Chapter 2: All Our Relations

The Neglectful Mother (Cochiti)

Crow had been sitting on the eggs in her nest for many days, and she got tired of it and flew away. Hawk came by and found nobody on the nest. Hawk said to herself, “The person who own this nest must no longer care for it. What a shame for those poor little eggs! I will sit on them, and they will be my children.” She sat for many days on the eggs, and finally they began to hatch. Still no Crow came. The little ones all hatched out and the mother Hawk flew about getting food for them. They grew bigger and bigger and their wings got strong and at last it was time for the Mother Hawk to take them off the nest.

After all this while, Crow finally remembered her nest. When she came back to it she found the eggs hatched and Hawk taking care of her little ones.

“Hawk!”

“What is it?”

“You must return these little ones you are leading around.”

“Why?”

“Because they are mine.”

Hawk said, “Yes, you laid the eggs, but you had no pity on the poor things. You went off and left them. I came and sat on the nest. When they were hatched, I fed them and now I lead them about. They are mine, and I won’t return them.”

Crow said, “I shall take them back.”

“No, you won’t! I worked for them, and for many days I fasted, sitting there on the eggs. In all that time you didn’t come near them. Why is it now, when I’ve taken care of them and brought them up, that you want them back?”

Crow said to the little ones, “My children, come with me. I am your mother.”

But the little ones said they did not know her. “Hawk is our mother.” At last when she couldn’t make them come with her, she said, “Very well, I’ll take Hawk to court, and we shall see who has the right to these children.”

So Mother Crow took Mother Hawk before the king of the birds. Eagle said to Crow, “Why did you leave your nest?” Crow hung her head and had no answer to that. But she said, “When I came back to my nest, I found my eggs already hatched and Hawk taking charge of my little ones. I have come to ask that Hawk return my little ones to me.”

Eagle said to Mother Hawk, “How did you find this nest of eggs?”

“Many times I went to it and found it empty. No one came for a long time, and at last I had pity on the poor little eggs. I said to myself, ‘The mother who made this nest can no longer care for these eggs. I will would be glad to hatch the little ones.’ I sat on them and they hatched. Then I went about getting food for them. I worked hard and brought them up, and they have grown.”

Mother Crow interrupted Mother Hawk and said, “But they are my children. I laid the eggs.”

“It’s not your turn. We are both asking for justice, and it will be given to us. Wait till I have spoken.”

Eagle said to Mother Hawk, “Is that all?”

“Yes, I have worked hard to raise my own two little ones. Just when they were grown, Mother Crow came and asked to have them back again, but I won’t give them back. It is I who fasted and worked, and they are now mine.”

The king of the birds said to Mother Crow, “If you really had pity on your little ones, why did you leave the nest for so many days? And why are you demanding to have them now? Mother Hawk is the mother of the little ones, for she has fasted and hatched them, and flown about searching for their food. Now they are her children.”

Mother Crow said to the king of the birds, “King, you should ask the little ones which mother they choose to follow. They know enough to know which one to take.”

So the king said to the little ones, “Which one will you choose?”

Both answered together, “Mother Hawk is our mother, She’s all the mother we know.”

Crow cried, “No, I’m your only mother!”

The little Crow children said, “In the nest you had no pity on us; you left us. Mother Hawk hatched us, and she is our mother.”

So it was finally settled as the little ones had said: they were the children of Mother Hawk, who had had pity on them in the nest and brought them up.

Mother Crow began to weep. The king said to her, “Don’t cry. It’s your own fault. This is the final decision of the king of the birds.” So Mother Crow lost her children.

Recorded by Ruth Benedict in 1931. (Erdoe and Ortiz)

The study of families or kinship is essential to anthropology. Often the first thing an anthropologist does during fieldwork is start collecting information about families: who’s related to whom? How are they related—by birth or by marriage? Do marriage partners come from the same village or not? How do people set up residence after they are married? This information tells us a lot, not only about family structures, but also about how the larger society is organized, the economic obligations between people, and even how people acquire and maintain status in the larger society. Frequently there are religious and other traditions that explain and uphold ideals about kinship.

It is often assumed that in post-Industrial societies like the United States or Canada, kinship is less important than in the small-scale societies typically studied by anthropologists. Unlike people in traditional small-scale societies, most people in the United States or Canada are highly mobile; we often don’t live in the same town or city in which we grew up, much less the same area where our grandparents grew up. We are hard-pressed to identify distant cousins, or the generations of ancestors beyond our great-grandparents. But are ideas about kinship so different? Who is helping most students pay for college? Who do you look to when you need money? Who do you turn to if you are sick or feeling down and need emotional support? Despite distance, expense, and hassle, people go to great extremes to celebrate important days such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, birthdays, and anniversaries with family members. In societies around the world, families provide economic and emotional support to its members. Societies differ when it comes to: who is a member of my family, to whom may I go for support?

