Iroquois Laws of Descent

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At the establishment of the confederacy, fifty sachems were founded and a name assigned to each, by which they are still known, and these names are kept as hereditary from the beginning to the present time. There were also fifty sub-sachems, or war chiefs that is, to every sachem was given a war chief, to stand behind him to do his biddings. These sachem ships were, and are still confined to the five nations; the Tuscarora were admitted into the confederacy without enlarging the framework of the league, by allowing them their own sachems and sub-sachems, or war chiefs, as they inherited from their original nation of North Carolina.

But how, it may be asked, is a government so purely popular and so simple and essentially advisory in its character, to be reconciled with the laws of hereditary descent, fixed by the establishment of heraldic devices and bringing its proportion of weak and incompetent minds into office, and with the actual power it exercised and the fame it acquired. To answer this question, and to show how the aristocratic and democratic principles were made to harmonize in the Iroquois government, it will be necessary to go back and examine the laws of descent among the tribes, together with the curious and intricate principles of the clans or tribal bond.

Nothing is more fully under the cognizance of observers of the manners and customs of the Indians, than the fact of the entire nation or tribe being separated into distinct clans, each of them distinguished by the name and device of some quadruped, bird, or other object in the animal kingdom. This device is called by the Tuscarora Or-reak-sa (clan). The Iroquois have turned it to account by assuming it as the very basis of their political and tribal bond.

A government wholly verbal must be conceded to have required this proximity and nearness of access. The original five nations of the Iroquois were, theoretically, separated into eight clans or original families of kindreds, who are distinguished respectively by the clans of the wolf, bear, turtle, deer, beaver, falcon, crane and the plover. I find that there is a little difference in the clans of the Tuscarora, which are the bear, wolf, turtle, beaver, deer, eel and snipe. It is contrary to the usage of the Indians that near kindred should intermarry, and the ancient rule interdicts all intermarriage between persons of the same clan. They must marry into a clan which is different from their own. A Bear or Wolf male cannot marry a Bear or Wolf female. By this custom the purity of blood is preserved, while the ties of relationship between the clans themselves is strengthened or enlarged.
The line of descent is limited exclusively in the female’s children. Owing to this arrangement, a chieftain’s son cannot succeed him in office, but in case of his death, the right of descent being in his mother, he would be succeeded, not by one of his male children, but by his brother; or failing in this then by the son of his sister, or by some direct, however remote, descendent of a maternal line.

It will be noticed that the children are not of the same clan as their father, but are the same as their mother. Thus, he might be succeeded by his own grandson, by the son marrying in his father’s clan, and not by his daughter. It is in this way that the chieftainship is continually kept in a family dynasties in the female line.

While the law of descent is fully recognized, the free will of the female to choose a husband from any of the clans, excluding only her own, is made to govern and determine the distribution of political power, and to fix the political character of the tribe. Another peculiarity may be here stated. In choosing a candidate to fill a vacancy of the chieftainship, made either by death or misconduct, the power is lodged in the older women of the clan to choose the candidate, and then to be submitted for the recognition of the chiefs and sachems in council, for the whole nation. If approved, a day is appointed for the recognition also of the Six Nations, and he is formally installed into office. Incapacity is always, however, without exception, recognized as a valid objection to the approval of the council.



MLA Source Citation:

Johnson, Elias. Legends, Traditions, and Laws of the Iroquois, or Six Nations and History of the Tuscarora Indians. Lockport, New York: Union Printing and Publishing Co. 1881. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 28 July 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/iroquois-laws-of-descent.htm - Last updated on Jun 4th, 2013


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