Gender, Family, and Kinship

Follow the UNC Press Blog for a celebration of women’s histories and women historians throughout March.

The following excerpt is taken from Reproduction on the Reservation: Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Colonialism in the Long Twentieth Century by Brianna Theobold

In the nineteenth century, gender relationships in Crow society, as in many North American Indigenous cultures, are better described as complementary than hierarchical. Until the federal government prohibited such activities in the 1880s, Crows celebrated men’s achievements as warriors and hunters, and they continued to value men’s qualities of bravery and leadership after settling on the reservation. Likewise, Crows valued women’s work preparing and distributing food and producing tepees, clothing, and most household items. This value was reflected in control of resources: women owned a household’s food, home, and all domestic equipment. Women’s labor in the realm of reproduction—as life givers, mothers, and midwives—garnered them status and a role in public and ceremonial life. One Crow man later described gender complementarity in Crow society without using this language. He explained that Crows had never been matriarchal in terms of political affairs, where men assumed a more public role, but that something of a “matriarchy” had always existed in the realm of familial and social relations.

Crows distinguished between one’s sex and his or her gender role; biology did not determine destiny. As Frederick Hoxie has argued, “The successful fulfillment of one’s social obligations was far more significant to the Crow community than an individual’s anatomical makeup.” Although rare, women could and did fight as warriors before the government prohibited intertribal warfare. The community included a handful of men who dressed and lived as women, and all evidence suggests that these individuals were well respected by fellow community members, who pushed back against government employees’ efforts to force such men to conform to Euro-American gender standards.

Men, women, and children related to one another through clans and kinship networks, and Crows recognized more than ten exogamous clans in the nineteenth century. The Crow clan system was—and remains—matrilineal, which meant that children joined their mother’s clan at birth. Perhaps more than most matrilineal societies, however, Crows also recognized close ties with the father’s clan and kin, and such relationships carried a number of social obligations. The father’s clan, for example, assumed responsibility for bestowing blessings for a healthy and accomplished life. Because Crows placed significance on the extended rather than the nuclear familial unit, marital unions were fluid. A husband or wife could dissolve an unhappy union with relative ease because Crows cherished individual autonomy and because the dissolution did not cause serious social disruption.

The Crow Reservation.

In raising children, Crows practiced—and in many cases continue to practice—flexible childrearing. As Robert Yellowtail’s daughter later explained, “When a child is born, the parents are not the ones really responsible for their upbringing. It’s the aunts and the uncles and the grandparents.” Flexible childrearing was not bound by nuclear structures and instead incorporated communal child-rearing practices and a variety of temporary and long-term adoption procedures. Yellowtail’s younger sister Agnes Deernose observed that “Crows like to share children”; “they don’t think of adoption as a giving a child up.” Female kin occupied a prominent role in childrearing. As the historian Theda Perdue has observed for Cherokees, another matrilineal society, “mother” signified a social rather than exclusively biological relationship, and children had many mothers. Robert Yellowtail and his siblings, for example, used the same word to refer to Elizabeth (Lizzie) Yellowtail, their biological mother, as they did to refer to Mary Takes the Gun, Lizzie’s sister. Robert Yellowtail also lived with Mary Takes the Gun off and on throughout his early years. In turn, Takes the Gun’s two boys lived with the Yellowtails in their youth.

As on many reservations, grandmothers often assumed responsibility for daily child care. In many cases, grandmothers lived in the same house as their children and grandchildren. Well into the twentieth century, it remained a common practice for grandparents to adopt the first child of their own children after the grandchild had been weaned. Thomas Leforge, a white man who spent much of his life among the Crows, emphasized the practical benefits of this custom: “This old-time practice was good for the young parents, it was good for the elderly foster-parents, it was good for the tribe, as it left physically capable young couples free from the worries of providing for their children and thus enabled them to go on producing others.” Crows had a word to describe a child who for one reason or another was raised primarily by his or her grandparents: káalisbaapite, or “grandmother’s grandchild.” The tribal historian Joseph Medicine Crow later explained that his mother Amy—Lizzie Yellowtail’s oldest daughter and Robert’s younger sister—had been adopted by her maternal grandparents. The grandparents lived “just across the railroad tracks” from Lizzie and her husband, Hawk with the Yellowtail, so Amy saw her biological parents frequently.

Brianna Theobald is assistant professor of history at the University of Rochester.