It is an axiom in anthropology that one of the most important things kinship structure tells an individual in a society is who they can marry and with whom they can have sex. In the early twentieth century, the anthropologist Branislaw Malinowski wrote the ethnography, The Sexual Life of Savages in North Western Melanesia. It was one of the first books in anthropology to gain a wide, general readership. But the title is deceiving. The book isn’t about sex, it is about kinship. Because, as the readers of this book soon learned: a society’s acknowledgement of whom an individual is related to by blood or birth then determines whom that individual may have sex with or marry. In the United States, Canada, or any other society, who you are related to by blood has been determined by your society.

No matter how liberal a particular society’s attitudes about sex or marriage may be, there are always rules. The most basic rule for all societies is the incest taboo (tabu): an individual may not have sex with or marry someone who is a close blood relative. One of the most basic kinship differences between societies is the determination of who is a blood relative. In anthropology, people biologically related to each other are called consanguine kin (from the Latin word for blood). It may seem obvious who your consanguine kin are, but there is a lot of variety among humans and their societies.

Like all other scientists, anthropologists put the data or information they collect into categories. In examining the information about consanguine kinship, anthropologist use the following categories:

Matrilineal—kin relationships are traced through the mother, children belong to the kin group of their mother.

Patrilineal—kin relationships are traced through the father, children belong to the kin group of their father.

Bilineal (bilateral)—kin relationships are traced through both the father’s and mother’s kin groups.

Ambilineal—kin relationships are different for men and women. All men belong to the same kin group, which is usually headed by the ruler of the society. He is often considered to be descended from a god. Women all belong to the same kin group, headed by the queen of the society. She is considered to be descended from a goddess. This arrangement occurs in very few societies, so it will not be discussed in great detail.

These categories may seem relatively simple, but they can have strong impacts on other aspects of society, as we will discuss in Chapter 4. And are they so simple? How would you categorize the dominant kin groups of the United States and Canada? Bilineal? If so, why do most of us have the last names of our fathers, as in patrilineal societies? Further, in a patrilineal or matrilineal society the incest taboo is applied differently to the mother’s or father’s side of the family. So whether a society is matrilineal or patrilineal can determine with whom you can have sex and marry and who you cannot.

The most obvious way to see how important being patrilineal, matrilineal, or bilineal can be is in the concept of cross and parallel cousins. In a matrilineal society your parallel cousins are your mother’s siblings’ children; your cross cousins are your father’s siblings’ children. In a patrilineal society your parallel cousins are your father’s siblings’ children: while your cross cousins are your mother’s siblings’ children. In a bilineal society there are no distinctions between cross and parallel cousins. So why make such a distinction? Because in both matrilineal and patrilineal societies, you may (it is sometimes encouraged) marry your cross cousins, but never your parallel cousins.

So why doesn’t marrying your cross cousins violate the incest taboo? Because in a matrilineal society you belong to the kin group of your mother; your father is of another kin group entirely. In a patrilineal society, you belong to the kin group of your father; your mother is from another kin group, and generally remains so even after marriage. Thus, cross cousin marriage in matrilineal or patrilineal societies does not violate the incest taboo. In some instances cross cousin marriage may even be encouraged because of another concept that can limit who you can marry, within the group or outside of the group.

Anthropologists will often refer to societies as being either endogamous or exogamous. In an exogamous society people typically (in some instances must) marry someone from outside of their group or locality (where they live, their village or town). In an endogamous society people typically marry someone from their community. Cross cousin marriage are typically found in endogamous societies and the practice helps to increase the relationships between families, which encourages those related families to work with each other in getting resources. In an exogamous society, individuals and families build relationships with families in other localities.

Anthropologists have another category when examining the kinship organization of society: moieties. In moieties the kin groups of a particular society are divided into two groups, which may be exogamous. Moieties often function as ceremonial divisions in a society. For example, among the Iroquois, when a member of your kin group dies, the members of a different moiety will plan and conduct the funeral to “help wipe the tears from your eyes.” Among the Tewa, a Puebloan group living in the southwestern part of the U.S. moieties function as a very important part of the ritual and ceremonial aspect of the society. Men and women must marry someone from another moiety, and women will be adopted into the moiety of their husbands after they marry (Ortiz 1969).

There is one more concept to discuss within consanguine kinship: that of Lineage and Clans. In societies that recognized lineages (they are often patrilineal), the members of the lineage can trace their descent from a common ancestor. In the United States and Canada, people may be able to trace their descent from Thomas Jefferson or John MacDonald. (the first prime minister of Canada) All people who can trace their descent to Jefferson or MacDonald, particularly through the patrilineal line, belong to the same lineage. A clan is harder to define. The members of a clan believe they are related, even if they cannot trace their descent to a common ancestor. Both lineages and clans are exogamous. Having sex with or marrying someone from your clan or lineage would be considered incest. Lineages are often found in patrilineal societies, clans in matrilineal societies. Many Native American societies recognize clans. While European societies are now generally patrilineal, (although, less than a 1,000 years ago the Irish were matrilineal), Native American societies can be matrilineal, patrilineal, or bilineal. Further, these kinship organizations are very flexible and have changed within the last 200 years.

