Clan Mother

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Clan Mother is a traditional role of elder matriarch women within certain Native American clans, who was typically in charge of appointing tribal chiefs and Faithkeepers.


Hopi Clan Mothers

The Hopi (in what is now the Hopi Reservation in northeastern Arizona), according to Alice Schlegel, had as its "gender ideology ... one of female superiority, and it operated within a social actuality of sexual equality." [1] According to Diana LeBow (based on Schlegel's work), in the Hopi, "gender roles ... are egalitarian .... [and] [n]either sex is inferior." [2] LeBow concluded that Hopi women "participate fully in ... political decision-making." [3] According to Schlegel, "the Hopi no longer live as they are described here" [4] and "the attitude of female superiority is fading". [4] Schlegel said the Hopi "were and still are matrilinial" [5] [lower-alpha 1] and "the household ... was matrilocal". [5] [lower-alpha 2]

Schlegel explains why there was female superiority as that the Hopi believed in "life as the highest good ... [with] the female principle ... activated in women and in Mother Earth ... as its source" [6] and that the Hopi "were not in a stf continual war with equally matched neighbors" [7] and "had no standing army" [7] so that "the Hopi lacked the spur to masculine superiority" [7] and, within that, as that women were central to institutions of clan and household and predominated "within the economic and social systems (in contrast to male predominance within the political and ceremonial systems)", [7] the Clan Mother, for example, being empowered to overturn land distribution by men if she felt it was unfair, [6] since there was no "countervailing ... strongly centralized, male-centered political structure". [6]

Iroquois Clan Mothers

The Iroquois clan mother is responsible for the welfare of the clan. She names all the people of the clan and holds a position in nominating, installing and removing the male chief, the Hoyaneh ("Caretaker of the Peace"). They are considered the life givers. Each clan mother has a Faithkeeper who is responsible for ceremonial preparations, weddings, funerals, and other rituals. [8] The clan mother's position is hereditary; her title rests within the clan and is usually passed on to her female relatives, looking first at her eldest sisters, other sisters, then her eldest daughter and other daughters. [9] The Kanien'kéha word for clan mother, Oiá:ner, translates to English as "righteous" or "she is good". The Iroquois had 9 clans divided into three elements. The land element was represented by the wolf, deer and bear clans; the air element by the heron, snipe and hawk clans; and the water element by the beaver, eel and turtle clans. [10] The basic unit of the traditional Haudenosaunee society was the clan forming "firesides" of a husband, wife and their children; a typical clan in a village would number between 50-200 people. [11] Every clan was divided into two groups called moieties which carried out various rituals. [11] Every clan was headed by a clan mother. [11] Some of the most famous Haudenosaunee leaders have been clan mothers, most notably the half-French Madam Montour and her daughter French Margaret and her granddaughter Queen Esther. [12]

The Haudenosaunee League was founded according to their legends by a prophet known as the Great Peacemaker who brought the Five Nations together sometime in the 12th century, and since his first convert was a woman named Jigonhsasee and generally his first followers were women, the institution of the clan mothers was a tribute to this aspect of the story. [13] In Haudenosaunee legend, before the Great Peacemaker, what became the Five Nations were dominated by a brutal struggle between an all-male, cannibal cult called the "Hunters" vs. the all-female society of farmers called the "Cultivators". [14] In the story, not all the men joined the cannibal cult, and instead stand by their women, revering the "corn mothers" (another term for clan mother) who knew how to farm, and defeat the cannibal cult. [15] In tribute to Jigonhasee's work and his other female followers, the Great Peacemaker had decreed that men and women were to be equal and the clan mothers were to choose the leaders of the League. [16]

