The Role of Women in Iroquois Culture Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Role of Women in Iroquois Culture

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A woman's place in ancient Native American culture was very different from that in European cultures, at least among the Iroquois League. The Iroquois were one of the most powerful Indian races, controlling land all the way down the eastern seaboard of North America and several hundred miles inland.

In the Iroquois nations the women had the rights to the land they farmed. Each clan divided their land plots up among its women rather than the menfolk. The women also ran the long houses that the family groups lived in and owned all the normal things of everyday life such as blankets (skins), cooking utensils, farming tools, and so on. All that the men owned was their clothes, weapons, and personal effects such as pipes (usually ceremonial).

Women had many responsibilities - probably the most important one was having children to ensure the future of their tribe. Any children born into the family belonged to their mother's clan, not their father's, and they were educated by their mother's relatives. Each of the long houses they lived in were generally occupied by one clan, with the eldest and/or most respected woman of that clan ruling it as Clan Mother.

The men were hunters, warriors, and statesmen. Though the Tribal Council was dominated by male speakers, from time to time a respected woman might speak. Furthermore, it was the women who decided which men should be speakers. If the chosen representative expressed opinions that clashed with those of the Womens' Council, they would sometimes replace him with someone who more closely represented their views. And if the Tribal Council decided on a course of action that the women disagreed with, such as a raid or war-party, the women might simply refuse to give them any food for the journey. This usually put an end to activities that the women didn't approve of. Conversely, when the women agreed with a chosen course of action, they spread news of it to the whole camp (village) to make sure that the idea was carried out.

Modern Iroquois women still have their own council, and choose the men to fill ancient tribal positions. Now, however, most tribes or nations also have a separate and much more modern form of elected tribal government, in which the women have much less say, unless they are elected onto it themselves.

Iroquois women have always occupied a position far superior to that of the 'squaw' of popular fiction. In fact, they occupied a position far superior to their European sisters of the same time period, and some would say that they still do!

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