In Tewa society there are two patrilineal clans: Summer and Winter. Ortiz says that children are not automatically born into those clans, but must go through several rituals of “incorporation.” Women are generally adopted into the clan of their husbands after marriage. Further, children may be adopted into the other clan, even after being incorporated into a clan. Ortiz gives an example of a man who had only daughters. When they married, they were adopted into the clan of their husbands. The father then adopted a son of his oldest daughter into his clan. Medicine people and healers would also adopt apprentices who were not of their clan into their clan. All these adoptions involved rituals of incorporation (Ortiz 1969).

The Iroquois (Haundenosaune) society is a group of Native Americans linked by language, political organization, and kin groups. They have and continue to occupy the area of what are now northern New York and southern Quebec and Ontario for around 2,000 years. The Iroquois are a matrilineal society in which the consanguine kin groups are organized into clans: Bear, Wolf, Deer, Hawk, Snipe, Heron, Turtle, Beaver and Eel. The Iroquois don’t believe they are descended from these animals, but in the ancient times of oral tradition, the relationship between animals and people was so close they could even communicate with each other. As you read in the story about Sky Woman, the Turtle provided a place for her to land and on which the Earth now resides. The women of the Bear clan learned about medicinal plants from a shape-changing bear.

The Navajo (Dine’) are also considered to be a matrilineal society. Unlike the Iroquois, a Navajo would say s/he is born to the clan of his/her mother and for the clan of his/her father. Further, the Dine’ recognize their relatedness to their maternal and paternal grandfathers’ clans. The incest taboo would apply to all four clans. The Navajo are considered matrilineal because the inheritance of usufruct rights (the rights of individuals to use land or other resources) transfers from mother to daughters.

The Inuit of the Arctic are an example of a bilateral society. Kinship is equally traced through both the mother’s and the father’s side. The Inuit live in a treacherous natural environment. Their kinship organization may be because the people of this society must depend on one another for survival. The more people you can call on for help, the more likely you (and they) will survive. Bilateral societies are typically foragers, traveling from area to area to get needed resources. They may have been mobile and bilateral for centuries, like the Inuit. Others, like the Cheyenne and Sioux, may have became bilateral after changes in economic and settlement patterns caused by Euro-Americans intrusions into their territory resulted in them morphing from settled, horticultural societies to foraging societies. Bilateral kinship organization was more adaptive to the mobility of foragers and increased kin networks.

As stated previously, one of the first things an anthropologist does in the field is to gather information about kinship. A narrative about kin organization for a society would be long and confusing. Instead, anthropologists utilize kinship charts to organize and present information. The structure of kinship charts is standardized, so any anthropologist can understand the data presented, whether they are familiar with the society being described or the language of the anthropologist. Kinship charts for matrilineal, patrilineal, and bilateral societies are subtly different, but they do show the differences in the kinship organization.

A two-generation comparison of the six major kinship systems (Hawaiian, Sudanese, Eskimo, Iroquois, Crow and Omaha). Circle=female Triangle=male.

Courtesy of Zander Schubert: based on information from “Systematic Kinship Terminologies”: http://www.umanitoba.ca/faculties/arts/anthropology/tutor/kinterms/termsys.html. CC-BY 3.0.

A two-generation comparison of the six major kinship systems (Hawaiian, Sudanese, Eskimo, Iroquois, Crow and Omaha). Circle=female Triangle=male. Relatives marked with the same non-gray color are called by the same kinship term (ignoring sex-differentiation in the sibling/cousin generation, except where this becomes structurally-relevant under the Crow and Omaha systems).

Much of the importance of determining consanguine kin is for purposes of marriage. Marriage gives not only the individual, but also his/her entire family a whole new set of kin or family members. People who are related by marriage are called affine or affinal kin. Affinal kin broaden the social and economic networks for individuals in a society. Through marriage, your affines provide more people you can turn to for economic help and resources. Your affines can help in raising children or raising your family status. They may even provide a place for you to live.

The expectation in societies like the United States or Canada is that when a young couple gets married, they will establish their own residence. In anthropology this is called neolocality. It is further expected that, generally, this new marriage will lead to children, who will live with their parents. In anthropological terms this is a nuclear family: parents and children living in the same residence. When our politicians talk about family values, they are referring to nuclear families. But for most of human history, and still in many societies, people live in extended families that include grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins and two— sometimes more—generations. Societies usually have expectations about how residence patterns are established, and anthropologists have terms for them:

Matrilocal—when a couple gets married they reside with the wife’s extended kin group.

Patrilocal—when a couple gets married they reside with the husband’s kin group.

Bilocal—when a couple gets married they may reside with either the wife’s or husband’s kin, but they do not establish a new residence.

Avunculocal—when a couple has sons they go live with the mother’s brothers. This residence pattern occurs in some matrilineal societies.

Frequently, but not always, a matrilineal society will be matrilocal or avunculocal, while a patrilineal society is typically patrilocal, and bilateral societies are typically bilocal.

