I admit to not knowing much about the Cherokee culture other than what I learned for a paper I wrote on Sequoia in the 6th grade. And I’m fully ready to admit that I was turned on to this topic by something I saw in Outlander.
If you are a fan of the series, you’ll know Jamie and Claire became pioneer settlers in the backcountry of North Carolina, which in the 18th century was still populated by the members of the Cherokee nation. Their first encounters with the Cherokee people were naturally not friendly given that these two colonial people decided to put down roots on Cherokee land without asking. Relations improved because Jamie and Claire were not half-witted colonial white supremacists, though most of their neighbors were. But on the road to friendship, they were attacked by a rogue Cherokee man dressed as a bear who had been kicked out from their society.
The reason this guy was wandering the woods all by himself in bear claws, was because he abused his woman. And in the Cherokee nation of that time, violence against women had a zero-tolerance policy. Not only was this guy sent out from the village, but his people also stripped him of the right to even be called Cherokee. For a communal culture and society, this is as close as one comes to killing a person without actually ending their natural life.
But that intrigued me, so I started doing a little research on the role of women in the Cherokee nation, and what I discovered was straight-up women’s empowerment long before anyone thought to coin that term.
For example, women shared equal status with men. When White colonial settlers first tried to work out treaties with the Cherokee, the tribespeople asked where their women were. According to this 2018 article from indiancountrytoday.com*, such a question stumped the white man, and it took them some time to come back with a dumb answer.
“In February of 1757, the great Cherokee leader Attakullakulla came to South Carolina to negotiate trade agreements with the governor and was shocked to find that no white women were present. “Since the white man as well as the red was born of woman, did not the white man admit women to their council?” Attakullakulla asked the governor. Carolyn Johnston, professor at Eckerd College and author of Cherokee Women in Crisis: Trail of Tears, Civil War, and Allotment, 1838-1907, says in her book that the governor was so taken aback by the question that he took two or three days to come up with this milquetoast response: “’ The white men do place confidence in their women and share their councils with them when they know their hearts are good.’”
Why does that answer not shock me?
Decisions were simply not made without the counsel and approval of women. Cherokee culture is also rooted in a matrilineal construct. The brother of one’s mother, for example, would be of more value than a father, and certainly male members of the father’s side. Women owned the homes that most of the extended family lived in, and daughters could expect to inherit that property.
Women certainly had roles that were in line with traditional roles of women nearly everywhere—home care, cooking, cleaning, birthing, and childcare, etc. But instead of these roles simply being the place where females belonged for their perceived lack of physical strength or something equally lame, women were highly respected for them.
Body positivity and sexual liberation were hallmarks of the Cherokee attitude relationships. There was no shame in one’s body or in sexual desire and people were free to love whom they loved. Consent and agency were highly respected values that both men and women upheld. Adultery and divorce were also not considered devastating crimes when they occurred.
Of course, the freedom of body, desire, and thought was positively evil in the eyes of White colonialists and Christian missionaries. When in fact, where the Cherokee were highly evolved in those matters, their new colonial neighbors were looked down on for being tightly wound-up prudes.
Sadly, as more and more white people took over native-held lands, survival became the ultimate concern for most indigenous peoples of the United States. And for the Cherokee, this meant adopting many of the white ways, especially when entangled with Christianity. Children were often made to attend mission boarding schools where their culture was forced out of them. And in time, women in the Cherokee nation lost the power and standing they had peacefully held for generations, thus were the ways of white culture.
The next time you think about the Indigenous cultures of the first people of the United States, remember their women—powerhouses, all of them. These women are the queens whose example we must look to as we ladies today are still fighting for the same things Cherokee women naturally held until the birth of America took them as collateral damage.
What matriarchal cultures are you familiar with? Do you come from any of them?