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Native American culture has become a point of interest for many sociologists due to the divergent cultural norms found across various tribes in North America. According to Forbes (2004), each tribe has its own specific traditions related to marriage and family structure. Individuals are guided by their own dreams, visions, and personal spiritual callings. Furthermore, Native Americans hold unique views of sociological structures like marriage and family that reflect convenience within a tribe. Therefore, based on what is considered functional within a specific community, traditions and the formation of family adjust to fit the function of society. With this idea in mind, there are several distinct ways in which American Indian families are structured. It is of great difficulty to generalize behavior found within Native American culture since every tribe is unique. Therefore, this essay will broadly address the components of society found within some, not all, Native American tribes. Additionally, the purpose of this essay is not to evaluate and compare sociological themes between cultures, but to develop a deeper understanding of Native American culture, especially in regards to how Native American marriage and family has transformed.
Since early European settlers first arrived in North America, they were vastly shocked at the different perspectives held by Native Americans toward concepts within marriage and family. In addition, there have been several discriminatory remarks and conclusions made about American Indian culture. Some conservatives suggested that American Indian society was a threat to destroy the European institution of marriage and family (Ojibwa, 2011). Additionally, since these cultural norms were seen as uncivilized and barbaric, much of the traditional culture has been destroyed instead of preserved and studied, causing Native American culture to transform. Native American culture has piqued the interest of several sociologists for two reasons. First, unlike other minority groups which have a homeland that theoretically provides some form of symbolic identity for people, Native Americans have no ties to a geographical entity (Staples & Mirandé, 1980). Consequently, they have created their own sociological norms, unique to each tribe. Furthermore, sociologists have become interested in how Native American culture has transformed over time as a result of assimilation. Although much of Native American culture has changed, there are several sociological concepts in which they hold prominent perspectives, such as those found within the formation of marriage and family.
How it works
Unlike the Europeans who settled in North America during colonial times, American Indian society wasn’t largely shaped by patriarchal and monogamous institutions such as those found within Europe. Instead, individuality amongst tribal members was encouraged. For several tribes, sexuality was not based on a binary system. In contrast to how Europeans defined sexuality, there was a recognition of both masculinity and femininity within every individual, so sexuality was seen more as a gradient spectrum rather than a restricted choice between one option or the other. Homosexuality and transvestism even held spiritual and ceremonial roles within most tribes. The term “two-spirit” is commonly used to identify, but not limited to, American Indians who identify as gay or lesbian. For example, the Omaha tribe call two-spirited individuals “mexoga” and treat these individuals with deep reverence and sacredness. However, with the influence of Western culture, views on homosexuality have been affected within tribal communities. The respected social role of being two-spirited changed when European religious groups forced assimilation, imposing their will and culture onto tribal members (Calvan, 2015). Assimilation shaped and altered how some tribes saw two-spirited individuals and began to adopt European perspectives on homosexuality. Recently, some tribal members who identify as two-spirited are often ostracized by their own tribe due to their sexual orientation.
As mentioned previously, sexuality was not shaped by the social institutions of marriage and family within Native American communities. While sex was considered a large part of marriage in Native American culture, it was not confined to marriage. This meant that Native Americans were encouraged to engage in sexual activities beyond the scope of marriage. For instance, within the Wendat tribe, sex outside of the tribe was encouraged, a practice known more commonly as exogamy. Since men often embarked on long hunting and trading journeys, they were encouraged to have sexual relations with women from neighboring sub-tribes, even if they were married to women from their own tribes. As men were the ones urged to have multiple partners to ensure stable connections with neighboring tribes, women had more control over their choice of intimate partners. As stated by Steckley (2015, para. 5),
“Early European recorders speak of such relationships from a male perspective, not even considering that young women might have had decision-making authority in these matters. At the time, Aboriginal women generally had more say in the choosing—and disposing—of mates than did their European sisters.”
As soon as Europeans established settlements in North America, practices such as having multiple partners or engaging in premarital sexual activities were discouraged and associated with religious sin. These Europeans, who did not understand the significance of sex within Native American culture, forced Native Americans to cease premarital sexual practices. Even today, European social institutions continue to impact Native American society. Living on reservations, Native Americans are still encouraged to abide by European institutionalized concepts concerning partners and marriages.
The sociological concept of divorce is constructed quite similarly to marriage within Native American culture. Since marriage is not a permanent or lifelong status, individuals are not discouraged from divorcing their partners. However, as other constructs were discouraged by European religious settlers, Europeans were shocked to discover that Native Americans divorced each other as effortlessly as they got married. In large tribes composed of individual family units, divorce could be as easy for someone as taking their belongings back to their original family home. Sometimes, divorce had to be publicly announced to the tribe following a ritual. Since children were not only taken care of solely by their parents, but by additional family members such as aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc., a family structure did not change much when the parents divorced and moved on to marry other tribal members. However, when Europeans enforced monogamous and strict marriage attitudes and beliefs, this began to change Native American culture. Today, divorce still remains a common practice among Native American tribes. However, since American Indians have struggled socially from being relocated to isolated reservations and enforced strict laws and regulations, this affects how Native Americans perceive divorce.
