Women and Power in Early Native North America

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Gender; Native Americans and Indigenous Peoples; Women's History

Papers Presented

Captivity, Gender, and the Politics of Reproduction in Seventeenth-Century New England

Captivity became a central feature of the series of intercultural and imperial wars that rocked the northeastern borderlands from 1637–1677. Native peoples and English colonists took and circulated captive bodies to alternately resist and assert sovereignty and geopolitical hegemony. The gendered nature of captive bodies—and the labor (domestic, agricultural, and procreative) they could perform—were central to these struggles. This paper explores the gendered nature of Indian enslavement and captivity—and the politics of reproduction—used to structure power in the northeastern borderlands. During the Pequot and King Philip’s War, English colonists enslaved indigenous men, women, and children. This paper will focus on captive indigenous women and children in particular, and the ways that English colonists attempted to gain exclusive access to captive female bodies and labor while denying similar access to their native allies. English-allied sachems from the Narragansett and Mohegan, during the Pequot War, and the Mohegan and Pequot during King Philip’s War, desired female captives to shore up lineages devastated by war while securing the future of their peoples. Each group viewed captive women and children as valuable human capital who provided valuable labor, but captivity had other consequences. As English colonists and their shifting array of Native allies consolidated their authority over captive women and children by removing them from their kin and communities, the presence of bodies among captor societies created a simultaneous absence that undermined indigenous survivance. This paper argues that this dialectic of presence and absence empowered certain English and native polities at the expense of others, dramatically reshaping the geopolitical landscape in southern New England. While unplanting and replanting were absolutely part of the equation, careful consideration of the experiences of captive women and children forefronts the centrality of gendered violence and co-optation of gendered labor to the deracination of native peoples. Native polities and English colonists all engaged in a politics of reproduction, looking at captive peoples as a source of power and labor to be acquired and exploited to resist or advance settler colonialism. Power thus hinged upon the circulation and co-optation of captive bodies whose reproductive labor (both social and procreative) could be used to capitalize colonization or shore up indigenous polities struggling to retain sovereignty.

Presented By
Joanne Marie Jahnke Wegner, University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire

Fausta & Sarafina: Indigenous Women in Positions of Power in the California Missions

Starting in 1769 and continuing to about 1840, California missions compelled Native American labor to support the larger enterprise of Spanish Franciscan colonization, along with the stated goal of spiritual conquest (conversion). Indigenous workers formed a parallel to southern slave plantations, as they were frequently forced from their homelands to live at the mission sites. Unmarried men and women were separated, put into separate and oftentimes locked living quarters, while their day-to-day lives were controlled by the padres. And yet, within this tightly controlled system, native people found ways to preserve elements of their cultural practices and to challenge the imposition of Spanish control and power. Within the largely patriarchal Spanish system, the role of native women was often delegated to the bottom rung of the political ladder. This talk will explore examples of native women who found ways to challenge this Spanish patriarchy. Within Californian indigenous communities, women had historically held positions of political and spiritual power long before Spanish colonization. Under Spanish colonialism, missionaries imposed new ideas of patriarchy, relegating indigenous women to subservient roles. Because of these biases within the Spanish archives and record keepers, evidence of indigenous women leadership during the mission era is scarce. My research reveals examples of women who continued to hold leadership roles within their mission communities. This paper will explore two examples, in the lives of Fausta and Sarafina, two women who played critical roles in helping their community survive and in challenging Spanish hegemony from within their communities. Fausta’s story illustrates how central female leadership was in the development and execution of the plan to kill the abusive Padre Quintana. Sarafina’s story explores godparentage and her role as a midwife.

Presented By
Martin Rizzo-Martinez, UC Riverside

A Question of Power: Gender and Imperialism in Illinois Country

The female majority in native Catholic converts has been understood as a referendum on indigenous women’s oppression and a contest between native and European cultures. Focused on questions of oppression, scholars have neglected factors other than power in explaining native women’s choices. My project begins with an understanding of gender roles to illuminate the dynamics of indigenous women’s conversion. In a paper centered in colonial Illinois, I use indigenous-language sources, missionaries’ documents, and colonial correspondence to re-create gender structures to understand why native women would make a choice that seemed to limit their power and agency. I illustrate that factors including women’s roles as spiritual leaders in Illinois’s patrilineal society and their understanding of missionaries as nonbinary spiritual leaders made conversion to Catholicism attractive to many women. The choice to convert was not a rejection of indigenous gender power relations but an extension of them.

Presented By
Michaela Kleber, Northwestern University

Session Participants

Chair: Celine Carayon, Salisbury University; Native American history, French Atlantic, early American history

Presenter: Joanne Marie Jahnke Wegner, University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire
Joanne Jahnke Wegner is a PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota. She studies captivity, enslavement, and the gendered politics of reproduction in colonial New England from 1630-1763.

Presenter: Michaela Kleber, Northwestern University

Presenter: Martin Rizzo-Martinez, UC Riverside
Martin received his PhD from the History department at UC Santa Cruz in the fall of 2016. He also received Designated Emphases in American Studies and Latin American and Latino Studies. His committee included chair Lisbeth Haas, Amy Lonetree, and Matthew O'Hara.

He is currently a UC Chancellor's Postdoc Fellow at UC Riverside, where he is now working with Clifford Trafzer. He is working on his book manuscript, entitled “We are Not Animals”: Indigenous Politics of Survival, Rebellion, and Reconstitution in 19th Century California.

He recently published his first article through NAISA, for an article he co-wrote with Boyd Cothran entitled "The Many Lives of Justiniano Roxas: The Centenarian Fantasy in American History and Memory."

Before his work as a Postdoc Fellow, Martin taught as an adjunct at a variety of locations, including three semesters teaching college level history courses to maximum security California State inmates at Salinas Valley State Prison, through Hartnell College.

Martin’s research sets out to answer the questions: who were the Indigenous people in the Santa Cruz region and how did they survive through the nineteenth century? Between 1770 and 1900 the linguistically and culturally diverse Ohlone and Yokuts tribes adapted to and expressed themselves politically and culturally over three distinct types of colonial encounters involving Spain, Mexico, and the U.S. They persevered through a variety of strategies developed through social, political, economic, and kinship networks that tied together Indigenous tribes, families, and individuals throughout the greater Bay Area. Survival tactics included organized attacks on the mission, the assassination of an abusive padre, flights of fugitives, poisonings, and arson. In some cases, strategies included collaboration with certain padres, tracking down of fugitives, service, labor, or musical performance. Indigenous politics informed each of these choices, as Indigenous individuals and families made decisions of vital importance within a context of immense loss and violent disruption.

Commentator: Brett Rushforth, University of Oregon