I am quite familiar with the historical role of the Clan Mothers in Six Nations society. Where it gets "fuzzy" is the interval between about 1960 and today. There is a fairly extensive literature on Iroquois women. A classic study of Iroquois women in early days is that of Judith Brown (1970), which can be seen here. A more recent study, focusing on more current times, is that of Shoemaker (1991) which focuses on traditional Seneca women. The conclusion of this article is that there is apparent ambiguity in the power of traditional Seneca women today - it "remains unresolved". See here for the full article, and please note the extensive list of references at the end. Since there does not appear to be any clear answer here, I will provide a brief overview of the matter, some of my perspectives here, and an outline of the role of one of the most respected of female elders at Six Nations.
In earlier times, it is believed that the longhouses within a village were composed of the lineage (Owachira) of a Clan Mother and her relatives in the female line. Husbands married to women of this Clan would move to their wife's village and longhouse (matrilocal residence). This tradition broke down at some time before about 1750 when, at least among the Mohawk, nuclear families came to reside in their own homes in a manner similar to that of their White neighbours.
In Six Nations society, women were the "owners" of the land where they grew the "three sisters" (corn, beans and squash). At the time of the American Revolution the two wealthiest Mohawks (according to claims for losses) were women - their holdings of land outstripped that of the males (even their own brothers).
Each Owachira of each Clan of each Nation has one woman from a family of the "correct", generally high status, lineage. So for example, when the Six Nations first came to the Grand River in 1785, the Clan Mother of the third Turtle Clan family of the Mohawks, Shadekariwadeh, was Esther Spring Dekahondahgweh who married David Hill Karonghyontye, Chief of the Bear Clan family Aghstawenserontha. When her brother Daniel Spring Oghnawera died, Esther appointed her only living son John Hill to the title of Shadekariwadeh. So this situation followed the typical pattern where the eldest woman in a chiefly lineage became the Clan Matron and depending on age and other circumstances, would select a brother or son to be raised up in the room of say her eldest brother who had passed away. In the early days, women such as Esther weilded a lot of power, whereby she could council the men to for example go to war, or recommend the path of peace - although whether the men listened or not is unclear. It was up to her to present the candidate of her choice to the League Council in order that the horns of office would be placed on his head (metaphorically, since it was actually three strings of wampum). Should she be displeased with his efforts (e.g., if her brother was a chronic alcoholic) she could "dehorn" him, and put another in his place.
It appears that the status of women within Six Nations society split along the lines of acculturation - perhaps by the time of the War of 1812, although the evidence one way or the other is scant. Those women who resided within for example Christian households began to conform more to the patrilineal society that was encouraged by the Indian Department officials (with tribal membership in census and annuity payment lists being recorded through the paternal line). This pattern was entrenched by about 1850. However among the more conservative, often non - Christian people, the woman's role at least in theory remained intact. Clan Mothers have continued to perform their traditional role within the rapidly changing Reserve environment by adhering strongly to the Longhouses that served as congregations of traditional Six Nations people. By 1850 and up to present day, Longhouses have been established at Sour Springs (Upper Cayuga), as well as the "down below" Longhouses at Lower Cayuga, Onondaga and Seneca.
The classic study of conservatism at Six Nations circa 1950 (discussed elsewhere) was published by Annemarie Shimony, who was privy to the ins and outs of what went on in terms of rituals and procedures. Considering her unparallelled access to the most knowledgeable informants of the day, and their apparent willingness to share what they knew (warts and all), it seems fair to say that Shimony is a reliable source for the rituals and traditions, and even some of the genealogical irregularities that factored into which family was deemed to be eligible to chose a hereditary chief. To an outsider, it would seem rather chaotic in those days as people struggled to impose order when it was often unclear as to which path to take. Chiefships went unfilled, some were extinct, many were filled in ways not ordained by the Great Law - even taking someone from the "closest approximation" (e.g., same moeity or side rather than Clan let alone lineage) when no one suitable could be located who was willing to assume a vacant position, sometimes a "willing party" was installed for the purpose of convenience. Things became very spotty, and one might not stray to far from the truth in assuming that things have not been better sorted out to this day. Since most Six Nations members are not participating adherents to the Longhouse or hereditary system, many don't know or don't care about which Owachira their mother's mother's mother's and so on belonged to. The pool of candidates for any vacancy will vary between limited and zero, so substitutions must be made. This is a process that dates back to at least the mid 1800s when keeping track of who is who became difficult. For example there was a large influx of Bay of Quite Mohawks in the 1830s, and there were comings and goings largely from the U.S.A. as can be seen via an examination of the birthplaces in the general Canadian Census of 1851 where the census taker recorded exact birthplace (e.g., York on the Grand River or Buffalo Creek in NY).
