence of treaties and acts that missionaries used to encourage the Iroquois to replicate the agricultural pattern of the white settlers.

The implementation of individual allotments and the usage of the white settler’s techniques were reinforced by missionaries that came to show the Iroquois the “proper” way to live. Through these missionaries and agents, the federal government would provide technical assistance to transform the Iroquois into agriculturalists in the European mode. The missionaries and agents believed that once weaned from the land, the Iroquois would lose interest in their hunting territories and peacefully exchange them for a modest amount of cash or goods (Tiro 2006). The underlying purposes of these actions were to gain control over as much Iroquois land as possible.

Not only did the missionaries and agents attempt to impose a European style of agriculture on the Iroquois, they tried to inflict the European lifestyle on them and were largely successful through the implementation of boarding schools. The boarding schools involved taking young children away from their families to live at these institutions and learn the language, dress, culture, and knowledge of white people. Everything that defined who they were as Iroquois people was forbidden; their music, art, baskets, stories, and history were all denied by the missionaries, who wanted them to learn the white equivalent of their definition as people (Porter 2008). Boarding schools were a blatant attempt to destroy the culture and traditions of Native peoples.

New gender roles in terms of the economic structure of Iroquois society were instituted because of the implementation of the European-based agricultural system. The changes in the economic structure saw men with less to occupy their time. Although many men still felt that fieldwork was women’s work, they needed to contribute to their families in some way. Men were no longer able to provide for their families by hunting, but they took up large animal husbandry and the heavy fieldwork (Tiro 2006). Since the white pattern of culture and economics replaced the traditional Iroquois pattern, the main function of Iroquois men was now to support their wives and families, instead of engaging in hunting or warfare (Shafer 1941). The Iroquois men’s way of life was drastically altered due to this new system.

Women were able to continue the horticultural activity they were used to, although in a slightly different and less physically exhaustive manner (Tiro 2006). They now looked after small animals, tended the family garden, washed and cleaned the house, and cared for the children. Women now operated in the nuclear family, as opposed to the traditional and communal clan system. Their household and childcare duties were now made more difficult, as they were alone in their efforts with only their husbands and children by their sides. Once the changes in the economic structure produced changes in the traditional gender roles of the Iroquois, women started to resemble white women in their duties to the family (Shafer 1941).

The change in the economic structure of the Iroquois brought about a conversion of the collective ideology of the society into a more individualistic one (Shafer 1941). Traditionally, the Iroquois carry a collective identity; this is exemplified in the ability of large groups of women to work together in the fields, as well as large groups of men to hunt together, for the common good of their people. The entire society was structured off of this collective basis – including the economy, religion, and politics, as well as ceremonies and rituals. The white cultural system was the complete opposite of the Iroquois system, and unfortunately, when the white agricultural system was forced upon the Iroquois, that introduced the Iroquois to the individualistic manner of white society. In white societies, the individual is valued above the group, while traditional Iroquois societies were the exact opposite. The introduction of the Iroquois to this individualism began with the farm work based on an individual stance and spread to other characteristics of Iroquois society, forcing the Iroquois to look more typical of those seen in white mainstream society. This contributes to the intense emotional stress experienced by Iroquois families since that time, which may also be a predictor of the high rates of sexual violence against Iroquois women.

Effects of the new structure of Iroquois society on men
The lives of Iroquois men have been drastically altered thanks to the new structure of Iroquois society that was put into place. It has created a sort of culture shock for men, as their association with their maternal family has been disrupted by white people’s insistence of farming separate holdings. Iroquois men have become isolated in their nuclear families and more dependent upon their wives and children for farming and emotional satisfactions. The loss of land attributes to an economic depression that can be felt by the Iroquois, especially the men. Their traditional reason for living has been taken away from them; they are no longer able to hunt for game or defend their communities in war and must, instead, devote their time to farming endeavors (Randle 1950). Their historical role was to provide and protect, but the reservation system stripped them of their very need for existence.

Iroquois men lost more in terms of the wellbeing of their families that just the loss of hunting as a means of providing for their families. Their role was severely damaged when families were confined to reservations and fed rations. Seeing a sense of despair on the faces of their loved ones will generate discouragement and a lack of positive feelings for men, and sometimes even alcoholism, since they may feel it is their duty, and their duty alone, to help their families (Mankiller 2004).

