Sunday, March 19, 2023

The Power of Women

March is designated as Women’s History Month; thus, it seems appropriate to explore the role of women in our archaeological and cultural heritage.  While it is important to have a focus on significant women in our past and present, a woman is much more than a historic figure to honor once a year.  In some Native American society's women are viewed as the giver of life and Mother Earth as the giver of all things on the earth. She is a sacred figure and has garnered respect and acknowledgement of her significance.  

Native American tribes such as the Lenape (Delaware) and Haudenosaunee (Iroquois and Tuscarora) are matrilineal societies instead of the typical patrilineal societies from Europe. Meaning that you descended from your mother’s clan, not your father’s. It also meant that women were involved in the decision-making process for the greater good of the tribe. 

Nora Thompson Dean (left) and Lucy Parks, 1977.

Image courtesy of Jim Rementer, Delaware Tribe of Indians

Nora Thompson Dean was a member of the Delaware Tribe of Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and an important keeper of their cultural heritage. Nora wrote about the role of Delaware women in a matrilineal society stating, “the children belong to the clan or group of the mother, and therefore, even if one was the son or daughter of a chief, they would not be a prince or princess as was the case with European royalty. The successor to the chieftaincy was the chief’s sister’s son, or the nearest male relative to the chief within the same clan. This gave women a powerful voice in tribal matters, but in spite of this ‘voice,’ it was the tradition for women to not speak out at public gatherings such as councils.” (

In Haudenosaunee culture (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, Tuscarora) the chief and clan mother share leadership roles. The clan mother chooses and advises the chief, placing and holding him in office. The clan mother also has the responsibility of removing a chief who doesn’t listen to the people and make good decisions, giving due consideration to seven generations in the future. To be chosen as a chief, the man cannot be a warrior (since it is a confederacy based on peace), nor can he have ever stolen anything or abused a woman. Women live free of fearing violence from men. The spiritual belief in the sacredness of women and the earth — the mutual creators of life — make abuse almost unthinkable. 

Indigenous women planting gardens, Image courtesy of Herbert Kraft

Not unlike the Native Americans who lived here when Europeans began arriving in North America, settler women were often responsible for domestic chores- cooking, cleaning, gardening, and raising children.  Each group practiced their methods of planting and harvesting- often embedded in their cultural practices of following celestial signs, seasonal change, and traditional stories.  Haudenosaunee gardening of corn, beans and squash are commonly identified as the three sisters- significant for their ability to grow together in mounds of soil.  Nora Dean describes the Delaware practice of cooking as done with intent- “we think that the person’s mind when they are cooking has something to do with the health of the ones who eat the food. The cook must be in a good frame of mind during the  food preparation, not angry, or ill, and have an inside prayer to the Creator that what she prepares will bring strength and happiness to the consumer of the food”.

How often have we heard the expressions made with love, homemade is best, lovin from the oven, or my favorite- no one makes it like my mom. Recipes that have been handed down through multiple generations don’t have a byline to “make while in a good frame of mind” but the act of cooking heritage dishes by women is a powerful expression of cultural traditions. The consumption of these dishes connects families to the past and to memories of the ancestors who shared the recipes and traditions for future generations.

A mother’s words are often the first that a child hears. The significance of language to the Indigenous community in retaining their cultural heritage has been an important initiative for many women.  Nora Thompson Dean worked with Jim Rementer in recording and developing the Lenape Talking Dictionary.  Francine Patterson (1952-2020), a previous clan mother of the Tuscarora learned the language from elders, she later recorded the language to develop a comprehensive Tuscarora dictionary. The work of these women and other members of the Native American tribal community are working to preserve their language and culture for future generations. Teaching children their native language is important in identifying with their heritage and is a practice continued today by cultures around the world. 

Francine Patterson, of the Tuscarora Nation sharing cultural heritage with a class of high school students. Image from the collection of The State Museum of Pennsylvania.

Women in Indigenous cultures made pottery from clay, sand, shell, and grit; all by hand while teaching their daughters the craft and skill required to make a cooking or storage vessel.  They cleaned and scraped animal hides to sew garments, gathered reeds and grasses to make baskets, collected fruits and nuts in addition to tending gardens and they were the caretakers of the elders. The definition of multi-tasking was unknown to them, but their tenacity gave them the ability to do all these tasks.

Native American pottery. Image from the collections of The State Museum of Pennsylvania.

This same tenacity has been demonstrated by women from all cultures and times. Farm laborers and domestics became the factory workers of the Industrial era.  Women working in the mills were controlled by company rules and long hours of work at minimal wages. These are the women who led the way for labor laws, voting rights, and access to advanced education.  Sacrifices of those before us opened up opportunities to be mechanics, soldiers, fire fighters and scientists. Women are clan mothers, union leaders, caregivers, teachers, and librarians whose contributions to society are heralded.  Some of these women are among those highlighted in the many articles surrounding Women’s History Month, but of equal significance are the autonomous women, often silent, who continuously labor to preserve their heritage and cultural traditions.  

Archaeologists examine the artifacts of the past- broken pottery, hide scrapers, porcelain dish fragments, canning jars, and sewing implements as items of material culture to aid in interpreting daily activities of the people who made or used these objects. As such, we look for patterns of distribution to examine movement across the landscape, we search for changes in technology- shape or size of a projectile point, temper or design of the pottery, dietary remains- all tools for reconstructing the past. Examining these remains, the tangible evidence of past cultures, and putting them in the proper context can be challenging. Making the connection to their cultural significance often relies on the keepers of cultural heritage. Thank you to the women of the world who continue to practice your cultural traditions and share your knowledge with others.   We hope you’ve enjoyed this post in celebration of women and invite you to visit our Women of Archaeology blogs on this site as well as the on-line collections of The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.



Kraft, Herbert C.

1983      The Lenape, Archaeology, History, and Ethnography. New Jersey Historical Society.

Parker, Arthur C.

1989      Seneca Myths and Folk Tales. Introduction by William C. Fenton. Lincoln: University of Nebraska                                    Press.

Snow, Dean R.

1994       The Iroquois (Peoples of America). Blackwell Publishers, Malden.


For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

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