"With Our Own Wings We Fly": Native American Women Clubs, 1899-1955

By Tetzloff, Lisa M. | American Educational History Journal, Annual 2007 | Go to article overview

"With Our Own Wings We Fly": Native American Women Clubs, 1899-1955


Tetzloff, Lisa M., American Educational History Journal


In its heyday in the early 1900s, the women's club movement attracted about two million participants nationwide (Gere 1997). Excluded from higher education at the time, women were moved to create their own opportunities to learn, meeting regularly in small groups to study such subjects as literature, geography, and the fine arts. Organized around an agenda and regulated by parliamentary procedures, these highly structured gatherings exposed women to much more than Shakespeare's plays and Whistler's paintings, as they developed skills in writing, public speaking, delegating, and event planning. Buoyed by their expanding knowledge and abilities, clubwomen eventually added the study of community needs to their "curricula" and became engaged in all manner of civic

improvements. Clubwomen tackled such issues as alcohol consumption, sanitation, and education (Wood 1912). Long confined to responsibilities within the home, women were expanding their caretaker role into the community (Chambers 2000). Women's clubs shifted from a focus on personal improvement to a focus on social reform, from "education for self to education for service" (Martin 1987, 4).

Women's clubs were mostly homogeneous groups-racially, religiously, and socio-economically-and each of these club populations conducted its work in similar and different ways. For example, most women's clubs followed a formal meeting structure. However, the differences between majority clubs-those of white, middle-class Protestant women-and clubs composed of groups of other women were significant, stemming largely from each population's distinctive history and circumstances. While white women created clubs in response to gender discrimination, women of color faced both gender and racial discrimination. Thus, because women of color were "constrained differently," they "practiced differently" (Gere 1997, 251).

The long history of "constraints" imposed on Native Americans is well known, as they were at various times killed, removed from their homelands, isolated on reservations, manipulated and robbed, and forced to "Americanize" (Dippie 1982; Hoxie 1984; Parman 1994; Prucha 1976). Post-contact Indians and their cultures were threatened at every turn. In response, Native American clubwomen organized activities to affirm their Indian identities, to attempt to relearn what had been lost, and to lift up their people. They studied tribal histories and discussed the lives and contributions of prominent Native Americans. They also practiced culturally specific traditions and responded to the needs of disadvantaged Indian families in their communities (DuPriest et al. 1976; Gibson and Pond 1969; Rainey 1939). This work was conducted within the formalized "trappings" of the white club model, with officers and committees, by-laws and resolutions, and official club mottos, club colors, and club flowers. Traditional Native Americans-those who rejected many aspects of white culture-were critical of so-called progressive Native Americans, like these clubwomen, for what they perceived as attempts to emulate whites (Mihesuah 1993). American Indian historian Hazel Hertzberg (1971) suggested, however, that rather than wanting to be whites many Native Americans wanted to "somehow remain Indians and at the same time to adopt what they felt to be the best in white civilization and Christianity" (22). Thus Native American women re-crafted the successful mainstream club model and used it to advance their own interests.

One of the central purposes of Native American women's clubs, like all women's clubs, was learning. However, the education sought by Native American women through their organizations was less about advancing their formal schooling and more about receiving instruction in subjects denied them as children, about recovering knowledge lost to them through the very practices employed to educate them. The federal government's abysmal attempts to "educate" Native Americans from about 1880 to the 1930s have been the subject of numerous analyses (Adams 1995; Bowker 1993; Carney 1999; DeJong 1993; Fuchs and Havighurst 1972; Reyhner and Eder 1989; Szasz 1999). …

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