Relative Status of Men and Women

Much scholarship on northern Athapaskan societies, including the Chipewyan (Oswalt & Neely, 1996, p. 94), has noted the inferior or subordinate status of woman in traditional or historical circumstances. The vivid experiences of the Hudson's Bay Company explorer Samuel Hearne (1795), who traveled and lived with the Chipewyan extensively in the late 1760s and early 1770s, has become part of the received wisdom on female-male relations in that society. While certain behaviors, such as wife beating and female infanticide, might be taken at face value, others require judicious interpretation. Much of the discussion on "status" and "subordination" flows from an external European male perspective, with perhaps too little insight on gender differences, their meanings, and arenas of female and male influence from an insider's or Chipewyan view.

During the early historical period, some successful hunters or charismatic leaders, like Hearne's guide Matonabbee, had as many as seven wives. While this may be viewed as pronounced male dominance, stated another way, such individuals were maintained by as many as seven wives. Recent interpretations of Chipewyan gender relations have sought to temper harsh historical stereotypes with models of the complementarity of male and female behaviors in a comprehensive system of hunting (Jarvenpa & Brumbach, 1995) or as "asymmetric equals" in terms of power, influence and value within society (Sharp, 1995).

In recent history a patriarchal facet of Canadian federal Treaty law allowed a Treaty woman to lose her registered status simply by marrying a non-Treaty man or, conversely, for a non-Treaty woman to gain registered status by marrying a Treaty man. Treaty men kept their status regardless of marital history. Beginning in the 1980s this legal inequality has been rectified by Bill C-31 which permits any woman with prior Treaty status, who had become disenfranchised through marriage, to have her federal status restored.

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