An American Indian clan or gens is an intra-tribal exogamic group of
persons either actually or theoretically consanguine, organized to
promote their social and political welfare, the members being usually
denoted by a common class name derived generally from some fact relating
to the habitat of the group or to its usual tutelary being. In the clan
lineal descent, inheritance of personal and common property, and the
hereditary right to public office and trust are traced through the
female line, while in the gens they devolve through the ionic line.
and gentile organizations are by no means universal among the North
American tribes; and totemism, the possession or even the worship of
personal or communal totems by individuals or groups of persons, is not
an essential feature of clan and gentile organizations. The terms clan
and gens as defined and employed by Powell denote useful discriminations
in social and political organization, and, no better names having been
proposed, they are used here practically as defined by Powell.
Consanguine kinship among the Iroquoian and Muskhogean
tribes is traced through the blood of the woman only, and membership in
a clan constitutes citizenship in the tribe, conferring certain social,
political, and religious privileges, duties, and rights that are denied
to aliens. By the legal fiction of adoption the blood of the alien might
be changed into one of the strains of Iroquoian blood, and thus
citizenship in the tribe could be conferred on a person of alien
The primary unit of the social and political organization of
Iroquoian and Muskhogean tribes is the ohwachira, a Mohawk term
signifying the family, comprising all the male and female progeny of a
woman and of all her female descendants in the female line, and of such
other persons as may be adopted into the ohwachira. An ohwachira never
bears the name of a tutelary or other deity. Its head is usually the
eldest woman in it. It may be composed of one or more firesides, and one
or more ohwachiras may constitute a clan. The members of an ohwachira
(1) the right to the name of the clan of
which their ohwachira is a member;
(2) the right of inheriting property from deceased member.
(3) the right to take part in councils of the ohwachira.
The titles of chief
and sub-chief were the heritage of particular ohwachiras. In the
development of a clan by the coalescence of two or more actually or
theoretically related ohwachira only certain ohwachira obtained the
inheritance and custody of the titles of and consequently the right to
choose chief and subchief. Very rarely were the offsprings of an adopted
alien constituted an ohwachira having chiefship or sub-clriefship
titles. The married women of childbearing age of such an ohwachira had
the right to hold a council for the purpose of choosing candidates for
chief and sub-chief of the clan, the chief matron of one of the
ohwachira being the trustee of the titles, and the initial step in the
deposition of a chief or sub-chief was taken by the women's council of
the ohwachira to whom the title belongs.
There were clans in which
several ohwachira possessed titles to chiefships. The Mohawk and Oneida
tribes have only 3 clans, each of which, however, has 3 chiefships and 3
sub-chiefships. Every ohwachira of the Iroquois possessed and worshiped,
in addition to those owned by individuals, one or more tutelary deities,
called oiaron or ochinagenda, which were customarily the charge of wise
women. An alien could be taken into the clan and into the tribe only
through adoption into one of the ohwachira. All the land of an ohwachira
was the exclusive, property of its women. The ohwachira was bound to
purchase the life of a member who had forfeited it by the killing of a
member of the tribe or of an allied tribe, and it possessed the right to
spare or to take the life of prisoners made in its behalf or offered to
it for adoption.
The clan among the Iroquoian and the Muskhogean peoples
is generally constituted of one or more ohwachira. It was developed
apparently through the coalescence of two or more ohwachira having a
common abode. Amalgamation naturally resulted in a higher organization
and an enlargement and multiplication of rights, privileges, and
obligations. Where a single ohwachira represents a clan it was almost
always due to the extinction of sister ohwachira.
In the event of the
extinction of an ohwachira through death, one of the fundamental rules
of the constitution of the League of the Iroquois provides for the
preservation of the titles of chief and sub-chief of the ohwachira, by
placing these titles in trust with a sister ohwachira of the same clan,
if there be such, during the pleasure of the League council. The
following are some of The characteristic rights and privileges of the
approximately identical Iroquoian and Muskhogean clans:
(1) The right to a common clan name, which
is usually that of an animal, bird, reptile, or natural object t hat
may formerly have been regarded as a guardian deity.
(2) Representation in the council of the tribe.
(3) Its share in the communal property of the tribe.
(4) The right to have its elected chief and sub-chief of the clan
confirmed and installed by the tribal council, among the Iroquois in
later times by the League council.
(5) The right to the protection of the tribe.
(6) The right to the titles of the chiefships and sub-ehiefships
hereditary in its ohwachira.
