“KNOCKING OFF THE HORNS”
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.
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.
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.
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.