According to Barbara Alice Mann, author of Iroquoian Women, women were at the center of a matrilineal Iroquoian society that could be called (though she does not call it that) an “egalitarian matriarchy.” As in other egalitarian matriarchies, including those of the Mosuo and the Minangkabau, women both hold power and share it with men. According to Peggy Reeves Sanday who studied many societies in the anthropological records, female power does not mean female domination.
In attempting to reconstruct the role of women in Iroquois society, Mann first had to engage in a painstaking deconstruction of the scholarly consensus that men ruled among the Iroquois. Believing that male dominance is universal, scholars ignored or explained away a great deal of evidence that Iroquoian women were and are at the center of Iroquoian society. Those who believe that academic scholarship is objective or relatively objective may have to revise their opinions after reading the masses of evidence of witting and unwitting distortion of Iroquois society that Mann uncovers. In order to reconstruct the role of women in Iroquoian society, Mann also had to deal with the fact that the American government destroyed much of Iroquoian oral tradition through policies of forced assimilation that removed children to government schools and forbade the speaking of native languages.
According to Mann, the Iroquois were not monotheists, and they did not believe in Gods or Goddesses. Mann argues that references to a “Great Spirit” as the highest power in the Iroquoian pantheon emerged in response to Christian missionizing and conquest. In contrast, she argues that the Iroquois recognize many spirits and the need to keep everything in balance. Iroquoian myths are not intended to provide information about another world. Rather they are teaching stories that embody the central values of Iroquoian culture.
The central Iroquoian story tells of Sky Woman and her daughter Fat-Faced Lynx. When Sky Woman fell to earth she carried seeds of the Three Sisters, Corn, Squash, and Beans in one hand and Tobacco in the other. She soon gave birth to Lynx and together they roamed the earth planting seeds and naming the animals. Eventually Lynx became pregnant by the wind and gave birth to two sons, Sapling and Flint. Lynx died in childbirth. Not long after Sky Woman died as well. Lynx became known as Mother Earth while Sky Woman became Grandmother Moon.
The story of Sky Woman and Lynx reflects the centrality of the mother-daughter bond in matrilineal cultures: there is no room or need for a sacred marriage and the idea that a single male God created the world out of nothing would have seemed preposterous. Sky Woman is connected to women’s agricultural work in Iroquoian culture: she brought the seeds of the three plants the women cultivated. However, because the rivalry between the motherless twins Sapling and Flint fit more easily into patriarchal narratives, the stories of love and co-operation between Sky Woman and Lynx and of Sky Woman’s gift of seeds were largely forgotten or ignored by western missionaries, colonists, and academics.
According to Mann, the stories of Sky Woman and Lynx and of Sapling and Flint in the earliest times of the earth story reflect a principle of pairing known as “double wampum,” the intention of which is to include all points of view, rather than (as is more common in western thinking) to exclude in order to dominate. As there are two sets of two, four points of view are expressed.
The principle of double wampum can be used to explain the pairing of the men’s councils made up of uncles and the women’s councils made up of grandmothers in the governance of the clan. Women gave birth to the next generations, owned the land, and controlled the cycles of planting, harvesting, and food preparation. Thus they presided over all of the internal or family and land-based activities of the clan. The men were involved with the external relations of the clan, including trading and greeting visitors, hunting and managing forests, and making war and peace. They were the ones to meet with missionaries, colonizers, and academics. European men did not understand that the Iroquoian men could make decisions affecting the clan as a whole only when the women agreed with their policies. They did not see or did not know how to interpret the powerful roles of women in Iroquoian society.
In contrast, Mann suggests, European women knew exactly what they were seeing. The freedom and power of Iroquoian women inspired European women to begin to fight for their rights. Matilda Joslyn Gage, who worked closely with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, included a discussion of “the matriarchate” of the Iroquois in the first chapter of Woman, Church, and State. She received the name “She Who Holds the Sky” on initiation into the Wolf Clan of the Mohawk tribe. Writing that “the division of power between the sexes in this Indian republic was nearly equal,” she concluded that “never was justice more perfect, nor civilization higher” than among the Iroquois. She argued that the Iroquois conferacy was the model for the American democracy.
Barbara Alice Mann’s Iroquoian Women provides convincing proof that patriarchy is not the only way to organize society and that another way is possible—way that celebrates co-operation and sharing rather than exclusion and domination.
Carol P. Christ is an internationally known feminist writer, activist, and educator living in Heraklion, Crete. Carol’s recent book written with Judith Plaskow, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology, is on Amazon. A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess is on sale for $9.99 on Amazon. Carol has been leading Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete for over twenty years: join her in Crete. Carol’s photo by Michael Honneger.
Listen to Carol’s a-mazing interview with Mary Hynes on CBC’s Tapestry recorded in conjunction with her keynote address to the Parliament of World’s Religions.