According to Staples & Mirandé (1980, p. 898), “For many Native Americans, the extended family is the basic unit for carrying out family functions.” Despite the fact that each tribe has its own beliefs and customs about extended family, like any culture, the family carries out important roles within each tribe. In the past, the extended family was composed of more than just parents and siblings. Other households, sometimes consisting of aunts and uncles, would form together to create communities that would help with everyday activities like hunting and processing food. In addition, the elderly were often seen in many Native American tribes as spiritual guides, helping to preserve the language and culture by passing down their knowledge to younger generations. However, while some tribes took care of and respected the elderly, other tribes considered them an inconvenience if they could not contribute to society in a productive manner. This belief remains somewhat upheld today, with several American Indian elders facing implications as a result of being placed within nursing homes away from reservations. Since their family members are not able to provide accurate care, or still might hold traditional attitudes toward senior family members, they face several social problems while living outside of the reservations where they grew up. Additionally, elderly Native Americans contend with problems due to drastic social changes.
“With advancing age and developing infirmities, the elderly encounter serious problems. Frequently seen as out of step with the contemporary pace, they are often victims of the rapid cultural changes that provide few resources for preserving their place and purpose” (Cooley et al., 1979, p. 151).
These implications have sometimes been attributed as one of the reasons for high suicide rates among elderly Native Americans.
When early anthropologists began studying Native Americans, several controversies arose regarding the social roles that men and women held within the community. In a large majority of anthropological reports, women were reported as having little impact on societal function and were often depicted as victims of harsh domestic abuse from their husbands. However, this was largely debatable since women were often highly respected within other tribes. Labor in Native American society was typically divided by gender. Women created tools and weapons from the bones of animals that men hunted for the family. Additionally, they processed meat and were responsible for raising young children. They also collected and cultivated various food sources such as rice, nuts, berries, and various types of vegetation. Men, in most tribes, served as protectors and hunters for their families. However, these roles could change depending on the tribe. For example, among the Cherokee, men were often responsible for clearing land so they could cultivate and grow vegetables. After marriage in some tribes, men would leave their households to live with their wives’ families, usually reflecting the respect and value they placed on women as a vital source of life. Within Native American society, both men and women were equally important to the function of a tribe. This dynamic shifted after the westward expansion in North America, which forced many Native Americans to abandon their traditional values and subjected women to subjugation. Although Native Americans have since returned to treating women with the respect they held pre-European influence, the contact with Europeans caused significant changes in the gender roles within Native American society.
In most Native American tribes, children were treated quite differently compared to their European counterparts. For some tribes, like the Netsilik, infanticide was commonly carried out if there were too many females within a tribe. According to Oswalt (2009, p. 89), “One reason may be that women made no significant and direct contribution to food getting. Another is that group solidarity increased if women did not become the wives of outsiders.” Broadly speaking, infanticide was not practiced because people simply did not want to have children, or because they were heartless. Some tribes practiced infanticide because it created a balance of functionality within society. However, this was not always the case within other tribes. Children were sometimes treated as young adults, learning and building upon the skills they were encouraged to adopt, suggesting that having more children could provide a better contribution to the function of the tribe. Regardless of the social duties expected of them, children were not harshly punished in most tribes. For example, in the Sioux tribe, children rarely misbehaved because if misbehavior persisted, they might be given an embarrassing nickname that would follow them for most of their lives. Adulthood was typically acknowledged when children matured to the age of 12-13, when girls started menstruating. Since American Indian views of children were radically different from European views, these social roles started to change as a result of assimilation. “Native American youth struggle with many social issues such as poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, teen pregnancy, and high school dropout rates as a result of historical trauma and the current conditions on the reservation” (Aschenbrener & Johnson, 2017, p. 14). These modern social problems continue to affect not just Native American children and adolescents, but families as well.
Despite the small amounts of research gained from Native American culture, much can be learned from how traditional Native American views, along with European influences, shaped the modern perspectives and social constructs of Native American culture. Even as concepts like homosexuality, sex, divorce, gender roles, social roles of the elderly, and social roles of children are unique within every tribe, much can be learned and understood about how Native Americans form their culture. Social implications can also be studied and explained by understanding the origins and transformations of these sociological concepts. Therefore, the perspectives that Native Americans have towards marriage and family contribute largely to the understudied information gathered on Native Americans.
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