For the Haudenosaunee, the universe was divided into two halves that needed each other to co-exist as for them, the concept of east was meaningless without the west and the concept of the west was meaningless without the east. [17] In this way of understanding the universe, male and female were different aspects of the world that needed each other to co-exist in order for the world to continue, and as such, women were seen as the equals of men. [17] The councils of the clan mothers, whose powers were equal to the councils of the chiefs, were a way of balancing out the male and female to achieve social harmony. [17] One Iroquois told the American author Jeanette Rodriguez: "Within our society, we maintain a balance between the responsibilities of the women, the responsibilities of men, of the chiefs and of the faithkeepers. All of our men in between have to keep this balance so that at no time and no place does anyone have more power than the rest; for our leadership to function, all must have equal power. They must speak to one another". [18] In Haudenosaunee mythology, it was the Sky Woman who came from the Sky world inhabited by the supernatural beings who fell from the Sky world down to what became the earth, and who is the mother of all life in this world, thus making women more worthy of respect. [19] For the Haudenosaunee, it was the Sky woman who created all life on the earth, and women as the bearers of life, are seen as her heirs, being seen as spiritually part of the "mother earth" that nurtures all life. [20] The Sky woman was considered to be the First Clan Mother, and her daughter, the Lynx Woman, the Second Clan Mother. [21] Since Turtle Island (i.e. North America) was created for the Sky Woman when she fell to the earth, the Haudenosaunee traditionally gave ownership of the land to women. [21]

Reflecting this identification of "mother earth" with the feminine, for the Haudenosaunee farming was strictly women's work, and the staple crops of corn, squash and beans were known as the "Three Sisters". [22] One of the laws credited to the Great Peacemaker declared that:

The lineal descent of the People of the Five Nations shall run in the female line. Women shall be considered proprietors of the nation. They shall own the land and the soil. Men and women shall the status of the mother. [21]

However, the Haudenosaunee were by no means anti-male; in the Sky Woman story, the spirit of the North Wind seeks to seduce her teenage daughter, the Lynx Woman, by taking the forms of various animals until finally the North Spirit spirit takes a form she cannot resist, that of a handsome young man, and thereby fathers two twins. [14] The 19th century American feminist Matilda Joslyn Gage was greatly influenced by seeing the power of the clan mothers, which she deemed "mother rule" or a "matriarchate", and by their Haudenosaunee creation story, where it is a goddess who lives in harmony with nature rather than a patriarchal God who created all life in the world. [23]

Finally, the clan mothers conduct the cross-over ceremony which marks the end of childhood and the beginning of adolescence. [24] The cross-over ceremonies consists of much fasting, teaching, a period of seclusion and finally a ceremony involving singing and dancing that marks the symbolic beginning of adolescence. [25] The Haudenosaunee view life as consisting of several stages starting with conception itself with sex regarded as a sacred act that symbolically united the dual male and female aspects of the universe in order to create new life. [26] Sex is often described by the Haudenosaunnee as the sacred "Rite of Conception" that begins new life, and for the Haudenosaunee the Christian concept of Jesus's virgin birth is bizarre. [27] Birth is viewed as the second stage of life, with the clan mothers formally welcoming the newly born child into the world. [28] The end of "toothlessness" when toddlers grow their teeth is seen as the end of infancy and the beginning of childhood, which is the third stage of life. [28] The crossover ceremonies marking the end of childhood and the beginning of first adolescence and then the end of adolescence and the beginning of adulthood are seen as the fourth and fifth states of life. [24] The cross-over ceremonies involved much fasting over a 20-day period, and clan mothers generally provide advice and encouragement to the young people undergoing the fast. [29] During the fasting phrase of the cross-over ceremonies, clan mothers often provide advice and encouragement to the fasting young people. [30]

Historically, the clan mothers selected the 50 sachems who ran the Haudenosaunee League that comprised the Five Nations of the Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, and Seneca, and who became the Six Nations when the Tuscarora joined the League in 1722. [31] The clan mothers would consult other senior women in her clan before naming a chief. [32] The clans formed the local government in the League, and most importantly, the clans cut across the differences between the Five Nations as each of the Five Nations were divided into the 9 clans. [33] The clan mothers also had the power to dismiss any chief or sachem who was felt to be falling in his duties, though the clan mother had to give three warnings first. [34] The power of the clan mothers to name and dismiss chiefs ensured that a female perspective was always maintained on political decisions. [35] Anyone seeking to be adopted into an Haudenosaunee family had to approved by the clan mothers. [36] When the Tuscarora joined the League, they had petition the clan mothers of the Five Mothers for permission to join, starting in 1711, and it was not until 11 years in 1722 that permission was finally granted. [37] The Iroquois call themselves the Haudenosaunee ("the people of the longhouse") and reject the name Iroquois, which was the derogatory name given to them by the Algonquins meaning the "killer people". As the French were in contact with the Algonquins before they met the Haudenosaunee, the French adopted the Algonquin name for them, much to the chagrin of the Haudenosaunee, who consider the name Iroquois to be offensive.

