Daughters of the Earth – Carolyn Niethammer

Daughters of the Earth
Carolyn Niethammer
Simon & Schuster, 1995
450 pages

This is on of the best books I’ve read all year; it’s a study of indigenous American cultures prior to the 1900’s, and focuses specifically on women’s roles in the various tribes.

Niethammer breaks the stereotype of the Indian woman was of a hunched, overburdened human pack animal trailing a string of children while her husband rode a fine steed. She provides evidence that while a woman’s place tended to be in the home, it was as a counterpoint to the man’s role as hunter and warrior. While the feminist may initially balk at these traditional sex roles, it is importat to remember that A) these are not modern European-derived American cultures that are being discussed, and B) the home was a place of great power, influence, and control in many tribes.

Thankfully she also was careful to explain each tribe as a separate entity instead of a monolithic “Native American” megaculture. In each chapter, Niethammer explores a certain facet of everyday life for women in a variety of tribes, and I enjoyed exploring the spectrum from conservative to liberal in areas such as sex and gender roles, religion, births and deaths, and other daily occurrences.

It can be difficut for modern Americans to understand, given that we live in a culture where food is always plenty, health care is relatively easy to procure, and the mortality rate is exceptionally low. But where obstacles ranging from drought and famine to attacks by rival tribes to epidemic illneses were constant threats, the roles were in place to help each culture survive in its own environment. Cultural objectivity is necessary here.

Occasionally she does get a bit patronizing. For instance,after speaking about malignant witchcraft in various tribes, she explains away these peoples’ beliefs and passes them off as simply effects of a boring day to day life. Unfortunately, this relegates their beliefs entirely to the realm of superstition.

Other than that, though, this is a very, very well-written book. Niethammer’s writing style moves quickly and engages the reader, and the information is solid and thorough.

Four and a half pawprints out of five.

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