Thus anyone who would assert that what is seen today at Six Nations in terms of the League, or Confederacy membership as an unbroken chain dating back to the founding, or even to 1900, is unable to see the facts. It is interesting to note the actions of Bill Squire of the Mohawk Workers at a recent "community" meeting which took place at Kanata (the former tourist center in Brantford now controlled by the Mohawk Workers) to discuss the Guswhenta (Erie Ave.) development, which I discussed in an earlier blog posting. Here he set up some posters on three topics, seemingly unrelated to the subject being discussed. One cluster related to Haudenosaunee Development Institute finances, another had to do with the McKenzie Meadows Project in Caledonia, and the third was a group of documents dating back a number of (unspecified) years, which raised questions about the legitimacy of the lineage of Tekarihogea, the premier Chiefship among not only the Turtle Clan, but all Mohawks. It is probably not a coincidence that the present holder of the title, Chief Allen MacNaughton, was present. The next week, Chief MacNaughton, whose right to his Confederacy title was apparently being challenged, was again in the news.
In Turtle Island News, December 11, 2013, p. 7, appears an article, Confederacy supports CAS removal, but transition
plans unclear. Here the reader finds a few hints as to the present day functioning of the Clan Mothers within the Haudenosaunee Confederacy Chiefs Council (HCCC)system. The reporter noted that, the HCCC backed a two year effort to remove the Brant CAS
from Six Nations after hearing from clanmothers Saturday. Further, Degarehogeh, Mohawk Chief Allen MacNaughton told council, “Our society has been eroded". He further asserted the CAS has emerged from the same sort of Colonial thinking as residential
schools. Then, Gwen Styres a runner for the clanmothers, presented on
their behalf, addressed points made by the CAS management to the Confederacy in
Frankly I have never heard of a position as "runner" for the Clan Mothers. For years, especially during the American Revolution, the British Military and the Pine Tree or Confederacy Chiefs used male runners to take messages "express" to places such as Detroit. One individual from this time period was known by his role. He was "Peter the Runner", otherwise known as Peter Davis who was an Aughquaga (Oneida) or Mohawk who functioned in this capacity for many years.
It seems that perhaps Ms. Styres was assigned the role of conveying messages as to decisions of the Clan Mothers to the HCCC. What is needed, at least for those of us who are not members of the Longhouse community, would be a clearer sense of how many Clan Mothers there are today at Six Nations, and how their role may or many not have changed since the 1960s. I am only guessing, however in today's political climate I can't see the welcome mat being extended to anthropologists as it was in the 1950s - but who knows. So for many of us, what transpires within the Longhouse is a big question mark.
However, also of immense importance, is the present day role of women in Six Nations society. Ava Hill has recently been elected as Chief of the Six Nations Elected Council (SNEC), and many of the Councillors are women - one of the most notable being Councillor Helen Miller who is often the voice of reason when others seem to have lost their way. Hence, the traditional role of women among the Six Nations seems to be widely accepted. It should be noted, however, that sometimes the men at Six Nations have paid little more than lip service to the importance of women. True attitudes have, during some periods in history, been less than what has been idealised. For example at the Albany Conference in 1754, the Six Nations were irritated at the Delaware for selling lands without their (Six Nations) permission. At the time the Six Nations wielded enough military power to subdue or destroy the Delaware - however the British authorities would have moved swiftly to ensure that a disruptive military confrontation among their allies would not take place. As a way of exercising their dominance, the Six Nations have always given the Delaware a "second class citizen" status at best - being termed "our nephews" being among the most benign ways of keeping the Delaware "in their place". While they were the first to settle on the Grand River, and were the third largest group after the Mohawk and Cayuga, the Delaware and their Nanticoke cousins, were consigned to a back seat role - although allowed to send one chief to vote in the Six Nations Councils.
