Site hosted by Build your free website today!

Kinship and the Oneida Family

"Haudenosaunee is the general term we use to refer to ourselves, instead of "Iroquois." The word "Iroquois" is not a Haudenosaunee word. It is derived from a French version of a Huron Indian name that was applied to our ancestors and it was considered derogatory, meaning "Black Snakes." Haudenosaunee means "People building an extended house" or more commonly referred to as "People of the Long House." The longhouse was a metaphor introduced by the Peace Maker at the time of the formation of the Confederacy meaning that the people are meant to live together as families in the same house. Today, this means that those who support the traditions, beliefs, values and authority of the Confederacy are to be known as Haudenosaunee."

Excerpt from "The Great Tree and the Longhouse, the Culture of the Iroquois" by Hazel W. Hertzber follows:

Every society has a family system. Babies have to be cared for, since they are the most helpless of creatures. It is in the family that the little child first hears the language of his culure. Through the family the child first learns the ways of his society. His first emotional ties are with members of his family. In most societies the family is also an economic unit: it provides the child with food, clothing, and shelter.

And so it was with the Iroquois family. But their family was organized quite diferently from our own. Children had a different relationship with their parents. Authority in the family rested in different persons. Ties between members were different from our ties with our relations. Each person had a much larger group of people whom he considered relatives than we have.

All these things make the Iroquois family rather difficult for us to understand at first. We shall have to get used to a whole new set of family relationships and see how they worked. What seemed perfectly natural to an Iroquois child will seem quite strange to us.

A further difficulty lies in our langueage. A language fits the kinship system of the people who speak it. Our English vocabulary is adequate for describing our kinship system but is poorly suited to discussing that of the Iroquois. We shall have to use some unfamiliear terms.

The terms for members of our immediate family are very clear to us: father, mother, husband, wife, son, daughter, brother, sister. Even here, however, we do not have an everyday word meaning "brothers and sisters." the technical term for these is "siblings." That is, all your brothers and sisters are your siblings, and you are their sibling.

"Grandfather" and " grandmother" are easy. But "paternal grandfather"(father's father) and "maternal grandfather" (mother's father) do not come so easily to the tongue. You may see your mother's sister every day, but you have to grope for the words "maternal aunt" to describe her relationship to you. When we get to cousins, it becomes even harder. Anyone who has ever heard his elderly relatives discuss family relationships and refer to "your second cousin once removed" knows how hard it is for us to sort out many of our relatives. We use such terms so seldom that we are not accustomed to them. But we shall have to use them to descibe the Iroquois family system.

The word "family" itself we apply to two different social units which are found in most societies. In many other languages there are different terms for these units. The first is the "family" most familiar to us, which social scientists call the "nuclear family.

It consists of father, mother, and their children. In this family the most important tie is that of marriage.

There is also what social scientists call the "extended family. Here the "family" means all those people to whom we are biologically related through our father, or through our mother, or through both. In this family the most important tie is that of "blood." In our society the nuclear family is much more important than the extended family. We are usually not quite sure whom to include and whom to leave out in the latter.

Just the opposite was the case with the Iroquois. To them the extended family, or "longhouse family," was not even thought of as a separate unit. Father, mother, and children, or, what the Iroquois called the "fireside family," occupied a compartment in the longhouse and shared a hearth with the fireside family across the corridor. But only the family of the longhouse where they lived. The father continued to belong to the longhouse family of his mother, even though he no longer lived in his mother's longhouse.

The principle is this: each Iroquois belonged to the longhouse family into which he or she was born, which was the mother's longhouse family. Longhouse family membership lasted throughout one's life.

The head of the longhouse family was always a woman, usually the oldest woman, and occasionally some other highly respected woman. Members of the longhouse family were all her "blood" relatives and descendants. Were you an Iroquois child, your longhouse family would include your brothers and sisters; your mother, her brothers and sisters, and the children of her sisters; your maternal grandmother (mother's mother), her brothers and sisters, and the children of her sisters' and so on. Thus not everyone in your longhouse would be a member of your longhouse family. Nor would everyone in your longhouse family live in your longhouse.