For most of human history, marriage was not a romantic arrangement between two individuals, it was an economic relationship between two families. Because consaquineal and affinal kin depend upon each other for economic resources, the marriages between members of their kin groups are very important. Elder family members will arrange marriages for younger members to ensure the most advantageous economic arrangement. The individuals seeking a marriage, and their families, must show or exchange their economic resources. Again, anthropology has categories for the different ways resources are exchanged between families:

Bride wealth—The intended groom and his family provide economic resources to the intended bride and her family. This is not “buying a wife.” The groom and his family demonstrate they can contribute resources to the bride and her family. The groom and his family also acknowledge the labor and economic value of the bride. In a patrifocal society the groom’s family is compensating the bride’s family for the loss of her and her labor. Women have relatively high status in societies that practice bride wealth. The exchange of bride wealth is found in many Native American and African societies.

Bride service—The intended groom must provide labor to the bride’s family for a period time, or in a matrilocal society, the rest of his life, as he will be living with his wife’s extended family. Again, the groom is showing he can make economic contributions to his bride’s family. A number of Native American societies, like the Navajo, have bride service. The practice is also found in the Old Testament (for example, Abraham must work 14 years for his intended father-in-law in order to marry Rebekkah).

Gift exchange—The families of the bride and groom exchange gifts as part of the marriage ceremony. Again, the families demonstrate they can help support the bride and groom, and each other. However, status may be achieved through the exchange of the gifts. If one side of the family can offer gifts of greater value, they have attained a higher level of status than the other family. This is particularly true among societies of the Northwest Coast who have potlatches (a redistribution of resources by giving them away during a ceremony).

Dowry—In societies that have dowries as part of the marriage, women and their families must provide economic resources to the groom and his family. In order for a woman to get married, she must provide a dowry. If her family is able to provide a sizeable dowry, she may be able to marry into a higher status family and thus improve the status and resources of her children. Dowries indicate that women hold a lower status in a society and are rare in Native American societies. European and many Asian societies have, or historically had, dowries, which put women in a very vulnerable position, as they couldn’t get married without resources, and they lost control of those resources when they got married. If the husband were to waste those resources, the woman and her children could be left destitute. If the husband died before a woman bore a son who could provide for her, she was often sent back to her family, who may or may not have taken her back in.

These are traditions that were practiced until fairly recently around the world. In some places they are still practiced. Societies of the Northwest Coast still have potlatches, though the gifts given away are different than they were 200 years ago. In addition to fishing, people of the Northwest also gathered a wide array of edible and medical plants. While men and women had specific jobs in securing resources, both contributed to the wealth of families and the community, and shared in the labor to get that wealth. As a result, women had fairly equal status with men in their societies. This equal status was reflected in the fact that both men and women of rank and wealth could be chiefs and have more than one spouse. Because the area is so rich, the people of the Northwest were probably one of the only foraging societies worldwide able to have resource surpluses. These surpluses became very important in the status hierarchy of these societies. Such hierarchy sets the Northwest societies apart because foraging societies are generally egalitarian, that is, there is very little status or rank between the members of the society. These two factors make the societies of the Northwest unique.

Most societies of the Northwest were matrilineal. Extended families lived in large houses constructed of various kinds of timber available in the area. Each nuclear family had separate quarters in a partitioned part of the house. Extended families and individuals within the family all participated in a very complex system of social rank and status. There were three ranks in these societies: nobles, commoners and slaves. Particularly in the northern part of the Northwest, the distinction between nobles and commoners was of great cultural significance. Despite the fact that the difference between the two groups was really a continuum of differences, rather than a divide between the two groups, people strove to acquire and enhance their social rank.

Nobles held high-ranking names and titles. They owned ceremonial property such as masks, ancestor crests, songs, dances, and rituals. Commoners lacked these culturally prestigious items, but they could acquire noble status by their inheritance. Slaves were war captives and along with their children, they lived in their masters’ households doing menial labor. They were generally freed after one generation, but even then they were excluded from the status system. Status and rank are interconnected with marriage patterns. Parents attempted to arrange marriages for their children with people of equal or greater status.

Marriages, along with other important life events such as birth, death, puberty rites, and the naming of a chief, were marked with potlatches. A potlatch is a public feast to which the entire community is invited. In addition to the feasting, singing, and dancing, it is a confirmation of the new status of an individual (adult status for a young girl, for example), and community witnessing of the inheritance of ceremonial property, such as masks, songs, or the rights to fish or harvest berries at particular locations by specific individuals. Ceremonial property is often displayed, and often there is a give-away. Those sponsoring the potlatch give away resources to those attending. Status can be maintained or increased by value of the items given away. The potlatch system also helps in the distribution of resources throughout the community. Even the poorest people receive items, though they cannot gain status by giving away valuable items themselves.