The clan mothers were in charge of the various clans that made up the Iroquois League and as the Iroquois were a matrilateral society this meant that children were born into their mother's clan (i.e. if a woman belonged to the bear clan, then all her children belonged to the bear clan). [38] It was considered to be incest by the Iroquois to marry within one's own matrilineal clan so traditionally marriages were between clans. [39] Marrying someone from the same patrilineal clan was considered acceptable. [40] The importance of the clan mothers was often missed by Europeans in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, who coming from patriarchal societies, tended to assume that the chiefs and sachems had the same powers as European kings, which was not the case. [41] The scholar Barbara Mann has charged that the impression that the councils of the clan mothers was "secondary" to the councils of the chiefs is a misunderstanding caused by Europeans who could not understand the gender equality in Iroquois society, and in fact the councils were equal. [42] The councils of the clan mothers met the councils of the chiefs at least every month under a full moon, but meetings could be held more frequently if there was an emergency. [36] The American scholar Elisabeth Tooker denied the popular claim that the Haudenosaunee League inspired the U.S. constitution of 1787, noting the U.S. constitution did not allow women to vote or hold office until 1920, and even today there is no guaranteed female representation in the executive, legislative or judicial arms of the U.S. government; in short, there is no counterpart to the clan mothers within the American system of governance. [43]

The clan mothers traditionally launched the "mourning wars" to take captives who would become Haudenosaunee by being adopted by a family to replace a family member who had died or alternatively be tortured to death, by announcing that a family was grieving because of a death of a family member and accused the young men in their villages of being cowards. [44] At which point, the young men could either go on the war path by taking part in a "mourning war" or be branded cowards, which would make then unmarriageable. [44] Usually in order to prove their courage, the young men would take up the challenge issued by the clan mothers by going on a "mourning war".

A sign of the power of the clan mothers occurred in 1713 when a delegation representing the Palatines of 6 men had to ask a meeting of the council of clan mothers for permission to settle in Kanienkeh ("the land of the flint"-the Iroquois name for their homeland in what is now upstate New York), as only the clan mothers had that power. [45] The Palatine delegates and their interpreter had been expecting to meet the sachems, and were surprised to be meeting the clan mothers instead. The Canadian historian D. Peter MacLeod writing about the relationship between the Canadian Iroquois and the French in the time of the Seven Years' War wrote: "Most critically, the importance of clan mothers, who possessed considerable economic and political power within Canadian Iroquois communities, was blithely overlooked by patriarchal European scribes. Those references that do exist, show clan mothers meeting in council with their male counterparts to take decisions regarding war and peace and joining in delegations to confront the Onontio [the Iroquois term for the French governor-general] and the French leadership in Montreal, but only hint at the real influence wielded by these women". [41]

Significantly, the famous Mohawk chief Joseph Brant did not acquire political power despite his successes as a Loyalist commander in the American Revolutionary War until he married his third wife, Adonwentishon (also known as Catherine Croghan), who was a clan mother in 1780. [46] It was only after Brant's marriage to the clan mother Adonwentishon that Brant become politically powerful within the Iroquois League, and his power rested on the fact that his wife was the clan mother of the turtle clan. [47] Before then, the political power in the Brant family had been Joseph Brant's sister, Molly Brant, who was a clan mother of the wolf clan. [48] Brant was the second common-in-law wife of Sir William Johnson, the superintendent of northern Indian affairs with the first being a Palatine named Catherine Weisenberg. Brant had been in a relationship with Johnson from her teenage years on, and after Weisenberg died in 1759, promptly moved into Johnson's house to become the lady of the house. [49] Unlike Weisenberg, Brant featured prominently in Johnson's letters as his strong-willed and much younger wife, who managed both Johnson Hall and assisted his work. [50] In common with clan mothers, Brant was never deferential to her husband and insisted on attending political meetings with British leaders as befitting her status, where she was outspoken in defense of her people's best interests. [50] Molly Brant like her brother was a Loyalist, and was considered by the British to be one of their most powerful allies within the Iroquois League, able because of her position as a clan mother to rally the Iroquois warriors to fight for the Crown against the Americans despite the wishes of many Iroquois to be neutral in the war. [48] Daniel Claus, an agent for the Indian Department wrote that "one word from her is more taken notice of by the Five Nations than a thousand from any white man without exception". [48]

