People of the Long House


Also, the family was the basis of Iroquois government: the Iroquois ohwachira or “maternal family.” The maternal family was composed of a woman with all her children, male and female, and as many of her descendants as had come down through the female line. It included her daughter’s progeny but not her son’s. Her son’s children belonged to another ohwachira , that of his wife.

The titles held by the chiefs in council belonged each to a certain ohwachira . Women held the key to Iroquois government because it was the women’s council of an ohwachira , headed by the chief matron (who had a good deal of independent power: her wishes were seldom disputed), that chose the chief. When a chief died, the matron of the family holding his title nominated his successor. The chief’s council had the right to reject the nomination, but in that case they merely referred the matter to the women again for further consideration.

The chiefs served on three levels of government: clan, tribe or nation, and confederacy. The clan was composed of one or more maternal families; the nation, of three or more clans; and the confederacy, of the original Five Nations with such others as had been adopted and given permission to speak with the voice of one of the original five.

The governing council was an oligarchy, being composed of hereditary chiefs; but the power that worked through it was democratic. Iroquois government was close to the people. When the people wanted something, power worked upward from them in a continuous stream, through the maternal family to the clantribal-confederacy chiefs. Power worked down again, for effective action, through the same channels. Suppose some young hot-head was gathering a band of warriors to make a raid on the Catawbas at the very time when peace negotiations with this ancient enemy were being undertaken by the Onondaga Council. It would be in the national interest to restrain the young hot-heads. Suppose, too, that the advice of the council chiefs had been rejected. The matter was urgent. How could the raid be prevented? The chiefs would approach the matrons who had appointed them. A mother could forbid her son’s going on the warpath. There were other channels of influence, but this was a main one.

Great was the power wielded by Iroquois women. They might hide their faces when strangers appeared. They might work in the fields and carry the wood and the water; that was their part in a fair division of labor. They recognized no lord and master. Women owned the lodge and its equipment. They owned the land of the clan. They had the sole right of adopting aliens. They had the power of life and death over prisoners. They held the titles of chiefships. They sometimes acted as vice-regents in the absence of regular male chiefs. That is why we hear of so many Iroquois “queens,” like Queen Esther at Tioga.


Yet the ultimate source of Iroquois strength lies still deeper. The Iroquois were a gregarious people. Their regular occupations—hunting, diplomacy, war, for the men; agriculture, family, politics, for the women—left them plenty of leisure for amusement. They enjoyed games. They loved dancing.

Their home lives were, for the most part, happy. They were fond of their children, seldom punishing and never spanking them. Ducking served the purpose, but it was resorted to only in extreme cases. Marriages were arranged by the mothers of bride and groom. Though divorce could be had, by either party, for the asking, most marriages were permanent.

Early travelers have written of the harmony that prevailed in most Indian towns. The Iroquois understood the art of getting along with one another. Conrad Weiser says that one could live among them for thirty years and never see two Indians, except when in liquor, quarrel. He found them better followers of the Golden Rule than most professing Christians.


How did the Iroquois come to be like that? They were certainly not lacking in spirit. They enjoyed competition. Why were they, then, in home and village life, so much less contentious than whites?

All through the highly organized social and political life of the Iroquois ran a principle of duality, like that of the sexes, and along with it the principle of reciprocity and mutual obligation. It is found in the family and in the government.

I once asked an Iroquois friend how long he thought the Six Nations could endure the disruptive forces exerted upon them in the United States and Canada. He replied, “The Six Nations will never die.” Their strength consisted, and it still consists, not in numbers, not in voting power, but in the “moral faith,” to borrow a phrase from Lewis Morgan’s League of the Iroquois , which unites them: a faith inspired by Deganawidah and the founding legend, nourished not only by past victories but also by defeats, in the belief—as their prophet, Handsome Lake, long ago taught them—that the loser gains by the act of sacrifice.