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'Revenant' Is Right About Native Free-born Women

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In a column written for Indian Country Today Media Network, Alvin Manitopyes commented on the film, The Revenant. He concluded on a very false note: that First Nations “women were perceived as property.”

Quite the contrary! Fur trade and treaty records are abundantly clear that freeborn women were themselves free agents. Traders saw they actively created larger kin networks, tying their new alliances with foreign men into opportunities to strengthen their bands’ economies and political support. Aristocratic women (and First Nations recognize families who train their children to fulfill leadership roles) married high-status men, in other First Nations and among traders, to be able to negotiate with their husbands’ nations. Natoyist-Siksina (“Natawista”), a Kainai Blackfoot lady, married to trader Alexander Culbertson, was known by all as a diplomat in her own right.

Confusion sometimes arises because there were many women who had been captured and became slaves, for example Sacajawea. They did the drudge work, very visible around camps while their mistresses could sit inside tipis embroidering. Slave women were liable to rape because they had no family who would protect them. Slave raiding, as when Sacajawea and her sister were captured, and selling slaves were carried on before European invasions. Great Slave Lake and Lesser Slave Lake in northwestern Canada are so named because Cree went there to capture women and girls to sell. Contemporary First Nations people on the middle Columbia River tell that Blackfoot raided their villages to take women, while farther down the Columbia, Northwest Coast nations held men as well as women slaves. On the East Coast, Carolina colonists took advantage of the ongoing slave market to buy Indians to sell to Caribbean plantations.

The deep respect and high status of free-born women in First Nations should be recognized, and not confused with accounts of “drudge squaws” or Indian women who seemed unchaste, likely to have been slaves. Among Blackfoot, only women may open medicine bundles. The singer waits for the woman co-owner, sitting beside the bundle in the place of highest respect at the back of the tipi opposite the door, to unwrap the bundle and hand out, one by one, the holy things inside, to be sung over and danced with. She alone replaces them and wraps the bundle at the end of the ceremony. Blackfoot Okaan, their Sun Dance, requires an admired, devout woman to serve as Holy Woman, fasting and praying for four days as her assistants, women and men, prepare and lead the ceremony. She wears a plain elk-skin dress, legendary gift of Elk Woman who demonstrated the power of a good woman over unjust, suspicious men. I was in the Pikuni Blackfoot annual Indian Days camp one night when some rowdies were running through, shouting. People called out from the tents, “Shut up! Get out!” They paid no attention until the firm quiet voice of an Old Lady came from a tipi, “Leave this camp.” Then they left.

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The story of Sacajawea shows the degrees of respect women could expect from their status as from a leader family, or freeborn common, or captured slave. Sacajawea was not the wife of trader-interpreter Charbonneau, hired by Lewis and Clark, but his concubine; he had two freeborn Mandan wives he left at home when he joined the Corps of Discovery. Sacajawea died in Fort Manuel Lisa on the Missouri River, north of St. Louis, in December 1812, not long after giving birth to a daughter. Her son Jean-Baptiste, the darling of the expeditionary Corps, was in St. Louis attending school, sponsored by William Clark, co-captain of the Corps, as he had promised Sacajawea. After her death, Clark took full responsibility for the boy, providing a full education and cosmopolitan experiences, while the baby girl was apparently adopted out. Charbonneau took little interest in his concubine’s children.

Meanwhile, a century after the Corps of Discovery expedition, a White librarian wondered what had happened to the Indian heroine of the Expedition. She inquired of a missionary on the Wind River Shoshone Reservation. He thought that maybe a very old, very respected woman he had met there in 1884 might have been Sacajawea, returned to her own people. The woman he had met was called Paraivo. Anthropologist Thomas Johnson spent years with Wind River Shoshone people and finally unraveled the story in his book Also Called Sacajawea (2008). Paraivo was not only not the poor concubine, she was not even Shoshone, certainly not Lemhi Shoshone, Sacajawea’s community, who did not live at Wind River. Paraivo was from a leading Comanche family; her name means Chief Woman in Comanche. She married a man of her high status, Obamagwaya, and the couple moved to live with Shoshone, the two nations speaking dialects of the same language and freely mixing. Paraivo spoke at the great meeting at which the 1868 treaty with the U.S. was negotiated. Shoshone chief Washakie and other leaders went to her home to consult with her until her death in 1884. Her son was a chief, like his parents, and like them, Sun Dance priests. Paraivo, like Natoyist-Siksina and the Iroquois clan mothers who advised the councils, show the high regard for women that was general among American First Nations.

Alice Kehoe is a professor of anthropology, emeritus, at Marquette University; and author of North American Indians: A Comprehensive Account; America Before the European Invasions; and Amskapi Pikuni: The Blackfeet People.