Regarding the role of women in Iroquois society, Doug George-Kanentiio (2000) writes:

In our society, women are the center of all things. Nature, we believe, has given women the ability to create; therefore it is only natural that women be in positions of power to protect this function. ... We traced our clans through women; a child born into the world assumed the clan membership of its mother. Our young women were expected to be physically strong. ... The young women received formal instruction in traditional planting. ... Since the Iroquois were absolutely dependent upon the crops they grew, whoever controlled this vital activity wielded great power within our communities. It was our belief that since women were the givers of life they naturally regulated the feeding of our people. ... In all countries, real wealth stems from the control of land and its resources. Our Iroquois philosophers knew this as well as we knew natural law. To us it made sense for women to control the land since they were far more sensitive to the rhythms of the Mother Earth. We did not own the land but were custodians of it. Our women decided any and all issues involving territory, including where a community was to be built and how land was to be used. ... In our political system, we mandated full equality. Our leaders were selected by a caucus of women before the appointments were subject to popular review....Our traditional governments are composed of an equal number of men and women. The men are chiefs and the women clan-mothers. ... As leaders, the women closely monitor the actions of the men and retain the right to veto any law they deem inappropriate. ... Our women not only hold the reigns of political and economic power, they also have the right to determine all issues involving the taking of human life. Declarations of war had to be approved by the women, while treaties of peace were subject to their deliberations. [51]

See also


  1. Matrilineality, a system in which descent is traced through maternal ancestors
  2. Matrilocal residence, a system in which a married couple live with or near the wife's parents


