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Marriage, Kinship and Culture: An Examination of the Traditional Iroquois


By Myranda Grecinger

The Iroquois or HAUDENOSAUNEE are one of very few perfect examples of the benefits of a matrilineal society with kinship organization that could only be accurately summed up as complex. They lived off of goods produced on family owned and maintained parcels of land that pass down through the mother’s line of dissension (Stockard, 2002). Every child born to an Iroquois family always belonged to his or her mother’s home which creates an interesting sense of belonging and stability not as often experienced in modern societies. Titles and rank where held mostly by men, but were passed down through the female line, making for an intriguing culture to say the least.

The basic mode of substance for the Iroquois is horticulture and although it is a dependable way of life, it is not always stable in some senses of the word. Horticulture is simple farming, meaning only the use of the most basic tools and no plow. The Iroquois use simple tools that are usually made at home and owned by the women’s household. Each family clears, cultivates and harvests small pieces of land. What is raised on the families land must sustain the family, which may not seem like a lot, but Iroquois families are large since all daughters and their husbands and children reside in one home with their mother, so several generations may live together and share one piece of land.

The reason that horticulture is not always the most stable mode of substance is because large camps must be relocated approximately every 12 years as resources dwindle in order for the area to be able to naturally replenish itself. According to William Engelbrecht (1974) “Archeological work in New York has demonstrated that villages tended to move about two to three miles each time.” There is also evidence that smaller camps simply moved their crops rather than the whole village, but this too provided great hardship as it meant a trek of a mile or more back and forth to care for crops, it could go on for years before the original fields were once again able to be cleared and used.

Although Iroquois culture is formed around a matrilineal social structure, unlike other societies, men and women are valued equally for their contributions. Each member of the society had his or her required tasks to complete as well as expected and respected roles that they would play. It was vital to the growth and survival of each clan and community that these roles were upheld and the responsibilities that came with them be attended to.

Contrary to a widely held belief among the Europeans, Iroquois men were not lazy by any means. They had many responsibilities within their communities. Men cleared the land and did the hunting. They were also responsible to their mother’s home and their sister’s children. These men could also be appointed to hold offices that would be passed down to them through the matrilineage and make them responsible for a multitude of responsibilities which often kept them away from home for extended periods of time.

Even children had responsibilities based on their talents and abilities, for instance, according to the Iroquois Museum, “If a young person showed that he had a good memory, he would be trained to remember the history, treaties and other important events.” Children were also expected to watch and learn from various relatives. By the time they reached puberty, their education would have provided them with a complete understanding of crafting, cooking, hunting, and more. This education prepared them for survival, marriage, and children of their own.

Iroquois women were extremely important on the home front in Iroquois society. They had the heavy tasks of cultivating the land, planting and harvesting it, as well as raising the children. “If women among the Iroquois enjoyed more privileges and possessed greater freedom than the women of other tribes, this was due to the important place that agriculture held in their economic life and the distribution of labor, which left the entire cultivations of the fields and acquisition of the greater part of the food supply to women” (Brown, 1970). They also carried the family lineage and owned property which was a right held solely for women even though they usually have no claim to any ruling titles. They were simply put, no less than vital to society. According to The Iroquois by Dean R. Snow (1994), even their origin myths were centered on a woman who was the main source of life and sustenance, much like the way Iroquois women themselves were revered.

The Iroquois belief system and mythology served the same purpose as most, to explain the world around them and relate it to things that they understood. The big difference between Iroquois beliefs and other, more popular beliefs such Christianity, is that their beliefs centered around thing such as a need for balance, whether and season cycles and women as opposed to a need to be saved from evil and sin. In fact, upon reading some of their myths that can be found on the Iroquois Museum website, one might say their ideas more closely resemble those of eastern societies. The Iroquois believed that anyone and anything had the potential to be both good and evil depending on both circumstance and perspective. Much of their beliefs explained the changing of the seasons and glorified the harvest. They also had many stories that involved hungry yet happy children, as well as many stories revolving around the beauty and strength of women. It is not difficult to deduce what held the most importance to this culture.

