Distinguishing how the Natives Thought of Women

In detailing of his extraordinary journey to the New World, Cabeza de Vaca’s gives more of an in-depth idea of ancient Native Indians. His interpersonal relationships with these primitive people allowed him to reveal a ton of unique information about the Native Americans, including their cultural traditions, religious beliefs, and/or the nuances of their society. What I found particularly interesting when reading Cabeza de Vaca’s accounts of his traveling, was his vivid portrayal of the Indian’s customs, especially that of the women. During certain moments in the text, I felt as if the Natives had very similar, if not even some better moral values as the colonists. For instance, in chapter fourteen Cabeza explains some of the Indians’ marital traditions. According to Cabeza, all Indians except for Physicians were known to have one wife (92). He claims when an Indian man and wife married, the father and son-in-law had an awkward relationship with another where they were rarely allowed to communicate to each other. The bride, however, was free to engage in conversation with all sorts of relatives (92). I was surprised by these details of the Native Indians’ gender roles, because I suspected that their culture would be just like any other during this time period and would advocate a male-dominated society. But then, when Cabeza reflected on the vastly different experiences of Figueroas’ and Esquivel’s visit on the Rio Panuco, my overall perception of how Indian men thought of Indian women shifted completely (104).

The tribe that Figueroas and Esquivel encountered believed in far-stretched things like letting dogs eat female children when born, marrying and buying off women, and simply having continual warfare (105). How can these people who are merely transcendents of different areas of land have such distinct ways of living? On the next page the narrator says that the “Indian men did not burden themselves, nor carry anything of weight, rather, the women and the old people, who are the ones they value the least, carry it” (107). This section was striking to me because of how rigorous the lives of the women were- and because I was subliminally reminded of the previous picture of Indian women of which I perceived earlier on in the text. For a while, I became convinced that women were on the bottom of the ladder in regards to their social importance.

Following this characteristic, which shows men taking superior authority over women, page 131 tells of more ways the women were mistreated and then mentions how women were forced to search for their own food when they were menstruating because no one would eat what they touched during their “time.” This isn’t exactly related to what I’ve been talking about thus far, but for a side note, I thought it was odd that the Indians even took note of this, and couldn’t help but notice that often times their intuitions would coincide with old testament, biblical values. (Think about when the bible claims that women who are menstruating are “unclean”). Anyway, after I read these sections in the narrative, I was skeptical on defining the role and importance of women in Indian culture because every tribe seemed to have original views on the subject.

However, the last few pages of Cabeza’s gave my thoughts whiplash for the final time. Starting in chapter thirty-eight, on page 173, Cabeza talks about this woman who came to them with prophetic knowledge; he claims that his fellow Christians, of whom he found on the banks of New Spain and Castille, encountered ten married women, one of which told them what would happen to them before they embarked on their journey. She said that they should not go inland because they would not be able to escape from the land, and that God would perform miracles through any one of them who went through the lands and came out alive. Why would Cabeza add this tiny detail about this woman so close to the end of his narrative? Were there more women in other Indian tribes that had similar futuristic powers as this one? There is so much information in Cabeza’s narrative about Indian culture; in fact I could add much more on the topic of woman roles, but I must wrap up by mentioning how much less information is given in the Norton anthology about Indian women specifically.

On page 42 under the subtitle, The Malhado Way of Life, the text claims that the women “toiled incessantly.” Aside from this little detail, there is not much more that is said about Indian women and their position in society in the Norton excerpt. The text talks a bit about what the Indians wore, and how they treated their children, but the information given on these issues is closely related to that of which is told in Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative. By reading Cabeza’s full narrative rather than just a few minute excerpts from Norton, I was able to retain a bigger picture of what Indian women could have been like during this time period. I also was able to come to the conclusion that most every tribe was distinct. These kind of observations can not be made from reading as much as we did from Norton, at least not with out assuming a lot of information. Alas, there must be ample research out there on this topic, and I predict that there are tons of diverse portraits of women from various tribes all throughout history.

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