Returning to how women factor into this strained relationship with the Delaware, the Six Nations wished to punish them for acting independently in land deals (involving Delaware territory in Pennsylvania and New Jersey) in the mid 1700s, so they metaphorically placed petticoats on the Delaware, and they were to be known as "women". Now if women were truly equal or even respected leaders, why would the male Six Nations chiefs wish to call the Delaware women - in this context they were assigning them the role of the "weaker sex" and dependent on the men (Six Nations). This episode has never been satisfactorily explained. My take on it is that while women in Six Nations society had an important and recognised role to play, even choosing the chiefs to send to the League conferences at the firekeepers in Onondaga, they were probably in fact subservient. This can be seen in some episodes which have been a matter of record, where for example Chief Daniel Oghnawera "the Spring" had married Margaret Crine in 1755. By 1763 Margaret was forced to accompany her niece to the Stockbridge MA Indian school to escape the wrath of her husband who had "taken up" with one of her younger relatives. So women were not necessarily well treated or even respected by males - only when convenient to do so, or when having such powerful family connections they were not in danger of coming under male domination.
Today at Six Nations, despite a climate where domestic violence is prevalent and sometimes women are abused in every imaginable way, once again there are some females whose very presence can serve to calm a situation. Some are respected and revered elders, whether Clan Mothers or not. I will chose one individual to stand in for all who fall into this category - although she may be a major exception, being a very exceptional person.
I noted in a recent blog posting how, at a community meeting held at Kanata in Brantford, one person who stood firmly to try and bring order to the chaos which reigned supreme at the meeting - noting the apparent immaturity of all parties (Mohawk Workers and Men's Fire members) in dealing with an issue that required mature discussion not name calling. This respected elder was Jan Longboat.
I have had a number of discussions with Jan, and have developed deep respect for her. Back in 2006 she was one of the individuals who initiated the efforts to "reclaim" the Douglas Creek Estates (Kanonhstaton) property. However she was appalled at the shameless actions of many, which had crossed so many lines, and had diverted attention away from the real issue. Ultimately she and other female elders "laid down the law" to the militants and let them know in no uncertain terms that their actions were unacceptable, and that the barriers needed to come down, and reconciliation with their Caledonia neighbours was needed. She had enough influence to sway opinion and she had been instrumental in defusing the volatile situation.
Jan Longboat has even received the respect of Gary McHale, who many at Six Nations see as the "arch enemy". In an letter to the Regional News entitled, The Courage of Jan Longboat, vs. the Radicals, Gary McHale described his meeting with Jan, as seen in the link here. Her words, from McHale's letter, bear citing in full. McHale said, She told me a story she heard when she was young about a family that was poor. She stated she thought it was because they didn't have money or land but as she grew older she knew it wasn't about money or land. She stated, "they were poor because they didn't listen." She turned and glanced at DCE and said, "these young men and young women, they never listen so they never learn... I didn't realize until I was grown up that wealth is not money. We don't need to fight for the land or about money... what the old people taught us was that wealth was knowledge. We need to listen so we can go back to our children and tell them that it is not about money, it is not about fighting for land."
Jan has steadfastly maintained her position on all matters, never flipping in other directions to suit the audience. In the spring of 2012 Jan took a strong position on the march organised by the Marxist - Anarchist "supporters" of Six Nations, saying that of the 150 people at Six Nations who she canvassed, not one supported the march. See here for further information. Once again Jan showed that while she believed in the legitimacy of the land reclamation, she supported anything that would foster peace and reconciliation - not parades organised by the rabble rousing Marxists who were using the Six Nations to further their own anti - Western anti - capitalism aims. She saw through their "support" and saw it for what it was - knowing that ultimately this was going to bring disrepute upon the Six Nations and the cause to which she had devoted so much of her time and energy.
As I noted in an earlier blog on the "Mush Hole", it was female elders who stepped forward and stated that the true situation is far more complex than the position being taken as the "party line". They were willing to go against the grain and stand up for what they knew by virtue of their own experiences in the matter and call out those who would perpetuate lies in order to further "the cause".
It seems that if one is looking for someone who will speak honestly and openly, even if it means going against the grain, one will have to look to the women at Six Nations. Seldom have I noted males willing to speak against for example the horrors of Caledonia in 2006, or the 2012 march in Caledonia. In speaking with many, clearly they did not support the actions, but were somehow unable to vocalise their views if it meant ruffling some feathers and particularly if it meant potentially irritating the most radical of the groups such as the Mohawk Warriors, or the radical White people who had infested the Reserve spreading their cancerous leftist ideology.
I don't know how many, if any, Clan Mothers have chosen to speak out. It is my sense that the flow of information is directed by the Hereditary Council (the men) and their vociferous arm the HDI. Messages flow indirectly these days via "runners" such that we do not know how individual Clan Mothers feel about issues of the day. A shame really. I would like to hear what they have to say.