When Juan Pardo and his men arrived at the village of Guatari in 1567, their most dramatic
discovery was that a woman stood at the pinnacle of power. Guatari Mico the Spanish
name for Guataris female chief was said to have influence over 39 chiefs in
One of those
lesser chiefs, Orata Chiquina, was also a woman with a high profile in Guatari, an Indian
village near Trading Ford.
Southeastern Indian tribes
the original Southerners, one historian calls them generally offered
women greater access to power in all forms than did the nations of 16th century Europe.
The European American
association of men with public activities and women with domestic
activities does not hold for native Southeastern societies, says Chris Rodning, a
doctoral student in archaeology at UNC-Chapel Hill specializing in Indian studies.
... Cases of native women having significant public roles in their communities were
bound to surprise Europeans accustomed to much more patriarchal societies.
Its true that at the time
Pardos expedition was seeking to create a series of settlements in the Southeast,
Queen Elizabeth I ruled England and Catherine de Medici wielded great influence in France.
But across Europe, the vast majority of women remained entirely cut off from participation
in political affairs.
The two leaders Pardo met at
Guatari were not the only female chiefs the Spanish encountered in the Southeast. A
quarter-century earlier, in 1540, Hernando De Soto led a large expedition through what is
now South Carolina, and he found a female chief ruling the powerful Cofitachequi chiefdom.
Even earlier, in 1503, the Spanish met a female Indian chief in Cuba. Spanish authorities
Women enjoyed opportunities in
traditional Southeastern Indian societies because native culture placed heavy emphasis on
establishing blood relations through the mothers family. In stark contrast to
European traditions, the Guatari and most other Indians of the Old Southeast regarded only
the mothers side of the family to be their relatives.
The mothers brother
was more important to a child than his biological father, who was of a different
clan, writes J. Leitch Wright Jr., a professor of history at Florida State
University. ... An Indian youth had brothers and sisters in the same sense as
Europeans did, but this same Indian youth also called the children of his mothers
sisters his own brothers and sisters.
In Indian tribes with powerful
chiefdoms, a persons clan, or band of maternal relatives, stood at the center of
life. A host of important possibilities for life all hinged on which clan one belonged to.
The closer a person was related to the chief, the greater the advantages.
Archaeologists cant really
say how rigidly the Guatari organized their clans. Perhaps it was a tight hierarchy.
Perhaps it was far more flexible.
Do we have the kind of
information to show that we indeed had a ranking of clans? says anthropologist Stan
Knick, director of the Native American Resource Center at UNC-Pembroke. The answer
This is only one of many
uncertainties regarding the Guatari and other Indian groups of the period. Yet, scholars
do agree on a number of general points relating to Guatari culture.
The Guatari belonged to what
archaeologists call the Uwharrie culture, which appeared in the North Carolina Piedmont
around 1300 A.D. Uwharrie culture was part of a larger Mississippian Indian
culture found through much of the eastern United States. Mississippian tribes depended on
an intensive cultivation of corn and some hunting. They usually organized their society
around loyalty to a chief.
Indians in the Mississippian
culture were no longer nomadic but settled together in villages. This allowed the creation
of an agricultural surplus, which often led to a social hierarchy within the tribe and to
the rise of tribute payments from subservient chiefs to more powerful ones.
Such payments probably had a
variety of additional meanings, both political and social, that arent clear today,
says Rodning, the UNCdoctoral student.
The people of Guatari built houses
in a round shape, according to a description by Juan de la Bandera, Pardos notary.
The Guatari likely built their houses by setting poles in the ground and then bending them
over to form a domed shape.
To cultivate their corn, they used
hoes made of crudely shipped stone blades, says Charles Hudson, an archaeologist at the
University of Georgia who has written extensively on the Pardo expedition. The Guatari
made their own pottery, using a variety of decorative designs.
One problem in understanding the
Guatari is that the Spanish viewed them and all Indians through the prism of a European
perspective. A truer understanding of the Southeastern Indians requires seeing them on
their own terms.
One example is the Indians
Christian people thought
native people had many gods, says Knick, of UNC-Pembroke. That is a real
misinterpretation of the data.
The Southeastern Indians of the
pre-contact period looked to a central creator figure responsible for everything
he goes by different names in different groups, Knick says while
also acknowledging spirits, which were a separate type of entity.
The Europeans and the
Spaniards especially were badly mistaken in saying the native people thought the
wind had a spirit, Knick says. It was hard for European people to understand.
