The Women of Ancient Michigan

Today I am giving a lecture at the Michigan Women Forward (formerly Michigan Women’s Historical Center and Hall of Fame). It is an exciting opportunity that has challenged me to frame my research about pottery and cuisine in the context of gender. I’ve never really considered myself a “gender archaeologist,” although I think it’s a very necessary branch of archaeological research, and I didn’t really address gender in my dissertation or previous publications. However, in finishing my doctoral research, it hit me that the decisions about food and pottery were most likely made by women, and these decisions undoubtedly greatly affected many other aspects of life for Woodland groups. However, my research has remained “asexual,” as O’Brien (1990) would call it. When I saw the call for speakers by Michigan Women Forward, I felt it was chance to finally address this aspect of the past that I had previously overlooked.

Gender archaeology came to prominence in the 1980s on the tails of second-wave feminism, sparked by the seminal article by Conkey and Spector (1984). It emphasized trying to identify gender roles and gender relationships in the past, with a particular focus on identification of women in the archaeological record (Conkey and Gero 1997; Nelson 1997). This has been particularly useful in historic archaeology, where there are written records and prevailing understandings of “typical” Western gender roles that help tie certain artifacts to gender. For example, certain perfumes, buttons, and cookware are indications of the presence and actions of women; beard combs, suspender buckles, and tools would likely be tied to men (if people of the 1800s did indeed adhere to traditional gender roles).

But can we apply the same concepts of gender to societies of the more distant past? That is a more difficult task, especially when you are dealing with non-Western, non-capitalist societies. The hunter-gatherers of ancient Michigan may not have had the same ideas about gender (a social construct that is often, but not always, associated with biological sex) as we have today or in the more recent past. How then, can we see women through archaeological remains?

hot pot

Can both pottery manufacture and cooking be associated with women in past societies? (Image source)

Ethnographic resources are very helpful for this task. Observations made by early explorers and anthropologists give us some insight into the behaviors and structure of indigenous Anishinaabe groups (including the Ojibwe) inhabiting the Great Lakes region during the contact and colonial periods (AD 1600-1837) and into the early 20th century. Although culture is always changing, and traditions and behaviors of these groups are undoubtedly from those a thousand years ago, they are probably more analogous to those of ancient groups who inhabited the same environment in centuries past.

Frances Densmore and Sister Inez Hilger both specifically observed Ojibwe women living in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin in the early 20th century. The Ojibwe at this time were still practicing some traditional subsistence patterns, even though their foraging and hunting territory was restricted to reservations and they had replaced pottery vessels with metal cooking pots. However, the Ojibwe women were still the primary food gatherers and cooks, meaning that it is likely that the very things I studied for my dissertation were produced primarily by the daily decisions and habits of their Woodland women predecessors.

Worldwide, women in hunter-gatherer societies typically do a majority of plant food gathering. However, not all of the hunting is done by men. Women often hunted small game, collected shellfish, participated in fishing, and provisioned the large-game hunting conducted by men (Kelly 2007). Also, keep in mind that these are not capitalist societies, where domestic activities are typically undervalued because they do not bring in income. Women greatly contributed to daily diet, which is the primary occupation of all hunter-gatherers (Nelson 1997).


Depiction of Indigenous women engaging in traditional wild rice gathering in the the 19th century (image source)

Furthermore, in societies where pottery is produced at the household level (meaning that people make pottery for themselves or for a small group, rather than specialized craftsmen in a market economy), a majority of pottery is produced by women (Skibo and Schiffer 1995). This is often because women are the ones using the pottery, so they are best suited to design and construct the technology according to their cooking and storage needs.

Therefore, the pottery and food remains that I studied so closely during my research were actually links to the ancient women of Michigan. As circumstances around them changed, these women made critical decisions about food selection, cooking, and pottery manufacture that helped improve the survival of their people. Their importance as decision-makers are probably underrepresented and undervalued in the archaeological literature. Perhaps as my colleagues and I delve further into this topic, we can change that.



Conkey, Margaret W and Joan M. Gero
1997     Programme to Practice: Gender and Feminism in Archaeology. Annual Review of                Anthropology 26: 411-437.

Conkey, Margaret W. and Janet Spector
1984     Archaeology and the Study of Gender. Advances in Archaeological Method and

Densmore, Frances
1979     Chippewa Customs. Minnesota Historical Society Press, St. Paul.

Hilger, Inez
1951     Chippewa Child Life and Its Cultural Background. Smithsonian Institution Bureau
of American Ethnology Bulletin 146. Governement Printing Office, Washington,

Nelson, Sarah Milledge
1997     Gender in Archaeology: Analyzing Power and Prestige. AltaMira Press, Walnut
Creek, CA.

O’Brien, Patricia J.
1990     Evidence for the Antiquity of Gender Roles in the Central Plains Tradition. In The
Archaeology of Gender: Proceedings of the Twenty-Second Annual Chacmool
Conference of the Archaeological Association of the University of Calgary,
edited by
Dale Walde and Noreen D. Willows, pp. 61-72. Archaeological Association,
University of Calgary.

Skibo, James M. and Michael Brian Schiffer
1995     The Clay Cooking Pot: An Exploration of Women’s Technology. In Expanding
, edited by James M. Skibo, William H. Walker, and Axel E. Nielson,
pp. 80-91, University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.


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