A Nation of Women – Part VI

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Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V

In this week’s discussion of Gunlog Fur’s A Nation of Women: Gender and Colonial Encounters Among the Delaware Indians, we get to the topic of why the Delaware referred to themselves, and were referred to by other Indians, as “a nation of women.”

To understand even partially how gender was perceived by seventeenth and eighteenth century Delaware, it is also necessary to appreciate the rigidity of European conceptions of gender roles at that time – in itself a stretch for the twenty-first century mind.

The Delaware were known by Iroquois and other Algonquian tribes as “A Nation of Women.” This was not, originally, a derogatory term but an appellation which referred to Delaware willingness and skill in negotiating peace agreements for themselves and between other nations. In the Delaware tradition men were the war captains and women the peace negotiators. Although women did occasionally fight, as givers and nurturers of new life women were considered more suited for the peace giving role. More importantly, the same person could not be permitted to fight and to negotiate peace. It was believed that allowing a warrior to partake in diplomatic efforts would result in either cowardice or perpetual warfare. The power of the war chief must be balanced by the peace chief, and so an individual trained for one path or the other.

It is difficult to know the details of women’s involvement in treaty negotiations with Europeans because women are written out of white male accounts, and these historians would not have recognized women’s influence or understood Delaware power dynamics at any rate. British accounts usually list the men involved and do not even mention the presence of women, although in some instances they refer to “sundry women and children” accompanying the Indian men. Other European accounts are more inclusive, but they too focus on men, and Eurocentric gender bias has meant that until recently persons noted by their Indian name were assumed to be male. What is clear is that white men’s preference for dealing with other men on matters of import put Delaware men in a prominent position in these negotiations. (Although Fur doesn’t mention this, I wondered if one of the reasons that Delaware men were negotiating with white men was that European powers sent only men as representatives.) The only way white men could understand women in a position of power was in instances where social class and rank trumped male authority: thus they referred to women who obviously wielded power during negotiations as “queens.” Whether through imprecision in the translation of terms or lack of recognition of the rigidity of European gender boundaries, Delaware men began referring to themselves as queens when engaging in diplomacy.

One story that sharply illustrates the dichotomy between Delaware and European attitudes towards gender comes from an oral history recorded in the early twentieth century. In this Delaware account of an outbreak of violence with white settlers, the violence had escalated to an unacceptable level when women on both sides met to explore ways of ending the conflict. They reached an agreement in principle, and so the next day men and women from both sides met to ceremonially formalize the agreement. Details of this oral history are recognizable in a written account of a seventeenth century conflict with Swedish colonials, but there is no mention of any substantive involvement of a woman anywhere. Whether these two accounts do indeed refer to the same incident or not, they illustrate the degree of gender bias in written documents of the time.

During diplomacy meetings men sometimes donned ceremonial women’s clothing or carried implements symbolizing women’s roles such as gourds or hoes. They addressed other Delaware men during these formal meetings as “sister” and used words denoting family affiliations such as “sister’s daughter” or “cousin on distaff side” when addressing other Indians. Note that these feminine terms of address referred to matrilineal family relationships, rather than marriage, as metaphors.

Inevitably with increased white contact the word “woman” began being used as an epithet toward Delaware men. This was especially true of the Six Nations Iroquois, with their strong British alliance. The British of all the colonials were most critical of anything suggestive of “unmanliness,” a word for which there was no equivalent in Delaware. This culminated in a huge land grab by the British in the mid-eighteenth century which the Iroquois facilitated, justifying the action with the novel legal argument that as women Delaware had no right to own property. (The Iroquois knew such an argument had no validity even among their own people, but they also understood its appeal to their British allies.) Fur devotes some space to speculating why Delaware continued to refer to themselves as “a nation of women” for half a century after the phrase began being used in a derogatory sense, but in my opinion Delaware were just considering the source of the epithet. There was no love lost between Iroquois and Delaware even before European arrivals intensified the conflicts, and Delaware had worse names for the Iroquois than “women.” And despite their high regard for William Penn, by the early 1700s Delaware had voted the English their least favorite white people. It might not have occurred to them to change their perception and presentation of themselves to placate people they held in similarly low regard.

Some white men were highly annoyed by belittling terms meaning “women” directed toward Delaware men, especially men who had fought against the Delaware and respected their ferocity on the battlefield. There was a rehabilitation of the Delaware image by some whites in the nineteenth century, and this is where the scary warriors in Last of the Mohicans come in. The argument that “Delaware men could not have been women because they were good fighters” misses the point however. It was precisely because they commanded respect among other nations as warriors that Delaware collectively were allowed to take on the role of “women.”

Next week really will be the last week for discussing this book. We will take a further look at what sex and gender meant to the Delaware Indians.

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