  1. Schlegel, Alice, Hopi Gender Ideology of Female Superiority, in Quarterly Journal of Ideology: "A Critique of the Conventional Wisdom", vol. VIII, no. 4, 1984, p. 44 and see pp. 44–52 (essay based partly on "seventeen years of fieldwork among the Hopi", per p. 44 n. 1) (author of Dep't of Anthropology, Univ. of Ariz., Tucson).
  2. LeBow, Diana, Rethinking Matriliny Among the Hopi, op. cit., p. [8].
  3. LeBow, Diana, Rethinking Matriliny Among the Hopi, op. cit., p. 18.
  4. 1 2 Schlegel, Alice, Hopi Gender Ideology of Female Superiority, op. cit., p. 44 n. 1.
  5. 1 2 Schlegel, Alice, Hopi Gender Ideology of Female Superiority, op. cit., p. 45.
  6. 1 2 3 Schlegel, Alice, Hopi Gender Ideology of Female Superiority, op. cit., p. 50.
  7. 1 2 3 4 Schlegel, Alice, Hopi Gender Ideology of Female Superiority, op. cit., p. 49.
  9. Loretta Kemsley, MATRIARCH: An Iroquois Celebration of Womanhood
  10. Rodriguez, Jennifer A Clan Mother's Call: Reconstructing Haudenosaunee Cultural Memory Albany: SUNY Press, 2017 page 38.
  11. 1 2 3 Johnson 2003, p. 21.
  12. Johnson 2003, p. 39-41.
  13. Rodriguez, Jennifer A Clan Mother's Call: Reconstructing Haudenosaunee Cultural Memory Albany: SUNY Press, 2017 pages 41-42.
  14. 1 2 Mann 1997, p. 431.
  15. Mann 1997, p. 433.
  16. Rodriguez, Jennifer A Clan Mother's Call: Reconstructing Haudenosaunee Cultural Memory Albany: SUNY Press, 2017 page 42.
  17. 1 2 3 Mann 2000, p. 124.
  18. Rodrigeuz 2017, p. 50.
  19. Rodriquez 2017, p. 24-29.
  20. Rodriquez 2017, p. 33 & 55.
  21. 1 2 3 Mann 1997, p. 438.
  22. Rodriquez 2017, p. 33-34.
  23. Rodriquez 2017, p. 8.
  24. 1 2 Rodriguez, Jennifer A Clan Mother's Call: Reconstructing Haudenosaunee Cultural Memory Albany: SUNY Press, 2017 page 50.
  25. Rodriguez, Jennifer A Clan Mother's Call: Reconstructing Haudenosaunee Cultural Memory Albany: SUNY Press, 2017 page 51.
  26. Rodriguez, Jennifer A Clan Mother's Call: Reconstructing Haudenosaunee Cultural Memory Albany: SUNY Press, 2017 page 52.
  27. Rodriquez 2017, p. 52.
  28. 1 2 Rodriguez, Jennifer A Clan Mother's Call: Reconstructing Haudenosaunee Cultural Memory Albany: SUNY Press, 2017 page 53.
  29. Rodriquez 2017, p. 50-52.
  30. Rodriquez 2017, p. 50.
  31. Paxton, James Joseph Brant and His World: 18th Century Mohawk Warrior and Statesman, Toronto: James Lorimer, 2008 page 8.
  32. Williams 1994, p. 1010.
  33. Mann 1997, p. 439.
  34. Rodriguez, Jennifer A Clan Mother's Call: Reconstructing Haudenosaunee Cultural Memory Albany: SUNY Press, 2017 page 95.
  35. Williams 1994, p. 1010-1011.
  36. 1 2 Mann 2000, p. 127.
  37. Mann 2000, p. 127-128.
  38. Paxton, James Joseph Brant and His World: 18th Century Mohawk Warrior and Statesman, Toronto: James Lorimer, 2008 page 7.
  39. Charlton, Thomas "On Iroquois Incest" pages 29-43 from Anthropologica, Volume 10, Issue 1, 1968 pages 30-34
  40. Charlton, Thomas "On Iroquois Incest" pages 29-43 from Anthropologica, Volume 10, Issue 1, 1968 pages 30-34
  41. 1 2 MacLeod, D. Peter The Canadian Iroquois and the Seven Years' War, Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2012 page xiv.
  42. Mann 2000, p. 123.
  43. Tooker 1988, p. 312.
  44. 1 2 Richter, Daniel "War and Culture: The Iroquois Experience" pages 528-559 from The William and Mary Quarterly, Volume 40, No. 4, October 1983 page 532
  45. Paxton, James Joseph Brant and his world, Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 2008 page 12
  46. Paxton, James Joseph Brant and His World: 18th Century Mohawk Warrior and Statesman, Toronto: James Lorimer, 2008 pages 45-46.
  47. Paxton, James Joseph Brant and His World: 18th Century Mohawk Warrior and Statesman, Toronto: James Lorimer, 2008 page 46.
  48. 1 2 3 Paxton, James Joseph Brant and His World: 18th Century Mohawk Warrior and Statesman, Toronto: James Lorimer, 2008 page 43.
  49. Paxton, James Joseph Brant and His World: 18th Century Mohawk Warrior and Statesman, Toronto: James Lorimer, 2008 page 24.
  50. 1 2 Paxton, James Joseph Brant and His World: 18th Century Mohawk Warrior and Statesman, Toronto: James Lorimer, 2008 page 25.
  51. Doug George-Kanentiio, Iroquois Culture & Commentary, New Mexico, Clear Light Publishers, 2000, pp. 53–55 (emphasis added).

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The Ober, formerly Obermann, in Austrian also called the Manderl, is the court card in the German and Swiss styles of playing cards that corresponds in rank to the Queen in French decks. The name Ober is an abbreviation of the former name for these cards, Obermann, which meant something like 'superior' or 'lord'. Van der Linde argues that the King, Ober and Unter in a pack of German cards represented the military ranks of general, officer (Oberofficier) and sergeant (Unterofficier), while the pip cards represented the common soldier.

John Arthur Gibson Seneca chief

John Arthur Gibson (1850–1912) was a chief of the Seneca nation of the North American Iroquois confederation. Part Onondagan and part Senecan, he resided within the reserve of the Six Nations of the Grand River in Ontario, Canada. Knowledgeable about Iroquois culture, he is best known for the versions he provided of the Iroquois oral constitution, the Great Law of Peace. He acted as an advisor to the Canadian Department of Indian Affairs in matters relating both to Iroquois and non-Iroquois indigenous people. He was a well-respected player of the traditional Iroquois sport of lacrosse until he was blinded during a game when he was 31.