The Role of Native American Women in Shaping Their Communities

Mothers are caretakers, disciplinarians, and role models for children. Their work safeguards families from some of the impacts of historical oppression and reclaims matrilineal and matrilocal values.

Crow, or Apsaalooke, women are celebrated in a new exhibition at Chicago’s Field Museum, proclaiming that “we’re still here.” But what does that mean for our communities?


In many Native American tribes, men and women held equal political authority. Women were farmers, healers, and providers who led their communities. They also raised children and ran families. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy was matrilineal, meaning that descendants inherited their mother’s property and rights. Women’s muscular bodies helped them harvest food. Their leadership and stewardship of the land made them essential to maintaining cultural, spiritual, and economic well-being.

Today, these traditional roles are under threat. Indigenous women are disproportionately affected by extractive industries’ ecological, economic, and spiritual impacts on their lands. They are also disenfranchised when the natural resources they rely on for their livelihood are exploited without their free, prior, and informed consent.

Despite these threats, Native women are a growing force for change. Their numbers are increasing in the United States Congress and the workforce, and they’re establishing their tribal colleges. However, media narratives about these women need to be completed and can be misleading. As educators, we must provide students with a fuller story. To do that, we need to teach them about the history of Native American women in leadership.


In tribal cultures, Native women play a vital role in decision-making, agriculture, and spiritual practices. They are also critical to ensuring their families’ and communities’ social and economic well-being. However, policies perpetuating racism, sexism, and colonialism often undermine the health and welfare of Native American communities. This includes discriminatory stereotypes in the workforce and low wages, which limit family income and economic stability.

Many of these stereotypes stem from how Native women are portrayed in media and textbooks. The portrayal of Native American women as sex objects and the victims of violence puts Native Americans in an unequal position with non-Natives. It justifies the forced assimilation of their people, loss of language and traditions, and theft of land.

To address these issues, policymakers should adopt various measures to support Native women in the workplace. This should include more robust pay equity measures and caregiving and work-support policies such as paid family, medical leave, and quality childcare. When paired with other programs, these policies can create real economic opportunities for Native American women and their families.


In many tribes, women were in authority over children and property. They grew food and provided for the family, while men hunted and went to war. They defended their families and communities from invaders and cared for the sick. Their work put to the lie religion and science’s teachings of women’s subordination and inferiority.

Historically, Native American women based on the best DNA test for Native American ancestry had lower health status than other Americans and a disproportionate disease burden. They have a lower life expectancy and higher mortality rates from diabetes, malignant neoplasms, unintentional injuries, and heart disease.

Today, the racial health disparities are more evident than ever before. According to the 2020 Status of Minnesota Women Report, Native women are likelier to be poor and experience high cancer and suicide attempts than other Minnesotans.

To improve outcomes, federal and tribal policymakers should implement equitable policy interventions centering on Native women. For example, the NIH Office of Research on Women’s Health has recently announced two Notices of Special Interest focused on addressing Native women’s health concerns, including breastfeeding and childbirth.


Social scientists largely agree that being human is a social project; people are shaped by the culture they inhabit.2 However, these ideas of culture can also stifle creativity, limit self-fulfillment and contribute to discrimination and oppression.

For example, the women’s magazines that proliferated in the nineteenth century presented Native American women in ways that were flattering by Western standards but harmful to their lives. Clemmons points to examples of the moral and submission stereotypes these publications created, such as stories about Native women’s willingness to give up their bodies for men. These gendered portrayals were used to justify forced assimilation and the theft of tribal land.

Despite this history, modern Native Americans are working to create more accurate cultural ideas of their groups. This effort reverberates throughout the culture cycle and promotes more equitable outcomes in the future. The work of activists like Wilma Mankiller, Ladonna Harris, Deb Haaland, and Sharice Davids highlights this. They fight to ensure that Native voices are heard in the debates about how we as a society should be structured.


The spiritual world was an essential element in Native American life, and for many tribes, women had a central role. They often acted as ceremonial medicine women and were often shamans. Traditionally, Native Americans sought supernatural help with hunts, harvests, war victories, and peace with the land. Individuals may have tried to woo powerful spirits with prayers or by offering items such as tobacco or food. Still, communities usually relied on shamans and priests, including female shamans in a few tribes.

The nineteenth century saw press portrayals of Native American women emphasizing their moral natures and praising their superior housekeeping skills, domestic love, purity, and self-sacrifice. These portrayals reflected the dominant beliefs of the time and a desire to tame wild Indians.

In some tribal cultures, women could be shamans and even hold the position of two-spirit. This title relates to their connection to the spiritual world, and they are often recognized for their ability to heal with herbs and other natural medicines. Paula Gunn Allen, in The Sacred Hoop, Recovering the Feminine in Native American Traditions, offers a detailed description of this dimension of Native American religious understanding.

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