PAST Journal

Volume 32, 2009

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Book Review

Women of the Earth Lodges: Tribal Life on the Plains

by Virginia Bergman Peters

Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000

xvi+217 pages. Notes, bibliographic references, and index

$19.95 (paper), ISBN 0-8061-3243-4

Every couple of years I teach a course on Native Peoples of North America. In the introductory class we discuss what students already know about Native Americans, and how much their preconceptions have been formed by media images, previous education, and whatever personal experience they may have had. We trot out all the stereotypes, including Chief Wahoo, a Northeast Ohio favorite (logo for the Cleveland Indians), which ends up in a sometimes heated discussion over the nature of stereotyping, ethnic identity, and other such topics that we never really leave for the entire course. The purpose of all this is to get the students to question what they think is true, and open them up to some alternative perspectives. One of the most difficult stereotypes to break through is that of the Plains Indian as representative of the entire continent, the romantic image of the warrior on horseback, always moving, always threatening, always male.

Virginia Bergman Peters’s book is just the sort of text I can use in my course, because she gently shreds this image by focusing not on the nomadic peoples of the Northern Plains, but on the Missouri River nations of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara. Settled farmers for centuries, they represent a stark contrast and alternative lifestyle to the Sioux, Cheyenne, and other groups more familiar to most of us. Even more useful is the author’s focus on the women in these communities and their centrality to the economic, social, and ceremonial life of their nations. Again, this pushes against the few stereotypes of Native American women offered up as princess, beast of burden, or prostitute.

Peters begins her study with several short chapters that describe her purpose in creating this work, the ethnohistoric sources used, and the basics of time, space, and environment that allowed for a rich farming culture to thrive on the Northern Plains for centuries. She relies heavily on nineteenth-century eyewitness accounts, such as those of George Catlin and Prince Maximillian, early ethnographers’ descriptions, and historic interviews with tribal members, such as Buffalo Bird Woman of the Hidatsa. Her purpose is to create a full picture of community life in the pre-reservation era. Largely descriptive in orientation, Peters eschews explicit theoretical perspectives, although one might characterize her work as implicitly feminist, and also functionalist. Some would consider this a fault, while others might be more than pleased with her straightforward, jargonless presentation.

The author’s first long chapter is devoted not to women specifically, but to religion and its importance in framing all other activities from the perspective of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara. A second general chapter focuses on social structural features of these communities, including matrilineal kinship organization (mostly), matrilocal residence patterns, clans, age-grade societies for men and women, and political leadership. The reader does not arrive at a section devoted to women until Chapter Seven, describing girlhood and adolescence. A companion chapter examines women’s adulthood and old age. In each case, the nature of the ethnohistorical data forces Peters to describe women’s lives somewhat normatively. However, she edges around this problem creatively with two useful techniques. First, she relates the experiences of particular individuals, who often had rather different experiences in their lives. Second, she contrasts the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara situations, so that distinctions are clearly drawn among the three nations.

Even a book that ostensibly focuses on women has to mention men occasionally, and Peters does more than that by providing a corresponding chapter on men’s life cycle, especially through the lens of warfare, its relationship to social prestige, political organization, and ceremonial activities. The final three major sections are devoted to women’s roles as farmers (hence their reputation as drudges), their work in the context of buffalo hunting (in both ceremonial activity and animal processing), and as prime components of the Plains trade network. The Missouri Valley farming communities produced a considerable surplus, and were central nodes in the distribution of agricultural produce to nomadic groups (and later, whites), as well as conduits for the horse, gun, and fur trades. As such, they wielded considerable power, at least until decimated by epidemic diseases in the mid-nineteenth century. Since women were the farmers and maintained control over the products of their labor, they held great economic and social authority in their communities, a fact seldom noticed or appreciated by the outside observers who described so many other aspects of the life of these peoples.

A mere 170 pages of text cannot cover everything, and so Peters chose not to continue her narrative into the reservation era. While she notes many changes through the historical period under consideration, she opts for an approach that does not explicitly frame such changes to examine their effects on the women she describes. How communities coped with disease, loss of independence, and reservation life from the perspective of gender would have been fascinating, although it would have produced a much longer book. The greatest deficiency is not the scope of the work, however, but the minimal use of illustrations, all in black-and-white. This is especially frustrating given the copious and beautiful paintings of George Catlin and Karl Bodmer of these societies in the 1830s. Despite this flaw (I blame the publisher), the book is recommended as an excellent and balanced overview of the nineteenth century lifestyles of these Missouri Valley nations.


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