Contemporary Native Women: Role Flexibility and Politics

Article excerpt

Abstract: Some recent efforts to reconceptualize contemporary Native gender systems (1) argue that tribal and band political life is best understood by reference to social formations other than gender systems and (2) rely on poorly defined notions of one feature of the gender system, role flexibility. This article argues that these two issues are connected; differences in role flexibility by sex help channel the political participation of men and women. Several notions of role flexibility, each with different properties and implications for women's political role, are employed in the literature. A comparative framework of role flexibility is constructed, building on the work of Kopytoff (1991), and ethnographic examples are used to build the case that the analysis of gender (including role flexibility) is important in understanding Native women's recent successes in politics.

An interesting problem in the literature on Native North Americans is understanding how aboriginal gender systems have been transformed in the post-contact period, an effort made difficult by inadequate knowledge of precontact gender systems. One key aspect of these transformations is the focus of this article: scholars have been struck by the assumption of important political and economic roles in Native communities by women in the second half of the 20th century (Albers 1989 reviews this literature). Perhaps the most visible emerging position in clarifying the connections between gender and political and economic life is to argue that gender is not necessarily useful as a category of analysis, because gender is constructed fundamentally differently in Native communities than in non-Native communities; because gender is not a super-ordinate status in Native communities; because Native communities; frequently are egalitarian and structured around kin and not gender relations; and because changes in political life and in the allocation of work are not regarded as gendered issues by Natives themselves. For example, Albers (1989:160) argued that "many forms of work and leadership are not sex-typed in a fixed and narrow way." As an indication of this, she (ibid.:136) noted that "Importantly, when people achieved a prestige through channels most often utilized by the opposite sex, it was not perceived as a threat to established notions of femininity or masculinity (Spindler and Spindler 1979:36-37; Whitehead 1981:104-109)." Gender and other social roles are apparently not in conflict in such cases. Bourque and Warren, in describing the nature of sex roles in an egalitarian society, suggested that individual traits outweigh sex-linked traits in political life: "Sex roles, to the extent that they were marked at all, would be highly flexible and individually variable. In such a society, competence, and not sex, would determine how decisions are made, resources allocated, and activities undertaken" (1981:48). Initially scholars have benefited from the realization that the nature of Western gender systems, with highly partitioned male and female roles, has created difficulties in understanding fundamentally different Native systems. This realization led correctly to questioning whether an emphasis on gender in generating new explanations of Native social organization would produce the insights it has for Western societies. Such a position can mislead as well as enlighten, however, and I argue that in some communities contemporary Native political life cannot be understood without accounting first for gender, and cannot be explained adequately by reference to other social processes and institutions. This article is intended as a corrective. I do this, in part, by examining whether individual traits outweigh sex-linked traits in political life, and whether Native women have moved into new political and economic roles without drawing reactions in their communities. I suggest that in some cases debate on women's political role is not carried out publicly, but nonetheless is significant. …