Social Organization of the Winnebago

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In each tribe there existed, on the basis of kinship a division, into clans and gentes. The names given to these divisions were usually those of the animals, birds, reptiles, or inanimate objects from which their members claimed descent, or which were regarded as guardian deities common to them all; these were known as their totems.

The term “clan” implies descent in the female, and “gens” in the male line. Clans and gentes were generally organized into phratries; and phratries, into tribes. A phratry was an organization for ceremonial and other festivals.

The Winnebago social organization was based on two phratries, known as the Upper, or Air, and the Lower, or Earth, divisions.

The Upper division contained four clans:

  1. Thunderbird,
  2. War People,
  3. Eagle,
  4. Pigeon (extinct);

while the lower division contained eight clans:

  1. Bear,
  2. Wolf,
  3. Water-spirit,
  4. Deer,
  5. Elk,
  6. Buffalo,
  7. Fish,
  8. Snake.

The Thunder-bird, and Bear, clans were regarded as the leading clans of their respective phratries. Both had definite functions. The lodge of the former was the peace lodge, over which the chief of the tribe presided, while the lodge of the Bear clan was the war, or disciplinary, lodge. Each clan had a number of individual customs, relating to birth, the naming-feast, death, and the funeral-wake. An Upper individual must marry a Lower individual, and vice versa.

When Carver, an early traveler, first came in contact with the Winnebagoes, their chief was a woman. The man, however, was the head of each family. Where clans existed, a man could become a member of any particular clan only by birth, adoption, or transfer in infancy from his mother’s to his father’s clan, or vice versa. The place of woman in a tribe was not that of a slave or beast of burden. The existence of the gentile organization, in most tribes with descent in the female line, forbade that she be subjected to any such indignity.

Dr. J. O. Dorsey obtained a list of the gentes of the Hotcangara, or Winnebagoes.1

They were

  1. Shungikikarachada (‘Wolf’);
  2. Honchikikarachada (‘Black Bear’);
  3. Huwanikikarachada (‘Elk’);
  4. Wakanikikarachada (‘Snake’);
  5. Waninkikikarachada (‘Bird’);
  6. Cheikikarachada (‘Buffalo’)
  7. Chaikikarachada (‘Deer’);
  8. Wakchekhiikikarachada (‘Water-monster’).

The Bird gens was composed of four sub-gentes, namely:

  1. Hichakhshepara (‘Eagle’),
  2. Ruchke (‘Pigeon’),
  3. Kerechun (‘Hawk’),
  4. Wakanchara (‘Thunderbird’).

It seems probable that each gens was thus subdivided into four sub-gentes.

In 1843 they were on the Neutral Ground in different bands, the principal one, called the School band, occupying territory along the Turkey river.


  1. The late T. Owen Dorsey of the Bureau of American Ethnology, in Bull. 30, pg. 961. 

MLA Source Citation:

Hexom, Charles Philip. Indian History of Winneshiek County. Decorah: A. K. Bailey & Don, Inc. 1913. Web. 22 December 2014. - Last updated on Aug 18th, 2014

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