Part of the Totems to Turquoise exhibition.

Respectful Relationships: Roles of Men and Women

"All the things that affect me—an American Indian woman making pottery now, in this year—all, good and bad, come out in my work. All of my childhood gets stored in this vessel."
—Nora Naranjo-Morse, Santa Clara potter

For Southwestern tribes, a balanced and respectful relationship between men and women is seen as essential to maintaining harmony in the world. This idea is brought to life in the Navajo origin story, in which men and women squabble and try to live apart, until they discover they need each other and vow to live in harmony. Traditionally, women took the lead in some areas, and men in others.

Women typically owned the houses and land; men moved into their wives' houses at marriage, and if they divorced, the husband had to leave. Men were in charge of war, farming, government, and ceremonial societies. Pottery, weaving, and jewelry-making were normally assigned to either men or women, but these roles varied from tribe to tribe. Many of these gender roles persist to the present day.

Female Potters

Pueblo pottery was made only by women for hundreds of years, and it is still a mostly female art form. Over the centuries, each village developed its own style.

Male Jewelers

Jewelry-making was traditionally a male-dominated art in the Southwest. Although some Native American women make jewelry today, men still far outnumber women in the field. Similarly, traditionally female art forms, such as Pueblo pottery and Navajo weaving, are still dominated by women.

Woven Sandpaintings

Gender roles differ from tribe to tribe. Among the Navajos, for example, weaving is done only by women, while in the Pueblos, only men weave.

This blanket represents a Navajo sandpainting (or 'iikh, "place where gods come and go"), although it seeks not to duplicate the design exactly. Sandpaintings are part of sacred ritual ceremonies and are always erased when completed-indeed, it is considered dangerous for them to exist after a ceremony is finished.

Permanent depictions of sandpainting designs, like this blanket, differ from actual sandpaintings in that they are not part of any ritual and have no spiritual power. In transferring images from sandpainting to weaving, Navajo artists created a new art form that combined a female art, weaving, with the traditionally male practice of sandpainting.

A Dynamic Balance: Roles of Women and Men

"I don't think women ever used to draw designs in the old days, just men. That's why I was scared when I started painting the canoe."
-Florence Edenshaw Davidson, Haida artist

Historically, Native Northwest Coast men and women had clearly defined roles. Although men hunted, fished, made war and held most chiefly offices, women often had fundamental economic control. Tlingit women, for example, were the keepers and distributors of all food and material wealth and had a pivotal role in the inheritance of privileges. Today women still control family finances and often have year-round employment as well.

In the past, the arts too were divided by gender. Creating images of crest animals was exclusively men's work. But in recent decades, more and more women have been carving, painting and making jewelry. Women today carry on a long tradition of weaving cedar bark and spruce root into baskets, hats and garments--some ultimately featuring crest figures painted by men.