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Book: Indigenous women are resilient through centuries

The book’s cover features a barefoot Sarah Downing, a Cherokee woman photographed in 1875 in Cherokee Nation Indian Territory by photographer John K. Hillers. Author Karen Coody Cooper said Hillers “romanced the photo” a bit by adding flowers and a buckbrush basket. (Courtesy image)

The matrilineal line of Indigenous cultures were empowered for centuries before European contact – and although colonization had devastating effects – Native women have kept their power as traditional and modern leaders.

Author and Cherokee historian Karen Coody Cooper examines the subject in her new book, “Cherokee Women in Charge: Female Power and Leadership in American Indian Nations of Eastern North America.”

Cooper, who previously worked at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, is a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma living in Lake Worth, Florida. Her book explores a range of
topics related to matrilineal tribes, such as mythology, division of labor, sexuality, home life, governance, recreation, economics, hospitality, warfare and craftwork.

“Matrilineal social structure consisted of elder women as heads of family owning and governing the home – shared with their daughters – who relied on their brothers for meat, labor and protection,” Cooper said. “While husbands were a welcome guest in the house, men’s labor was devoted to their own mother’s home and family.”

Cooper said before European contact, Indigenous women generally had no fear of molestation and traveled freely and independently during peaceful times for social events and trade. After contact, Indigenous women were not as safe.

“For a century or more afterwards, matrilineal women’s voices were heeded in council meetings but soon their children acquired patrilineal surnames, often due to marriage to traders, interpreters and
government officials,” Cooper said. “Many Cherokee men continued to yield to the commands of their wives and many still do so today.”

The matrilineal analysis also features two Seminole women of influence – one from the Seminole Tribe of Florida (Betty Mae Jumper) and the other from the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma (Alice Brown Davis).

Davis (1852-1935) was appointed as a chief by U.S. president Warren G. Harding in 1922. It was during an interim time when statehood implied that tribal governments no longer existed, but when the federal government still needed signatures and agreements for certain practices, Cooper said. She said Davis also served as a delegate to assist the Seminole Tribe of Florida with development of its own government structure.

Jumper (1923-2011) became the first female chief of the Seminole Tribe of Florida in 1967. The legendary leader was the first in the tribe to graduate from high school in 1945 and went on to be an influential nurse. She was also instrumental in the tribe’s effort to gain federal recognition.

“These women were phenomenally proactive, take-charge women – and they both accomplished incredible advances for their people,” Cooper said. “Matrilineal women retained a sense of empowerment through the centuries and are putting it to work in modern life. Today, women in general are being more proactive, and that has aided Indigenous matrilineal women in also taking active roles in leadership.”

Cooper’s book also looks at early examples of matrilineal culture. The Iroquois, for example, were known as one of the most powerful Indian races – controlling land along the eastern seaboard of North America and for several hundred miles inland. Iroquois women enjoyed a social equality and respect that was not shared by colonial American women. Similarly, all the female members of the Algonquian nation were equal and played important roles.

Cooper said the goal for the book, her sixth, was to capture a slice of Indigenous history and make it appealing to Natives and non-Natives alike. “Cherokee Women in Charge” includes 38 illustrations and images of prehistoric pieces, early etchings, colonial medals, oil portraits, carvings, craftworks and contemporary art.

The book was published by Jefferson, North Carolina-based McFarland & Co. To buy it, go to mcfarlandbooks.com and search for “Cherokee Women in Charge.” For more about the author, go to karencoodycooper.com.

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Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at damonscott@semtribe.com.
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