In the past, the governments of the United States and Canada have restricted these practices. This topic will be further discussed in Chapter 6. However, one practice still restricted by both governments is having multiple marriage partners at the same time. This practice is called polygamy. There are actually two types of polygamy: polygyny and polyandry. In societies that practice polygyny, men may have multiple wives. However, in those societies most men have one. Having multiple wives is a sign of status and wealth for a man, but he usually must have the wealth and status before he can have more than one wife. In many societies, a man must provide bride wealth or bride service before he can get additional wives, and then he must provide for all the wives and their children. Most men do not have that wealth. Even in societies that have dowries, for example, Islamic societies, the Koran (the holy book of Islam) demands men must provide equally for all wives and their children. In some societies, many in Africa for example, that have bride wealth, the first wife may help her husband build the wealth to acquire an additional wife, generally a female relative, to help in the labor. Women will work to increase their bride wealth to help provide the bride wealth for their sons.

Many Native American societies historically practiced polygyny. In some societies they practiced patrilocality, in which a sister or other unmarried female relative might move in with the family when a young woman gave birth. Often she would then become a second wife. This is called sororate, when close female relatives marry the same man. But some Native American societies, Cherokees, for example, may have practiced polyandry. Typically polyandry, in which a woman has more than one husband, is found in patrilineal and patrifocal agricultural societies in which land is passed from a father to his sons. Parts of Tibet and Sri Lanka have communities that practice polyandry. Typically, sons would inherit part of the farm when they married or their father died. But in instances in which the availability of farmland is severely limited when one son marries, his brothers marry the woman as well. More than three brothers will marry two sisters. In North America early Spanish and French documents indicate that among some Native American societies, women, generally those of high status, had more than one husband, but not because of limited farmland. The women who had multiple husbands generally had land and resources. From the written documents it appears that these women had multiple husbands for the same reasons men in other societies have multiple wives, for the status.

In Europe, the United States, and Canada, until recently, it was very difficult for a woman to initiate a divorce, and she might well lose custody of her children. In Native American societies, particularly those that were matrilineal or matrifocal, divorce was fairly easy. If a couple was not getting along, or a man was not getting along with his wife’s family, or he was not contributing resources, he could be sent back to his family—the equivalent of divorce. The Cherokees are such a society, historically matrilineal and matrifocal, in which women have high status and both women and men can easily get a divorce. Women who divorced a first husband could have a second. This may illustrate the high status women had in some Native American societies, just as having multiple wives demonstrates the status of a man.

As stated before, kinship organization impacts a society in many ways. One of these is the roles and status of women. Societies that demand dowries for women to marry see the value and status of women very differently than those who expected bride wealth or bride service. With bride wealth or service the society recognizes that women have material value, they contribute resources and status to their families. In societies that expect a dowry women also contribute to the wealth of their families, but it is not recognized or valued. But where do these different views of women come from? It may be that the kinship organization of a society has a significant impact on the roles and status of women in that society.

In a patrilineal society, more than just a lineage association passes from a father to his children. His resources, inheritance, and his status are also passed, typically to his sons. It is very important to men in a patrilineal society to know that the children who are inheriting their wealth and status are indeed children of their lineage. In the days before DNA testing and paternity tests (which are very recent), the only way to ensure this was to restrict the sexual behavior of women. To restrict the sexual behavior of women was to restrict their overall participation in society. In societies throughout the world, women have been restricted to their households, or even to the private parts of the households. In these societies, women must be accompanied by a male member of her family or respected older woman if they are to leave the house. Women in such societies may not speak to men to whom they are not related. In these kinds of circumstances, it is obviously very difficult for women to participate fully in their society. They may not leave the household to participate in the trade or exchange of resources, and most certainly not participate in the political organization or activities of their society. They are often restricted from participating in religious activities, especially those that bring status to men. In societies that have an education system outside of the household, women may be restricted from attending schools. The tenets of the society’s religion may rationalize or justify this treatment of women

In such societies, and there are many and have been many throughout the world, the ability of women to participate fully, particularly in obtaining economic resources and status, are severely restricted. However, in matrilineal societies, children belong to the clan or kin group of their mothers. So the concern of ensuring the paternity of children for inheritance is not an issue. Children, typically daughters, inherited the status and access to resources (like the use of a particular plot of farmland) from their mothers. Sons typically inherited resources (tools and hunting materials for example) from their mother’s father or brothers. There is no reason to restrict women’s sexual behavior; therefore there is no reason to restrict participation in their society. Women may engage in resource-getting activities such as foraging for wild edibles, fishing, farming and even hunting. They participated in, and in some societies like the Iroquois and Ojibwa, controlled the trade of resources. Their exchange of resources, either through trade or gift-giving resulted in higher status for themselves and their families. They were valued members of the society, as is seen in the expectation of bride wealth or bride service upon marriage. This participation in the economy of their society can result in women holding prestigious political positions, whether as a chief (and there were many), or through membership in women’s councils. Both the Iroquois and Cherokees, matrilineal/matrifocal societies in which women had high status, had women’s councils who could, and did, overturn the decisions of the men’s councils. It was the sons of a woman’s clan who went to war. It was the women who decided if indeed they would go to war. Iroquois and Cherokee women could also be chiefs. Their power was such that British agent Sir William Johnson fought to restrict the involvement of the Mohawk Women’s Council in negotiations with the British, despite the fact that the status he held with the Mohawks came from his association with Molly Brant, a high-status Mohawk woman. Women also participated in religious rituals, though they might have different roles than men. And as you have seen have through the different stories recounted thus far, women had important roles in the origin stories of Native American societies.