Suppose that your maternal great-grandmother (your mother's mother's mother) were still alive. She and her husband would live in your longhouse, together with all their daughters and their daughters' husbands. This would include your maternal grandmother (mother's mother) and grandfather (mother's father). Married sons would have moved to the longhouses of their wives.

Of all the people mentioned so far, your maternal great-grandmother, her sisters, and her sons and daughters (including your maternal grandmother) would all be members of the longhouse family. So would her brothers. But your maternal great-grandfather (mother's mother's father) would not be members of your longhouse family even though they lived in the longhouse. They would remain members of their mothers' longhouse families, where they originated.

Also living in the longhouse would be all your maternal grand-mother's daughters (including your mother) and their husbands (including your father). If your mother's brothers were married, they would have moved out, of course, but they would be frequent visitors in their mother's house. Any of her unmarried brothers would still be at home.

Of this group, your mother and all her brothers and sisters would be members of the longhouse family. Your father and the husbands of all your maternal aunts (mother's sisters) would not be members of your longhouse family but would continue to be members of their own longhouse families.

Now we come to your generation. You and all your siblings, together with the children of your mother's sisters, would live in the longhouse and be members of the same longhouse family.

When you grew up and were ready to marry, the match would be arranged by the women of the two longhouse families. If you were a girl, your husband would come to live in your longhouse, although he would continue to be a member of his own longhouse family. Your children would belong to your longhouse family. If you were a boy, you would go to live in the longhouse of your wife, but you would still be a member of your mother's longhouse family. Your children would belong to your wife's longhouse family.

As we have seen, members of other longhouse families, like your father, would live in your mother's longhouse. But the longhouse belonged to one extended family-your mother's. To your mother's family you would owe your loyalty all your life.

What we have just described is the plan or model of the family which every Iroquois carried in his mind, just as we carry a model of our family in our minds. In practice, however, the system was modified, just as we modify ours sometimes. For instance, the Iroquois' universal custom of visiting affected actual family relationships. A married man might visit his mother's longhouse for a day, or a week, or even for months, participating in the activities of his own longhouse family. In practice it might be hard to tell the differecne between visiting and permanent residence.

In our system, we know that every family is not just like the model we have in our heads. A child may live with his grandparents, for example, or a sister may live with her brother, his wife, and their children. Or perhaps a grandmother lives awhile with each of her grown children in turn. These are modifications, but they do not change the model of the nuclear family that we carry in our minds-that is, father, mother, and their children.

Modifications in practice among the Iroquois were possible without danger of disorganization of the Iroquois family because the family structure itself was so strong and because people held the model of the family so firmly in their minds. People are generally freer to modify rules when everyone agrees on them and when modificaton poses no threat to the system itself.

Thus the Iroquois child always belonged to his mother's longhouse family, even after he was married. He got his name, his inherited property, and sometimes his rank through her family.

A society which, like the Iroquois, counts descent through the female line is called "matrilineal." Usually matrilineal extended families are grouped into clans or parts of clans. So it was with the Iroquois.

Outside the door of the longhouse was the symbol of the clan to which the longhouse family belonged. Several longhouse families together made up a clan. All the members of these families believed that they were descended from the same woman, a common female ancestor who had died long ago. In the longhouse family, people knew who their female ancestor actually was and could trace their relationship to her. Clan members could not trace their common ancestor. They simply believed that she had lived once upon a time, and that all the longhouse families in the clan were related to each other through her.

The Iroquois had ten clans altogether. These were commonly named after animals and birds, such as Beaver, Bear, Deer, and Heron. Not every nation had every clan, but all the Iroquois nations shared three clans-Bear, Wolf, and Turtle. A member of one's clan was considered a relative no matter where he lived in Iroquoia. If you were a member of the Bear, Wolf, or Turtle clans, for example, you would have courtesy relatives in every Iroquois nation. This web of kinship helped bind the nations of Iroquoia together.

As the clan was made up of longhouse families, so the clans themselves were grouped into larger divisions. The Iroquois called each of these "a group of sisters and brothers." Social scientists have adopted the old Greek term "phratry" (meaning "a group of related families") for these groupings of clans.

