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Discovery Discovery Newsletter April 2002

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MSU Scholar Intrigued by Legend of Manly-Hearted Women


by Evelyn Boswell

Lisa Aldred

Back in the 1800s, before white women had the right to vote, a group of Blackfeet women existed that some scholars say were so unusual they warranted a special name.

They were the Ninawaki, or manly-hearted women.

"The manly-hearted women were characterized by assertiveness, independence, property ownership and leadership," noted Lisa Aldred, assistant professor of Native American Studies at Montana State University-Bozeman.

But were these women really so uncommon? Couldn't they have been typical Blackfeet women for that time? It's highly possible, says Aldred who is investigating the theories.

"Ninawaki" first appeared in print when James Willard Schultz wrote a novel about Running Eagle, a woman who lived in the early 1800s. The most extreme example of the term, she was a warrior who dressed like a man and acted like a man.

But other women who didn't go that far were classified as Ninawaki, too. In a time when the ideal Blackfeet woman was quiet, submissive and stayed out of public affairs, these women held office, told bawdy jokes and owned horses. They were politically active, and many were medicine women.

"Scholars have argued that Blackfeet society was male-dominated, especially after the introduction of horses and guns which they believe accorded Blackfeet men higher status," Aldred said. "Some theories believe the manly-hearted role arose as a rebellion by Blackfeet women against Blackfeet men's supposedly higher status."

Aldred's preliminary research suggests that the roles of men and women could have been much more equal than previously thought. She also questions whether the manly-hearted women were really the exception.

"A lot of Blackfeet women in the past, and even today, will characterize themselves as independent, outspoken and having many of the traits that were considered manly-hearted," Aldred commented. "They are very proud of their independence. Blackfeet men recognize that, too."

Aldred spent much of her summers and falls the past two years conducting interviews on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana. The Blackfeet Confederacy is made up of the Southern Peigan tribe in Montana and the Blood and Peigan tribes in Canada. Aldred was introduced to the Montana group by Shayne Dickenson-Hall, an Oneida/Blackfeet and freshman in civil engineering at MSU. Dickenson-Hall is the daughter of Victor and Olivia Hall. Her grandmother, Cynthia Kipp, wrote a book on Running Eagle for the Blackfeet school system.

Thedis Crowe, a Blackfeet Indian and MSU student who is working toward a master's degree in Native American Studies, agrees that the Ninawaki were more common than previously thought. Crowe wrote a paper about it for Aldred's class on gender issues. She was primarily interested in the Blackfeet perspective so interviewed cultural leaders about their interpretation of Ninawaki, as well as the language and terminology used in earlier studies.

"Tribal members need a good sense of their history and how it affects them and not so much how they're viewed by anthropologists or outside researchers," Crowe said.

Aldred added, "I think Thedis, as a Blackfeet tribal member and scholar, is better qualified as a cultural insider to research the Blackfeet perspective on the manly-hearted women.... Ideally, I'd like for my work to complement the work of indigenous scholars such as Thedis."

Aldred's next step will be to pursue her interviews with the Blackfeet Indians in more depth. She wants to analyze letters written by anthropologist Oscar Lewis, too. He worked under the direction of Ruth Benedict during the first half of the 20th century and was one of the first researchers to mention Ninawaki in scholarly literature. Aldred thinks Benedict may have pushed him to classify the Ninawaki as an alternative role even though Benedict didn¹t participate in the field research.

Annette Trinity-Stevens is the technical writer for the Office of Research, Creativity and Technology Transfer.

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