Due to the reliance on allotments and agriculture (which is not prosperous throughout the whole year – only the growing season), unemployment has stricken Iroquois men since the implementation of these methods. Since men are the “breadwinners” of the family through the eyes of white culture, and that white culture has been imposed on Iroquois men, they may feel a sense of worthlessness in not being able to financially provide for their families.

High unemployment rates have established a causal relationship with poverty rates. One cause of a never-ending supply of sources of the high poverty rates has been this transition from hunting, gathering, and farming to a cash-based economy. This new economic system threw most of the Iroquois into a cycle of poverty and indebtedness. This loss of traditional roles for men, as well as the internalized oppression felt due to role loss and high poverty rates, has had a profound negative impact on men’s self-esteem (Hambry 2000). Numerous psychological effects abound: depression, loss of confidence, sense of hopelessness, and a higher risk of suicide, among other health risks.

Even the simple relationship between fellow Iroquois men has been eroded due to the processes of colonization. The security of office men once derived from their ritual and political relationship to other men has been dissolved (Allen 1986). Men used to be highly important and revered chiefs and leaders, and along with women, they controlled policies of war-making (Hambry 2000). While these titles are still regarded within Iroquois communities, they are insignificant within the context of the United States. If the chiefs and leaders must leave the community for outside affairs, they are often met with resilience and a question to their legitimacy. It is a continuous struggle to persuade the United States government that Iroquois nations are sovereign and maintain their own form of government.
Effects of the new structure of Iroquois society on women
The lives of Iroquois women have also been enormously impacted by the new structure of Iroquois society that has been modeled after white culture. Iroquois women have experienced a dramatic loss of respect and authority since the advent of colonization. While women still play the traditional role of housekeeper, child bearer, and nurturer, they no longer enjoy the unquestioned positions of power, respect, and decision-making on both local and international levels to which they were once accustomed (Smith 2005). Although many women, such as clan mothers, are still called upon for their voices within their communities in terms of tribal economics and politics, most Iroquois women would not have a say in affairs outside of their own communities.

Through colonization and the influence of the missionaries, Iroquois women’s role as mother was interrupted. This was achieved mainly through the institution of boarding schools, which was previously discussed, and the schools’ direct attack on families. Motherhood became “de-centered” as children were taken away from them and forced to reside in these boarding schools to learn the “white man’s ways” (McGillivray & Comaskey 1999). The role of parents was therefore diminished in the household, since the children were more often absent due to the boarding schools. Mothers lost contact with their children while they were in these boarding schools, and often when they came back home the women could barely recognize their children. Many times the children lost the connection to their culture and spoke, dressed, and acted like white people. Natives who could not speak English could often not converse with their children if the children no longer spoke their traditional language.

Similar to the effects caused by the loss of tribal lands are the effects generated by the established system of reservations. Reservations replaced traditional systems based on lineage and kinship relations. It was believed by non-Natives that reservations would enhance the “civility” of Native people and lead them towards a justifiable life. However, reservations did not and still do not enhance women’s opportunities and legal status. Instead, they diminish their status and power through an imposed system of patriarchy and altered means of production, which increases the dependence of women on men and is similar to the situation in mainstream society (McGillivray & Comaskey 1999). As John Mohawk has pointed out, Iroquois women are marginalized in both dominant society and the colonized indigenous society. Iroquois women often face a variety of social disadvantages including discrimination, forcible or economic displacement from their lands, and public policies that exclude them from the mainstream society’s pathways to power and prosperity because of their race (Mohawk 2004).

Although the institution of patriarchy has had a dire impact on all women, it has especially affected Native women. It began with the Indian Act, which dictated the supposed superiority of Native men over women (McGillivray & Comaskey 1999) Patriarchy has even spread its influence onto the cultural ideologies of Native Americans, particularly the Iroquois. The beliefs surrounding “menstrual seclusion” are just one example of how the white patriarchal influence has altered the traditional beliefs surrounding the respectability of women.

In Native American cultures, menstrual blood is considered the “water of life.” It is a sacred commodity that holds bearers of the blood in awe and respect. Not only does menstruating allow women to bond, it demonstrates the power behind the female sex. Native Americans believe that women at their peak of fecundity possess power that throws male power completely out of kilter. Therefore, any male-owned or dominated ritual or sacred object cannot do its usual task. This “medicine” is so powerful that it could potentially cause death. Whatever is empowered in a ritual sense is not to be touched or approached by any who are weaker than the power itself, lest they suffer negative consequences from contact (Allen 1986). The Native view of menstruation is simply that women possess great power when they are on their “moon,” so menstruating women are secluded out of respect for their abilities.