European, Canadian, or U.S. women would not obtain the status of women in many Native American societies until the twentieth century. Some people have referred to societies such as the Iroquois or Cherokees as matriarchies. From an anthropological perspective, a matriarchy is a society governed by a woman or women; a patriarchy is a society governed by a man or men. There have been thousands of patriarchies in the history of the world, but few, if any, matriarchies. Having matrilineal descent or matrifocal residence patterns does not make a society a matriarchy. Societies such as the Iroquois, Cherokees, Navajo, and many others are not governed by women; they are governed by women and men. Each sex has their roles in a society, each are valued and needed for the survival of the society. Some anthropologists have referred to such societies as demonstrating separate but equal spheres of influence. These spheres of influence may overlap, as they do among the Iroquois and Cherokees, or not, as among the Navajo, Zuni, and Hopi. But both women and men make important contributions to the society, and those contributions are recognized and valued. The wealth and status of a family depend on the contributions of both women and men.

It may seem like we are leaving out a very important part of families: children. Children are essential to the survival of any society. Without them, the society becomes extinct. In most Native American societies, children belonged to the clan of their mothers. Some Native American societies were bilateral, and children belonged to the kin groups of both their mother and father, much as the United States and Canada today. A very few Native American societies were patrilineal. As stated before, the Tewa are an example of a Native American patrilineal society. Typically, women would be adopted into their husbands’ clan after marriage, except then the women’s clan was of a higher status than her husband’s.

Typically in patrilineal or patrifocal societies, female children have less status than male children. They will leave the household; their children will not be part of their lineage. They will require dowries. If their sexual behavior is suspect, they will bring dishonor to the family. In many patrilineal societies, even today, girls or women who bring dishonor to their families can be killed, even when the behavior is not their fault, as is the case in rape. The value of sons is such that families will allow female children to die, or in modern circumstances, abort female fetuses. In matrilineal societies, girls are as equally valued as boys, maybe even more so. Girls will remain in the household and continue to contribute both resources and more children to the clan. Mohawk parents I know speak of the difficulty in raising sons to be good, honorable men who will follow the right path in life, but daughters are a joy.

All societies value and love their children, but the structure of the society, the kinship, may determine how boys and girls are treated. Other social expectations and beliefs also affect how children are treated. In their early contacts, Spanish, French, and British commentators all remarked on the love bestowed on children by Native Americans, and not just their own biological children. Native Americans often adopted the children of others. A woman or man without biological children of his or her own would adopt a child of a sibling. Children taken as captives in times of war (including European children) were often adopted by kin groups.

Europeans noted the excellent behavior of Native children, despite the fact their parents did not practice corporeal punishment. At this time, it was generally assumed that children had to be beaten from time to time to ensure good behavior and morals. Native Americans did not think it ever appropriate to hit or beat children. A look, word, or story, particularly from a grandparent, was usually enough to chastise a child. A minister traveling along the St. Lawrence River related an instance in which a British drummer boy insulted a visiting Mohawk warrior. The Mohawk demanded a gift to excuse the insult. The British commander responded that the boy would be punished in the British way. The warrior asked what would that be. When he was told the boy would be beaten, he threw his blanket over the boy and ran off with him. He would not return the boy until he was assured he would not be beaten. All societies love their children, but that love is demonstrated in different ways.

Marriages and the birth of children are events that are often accompanied by rituals and ceremonies in societies throughout the world. Marriage ceremonies acknowledge the new relationship between the bride and groom and their families. In patrilineal societies, the marriage ceremony will also acknowledge the legitimacy of future children. Marriage ceremonies can be very elaborate, or very simple. Elaborate marriage ceremonies are often a means to demonstrate the status and wealth of the bride and/or groom’s family. Smaller wedding ceremonies are simply an recognition of the new relationship between the bride and groom, their families, and future children.

Many practices and rituals surrounded the birth of a child. Women might engage in various behaviors to help promote pregnancy (or prevent it). Some behaviors or food would be encouraged to ensure a healthy child; others that were thought to be harmful would be avoided. Various practices were performed at the birth of a child to ensure the health and recovery of both child and mother. Ceremonies, such as naming ceremonies, took place after the birth. In our modern societies, it is hard for most of us to conceive of the heartbreak of the death of a child. However, societies around the world continue to experience high rates of infant morality. Native American societies also had rates of infant morality higher than those experienced today. Families engaged in various practices to help ease the grief suffered from the death of a child. Not naming a child is one such mechanism. The ceremonies surrounding the naming of a child typically came when it seemed clear the child would survive. Children who did not survive where often buried near the home so that they were easily re-born into the same family.