The political structure of the Iroquois consists of a somewhat complicated ranking system and includes such things as chiefs, household matrons and even a confederacy. The confederacy, also known as the league, is a large and important entity in the Iroquois world. It is made up of six tribes and several clans working together for the greater good of its people and according to Douglas George-Kanentiio, (2009) it was and still is a democratic entity.” The Haudenosaunee or Iroquois Confederacy includes the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora Nations.” (Iroquois Indian Museum, 2011)

One of the most important things that the confederacy did was protect each of the tribes in war. They were also responsible for decision making and provide council for each tribe for any issue the tribe was unable resolve on its own. It was and is a great benefit to all of the tribes involved because along with offering protection, council, and decision making capabilities, being involved in the confederacy means being involved with other tribes that allows Iroquois women a larger pool with which to choose a spouse for their sons.

In Iroquois society, the matron is the head of the household. Though she is usually the eldest, the position of matron is based on seniority by both lineage and talents as well. The matron plays a pivotal role in decision making for the community. She was responsible for everything from keeping the hearth to teaching the younger generation to cook, clean, raise their children and their crops. The matron was often also responsible for picking out a mate for her daughters and assisting in picking out a mate for her granddaughters and other younger female family members and even helping make big decisions for the community such as whether or not to go to war or relocate the camp.

Chiefs were responsible for making decisions for the community. He had the final say so on whether or not a couple will be married, if the tribe should go to war, or the camp should be moved and a variety of other issues. Iroquois justice systems were traditionally based on reconciliation and atonement and according toDouglasGeorge-Kanentiio, (2009) “When an offense has occurred, the clan leaders serve as arbitrators and judges”. He was also expected to attend meetings with the league and be a representative for his clan. When a chief died, his successor was chosen from the mother’s matrilineage by the women. He could not pass on his title to his own children or appoint his successor. Matrons were largely responsible for finding the replacement.The social and political ranking system of the Iroquois, while complex, certainly has its benefits as everyone is responsible for themselves, their families and their tribe’s future in some way, shape or form.

One of the many aspects worthy of continuous study of Iroquois society is the kinship structure that allows everyone a place of value. Men did not give up their mother’s household or their family of origin upon marrying and moving into their wife’s home. In the long home (which, incidentally truly is a “long” house) each family had its own compartment and they were all connected by a central hall with hearths for cooking and warmth. So, families were tight knit. Women always resided in their mother’s homes and children resided with their mother in their maternal grandmother’s home even in the cases of divorce. As many as five or more families could share a long house. Unmarried brother’s lived in the mother’s home and helped teach their sisters’ children. Indeed, every person in Iroquois society had a place where they would always belong and be needed.

Although American culture and most of its sub-cultures differ greatly from historical Iroquois culture many similarities can be found if one looks closely enough. During divorce in modern American society, judges tend to try to place the children with their biological mother, in Iroquois culture there was no question they would be placed with her, so there is some similarity in this aspect. Another similarity is that much like the Iroquois cultures confederacy; the United States has made political alliances for protection and is a member of such alliances that make joint decisions for the good of the people such as the allied forces in World War two. American society tries to incorporate a sense of neutrality and equality in terms of the value and emphasis on both men and women in the workplace and at home which is exactly what Iroquois society is based on, aside from the gender specific roles, although even in that aspect American culture is only recently abandoning those types of ideals and double standards.

Iroquois society today is a very different culture than that of its historical counterpart although some traditions do remain. “The revolutionary war drove a deep wedge among the Iroquois as factions within the league elected to fight for or against the rebellious Americans” (George-Kanentiio, 2009). Many villages were destroyed by starvation, disease and the war itself. Since that time many clans were forced from their traditional lands and onto reservations where widespread alcoholism and crime run rapid. After the war, “Some Iroquois natives who remained in Ohio developed their own political system and separated themselves entirely from the Iroquois living in the East.” (Ohio History Central, 2005) Many converted to Christianity or Catholicism and abandoned their traditional belief systems and mythology.

According to George-Kanentiio, (2009) the fundamental elements of Iroquois society and the league have survived, clan affiliation is still stable and their ceremonial cycle is still kept. The Iroquois Museum explains that by the early 1900’s most Iroquois people were wearing the same type of clothing as their European neighbors, although their traditional clothing is still a large part of ceremonies and celebrations. The traditional long house too, has been abandoned for more modern housing, but a community building used for meetings, ceremonies and dances id now referred to as a long house.

