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Indian women were not subservient to men, they often engaged in work – such as farming and warfare – which the Europeans viewed as men’s work, they had a voice in the political life of their communities, and they had control of their own bodies and sexuality. Unlike the patriarchal European societies, Indians were often matrilineal, a system in which people belonged to their mother’s clans or extended families. When Indian people spoke of a neighboring tribe as “women” or as “grandmothers”, the Europeans often misinterpreted this compliment as a derogatory statement.
During the nineteenth century Indian women, and particularly Indian women leaders, were invisible to the American government. Some Indians have gone so far as to say that the Americans were so afraid of Indian women that they would not allow them to sit or speak in treaty councils with the United States government. Even today, Indian women are conspicuous by their absence in American history.

When asked to name some famous Indian women, most people have difficulty in recalling anyone other than Pocahontas and Sacajawea. Both of these women have legends which are more based in non-Indian fantasies about Indian women than in the reality of their accomplishments. For both, their fame is based on their association with non-Indians.

Europeans have always viewed war as “men’s work” and their interpretations of Indian warfare, as seen through the writings of non-Indian historians and anthropologists, assume that only Indian men were warriors. They often fail to see that women warriors were common among Indian people. Women warriors went with their husbands on the war party. Some of the examples of nineteenth century women Indian warriors are briefly described below.

Fallen Leaf (often called Woman Chief by the Americans): While Fallen Leaf was a Crow warrior, she was actually born to the Gros Ventre nation and was captured by the Crow when she was 12. After she had counted coup four times in the prescribed Crow tradition, she was considered a chief and sat in the council of chiefs. In addition to being a war leader, she was also a good hunter and had two wives.

Running Eagle: she became a Blackfoot (Piegan) warrior after her husband was killed by the Crow. To avenge her husband’s death, she sought help from the Sun and was told “I will give you great power in war, but if you have intercourse with another man you will be killed”. After this she became a very respected war leader and led many successful raids on the large Flathead horse herds west of the Rocky Mountains. She was on a raid in Flathead country when she was killed. She had had sexual relations with one of the men in her war party and for this reason lost her war power.