(7) The right to certain songs, chants, and religious observances.
(8) The right of its men or women, or both together, to hold
(9) The right to certain personal names, to be bestowed upon its
(10) The right to adopt aliens through the action of a constituent
(11) The right to a common burial ground.
(12) The right of the childbearing women of the ohwachira in which
such titles are hereditary to elect the chief and sub-chief.
(13) The right of such women to impeach and thus institute
proceedings for the deposition of chiefs and sub-chiefs.
(14) The right to share in the religious rites, ceremonies, and
public festivals of the tribe.
The duties incident to clan membership were the
(1) The obligation not to marry within the
clan, formerly not even within the phratry to which the clan
belonged; the phratry being a brotherhood of clans, the male members
of it mutually regarded themselves as brothers and the female
members as sisters.
(2) The joint obligation to purchase the life of a member of the
clan which has been forfeited by the homicide of a member of the
tribe or of an allied tribe.
(3) The obligation to aid and defend fellow members by supplying
their needs, redressing their wrongs and injuries, and avenging
(4) The joint obligation to obtain prisoners or other persons to
replace members lost or killed of any ohwachira of a clan to which
they are related as father's clansmen, the matron of such ohwachira
having the right to ask that this obligation be fulfilled.
All these rights and obligations, however, are not
always found together.
The clan or gentile name is not usually the common name of the animal or
object after which the clan may be called, but denotes some salient
feature or characteristic or the favorite haunt of it, or may be an
archaic name of it. One of the Seneca clans is named from the deer,
commonly called neogen, 'cloven foot', while the clan name is
hadinio˝gwaiiu', 'those whose nostrils are large and fine looking.'
Another Seneca clan is named from the sandpiper, which has the
onomatopoetic name dowisdowi', but the clan name is hodi'nesiio', 'those
who come from the clean sand,' referring to the sandpiper's habit of
running along the water's edge where the sand is washed by the waves.
Still another clan is called after the turtle, commonly named ha'nowa
from its carapace, but the clan designation is hadiniadÚ˝', 'they have
upright necks.' The number of clans in the different Iroquois tribes
varies. The smallest number is 3, found in the Mohawk and Oneida, while
the Seneca have 9, the Onondaga 8, and the Wyandot 12.
Clans and gentes are generally organized into phratries
and phratries into tribes. Usually only 2 phratries are found in the
modern organization of tribes. The Huron and the Cayuga appear formerly
to have had 4, but the Cayuga today assemble in 2 phratries. One or more
clans may compose a phratry. The clans of the phratries are regarded as
brothers one to another and cousins to the members of the other phratry,
and are so addressed. The phratry has a certain allotted place in every
assembly, usually the side of the fire opposite to that held by the
A clansman in speaking of a person of the opposite phratry may also say "He is my father's clansman," or "He is a child
whom I have made," hence the obligation resting on members of a phratry
to "find the word" of the dream of a child of the other phratry. The
phratry is the unit of organization of the people for ceremonial and
other assemblages and festivals, but as a phratry it has no officers;
the chiefs and elders of the clans composing it serve as its directors.
The government of a clan or gens, when analytically
studied, is seemingly a development from that of the ohwachira. The
government of a tribe is developed from that of the clan or gens, and a
confederation, such as the League of the Iroquois, is governed on the
The simpler unit of organization surrendered some of
its autonomy to the higher unit so that the whole was closely
interdependent and cohesive. The establishment of each higher unit
necessarily produced new duties, rights, and privileges.
According to Boas the tribes of the northwest
coast, as the Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Heiltsuk, and Kitamat, have
animal totems, and a "maternal organization" in which the totem groups
are exogamic. The Kwakiutl, however, although belonging to the same
stock as the last two, do not have animal totems, because they are in "a
peculiar transitional stage." The Kwakiutl is exogamic. In the north
part of this coast area a woman's rank and privileges always descend to
her children. As the crest or totemic emblem, descends in the female
line through marriage among the Kwakiutl, a somewhat similar result has
been brought about among them. Among the Haida and the Tlingit there are
respectively 2 phratries; the Tsimshian have 4, the Heiltsuk 3, and the
The tribes of the south part of the coast, according to the
same authority, are "purely paternally organized." Natives do not always
consider themselves descendants of the totem, but rather some ancestor
or the clan who obtained the totem. An adopted remnant of the tribe may
sometimes constitute a clan.
Handbook of American Indians, Frederick W. Hodge,1906
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