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Thursday, February 14, 2013


The ancient Iroquoian-speaking peoples of North America lived as separate, distinct nations for centuries. But by the 16th Century, they came together as the “Iroquois League.” The five nations whose culture merged were the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and the Seneca; a sixth nation, the Tuscarora, joined the union in 1722. They had many traditions and practices that were assimilated into Colonial America and Canada that still exist today. The ideas in the U.S. Constitution are thought to have been influenced by the Iroquois.

Their societal roles were quite different from European traditions however. A woman’s place within the ancient Iroquois Nation was very different from her sisters in Europe. Iroquois society followed a matrilineal lineage. Generational succession was through the woman’s family, not the man’s. Any social status that her children gained was through her family.

Women held all the property rights. They owned the land, the dwellings, tools, blankets, and horses. Men only owned their clothes, weapons, and personal effects. Property owned by the woman before marriage remained in her possession, and was not considered comingled with her husband. The product of an individual woman’s work belonged to her alone. She could share or withhold it at her discretion.

At marriage, every young couple lived in the home of the wife’s family, and children were always educated by the woman’s family. If a woman chose to divorce her husband, all she had to do was to ask him to leave the dwelling (which she alone owned) and take his few personal possessions with him. After the separation, the children always stayed with the mother.

While men and women had separate roles in the day to day Iroquois life, both genders shared power at the clan level. Political and diplomatic decisions were always made at the local tribe level as well. Tribal councils of the mothers were held separately from the councils of the men. But frequently, a women’s representative would appear before the men’s council to present the view of the women. Tribal laws were usually initiated by the women.

The members of the Grand Council of Sachems (the ruling elite) were men but they were chosen by the mothers of each clan. The chief of the clan could be removed from office at any time by a council of women elders.

If the male clan leader did not conform to the wishes of the women of the tribe, the “clan mother” (the ranking female) could demote him. This was a process called “knocking off the horns” and consisted of removing the ceremonial deer antlers from his head piece. The now ex-chief was returned to regular citizenship. Successors were nominated by the former chief’s sister.

Warfare had always been the domain of the Iroquois men and they controlled when and against whom war would be declared; but even this was disputed by the Iroquois women during the mid 1600’s. War had become constant and unregulated. The Iroquois women devised a plan to force the men to include them in decisions about war. First, they boycotted lovemaking (called a Lysistratic action). Then they used an effective tactic, proclaiming that childbearing would cease. The Iroquois men believed that only the women knew the secret of birth so the future of the tribe would be out of their control.

What ultimately worked was that the women denied access to the men for the supplies necessary to make war; primarily food and clothing. The men did not want to be hungry and naked warriors, so the relented. The women now gained the power to declare war and accept, or veto, peace treaties. Strong consensus was required to approve a treaty. Ratification required a two-thirds majority of tribe mothers.

Centuries have now passed by and today the authority and responsibilities of Iroquois citizens is more equally divided. The modern process of electing the tribal government has made it so. But once upon a time, the women ruled . . . and the men obeyed.

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