A Nation of Women (part V)

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Another segment of my review/summary of Gunlog Fur’s A Nation of Women: Gender and Colonial Encounters Among the Delaware Indians Here are the links for Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.

Marriage is the central organizing principle of patriarchy, and Moravians were attempting to express their ideals of equality within this framework. They saw marriage as having deep spiritual as well as social significance. The married couple and their children were the basic family unit, with the larger church congregation making up the extended family. In contrast, Delaware not only traced their lineage through their mothers, but considered their maternal clan to be their primary family – even in adulthood, even after marriage. When long distance dislocations began occurring due to loss of land, men usually went with their maternal clan rather than remaining with their wives and offspring, leading missionaries to view them as abandoning their families. Delaware men were not indifferent to their wives’ children, but their primary obligation was to the children of their sisters. The large maternal family included both converts and relatives critical of the new religion, which prompted missionaries to stress even more that converts should view marriage and church as their true family. Because Christians offered a dual framework where traditional Indians went to Hell and converted Indians went to Heaven, missionaries were accused of breaking up families in this world and in the afterlife. Missionaries were asking their converts to change their conception of family precisely at a time when loss of land was making traditional family ties more important.

Missionaries saw Delaware enthusiasm for travel as threatening to the nuclear family unit, as well as interrupting patterns of worship. Delaware women and men traveled to visit sick relatives, to attend councils and festivals, and to maintain social and family ties. Delaware men would be absent from their village for weeks or even months at a time on hunting expeditions. With women directing food production and male responsibilities in the village conferred mainly through age and experience, it is easy to see how attractive long hunting parties would have been for young men. Close same-sex friendships were a natural part of life for people spending long stretches of time in sex segregated activities, and sometimes these friendships found erotic expression. Fur cannot tell us what degree of significance homosexual activity had for the Delaware, but predictably the missionaries were horrified.

For all of these reasons – stability of the nuclear family, reliance on the church congregation, rhythm of Christian worship activities, discouragement of homosexuality, and no doubt their own cultural prejudices – missionaries were eager to make farmers out of Delaware men. The sticky widget was that Delaware women were unwilling to relinquish their authority over agricultural activities. Moravians did not wish to emasculate Delaware men and exhorted women to accept a more subordinate role, usually meeting strong resistence.

Both traditional Delawares and missionaries encouraged young people to marry. An eligible young person in a Christian Delaware family could expect frequent introductions to suitable partners arranged by both his or her maternal grandmother and a male missionary, both working independently. Of course the missionary and the grandmother held different views on what constituted a suitable partner. For the maternal grandmother, keeping track of complex family relations to avoid transgressing incest taboos was paramount. A secondary but still important consideration was strengthening family friendships. The missionary was most concerned with matching committed Christians to one another, to avoid losing a convert due to family pressures. The missionary complained in letters and diaries about interference from maternal clan leaders in matchmaking activities he considered his rightful prerogative as Christian leader of the community. We do not have diaries for the grandmothers, but it is easy to infer that they would have had similar words for the male missionary.

This discussion about marriage will provide background for the next two posts about gender.

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