Women and men of Native American societies would also strive to limit the number of children they had to better ensure the health and survival of existing children. Women would take medicinal plants to help prevent pregnancy, and, in extreme cases, take those that would induce abortion early in a pregnancy. Most often, both parents would take vows of sexual abstinence after the birth of a child to ensure another child would not be born until the first child was at least weaned. Iroquois men would not sleep with their wives until a child was weaned, generally between 2 and 3 years old. Cheyenne parents would declare vows of abstinence, sometimes up to 7 years after the birth of a child to ensure that child would have the resources necessary for survival. There were also beliefs that encouraged small families, fore example stating that younger children in a family would be smaller, sicklier, and not as smart as older siblings. As a result, family size in Native American families was smaller than was typical for European or Euro-American families until the middle of the twentieth century. A family of four children in a Native American family was considered large, until Native peoples starting converting to Christian religions that encouraged having many children.

Native American societies started altering their kin organization and expectations in response to European influences, particularly missionaries. Missionaries preached against the practice of polygyny, and abhorred the practice of polyandry and divorce. In fact, they preached against the high status and independence of Native American women. They felt Native women should be like European women, subservient to their husbands. Europeans referred to the Iroquois and Cherokee political systems as “petticoat governments” because of the roles of women and women councils. Native American women were seen as “drudges” and Native American men as lazy, because women primarily did the farming, while men engaged in hunting, a recreational activity from the perspective of Europeans. Early suffragettes (those who fought for equal rights for women, especially the right to vote) would remark on the status women in Iroquois society. They missed the concept that women had that status in part because of the “drudge” labor they did, and the fact they had control over the products of that labor.

Contrary to what our contemporary politicians may say, kinship can be a very flexible aspect of society. It can change to accommodate other changes in a society. An excellent example of this is the changes that occurred among the Siouan-speaking peoples of the Midwest. Up until the 1700s the Sioux, Lakota, Dakota, Yankton, and Oglala peoples lived in what are now midwestern areas like Minnesota. Most communities were close to water and practiced horticultural combined with fishing, foraging, and hunting. These peoples even had corn women stories much like those of the eastern Native societies. In horticultural or even foraging societies, the roles of women and men were fairly equal, as both contributed to their families’ and communities’ resources and wealth.

But starting in the late 1700s, more and more Native peoples were pushed farther and farther west as Euro-Americans moved west. Many Native societies like the Siouan peoples were pushed out into the plains and prairie areas. But those environments are not well suited for horticulture. Rainfall is limited and the growing season is short. Additionally the grasses in the plains are short and the roots grow in dense tangles that contribute to the development of sod. Sod provided natural “bricks” for the construction of “sod houses” for both Native peoples and early Euro-American settlers in the area, but sod made it very difficult to farm in these areas without steel plows. Native farmers had digging sticks. An old, derogative term for American Indians is “diggers,” probably in reference to this form of planting technology.

The Native peoples who migrated to the plains and prairies gradually adapted to getting resources there, due to the reintroduction of horses. The arrival of horses coincided with the expansion of a European presence and trade along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. This may be why so many Euro-Americans can only imagine the Native peoples of the plains (and in much of popular culture all Native Americans) hunting bison on horseback. However, the French explorer LaSalle encountered horticultural societies along the southern Missouri River in the seventeenth century. The arrival of horses made the peoples of the prairie and plains much more effective hunters, and they were better able to follow the migratory bison. The meat and furs of bison and other animals also became important items to trade with the encroaching Euro-Americans.

As hunting to trade with the Euro-Americans became more important, various structures within Siouan societies started to change. The autonomy of women was undermined. A family’s wealth became dependent on the amount of hides they traded with Euro-Americans and Canadians. A single man could hunt many animals, but the hides he could trade were dependent on the number of women who did the time-consuming preparation of the hides. As a result women, no longer controlled their own labor; the men of their families controlled it. Polygyny (having multiple wives) increased. More wives and children meant more laborers in the hunting and preparation of hides.

The success of these hunting societies, as opposed to more generalized foraging societies that also obtained resources from fishing and gathering wild edibles, also depended on horses. The larger the horse herd, the more men (and sometimes women) could go hunting. The more horses a man had, the more a man and his sons could offer as a bride price for more wives. The social and economic status of men came to depend on the number of horses and wives he had. This led to the development of a more ranked society: more horses, more wives, more resources, more wealth, more status, in societies that had previously been egalitarian. Political leadership became more formalized and centralized.

Women retained only some of their previous status, particularly in religious rituals, and as healers and midwives. Some women chose to participate in male-dominated activities such as hunting and warfare. They were often referred to as Big Hearted Women. Because Native American societies traditionally honored individual choice, these women were not seen as deviant, they were simply fulfilling their own visions and destinies. The changes in kinship and the roles of women in Siouan societies were not intentional, but were a consequence of other changes in the society. This was not always the case. The U.S. and Canadian governments often imposed changes.

The laws of the United States and Canada did not recognize the variety of marriages and family organization that existed in Native American societies; they only recognized nuclear families with neolocal residence patterns. At times in both U.S. and Canadian history, the marriages of Euro-American men with Native women were not recognized. Their children were considered illegitimate, and they could not inherit from their fathers. In other instances, the governments of the United States and Canada did not recognize as Native the children of Native American mothers. Following the patrilineal history of Europe, the governments would only recognize the children of Native men as Native.