Unfortunately, their language as well as their justice system have suffered and continue to diminish with time. Today, even their mode of substance has changed as most families purchase their food rather than grow it, although they still prepare them in their traditional ceremonious fashion and many still choose to gather traditional herbs and plants for healing as opposed to relying modern medicine. “Disregarding the extraordinary estimates of some early writers, it is evident that the modern Iroquois, instead of decreasing in population, have increased, and number more at present than at any former period.” (Hodge, 1906) George-Kanentiio, (2009) explains that despite their growth in numbers, Canadian and American methodology continues to replace that of the traditional Iroquois so their culture is shrinking in a way. The Iroquois Museum has a page on their website that explains in great detail what steps are being taken in hopes of reviving the community and preventing any further loss of culture

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The fact is that even though many of these cultural changes came about due to the after effects of the war and American influences, most likely, they would have happened anyway. The traditional way of life for the Iroquois was all based on their mode of substance. Families lived together to work the land and relied on each other for survival, this is no longer the case. Since fewer and fewer families rely on horticulture, or even agriculture, there is more separation and independence among families of many cultures than ever before. Men no longer need to be away from home on the hunt for extended periods of time and modern methods of travel make council and confederacy meetings take much less time, so men are able to be at home with their wives and children more regularly and so their presence has become something that Iroquois women can now rely on rather than the support of extended family. Although progress is most certainly a positive thing in many aspects, the loss of a way of life is still something to mourn.

Although the Iroquois culture may have changed a lot over time, their historical heritage could contribute many positive aspects to be weaved into other societies. Despite the complexities, the benefits of its matrilineal structure and kinship organization appear to be immeasurable. Their families were strong and conflict was low. Although the work may have been difficult, the responsibility was shared. Unlike American culture where land and resources are becoming more and more scarce as populations expand, in Iroquois society resources were given time to replenish themselves naturally. One of the most notable and perhaps sophisticated aspects of this culture was that everyone was valued and knew their place and as of yet, for the most part this has not changed. “Traditional views described the Iroquois as more culturally advanced than their neighboring tribes” (Keener, 1999) in some ways, perhaps they were more advanced than modern American culture. Learning more about Iroquois culture can only continue to enlighten society as a whole and hopefully, by learning what we can from their history, perhaps we can benefit our future.

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Brown , Judith K. (Summer - Autumn, 1970) Economic Organization and the Position of Women among the Iroquois Ethnohistory
Vol. 17, No. 3/4 , pp. 151-167

Douglas, George-Kanentiio (10/01/2010)Peace Practices among the Iroquois

Engelbrecht , William (Jun., 1974), The Iroquois: Archaeological Patterning on the Tribal Level World Archaeology
Vol. 6, No. 1, Political Systems, pp. 52-65

Hodge, Fredrick (1906) Hand book of American Indians,

Iroquois Indian Museum (2011)

Keener , Craig S. (Autumn, 1999), An Ethnohistorical Analysis of Iroquois Assault Tactics Used against Fortified Settlements of the Northeast in the Seventeenth Century Ethnohistory
Vol. 46, No. 4, Warfare and Violence in Ethnohistorical Perspective pp. 777-807

Ohio History Central, (July 1, 2005), Iroquois Indians

Snow, Dean R. (1994) The Iroquois,

Stockyard, Janice E. (2002) Marriage IN Culture

Tooker, Elisabeth (Feb., 1970), Northern Iroquoian Sociopolitical Organization American Anthropologist New Series, Vol. 72, No. 1 pp. 90-97

© 2011 Myranda Grecinger


Myranda Grecinger (author) from Rochester, MN on September 12, 2011:

Thanks for reading, I really appreciate the feedback.

ThoughtSandwiches from Reno, Nevada on September 12, 2011:

Hi bryte, I always enjoy reading of the Eastern Woodland groups. Very well researched and conveyed. Voted Up, useful and interesting.

Ayub Zain on September 12, 2011:


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