- Returning to the Gender Frontier
Over the last two decades, scholars have rethought the history of empire and colonization in North America. Epitomized by Pekka Hämäläinen's Comanche Empire, historians have used the term "empire" to turn the tables on traditional assumptions about European power. They instead posit that Native empires maintained or increased control over the heart of the continent into and beyond the eighteenth century.1 At the same time, theorists of Native and Indigenous studies have used the framework of "settler colonialism" to identify the continuous drive for the erasure of multiple Native groups from North American landscapes from the eighteenth to the twenty-first centuries.2
These dual literatures open up analytical space for new considerations of the relationship between gender and empires in Native North America. If we take seriously notions of Native geopolitical power, while reckoning with the long-term eliminatory process of settler colonialism, what do we need to rethink about the histories of Indigenous women? Three new books, by Susan Sleeper-Smith, Tai S. Edwards, and Laurel Clark Shire, indicate how productive this analytical space can be. Their work shows that grounding studies deeply within women's work and culture can allow for better understandings of both Indigenous power and settler colonial processes.
Tai S. Edwards's engaging study of Osage women puts both of these historiographic developments front and center. In four compact, highly readable chapters, Edwards explores women's contributions to the creation [End Page 146] of an Osage empire, and their subsequent experience of dispossession under the US empire. Ideal for undergraduate classroom use, Edwards's lucid prose takes the reader through a long sweep of Osage history. Drawing on a wealth of Indigenous sources and published anthropological research, Edwards gives a clear picture of women's lives and the function of gender complementarity at different stages of Osage history. Since she begins, rather than ends, with discussions of Two-Spirit people, who inhabited both gender roles in parallel, she prevents the reader from developing an overly-rigid sense of gender division. Instead, she shows the constant fluidity of male and female in Osage thinking.
This clear summation of Osage gender norms allows Edwards to explore women's material and spiritual role in the rise of an Osage empire in the eighteenth century. Here, she relies on Kathleen DuVal's rethinking of Native power in the Arkansas River Valley and the work of such Osage specialists as Willard H. Rollings. She takes the framing of the Osage as an empire as a given, noting Hämäläinen's explication of the differences between Native American and European empires. Although Edwards agrees with Osage historians about their expansion and dominance with the coming of the fur trade, her understanding of Osage women's coequal place within this growing world offers a fresh perspective. The advent of exchanges in horses, furs, and slaves did not require a reorganization of gender roles; rather, new prosperity allowed more people to have access to spiritual knowledge, since having more goods to give away enabled more people to undergo initiation ceremonies. This meant a rise in the Osage celebration of Wa-kon'-da, the creative power, which "favored [women] with the mystic power of creating human life" (18). So, empire among the Osage, in Edwards's view, entailed a decline neither in women's spiritual importance nor in their daily work and material lives. Even Osage success in warfare and violence, a...