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My time in Cherokee, North Carolina is drawing to a close but I have been thinking a lot about matrilineal, matrilocal and matrifocal societies since I learned the North Carolina Cherokee traditional society was matrilineal and matrilocal. My question yesterday after visiting the museum was: Are Cherokee societies or were Cherokee societies matrifocal- respecting, including and having an equal focus on women?

At breakfast I talked with a Cherokee woman who works in the restaurant of the hotel I am staying in. I asked her if she thinks that her tribe being matrilineal has helped women.

Traditionally or now? she asked me.

Either way, I said.

She said traditionally mothers of the families were in charge and things were deferred to their decisions. She basically said that men were the hunters, but the women did everything else and made the decisions. I’m paraphrasing here, but basically what I got was the women had a lot more power and were respected.

“But that was before,” she said.

Before? She is talking about a before and after of colonization. A before and after the ‘Trail of Tears.’ A before and after indigenous genocide. That was before.

And after?

Do you think that as a matrilineal society there is less violence against women? I asked her.

Before yes. Traditionally yes. A lot of families follow tradition, but a lot of families do not. We have a domestic violence shelter down the road here and it’s always full.

We played the Choctaw tribe in (basketball) not too long ago and one of the men from there killed his wife in one of these hotels. People knew he was violent with her but no one did anything and it just came out in our newspaper that he barely got any time, something like 54 months.

Another woman (Lori Stanley) who worked in a hotel was being watched and harassed by a man and she kept reporting it to the police and they did nothing. Then he killed her, injured another woman and then later killed himself.

The woman I talked with had been given the message that violence that women happens and nothing is done about it. Isn’t that the message we’re all given. Look at Chris Brown- wait, I’m not going there quite yet.

I found a great article/information source on the Cherokee tribe and the seven clans. It talks about it being a matrilineal society. It’s interesting and worth the read, but I’m just going to quote a piece of it here:

“The Cherokee had a matrilineal society, a social system in which their descent was traced strictly through their mother’s side of the family. In the Cherokee’s matrilineal kinship system a person received his mother’s clan at birth and retained this clan for life, and his only kinsmen were those who could be traced through her, that is her mother’s mother, mother’s sisters, the children of mother’s sisters and, the most important and powerful man in a child’s life, the mother’s brother. This social structure baffled whites. The primary responsibility for discipline and instruction in hunting and warfare rested not with the child’s father but with his maternal uncle. Not even the right of the father to stay in the home was certain because Cherokee women owned the dwellings.”

So basically, women were heads of households, women had power in their communities and of their homes. Men would be less likely to act out because women were a valued necessary part of the structure of the society.

That article continues:

“Since clans were divided into white or peace clans and red or war clans, a Cherokee’s clan determined a person’s political alignment and his role in society. Kinship, (which was matrilineal) through the law of the clans, governed social relationships, dictated possible marriage partners, designated friends, designated enemies and regulated behavior through they system such as which kinsmen had to be respected and with which kinsmen one could be intimate.”

All of this was dependent on the woman and her blood line. What an excellent way to keep women alive and participating in the society and have men keep their power in check. As they said, “This social structure baffled whites.” So much so that they made the Cherokee change it. And now the domestic violence shelter is always full and women are killed and hurt like they are everywhere. But before, it was not like that.

On the Chris Brown post from the other day: Chris Brown-You Cannot Beat Me Up! I had the following comment and I was thinking about it and the questions the commenter raised as I was writing this post.

This whole episode was a real opportunity to teach about spousal abuse, but pretty much everybody dropped the ball and the fallout has compounded the problem.I’m guilty of ignoring such behaviour, like Burt Reynolds beating Loni Anderson. I still think Burt is a great guy. I can’t tell you exactly why I don’t think he’s scum?Loni Anderson was a goddess back then, even more so than Rihanna. I had never heard of Chris Brown, so I don’t think I had anything against him. I’m puzzled by my own hypocrisy…How do we draw the line? When does a personal failing completely overshadow other accomplishments?

How do we draw the line? Great question: I think that collectively, as a society, we need to draw the line. We need to have laws in place that keep violence from happening, that punish it when it does. Women need to be equal participants in the society so they are not viewed as less than, so they are not objectified, and so they are seen as valuable. There needs to be a breakdown of strict gender roles that keep us all, especially women, oppressed.

But all that could take a while, so meanwhile when things like this happen- we draw the line in our communities. For example with the Chris Brown incident: We talk with young people we know who may listen to Chris Brown or Rihanna and even if they don’t listen to them, we talk to them about it. We talk with our friends about it. These days we use social media to address it. We facebook, tweet, blog about it not being acceptable.

Where does a personal failure completely overshadow other accomplishments? Another good question. I think if someone cannot control themselves enough to be out in the larger society, maybe they shouldn’t be. I’m not a big advocate for the prison system, but we went the opposite way with Chris Brown by rewarding him and he has barely taken responsibility. It is a crime to physically abuse/assault/batter an intimate partner and it should be treated as such.

I think the commenter had it right when they said this was an opportunity to teach. It was, a teachable moment, and Chris Brown hasn’t done enough exploration in himself to look at it that way or to have it be that- at least not yet. The music industry is holding out for their money and scandals often pay money, but they supported him battering her by rewarding his bad behavior.

One final note: I don’t think this is just a personal failure of Chris Brown’s, I think it is the society’s failure. It is a failure that women and women’s wellbeing has not been made a priority.

The Cherokee had it right. They set up a societal structure that protected and respected women and that would safeguard them from gender based violence. But, that was before.

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