Non-Natives have a radically different view of menstrual seclusion, however. They do not perceive the seclusion of women from rituals and ceremonies while they are menstruating to be out of reverence for the power of women. They view it as a subordination and lack of veneration towards women. According to their view, Native Americans bar menstruating women from ceremonies and segregate them from the rest of the people consigning them to some space specifically designed for them. This view shows that Natives consider menstruating women unclean and not fit to enjoy the company of decent (or non-menstruating) people (or men). However, menstrual taboos are about power, not filth or sin. It is not seen as something unclean or shameful. (Allen 1986). This demonstrates how incorrectly influential the system of patriarchy can be.

The different impacts of colonization on Iroquois men and women
It is important to discuss the scholarly analysis surrounding how much of an impact colonization has had on the two genders. While Iroquois men and women have certainly both been severely affected by the processes of colonization, they were affected in different manners. Some scholars have contended that one gender has been more impacted than another, but they are really just acknowledging a difference in experience between men and women. For example, some scholars explain that men were more negatively impacted by colonization since they were in more direct contact with the white settlers. Other scholars state that women were more negatively impacted by colonization since they have experienced high rates of sexual violence and its subsequent psychological effects. While arguing over who is more impacted by colonization will not be conducive to “de-colonizing” the minds of those affected, it is nevertheless important to explain the difference in post-colonial experience between Iroquois men and women.

Iroquois men have undoubtedly experienced severe adverse effects from colonization. Men had more direct contact with white people, especially in terms of reaching land agreements and treaties. Due to the patrilineal emphasis of the white culture, they felt higher cultural shock because they bore the brunt of the conflicts with the whites and their cultural accomplishments were destroyed by white people. Examples of men’s cultural accomplishments that were rendered ineffective and eventually abolished include war, hunting, political dominations of others, political independence, and political forms. The outside pressures that affected men’s cultural accomplishments were extremely disruptive to men’s values (Randle 1950).

Native American men experienced an intense pressure to assimilate into Western culture. Not only were they forced to comply with Western standards of culture, they were urged to conform to Western standards of economics, which has been the central focus of this paper. It is possible that the imposed economic system on Iroquois nations deprived men of their economic roles in the communities more so than women. The major economic role lost to men through the process of colonization was that of providing for their families by means of hunting. Many Iroquois men defined themselves as hunters and through their ability to provide for their families and communities by methods of hunting. The grand significance of hunting for men can very well be translated into their livelihood. Without the ability to hunt, many Iroquois men became lost in the sea of white cultural ideals.

It is clear that the loss of land was extremely destructive to the livelihood of Iroquois men since the diminishment of Iroquois lands lessened the ability of men to hunt game in order to provide for their families. Consequently, they were forced to focus their attention on farming and their confinement to the reservation. Therefore, the loss of land has been more than just the simple loss of hunting grounds. It equates into a loss of economic sovereignty. Since Iroquois men were forced onto reservations and allotted individual plots of land, the chief form of employment now available to them is farming. They must rely on the land, their crops, and the weather in order to provide for their families. While Iroquois women were affected by this new adaptation of the agricultural system, they could still rely on agriculture. However, they were unable to refer to their traditional collective mentality when farming these new individual plots of land.

Scholarly analyses of the impact of colonization on Native communities often minimize the histories of oppression of Native women (Smith 2005). While we have seen that Iroquois men lost many of their traditional roles, Iroquois women have lost a great deal of bodily sovereignty due to the forces of sexual violence. Through these forces of sexual violence, Iroquois women have bore greatly negative physical and psychological consequences. While many non-Natives may blame the high incidence of violence against Iroquois women on Iroquois men— which is false since the majority of perpetrators are non-Native— the underlying forces of colonization and their subsequent oppression of Iroquois people are the true perpetrators.

