American Indian Women, Clan Mothers, and Matrilineal Societies

Cultural Perspective

Kay Givens McGowan writes, “The great Native American civilizations of the Southeast … including the Cherokee, Choc-taw, Chickasaw, Muscogee, and Seminole—were matriarchal societies. In them, women, as equals of the men, had power and influence. All of this changed with the coming of the Europeans, who assumed that Native people lived as Europeans did, in patriarchal systems, in which elite men defined the “appropriate way” for women to behave.” The Haudenosaunee Clan Mothers are an example of the powerful roles American Indian women held. The Onondaga Nation website states that the Clan Mothers “work with chiefs in making decisions for the people.” They also have the duty to ensure their way of life continues. The traditional roles of women in American Indian cultures have never been uniform, varying over time and from culture to culture. The coming of the Europeans and their eventual domination of the continent disrupted all aspects of Native societies, including the roles of American Indian women. Today, women of the First Peoples of the U.S. and Canada are seeking to reclaim their traditional roles even as their nations seek to reclaim their heritage.


From the perspective of an American Indian female elder, you will write a letter to your granddaughter describing the changes in the roles of women of an eastern Native society. You will research the roles of women in a variety of Indian societies paying particular attention to the changes in those roles in the last 150 years. Pay attention to the human interactions and demands your culture places on women.

  • Interpret

    Read the quotes by Lee Maracle. Answer the following questions on a separate piece of paper.

    • How does Maracle describe the current status of Native woman?
    • What is the cause of her anger?
    • Do you suppose her opinions are similar to the majority of Native women?

      “I need to know how it came to pass that Native women are no longer valued, treasured, and protected inside our villages. I need to know how it came to pass that ‘women’s issues’ exist separately from men’s. I need to know how our men came to decide what the standard of normal for women ought to be. I need to know how it came to be that our women are the most violated human beings, the least educated, the most overworked and underloved and unprotected human beings in the history of Turtle Island….

      I have listened to countless men speak of the matriarchy from which they come, who control the family wealth, control its internal distribution, and who, when they divorce their wives, retain the home, the business, and the wealth accumulated. I have heard men who come from a matriarchy say that this or that man ‘gave his home to his wife’ when they were divorced. In a matriarchy, the home and the aggregate wealth of the family are not his to give.”

      - Lee Maracle (Sto:Loh nation, grandmother of four, mother of four)

  • Research

    Use the American Indian Experience articles listed below to research the roles of women in various traditional American Indian societies. As you read, note the changes that have occurred in these roles as American Indian societies came into greater contact with European Americans. Your research should include information about prevailing gender roles in modern Native societies. After you get an overview, focus your attention on one of the eastern tribes that has sufficient information for you to gather at least ten specific details about the changing role of women. These details will provide you with specific points to make in your letter to your granddaughter.

  • Organize

    Use the Concept Map Graphic Organizer to organize your information. Write the description of the elder in the center bubble. As you read and discover important themes in the changing roles of women, write these in the surrounding bubbles. Lastly, write down specific details around each of the bubbles.

  • Apply

    Write your letter. Remember to use the first person point of view. Include facts and sensory details that evoke the personal nature of your letter. Your teacher may ask you to read your letter to the class.


Your teacher will use these questions to assess your writing:

  • Did your writing reflect the main issues or challenges facing women in Native societies?
  • Did your letter include specific details from your research that demonstrate your understanding women’s typical roles in these egalitarian societies?
  • Did your letter effectively convey the perspective of an elder American Indian female?
  • Did you make strong connections between the details you included and the themes you discovered?


Use the American Indian Experience links below to complete the activity:

May be copied for classroom use.