Iroquois Social Structure & Gender Roles

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  • 0:04 Iroquois Historically…
  • 0:43 The Iroquois Confederacy
  • 1:38 Social Structure
  • 2:46 Gender Roles
  • 3:57 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Bailey Cavender

Bailey teaches High School English, has taught history, and has a master's degree in Anthropology/Historical Archaeology.

The Iroquois refer to themselves as the Haudenosaunee. Made up of six tribes, they formed the Iroquois Confederacy. A matrilineal society, the Iroquois Confederacy has a strong sense of gender equality and a social structure deeply rooted in family.

Iroquois Historically and Today

When people talk about the Iroquois, they're referring to a number of tribes that live in upstate New York and the providence of Ontario. The Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk nations all came together to form the Iroquois Confederacy sometime between the 12th and 15th centuries CE. Later, a sixth tribe, the Tuscarora Nation, would join the Confederacy. They played an important role in the many conflicts between the French and British Empires when they were fighting for control of North America in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Iroquois Confederacy is known as a society with great military and political organization, and one where women have a critical role.

The Iroquois Confederacy

Called The Six Nations and the Iroquois by other peoples dwelling in North America, they refer to themselves as the Haudenosaunee, which means 'people building a long house.' Although they used to fight each other, the five tribes eventually formed a confederation with a very elaborate system of politics. Using a bicameral, or two-house, legislative setup, the sachems, or representatives, from two of the five tribes met in each house. The Seneca and Mohawk tribes met in one, the Oneida and Cayuga in the other. Meanwhile, the sachems of the Onondaga had the power to veto the decisions of the other four.

The Iroquois Confederacy remains the oldest participatory democracy, a democracy where the people are directly involved, in the world. Some historians believe that many of the ideas in the United States' representational democracy, a democracy where the people elect representatives to make decisions, were inspired, in part, by the Constitution of the Iroquois Confederacy.

Social Structure

The social structure of the Iroquois is tied to their family structure. Iroquois society is matrilineal, which means that the family line is traced down from the female line. The Iroquois lived in longhouses, which could fit many members of the clan. Some longhouses have been found that are longer than a modern football field. This is appropriate, since many people lived in each long house.

Within each tribe, there are moieties, or parts of a group that divide them socially and ritually. Each moiety is made up of two or three clans. The clans in the same moieties refer to each other as brothers, while the members of other moieties are referred to as cousins.

Each clan has a Clan Mother, the oldest woman in the clan. Her job is to look out for the well-being of her people. All of her female descendants would live in her longhouse, and eventually bring their husbands there as well. The Clan Mothers are also responsible for choosing new chiefs. They present their candidate to their own nation. The chief must also be agreed on by the brother nations, and then every member of the Grand Council. The Clan Mothers are also responsible for naming children and for making sure that brides and grooms are not part of the same clan.

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