The Role of Native American Women in Agriculture (11/5/2021)

When European explorers first set foot in North America, they were shocked to see what Native American women were doing. They were engaged in farming and other aspects of agriculture. They were hard workers. This was shocking to the Europeans who believed women were the weaker sex and should be sheltered. Women should be cloistered and devote themselves to such pursuits as piano playing and reading poetry.

In 1644 the Reverend John Megalopensis, minister of a Dutch Church in the Hudson River Valley of New York State and a missionary to the Iroquois Indians observed that Native American women were “obliged to prepare the Land, to mow, to plant, and do every Thing; the Men do nothing except hunting, fishing, and going to War against their Enemies.” Indian women performed what Europeans considered to be men’s work.

Explorers observing the Plains Indians women came to the same conclusion (Wishhart, 2011):

They witnessed them, from varying societies and at various times of the year, clearing fields, planting, hoeing, and harvesting; digging cache pits and storing food; erecting and dismantling lodges and tipis; collecting wild plants and firewood; cooking, hauling water, and washing dishes; transporting possessions, generally on foot, on bison hunts; making household items, including pottery and clothing; and child rearing.

November is Native American Heritage Month. In recognition of this fact, the Friday Footnotes for the month will focus on Native Americans. It is hard to make any generalizations about indigenous societies because North America’s First Peoples consisted of hundreds of separate cultures, each with their own belief systems, social structures, and cultural and political practices. It is important to remember that the experience of one tribe is not necessarily the experience of another. Sweeping the brush that broadly would ignore the diverse heritage of the Indian people and fail to adequately give credit to each tribe’s unique contributions to the Americas (Ward, 2018). With that cautionary note, let’s proceed to explore the role of Native American women in agriculture.

Note – This image came from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs with verbiage espousing their support for Native Americans. How many women are featured??

Contributions of Native American Women to Agriculture

Numerous Native American tribes believe they originated from a woman, with many of their legends and creation stories depicting a “mother earth” (Green, 1992). Women were entrusted with overseeing a tribe’s agricultural systems and were responsible for harvesting and cultivating the vegetables and plants for their people. Tribal women like the Algonquians planted their fields meticulously and in a way that kept the land sustainable for future use. When the nutrients in a tract of land was depleted women would decide when and where to clear new fields, allowing the used ones to regenerate.

In Native communities across North America, women were responsible for agricultural cultivation. It is common knowledge that this means women were responsible for growing, harvesting, and cooking the majority of the food that nourished Native communities. But this also means that women were the leaders in crop development, the experimentation necessary to invent new, better crops. It was women who discovered that the “three sisters”—corn, squash, and beans—grew best when planted together, and it was women who created the many varieties and uses of corn—blue corn, popcorn, flour corn, etc.—that we still enjoy today (New York Historical Society).

By the time Europeans arrived in the 1600s, Native women had spent generations adapting and developing crops. Their work fit so seamlessly into the natural world that the explorers believed everything had evolved that way. Their assumption is a testament to the sophistication of the scientific work that Native women did.

Crow (2006) writes:

Agriculture long dominated North Carolina’s economy and society, and women constituted an invaluable source of agricultural labor. Native Americans after about 1000 B.C. developed villages with fields of squash, corn, sunflowers, pumpkins, beans, and other vegetables tended by women. Women provided most of the agricultural and domestic labor, and all residences, fields, and agricultural tools belonged to them.

The first women farmers in the Great Plains were Native Americans who grew corn, beans, and other crops. Mandan and Hidatsa women who lived near the Missouri River in the Northern Plains, and Pawnee women along the Platte River, tended gardens and controlled the distribution of the crops. A surplus of corn contributed to the creation of trade centers near agricultural villages in the Plains.

Europeans thought native men were lazy and native women were enslaved, degrading themselves by doing men’s work. These stereotypes were perpetuated by the fact that Indian men’s primary duties of fishing and hunting were sport in Western culture, and Europeans thought native male tribal members were not doing anything of real value for the tribe. In defense of the men, in some Native American communities men were forbidden from entering the fields and gardens because they possessed “bad karma” as a result of their warlike behavior. However, men did help in clearing land for new fields.

Numerous other references to the role of Native American women in the development of agriculture in America could be cited. From the forests of New England to the plains of mid-America to the Pacific Northwest it would not be painting with too broad a brush to assert that Native American women were the first agriculturalist in America.

These Moccasins are Made for Walking

In 1966 Nancy Sinatra debuted the song “These Boots are Made for Walking” on the Ed Sullivan television show. Centuries earlier the Native America women possessed extraordinary power and influence in their tribes and could have sung “These Moccasins are Made for Walking.”

Unlike European women, whose property became her husband’s upon marriage, it was a tradition among Native Americans, everything belonged to the women, except hunting and war implements; even the game her husband brought home was her property (Berger, 1997).

In many tribes across the Americas, property descended through the female line. It was not uncommon for tribes to be completely matrilocal or matrifocal as well. Some of the more well-known matrilineal tribes of North America include: Acoma, Caddoan, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Crow, Delaware, Hidatsa, Hopi, Iroquois, Laguna, Mandan, Missouri, Mohegan, Navajo, Oto, Pawnee, Powhatan, Seminole, Sioux, and Zuni (Ward, 2018).

The matrilineal kinship system followed by Native Americans-in which children traced their lineage through their mothers rather than their fathers-also reinforced the influence of women. Native American women enjoyed considerable freedom over their choice of husbands or in deciding to divorce. If a couple parted, the man returned to his mother’s house. Indian women’s authority and autonomy surprised and shocked Europeans (Crow, 2006).

Finally, if the marriage was not working out, in many tribal traditions, the man could only leave with the property he had when he entered into the relationship; children belonged exclusively to their mother and women had complete ownership of anything the couple had acquired during the marriage including the teepee (Udel, 2001).

What About Today?

There has been an emphasis in recent years to increase the involvement of women in agriculture. From 4-H and FFA to the USDA, this has been a priority. However, we might be able to learn a thing or two from Indian Country which has nearly equal participation among men and women.

According to the 2017 USDA Census of Agriculture the data shows that women comprise over 50% of the Native American Farmers and Ranchers operating on Native American Reservations and nearly 46% of the Native American operators nationwide. This is compared to only 33.37% women participation for non-native farm operators.

Concluding Remarks

Americans today owe a debt of gratitude to the early Native American women who were responsible for the development and improvement of many foods we enjoy today. In teaching about the history of agriculture in our classes, we need to give proper recognition to these creators. And needless to say, agriculture is a field of study and work for both men and women. And it might be fun (and educational) to plant a three-sisters garden on school grounds


Bethany Ruth Berger (1997). After Pocahontas: Indian Women and the Law, 1830 to 1934, American Indian Law Review, Volume 21, Number 1.

Crow, Terrell (2006). Women’s Roles in PreColonial and Colonial North Carolina. NCpedia

Green, Rayna. Women in American Indian society. New York, NY: Chelsea House Publishers, 1992.

John Megalopensis, “A Dutch Minister Describes the Iroquois.” Albert Bushnell Hart, ed., American History Told by Contemporaries, vol. I. New York: 1898.

New York Historical Society. Native Women and Agricultural Innovation.

Udel, Lisa (2001), Revision and Resistance: The Politics of Native Women’s Motherwork. Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, Vol. 22, No. 2.

Ward, Kathleen A. Ward, (2018). Before and After the White Man: Indian Women, Property, Progress, and Power. Connecticut Public Interest Law Journal. Volume 6 Issue 2.

Wishart, David, J. (2011). Native American Gender Roles. Encyclopedia of the Great Plains.