Then as I started reading from feminist authors I was shocked by how these fairy tales seemed to be attacked because of their passive female characters and the gender roles they were assigned. At first I was defensive. And I do stand by some of my arguments-we have to remember not to condemn Cinderella too much for accepting her lot as servant; at certain points in history women really had very limited options. What bothers me even more is the idea that housework/raising children is a negative thing. It's one thing to be confined to the kitchen and the home, another to have the responsibility of taking care of home and kids, which is a huge and incredibly important job no matter which gender does it. And just because a fairy tale ends with a romance as a happy ending doesn't mean we assume that the princess was sitting around doing nothing but longing for a prince-but that depends on the version, because in some (Disney's oldest princess movies) they literally do sing about wishing for a prince.
So if this development in fairy tales was due to society, what about fairy tales from a culture that is more egalitarian? In general (of course remembering that each tribe is very unique) Native American cultures gave more authority and respect to their women. For example, those who taught their tribe sacred rituals were usually "a young woman or child, since most cultures believed that women and children have a more direct connection to the sacred energy of life" (Huffstetler). Tribes like the Cherokee were matriarchal-identity and citizenship was found through the mother and not the father. The women were in charge of their own houses and owned the children. "A Cherokee woman had more rights and power than Eurpean women. She decided whom she would marry, and the man built a house for her, which was considered her property...the house and children were hers. She and her brothers reared them. If she bore too many children, or if a child were deformed, she had the right to kill the unwanted infant. Should the father kill one, he would be guilty of murder. To obtain a divorce, she packed her husband's clothes in a bag and set it outside her door. She was free to marry someone else, and so was he." (Ehle)
With such a starkly different idea of gender roles, I was curious as to how this would be reflected in their folktales and stories. To clarify, I did not do a thorough search of Native American folklore, I sifted through a couple of books and perused a few websites. Anyone with more expertise on the subject who can confirm or contradict anything I say here is welcome to enlighten me in the comments! But some patterns I noticed:
Image from here-also a good source of Native American tales
First of all, it was difficult to even find tales that mirror traditional fairy tales. There are no "rise tales" (rags to riches stories, i.e. Cinderella) in Native folklore because they didn't have class structure like in Europe. Within the tribe there seemed to be much more equality. Most Native American tales seem to be legends that explain how the world came to be the way it is-how the stars got in the sky, why the mole burrows underground, etc.
Favorite European tales tend to be predominantly romance and adventure. As far as romance goes, I didn't find any tales that involved a woman sitting around waiting for a man to come and save her. Several tales started with women who rejected several suitors. These women are not desperate and hoping to fulfill themselves through marriage (although I believe marriage was still an expected destiny for most Native American people, they just had less of a love at first sight mentality).
There is a beautifully tragic tale from the Zuni tribe about a grieving man who lost his wife and followed her into the land of the dead. It reminded me of Cupid and Psyche, only this time it's a man seeking his wife and not the woman-he must go on a long and difficult journey to keep up with her. Like Psyche he is given a warning-he must not touch his wife. Like Psyche he disobeys-but without the happy ending. I was recently musing on the sad fact that Western myth and folklore tends to blame women for curiosity, if not for sin in general. This tale is a distinct contrast, because the man is responsible for death itself-"if he had practiced patience and self-denial for only a short time, then death would have been overcome." Yet the tale ends by saying that, if no one died, the earth would be overcrowded and it would lead to more war.
Yet some elements were not too different from the fairy tales we are familiar with. In Hero tales, the heroes are still largely men. The culture still has ideas of gender roles-the women stay home, take care of children and the fields, while the men are hunters and warriors. Yet maybe gender roles themselves are not the problem. Yes, it becomes an issue in a society like ours where we have so many job options available and women are denied certain opportunities. But for most of human history, "what do you want to be when you grow up?" wasn't really a question for children. They had to tend to their farms and family businesses and keep each other clothed and fed. The problem with gender roles is a lack of respect for certain roles, and that's the main difference between European women who were considered their husband's property, and Native Americans who gave both genders authority, over different areas.
Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation by John Ehle
Myths of the World: Tales of the Native American by Edward W. Huffstetler