They translated things into their own way and made it into something that it
The difficulty understanding the
Guatari even extends to their name. Most of the experts interviewed for this series
pronounced Guatari as gwuh-TAR-ee. But one archaeologist pronounced it
Thats not surprising, says
Tom Hargrove, a doctoral student in archaeology at UNC-Chapel Hill, given that the Indians
were a preliterate people and their tribal names have been passed down second-hand through
documents written in archaic Spanish.
Juan Pardos own journal of
his travels included some curious misspellings, including Boyano for Moyano,
one of his sergeants, and Juada for Joara, an Indian settlement near what is
Joara (pronounced ZHWAR-uh) and
Guatari were the two dominant Indian groups west of the Yadkin River when Pardo and his
men first traveled across what is now North Carolina in 1566-67. Weaker chiefs headed
small settlements that dotted the Piedmont, and they pledged allegiance either to Guatari
or Joara. Its possible that Guataris influence may also have extended eastward
to the upper Dan River and the headwaters of the Cape Fear River, says Hudson, the
University of Georgia archaeologist.
In the mountains Pardo met several
Cherokee-speaking headmen who did not appear to be organized into a chiefdom, although
some of them may have paid tribute to the chief at Joara. Across the mountains lay a
powerful chiefdom known as Coosa. The head of Coosa was considered a paramount chief,
which meant he was better able to mobilize large numbers of followers whether for
war, construction projects or other endeavors than were the chiefs of secondary
powers such as Guatari and Joara.
There is considerable uncertainty,
in fact, over how powerful, or how weak, the Guatari and Joara chiefdoms actually were.
Guatari Mico, the female chief of
Guatari, energetically courted the Spanish, and her primary goal may have been to shore up
her chiefdoms possible political weakness. An event in November 1567 raises some
questions along this line. Pardo was staying at Joara, an Indian village near present-day
Morganton, when two chiefs visited him. Theytold him they wanted to shift their allegiance
from Guatari to Joara. They asked the Spanish captain for permission to do so.
Pardo told them to retain their
ties to Guatari. He also presented them with three chisels as good- will gifts.
The episode shows that
Guataris authority was apparently unsteady. It also illustrates how the Spanish and
Indians engaged in a complex diplomatic dance in which they continually maneuvered for
Another relevant incident occurred
in December 1567, when Pardo arrived at Guatari for a second time. Guatari Mico and Orata
Chiquina, the two female leaders, greeted him warmly, and Pardo commanded that the lesser
chiefs turn out to attend the construction of a fort there. The next day, hours passed
until several lesser chiefs finally arrived late in the morning. Their late arrival could
have stemmed from logistical problems. But its also possible they were reluctant to
Joara, too, had problems in
maintaining loyalty among subservient chiefs. In December 1567, Pardo was at Yssa, in what
is now Lincoln County, when he met with three lesser chiefs from the area. He told them he
understood that they were unhappy under the authority of the Joara chief.
Pardo told him to swear allegiance
not to the Joara chief but only to the Spanish officer commanding the fort at Joara. The
chiefs indicated support for his idea.
The nature of the tribes and
their relationships are some of the most interesting questions, but also the ones we
cant answer at all, says David Moore, an archaeologist with the N.C. Division
of Archives and History who specializes in western North Carolina sites. Even when
we talk about these groups of people in terms of chiefdoms, were making
assumptions pretty well informed assumptions, but assumptions none the less.
The power of individual Indian
groups was often in flux, says Rodning.
By the 16th century, he says,
chiefs in many parts of Southeastern North America did not have extensive claims to
power over the everyday lives of very many people.
Alliances among chiefs probably
went through cycles, Rodning says. Instead of rigidly hierarchical relationships
between chiefs, he says, Irather suspect that in the 16th century most chiefs
had to continually negotiate their status through relations with other chiefs.
In such an environment,
Guataris chiefdom may have had trouble gaining solid footing, says Hudson.
Guatari, he writes,
seems to have been a young chiefdom whose subjects were neither very obedient nor
very devoted to their female chief. ... One possible reason Guatari was so favored by the
Spaniards is that the chiefs of Guatari may simply have been the most receptive and
compliant of the chiefs whom Pardo met. This would be consistent with their being members
of a rather weak chiefdom who were threatened by more powerful and better organized
They may have been anxious
to have allies of any sort even Spaniards.