Native Women’s Reactions to Federal Policies in the 1800s
Immediately following the Revolutionary War, the new American nation examined and reconsidered their approach to Indian policy. Initially, American’s hatred of the Indians, in large response to Indian alliances with the British, resulted in a refusal to recognize the land rights of Indian Nations. Once Henry Knox became the Secretary of War, however, the policy changed. Knox believed that conciliation, not coercion, would get Americans the Indian land they desired. Knox proposed centralizing land acquisition under the federal government, recognizing Indian right of soil, keeping settlers out of Indian territory by policing the border with American troops, and passing along the fruits of civilization to the Indians. The most important part of this new strategy was the policy of civilization, and the main focus of the civilization policy was to assimilate Native tribes through agriculture. By making men, not women, the primary farmers, American politicians planned to integrate Native Americans into American society by inverting their gender roles.
The civilization policy centered on the issue of agriculture. Americans believed that incorporating Euro-American agriculture into Native communities would force Indians to abandon their old ways of hunting and, thus, cheaply and easily open up land for expansion. Henry Knox outlined the plan for civilization in his treaties with the various tribes as he urged them to become “herdsmen and cultivators, instead of remaining in a state of hunters.” Knox’s plan also offered the support of the United States by providing “domestic animals and implements of husbandry” to assist the Indian nations in their agricultural pursuits. Knox was one of the first to truly believe that civilization was a viable avenue in Indian policy. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he believed in the “progress of society, from the barbarous ages to its present degree of perfection” and urged the federal government to maintain peace and to initiate the civilization policy to help the Indians. Nevertheless, Knox was not solely a humanitarian; he assumed that even if most Indians did not assimilate the policy would have “the salutary effect of attaching them to the interest of the United States.” By aligning Native American interests with American interests, Knox believed that land would open for American settlement.
Along with the possibility of expansion, Knox and other politicians wanted to correct the perceived inversion of gender roles. Historian Theda Perdue argues that Native women’s economic productivity threatened American ideology of proper gender roles. To the early Republicans, women were to be consumers rather than producers. In contrast, part of Native people’s understanding of a woman’s identity was her role as a farmer and manufacturer. Native women labored as a community in the fields and wove traditional baskets for trade; as the producers of these commodities, women often sold them directly to consumers. Americans viewed these women as slaves, yet to Native Americans it was not slavery but the fulfillment of a woman’s duty and identity as the producer of life. Consequently, when Americans insisted that Native men leave hunting and warring to take up a hoe and begin farming, traditionally women’s work, Native men perceived this as tantamount to castration.  Nevertheless, Americans continued to push for the civilization of the “savages.” The federal government appointed Benjamin Hawkins as the Indian Commissioner to the Southern tribes and sent him to teach the Creeks how to be men and women.
Figure 1 Benjamin Hawkins teaching the Creeks to farm.
As the above image illustrates, Benjamin Hawkins’s principal focus was teaching the Native men to be the primary farmers and the Native women to be the primary caregivers. In the painting, Hawkins instructs two Native men on how to farm. Their dress is a mix of western and traditional Indian garb, demonstrating their position in between the two worlds. The man to the right, standing over his yield of corn, looks eerily like a Euro-American man in dress, skin tone, and stature, demonstrating that he has been fully civilized. Meanwhile, the Native woman sits to the side feeding her child, not an active participant in the farming. This painting demonstrates the desired end of the civilization policy—active men and passive women. The only avenue for production Hawkins mentioned for women was “to gather in the cotton from the fields” in order to “take an active part in spinning.” Spinning happened within the home and by emphasizing this as women’s only means of production, the civilization policy tried to force Native women into the domestic sphere.
How successful were Americans in inverting the gender roles of Native tribes? To Americans, civilizing the “savages” was the only chance of survival for Native Americans. Henry Knox wrote to Brigadier General Rufus Putnam that civilization was “the only means of perpetuating them on earth” and one of the most important ways was inverting gender. But, to many American politicians, their attempt at civilization seemingly failed. According to Albert Gallatin in 1836 “the introduction of agriculture produced little alteration” in the roles of men and women. Gallatin blames this change on the indolence of the men, but another possibility is that Native women wanted to maintain the gendered division of labor. Despite American attempts at assimilation, women largely maintained their traditional position as farmers and producers.