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119 5 Executive Females and Matriarchs [María Chona] was inclined to be independent and executive. —Ruth Underhill, Papago Woman (1936)1 F or many of the feminist ethnographers who conducted research before World War II in the American Southwest, gender roles became a chief focus of research. By examining the gender roles of their informants and of Native American women in general, feminist ethnographers sought to investigate the meaning and structure of being female in different cultures. In the process of this research, some feminist ethnographers gravitated to a particular kind of female informant. This, in turn, shaped their research, because these women tended to be what Ruth Underhill later termed “executive women.” As a rule, those Native American women who served as informants tended to have greater experience with outsiders. In addition, other characteristics, such as age, marital status, or social status, tended to make them less hesitant to serve as informants. It is difficult to be precise about such characteristics when speaking of Native American informants in general terms because different tribes had different ways of apportioning status for particular characteristics. Historical developments could also alter the ways in which these characteristics affected an informant’s status. For example, younger Pueblo women who worked for wages outside the tribe did not enjoy an increase in status because of this, but as a result of their contact with the world 120 CHAPTER 5 beyond their tribes risked less comparatively when speaking to ethnographers . Older women or women of high status within the tribe might speak to ethnographers because their status placed them above reproach. For example, the women who served as informants to Elsie Clews Parsons tended to be either of great status within the tribe—the wife of a tribal official—or to have formed an identity outside the social confines of the tribe—women working as servants outside the Pueblo. However, feminist ethnographers most usually sought out informants who had “authority” within their tribes—especially when undertaking the reconstruction of life narratives—and as a result tended to choose informants of a certain personality type. These informants tended to be forceful women whom ethnographers could recognize as powerful, and even as “executive.” These informants thus played what could sometimes be quite atypical roles within their own tribes. However, those roles were familiar to feminist scholars who themselves were engaged in the intellectual pursuit of proving women’s capabilities to play new and different roles in their own society. As a result, feminist ethnographers who wrote extensively about individual women within Southwestern tribes tended to focus on what Ruth Underhill termed the “executive woman” as a common and admirable gender role for Native American women. In order to present ideal feminist heroines, the ethnographers constructed an “executive woman” identity for their informants. The executive woman was one who acted economically on her own behalf (or on behalf of her family), who resisted limitations placed on her because of her gender, and who took on the role of leader in her kinship group or her tribe. The executive woman image that feminist ethnographers constructed when interviewing Southwestern Native American women was also one that assigned a “protofeminist” identity to women informants . This is especially true of Underhill’s treatment of María Chona, Gladys Reichard’s treatment of Maria Antonia, and Parsons’s treatment of Margaret Lewis. Each ethnographer placed emphases on ways in which these women mediated inequity or patriarchy and downplayed instances of accommodation or even “submissive” behaviors in their testimonies. They did this, however, in varying ways, indicating some of the vagaries of their feminisms as well as continuing contradictions within their views of women’s roles and experiences. 121 EXECUTIVE FEMALES AND MATRIARCHS The relationships that Parsons, Reichard, and Underhill formed with their informants focused their research on this issue. Each chose a main woman informant with whom they felt a personal sympathy. Elsie Clews Parsons, a congressman’s wife, chose as her main informant the wife of the Zuñi governor. According to Parsons, her informant, Margaret Lewis, took an active political role as the governor’s wife, something that Parsons, who continued her political activism during her husband’s political career, respected and understood. Lewis was also Cherokee rather than Zuñi, and as such, had learned to negotiate cultural difference. This provided Parsons with valuable insights, as Lewis was in essence a Cherokee ethnographer among the Zuñi. As a Cherokee—and as a woman of great status...


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