The functions of the phratries were largely ceremonial-in games, in council, in ceremonies, and in funerals. Certain characteristics of the phratries grew out of the clans which comprised them. Since you were not allowed to marry anyone in your own clan, it was preferred, although not absolutely essential, that you marry outside your own phratry. Therefore your father and mother were always of different clans and usually of different phratries.

The phratries themselves were grouped in two ways, according to two fundamental principles of Iroquois social organization.

The first principle went by two's-two sides supporting each other "across the fire." This dual system started with two individuals, such as husband and wife, and extended all the way to clans, phratries, and to the nations. From the individual at his fireside to the Great Council Fire of the League, this principle of supporting one another across the fire was at work. As the Iroquois say, "This holds the longhouse together."

In the central and western nations of Iroquoia-the Onondaga, the Cayuga, and the Seneca-the clans were grouped into two phratries operating according to this dual principle. In one phratry were the Bear, Wolf, Beaver, and Turtle clans, and in the other phratry were the Deer, Hawk, Snipe, Heron, and Eel clans. Members of the same phratry were "sisters and brothers," while members of the opposite phratry were "cousins." Sonial scientists call this kind of social arrangement, which has two interacting parts, a "moiety system." Each side is called a "moiety," meaning "half."

In the eastern Iroquois nations-the Mohawk and the Oneida-the second principle of Iroquois social organization was at work. This involved judging or arbitrating between supporting sides, and three groups rather than two were required. In both of these nations there were only three clans which had grown very large. The representatives of these three clans-Wolf, Bear, and Turtle-sat in council together. Across the fire from each other were the Wolf and Bear chiefs, who called each other "cousin," and acted like opposite moieties. At the head of the fire sat the Turtle chiefs, who arbitrated betwen the other two clans.

On many occaisions, however, such as games, ceremonies, and funerals, only two groups or moieties were required. For these purposes, Turtle joined with Wolf as brothers, forming a moiety, while "across the fire" were their cousins, Bear, acting now as the opposite moiety.

Both of these systems-going by two's and by three's-were combined in the Confederacy. At the League Council Fire, the Mohawk and Seneca chiefs were Elder Brothers in one phratry. Across the fire were their cousins, the Younger Brothers, the Oneida and Cayuga chiefs. At the head of the fire sat the Onondaga as judges or arbitrators, the "firekeepers."

Sometimes, however, a moiety system was required in the Confederacy. When a Confederacy Chief died and a new chief was raised up, two moieties, one for mourning and the other for comforting, were needed-just as they were in a funeral ceremony in the village. When such a division into halves was necessary for the Condolence Ceremony, the Onondagas joined with the Mohawks and the Senecas as brothers to from one moiety, while the Oneidas and the Cayugas were brothers in the other moiety. Thus the League combined two familiar systems, shifting back and forth between them as the occasion demanded.

As we have seen, every person in an Iroquois village was related to every other person, either by "blood" or by marriage. Every Iroquois belonged to a fireside family, a longhouse family, a clan, a phratry or moiety, and a nation. These memberships gave him a clear set of relationships as soon as he was born, relationships that constantly expanded as his horizon extended to other Iroquois villages and nations.

For example, an Iroquois child used the same kinship term for his mother and all his mother's sisters. He knew who his own mother was, of course, but his relationships with his mother's sisters were likely to be quite close. Instead of having a very close relationship concentrated on one mother, an Iroquois child spread his affections over several mothers. In turn, his mother's sisters looked on him as their child. This gave the Iroquois child a good deal of security.

In addition to having more "mothers" than we do, the Iroquois child had more "brothers" and "sisters." He called his own siblings "elder brother" and "younger brother," and "elder sister" and "younger sister."But he also extended these terms to the children of his mother's sisters. In our society we would call such relatives cousins. But in the Itoquois world, the children of sisters were considered to be brothers and sisters. The Iroquois child was therefore apt to have a good many brothers and sisters living in his longhouse.

He had still more "brothers" and "sisters" living in other longhouses. All the children of his father's brothers were also considered to be his brothers and sisters. The children of his mother's brothers were "cousins," as were the children of his father's sisters.

The pattern, which looks complicated at first, was really quite simple: all the children of mother's sisters were considered brothers and sisters, and all the childrenn of father's brothers were also brothers and sisters.

