The Iroquois Indians are a tribe that were originally based around the Adirondack regions of upstate New York. After migrating they occupied parts of Canada and the northeastern United States. Archaeological evidence indicates the Iroquois had lived in upstate New York for a long time before the Europeans arrived. Longhouse construction dates to at least 1100 A.D (Sultzman, 2012). It was the Iroquois political system, however, that made them unique, because women were able to virtually control marriage selection by deciding who was best suited for their child, which in turn gave them power to persuade and influence policies.
Marriages in the historical Iroquois were nothing like traditional marriages that are common in western cultures. Their political system was intertwined with their kinship, horticulture, and residences that were made possible through connections of marriage. Marriage can be the biggest influence of decisions made within clans, by determining traces of kinship ,it gave authority for ownership, power and connections within communities. Their agricultural practices consisted of cultivating plants commonly found in gardens of today such as corn, beans, and sunflower. The most significant crops were the “three sisters”-corn, beans and squash-but they also cultivated the sunflower , grown for its oils and meal, as well as various leafy greens(Stockard,2002).
Using a technique called slash and burn farming ,where they would cut down and burn pieces of land to obtain better soil, or receive bigger yields. This process also created the need to pick up and relocate entire settlements every few years to ensure fertile soil to continue sustenance. This may have been one of the biggest concerns for families as they would have had to pick up everything and move to other suitable locations. Anthropologist theorize that the practice of horticulture may have spurred the cross-cultural development of complex systems of kinship, including the rise of large corporate kinship groups such as lineages(Stockard,2002). These practices along with marriage helped to establish land rights and claims, that in turn created recognizable lines of descent. A mother’s lineages were a determining factor in establishing memberships and land rights.
Lineage determined who inherited land, houses and memberships within communities. Sons born to a matrilineage did not pass on their lineage identity directly because their own children belonged to their wife’s lineage; only through one’s mother did one inherit a lineage identity, conferring membership in the land –holding group (Stockard, 2002). It it evident that gender played a huge role in cultivation, preparation of meals, ownership and residence. The men who acted as hunter gatherers, contributed economically, by providing meat which could have been hunted or collected from trade. This cooperation within marriage and equal distribution overseen by the women of the Iroquois allowed their system to thrive and proved to be an important aspect in the ideology of the Iroquois. Both women and men had their own responsibilities that were distributed equally and seemed to benefit clans as a whole. However it does seem that decision making was predominately done by the women in the society that reflected their needs in the communities.
Kinship was also a determining factor in politics and marriage selection. Clans would choose who might marry.It could be considered as incestuous if a person were to marry within a clan. A bear clan woman could not marry a man of the same clan, even though they might be from lineages within that clan, with no known blood tie (Stockard, 2002). This is an interesting aspect, as within in most cultures, incest usually takes place with in family blood lines. Political decisions were met with a council that consisted of surrounding chiefs of different clans who would set up meetings to ascertain the best decisions for all of the Iroquois. Tribal council were utilized much like they are today among Native American communities. Although the kinship terminology reflected a bilateral system, descent inheritance, and succession passed in the female line and the matrilineal extended family was the basic unit of Iroquoian social organization (Gernet, 2014). As women held influence over the decisions made by chiefs, birthright traced to a matrilineal descent was an important factor in policies implemented by councils.
As it seems that there was an equal distribution of decision making within the lifestyle of the Iroquois, the women were the ones with the responsibility of making the decisions that eventually led to the way their culture was shaped. Their responsibility to ensure that marriages were arranged properly could take their clan a long way. Marriage was arranged by the mother of bride groom, women belonging to different clans and perhaps to different tribes within the confederacy, too; they may have met at council gatherings or on important ritual occasions attended by many clans of many tribes, such as the Green Corn or Harvest Festivals (Stockard, 2002).
In comparing kinship and marriage with the Iroquois and with that of modern western marriages and kinship, it is clear that these systems are completely different, However it is possible to suggest that some of the practices such as spouse selection and the division of labor by gender have influenced modern western practice and vice versa, as the Iroquois began to accept defeat and blend in with European culture. As roles and task within the community were distributed, it can be compared to how European women were subjected to living within their sphere and men would work and hunt for food. It remains a complete opposite when comparing decision making to the Iroquois as men in early colonies made most choices and women’s authority was suppressed. Could it then be concluded that perhaps a division of labor is an innate characteristic that could be part of how societies and cultures are driven to exercise naturally?
Or could it be that this is the most likely scenario that just worked perfectly for Iroquoian culture and all cultures have a division of labor but choose on its limitations as to who has authority over one another?
All in all the structure of marriage , kinship and culture of the Iroquois can be viewed as strange when comparing it to modern western practices .Their ability to exercise peace and distribute task and control politically, gave a sense of power that distinguished them from any other culture. After all, their marriage and matrilineal kinship practices allowed them to have organizations that made up tribal council, which in turn became the basis for how they operated. The power of the women of the Iroquois ultimately gave them a distinct way of life which showed little signs of emotional investment, making them depend on matrilineal kinship as a way of life.
Gernet Von Alexander (2014). Kinship Family and Social Organization. Encyclopedia of Canada’s people/Aboriginals. Multicultural Canada. Retrieved from http://www.multiculturalcanada.ca/Encyclopedia/A-Z/a6/4#
Stockard, J.E. (2002). Marriage in Culture. Wadsworth, Cengage Learning
Sultzman, Lee (2012).Iroquois History. Retrieved from http://www.tolatsga.org/iro.html