Kinship and marriage were aspects of societies that were severely impacted by European contact. Europeans simply did not accept matrilineal or matrifocal practices, and thought that the practice of polyandry and polygyny demonstrated the savagery of Native societies. But the indigenous societies had a very different perspective. Individual indigenous societies often encountered other societies with varying customs. Many Native societies, like the Iroquois, for example, had a mechanism for incorporating newcomers into their kin groups, primarily through adoption and marriage. As was stated previously in this chapter, adoption was common in many Native American societies, and not just of children. Adults might also be adopted. People might be adopted as apprentices to shamans. Adoption of war captives was common, as was adoption and marriage with new people encountered. For Native groups such as the Iroquois, Hurons, Ottawa, Abanakis, and many more, marriage was a way to incorporate newcomers into existing families and communities.

There were occasional marriages between the English and Natives as well, but these were certainly not encouraged. By the time of Metacom (often called King Phillip by Americans), it was English policy to separate English and Native populations as much as possible. Even those Native Americans who had converted to Christianity were isolated in “Praying Towns.” However, the Jesuit missionaries in what became known as “New France” encouraged intermarriage as a way to convert the Native peoples and to make them good Catholics and French citizens. The Jesuits even raised dowries from patrons back in Europe for Native women to give to their husbands in the patrilineal, European tradition. For the French voyageurs and coureurs de bois, intermarriage was a necessity. Marriage with Native women gave these men the family connections that secured them guides, aides in procuring skins, help in the preparation of skins, shelter over their heads, and food in their bellies. If a foreigner to an area and society hoped to have the support of the members of the society to survive, marriage was a good way to ensure that, if he recognized that he had kin responsibilities as well.

Native Americans still continue aspects of their traditional kin organization. While Iroquois children may have the last names of their fathers, their clan association is still that of their mothers. At pow-wows young people will still inquire about the clan association of a potential love interest, continuing to avoid clan incest taboos. Women sometimes live in extended family households, or live in close proximity to their mothers and other female members of their families. The Navajo, who typically do not like living too close to each other, have households in “camps”—areas in which households are linked by matrilineal ties.

While the laws and influences of the U.S. and Canadian governments have changed the kin organization of Native American societies, many of them continue to follow practices such as clan association and residence locality. These factors can be very important in the practice of rituals, as we will see in Chapter 6.

Suggested Questions

You may have done your family tree in elementary school. Anthropologists do kinship charts. Try doing one for your family using the following format.

Creating a Kinship Chart

Illustration by the author.

Standard Kinship Notations

Illustration by the author.

These symbols are used in a very basic kinship chart. You can easily Google other. Compare them to yours. You might also want to compare your chart to others in your class. What kind of differences do you see? Why do you think there are those differences?

People in non-western societies can often trace their ancestry back many generations. How far back can you name your ancestors?

Interview an older member of your family. How far back can they trace their/your ancestry?

Many societies have “fictive kin”, that is someone who in not related to you by descent or marriage but whom you consider to be “family”. Do you have any examples of this?

An important function of any kin group is sharing or providing resources. Do you have an example of this?

The Iroquois societies practice exchange of resources between a bridge and groom at marriage ceremonies. What do most Euro-American or Canadian cultures do?

In what ways is adoption in contemporary U.S. or Canadian societies different than the way adoption functioned in indigenous American societies?

U.S. and Canadian family life has changed a great deal over the last fifty years. Discuss some of the cultural changes that contributed to this.

How do you think the concept of kinship in your society may change in the next fifty years?

Suggested Resources

While not specially about Native American societies, anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday has two books that are very important in examining kinship and the roles of women in society. The first, Male Dominance, Female Power, looks at women’s roles in a number of societies and what happens to those roles during cultural changes. One of her case studies is the Lakota. In Women at the Center: Life in a Modern Matriarchy, Sanday argues that the Minangkabau of West Sumatra are an example of a matriarchy.

League of the Houdenosaunee or the Iroquois, is an ethnohistorical account of the Houdenosaunee by Lewis Henry Morgan, originally published in 1851. While much of it reflects 19th century biases, Morgan’s description of Houdenosaunee kinship is important and has influenced much subsequent anthropological research on kinship.

The novel Waterlily, by Ella Cara Deloria is a wonderful account of Lakota life in the early 1800’s. Included is much information about Lakota kinship and how it functioned in the broader society.

Other books of interest are:

The Tewa World: Space, Time & Becoming in a Pueblo Society, by Alfonso Ortiz.

Women of the Earth Lodges: Tribal Life on the Plains, by Virginia Bergman Peters.

Negotiators of Change: Historical Perspectives on Native American Women, ed. by Nancy Shoemaker.

Sifters: Native American Women’s Lives, ed. by Theda Perdue.

Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670-1870, by Sylvia Van Kirk.

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Chapter 2: All Our Relations by Susan Stebbins is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.