Such a system seems very strange to us. We have to imagine what it would be like to have not just one mother, but several. And we have to think of the father as not really one of the family. His relationship to his children might be quite casual. The mother was very much in charge. But children did form close attachments to adult men. For instance, children were ofen close to their mother's father. Or they might have a special "friend," a man usually of their father's clan. Not until a boy joined the hunt did his father begin to take any real interest in him.

The Iroquois kinship system encouraged very close relationships among the women. A girl would live all her life in the same longhouse. She might someday become head of the longhouse family. When he was eight or nine, he began to break away. He spent a good deal of time in the forest with his gang, which included boys from other clans. He left his mother's longhouse when he married. His domain lay outside the longhouse-in the hunt and in war.

The Iroquois clan was built on the longhouse family and reflected its organization. At the head of the clan was the Clan Matron, usually the oldest or most respected female member of the clan's leading longhouse family. She would, of course, also be head of her own longhouse family. One of her most important functions was to keep track of the names owned by the clan. Free names, those not held by anyone, could be given to newborn babies at the Green Corn or Midwinter festivals, or to youngsters when they became adolescents, or to someone adopted into the clan, or on other such occasions. When a person gave up his name or died, the name went back into the clan pool. Clan names were owned by the clans within each nation. For example, the Bear Clan of the Seneca had a separate pool of names from the Bear Clan of the Oneida.

The Iroquois had a different conception of names from the one to contain the thinking part of the soul. Around a name would grow a kind of personaliy. This happens occasionally in our culture. We have a few names which seem particularly strong, or gentle, or even silly. Among the Iroquois, it is likely that when a person was given a certain name, he tried to behave as the person with that name was expected to behave.

Moreover, an Iroquois had a number of names in the course of his life. He might be given one name when he was born, another when he reached adolescence, and another on some other occasion. When he got a new name, he dropped the old one. It is difficult for us to imagine what it would be like not to keep the same name, because our name becomes so much a part of us.

A number of Iroquois names were actually titles, and carried religious or political responsibilities. These names were owned by the leading longhouse family in each clan. The power to give these names was actually the power to give people certain offices. This power was excerised by the women of the clan. A person would not be given an important office unless he had already held a series of names which led up to it. Since each of these had personality characteristics, the holding of a series of names in turn may have been part of the Iroquois training for leadership. The bearing of an important name may not only have caused the holder to try to behave suitably, but may also have caused others to treat him in a manner befitting the name.

The Iroquois did not have last names. The nearest thing they had to a last name was a clan name. Although last names seem very important to us, they have been the exception rather than the rule in human history. Many European immigrants did not have last names when they came to this country, and had to adopt them or be given them on arrival here.

In conversation, the Iroquois did not ordinarly address each other by name. Sometimes they used nicknames. More often they used a term which indicated their kinship relationship to the person to whom they were speaking.

We use nicknames, of course. We also have a system of kinship terms which we use with certain people. For instance, when speaking to our grandparents or parents, we usually do not use their names, but rather, a kinship term: "Mom," "Dad," "Grandpa," "Grandma." Once in a while we use "Sister" or "Brother," or "Sis" or "Bud." Parents sometimes call their children "Son" or "Daughter." Kinship terms were used very extensively by the Iroquois. They constantly emphasized their kinship ties with other people.

Naming was only one of the clan functions. The clan also played an important part in political and ceremonial life. If someone committed murder, the clan of the murderer paid a bloodprice to the clan of the deceased. The clan also adopted captives.

As we have see, the most important fucntions of the moieties were ceremonial. Many Iroquois ceremonies required the participation of both moieties. In the bowl game at the Midwinter Festival, for example, the moieties played against one another. They buried one another's dead. When a person died, the clans in his moiety would comfort them, "wipe away their tears," and bury the dead, their cousins.

The ties between the clans and phratries or moieties extended the relationships of the longhouse to the village, the tribe, and finally to all the Iroquois nations. For the clans in each phratry or moiety were considered to be brothers and sisters, while the clans in an opposite phratry or the opposite moiety-"across the fire"-were their cousins. Together they encompassed every Iroquois. Like the twins, each was necessary to the other, and together they made a balanced society.