In order to properly understand the severity of the problem of sexual violence against Iroquois women, it is important to briefly address the data surrounding sexual violence against Native American women from nations all around the United States and Canada. In contemporary Native societies, it is considered the exception rather than the rule to know a Native woman who has not experienced some form of violence at some point in her life (McGillivray & Comaskey 1999). Sexual violence against Native women is a result of a plethora of factors including, but not limited to: oppression, racism, poverty and high unemployment rates, hopelessness, emasculation of men, the system of patriarchy and ideals of male dominance, a lack of respect for the female spirit, and loss of male self-esteem as their own place within traditional society has been systematically destroyed by increasing urbanization, industrialization, and institutionalization (Allen 1986). Native women can experience severe psychological effects from an encounter with sexual violence. This list is also non-exhaustive, but includes the following: depression, anxiety, loss of self-esteem, shaming and stigma, banishment, and the abandonment of one’s culture, people, kIn and sometimes children (McGillivray & Comaskey 1999).

Turning attention over to sexual violence against Iroquois women, violence was extremely uncommon, if not almost nonexistent, prior to colonization. Even if there was violence against women before contact with the colonizers, the European settlers certainly exacerbated it (McGillivray & Comaskey 1999). The Iroquois even had a “no-rape policy” that is well documented, specifically in Tuscarora Chief Elias Johnson’s 1881 book entitled History (Wagner 1996). In this book, Chief Johnson discusses the absence of rape among Iroquois men. Once the white settlers arrived, Iroquois men were appalled by the European custom of beating their wives and they intervened on the behalf of abused settler women whenever they dared. Tuscarora J.N.B. Hewitt explained that “this great regard for the person of woman was not limited to the persons of native Iroquois women, but women of alien blood and origin shared with them this respect” (Wagner 1996: 44). Within their own communities, anyone who had cause to believe that a husband was abusive of his wife was honored for intervening in her behalf (Mann 2000).

Sexual violence against Iroquois women has become quite a problem in many tribal and urban communities. This has been extensively studied by the Iroquois in Canada, who often refer to missing or murdered indigenous women as the “stolen sisters”. In October 2002, Amnesty International issued a report about the stolen sisters entitled, “Stolen sisters: A human rights response to discrimination and violence against indigenous women in Canada,” that looked into the issue of violence against indigenous women in Canada (Ontario Birchbank 2004). According to records held by the Native Women’s Association of Canada, there are currently at least five hundred indigenous women that have been murdered or missing, and are presumed dead, across the country. These statistics do not include unreported or under-investigated cases. Those who issued the report believe the cause of this violence lies in the intersection between race, culture, class, and gender, which have routinely marginalized so many indigenous women beyond any reasonable expectation of security of life and pattern (Hunter 2005). Three themes came to light through the “Stolen sisters” report: the heightened threat of violence created by the social and economic marginalization of indigenous women within Canadian society, the frequent failure of both police and the justice system to provide adequate protection to indigenous women, and evidence that some men are exploiting this vulnerability to specifically target indigenous women for acts of extreme brutality (Ontario Birchbank 2004). It is clear that eradicating sexual violence against Iroquois women is detrimental to the survival of their people; this is not a simple gender issue, but a human rights issue and a survival issue.

When the white settlers forced the Iroquois to adopt a new economic system modeled after their own, the Iroquois experienced a drastic change in gender roles that produced negative effects against both men and women. Prior to colonization, traditional Iroquois gender roles in terms of economics were complimentary, in balance, and accorded equal status. Once the Dawes Severalty Act divided up Iroquois land into individual allotments, however, the collective mentality of the Iroquois was replaced by individualistic ideals of agriculture. These new gender roles have had adverse effects on the Iroquois, and have indirectly contributed to the increase in sexual violence against Iroquois women.

Iroquois men and women have struggled against and survived a great deal of battles: war and conquest; colonization, acculturation, and assimilation; starvation, assaults on health, abandonment, and neglect; death of children and loved ones; destruction of their land, homes, past, and future; alcoholism and drug abuse; poverty and affluence; poor educational and economic opportunities; suicide and homicide; substandard housing; and, sexism and racism (Allen 1986). McGillivray & Comaskey interviewed a victim of domestic violence who stated, “I believe we have been brainwashed by [colonization]. We need to reclaim our own culture, our own religion, own way of life, our own way of thinking” (1999: 131). This exemplifies how many Native people believe that a return to their traditional roots may help lessen the adverse effects experienced by colonization. John Mohawk states that the antidote to the cultural and physical extinction is the empowerment of women through giving priority to women’s education and training and through informing women of their rights so they can improve their family’s standard of living and can increase their own independence (2004). Once this is accomplished, Iroquois society may finally have the tools to regain prominence as a collective group of people in the world.


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