When you’ve grown up in a patrilineal tribe–where are family name comes from the father and ancestry is traced back through your father’s fathers, it’s difficult to imagine another way. Before the Roman progenitors of the sky gods of three major religions–Muslim, Christian and Jewish–conquered the Druids throughout the Roman Empire, supplanting the ancient tribal modes that covered most of today’s Europe, evidence shows that those people practiced a different form of counting ancestry resulting in a different relationship between the genders.
Matrilineality has been practiced by native Americans in the Eastern U.S. for millennia. Many tribes on the rest of the continent still practice their ancestral matrilineal form of culture.
Matrilineality is NOT the reverse of patrilineality, where women rule and men are subservient. In matrilineal cultures today and historically, the relationship between men and women is finely balanced, resulting in true gender equity. Haudenausaunee/Iroquois and Lenape are two large nations of Original People who have lived a matrilineal culture for literally thousands of years. And still do today.
It’s difficult for those of us raised in a patrilineal tradition to imagine a tribal culture where one’s ancestry is counted through generations of mothers, where not only your name comes from your maternal line, but also your clan, your property, your heirlooms, ceremonies, regalia, and stories. This contemplation leads me to sympathize with friends who come from slavery and thus call themselves Miriam X and Malcolm X. Sometime in the hoary past, before the Roman conquest cut down our sacred groves and drove our governance underground, those of us from European stock had clans. We knew both our maternal and our paternal lines. And no, I don’t know how the Druids calculated family lines, whether through the paternal or maternal. I do know that Celtic forms of governance gave women power that patrilineal systems do not. They worshipped both male and female dieties. Do I need to state the obvious?: women have been chattel under those three Sky God religions named above. One of my early poems begins: “I will never stand in public again and pray to He Who…” Thus I have been a practicing pagan for decades, drawing on the worship of the Mother passed down through my maternal lines, after I tossed the dross of Catholicism aside.
I am struck by the courage of my native American friends in the west engaged in the process of restoring their language and cultural practices after near-term histories of loss and trauma through massacre, rape, disease, and bounties on renegades, and children being fostered in white institutions. Those of us from European and continental traditions have to use inductive reasoning to discover cultural truths, like clans, lying buried in our genetic codes for so long.
Inductive reasoning moves from specific observations to broader generalizations and theories. This is sometimes called a “bottom up” approach. The researcher begins with specific observations and measures, begins to then detect patterns and regularities, formulate some tentative hypotheses to explore, and finally ends up developing some general conclusions or theories.
Vision quests and a lifetime of inductive reasoning–working from results (“Here is what I have, what does this imply?”), sifting through assorted facts and pieces to work toward that a-ha moment: I have discovered what my family clan used to be (and still is) because I have done the work, collected evidence, and am arriving at certainty first about myself, and then about other family members.
“Do you know whether your people are matrilineal or patrilineal?” I asked one clanmother of a tribe from Northern California. (The term “clanmother” might not even be applicable to western tribes, for instance, being a term used among eastern native tribes.) She paused. “I think matrilineal,” she said. Probably someone in the university knows. Or an answer lies in anthropological recoreds. When I look at the structure of the hunting and gathering tribes from the Bay Area, I see the hallmarks of gender equity: division of labor, shared decisionmaking. It is possible that a third alternative exists to patrilineality and matrilineality perfected by hunter-gathering tribes.
I simply can’t wait any more time to publish this inquiry; my first acquaintance with the term matrilineal came from a graduate school reading of Frederich Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State with its chapter on the Iroquois matrilineal system. It hit me in the solar plexus, hard; I have been collecting evidence since then, and I turned 70 this year. Let this statement attract more information, additions, corrections; I am ready to publish my draft observations.
How does matrilineality work in terms of governance? The influence of white men and the chauvinism of patrilineality has shifted the original structures somewhat. I suspect both men and women among the Lenape and Haudenausaunee have had to defend and fortify their ancestral ways against the corporate influence of the BIA and Federal Government.
I know that wellmeaning Quaker men in the nineteenth century did a world of harm to the matrilineal Lenape and Haudenausaunee when they tried to make these people over into their own likeness, to make them more acceptable to the powers in Washington who held both the purse strings and treaties. As a condition of being liaisons to Washington, they insisted that native men farm, when the entire system of matrilineality is based on women’s relationship to the land. That is to say, both farming and wildcrafting were entirely women’s province. The farming that was done was as noninvasive a way as tradition had long prescribed, with mounds for growing the Three Sisters of corn, beans and squash. They tended the wild to harvest nuts, herbs, roots and berries. They carefuly managed the material world for optimal sustainable results for basketmaking and pottery. Artifacts like decorated fancy dress regalia and moccasins for dances and ceremony as well as cradle boards are handed down through the generations through the maternal line.
The Quakers used their influence and power to insist that men do the actual farming in straight rows and with iron plows and thus, unintentionally broke the culture at its very source, violating women’s elemental relationship to the land and men’s role within that as Chiefs and hunters.
If our European ancestors thought they were adapting the Iroquois Confederacy for framing the US Constitution, as we were taught in elementary school, they had it wrong too. All women and men are created equal in a matrilineal society.
Chiefs represent the interests of the tribe to the outside world. Chiefs are elected and removed from office by the Women’s Council elders, the clanmothers. Men sit in their Council and Women in theirs. Each Council deliberates until consensus is reached…which can take a long time, but if you are planning for eight generations out, time is relative. “We discuss an issue three times,” my friend Hitakonanolax says. “If we still can’t come to consensus after the third time, we bury it.”
You don’t have to imagine European women’s chagrin on understanding the lofty position of respect and power women hold in a matrilineal society. In her book Sisters in Spirit, my friend Sally Roesch-Wagner has documented the influence Haudenausaunee clanmothers had on early feminists which lead directly to The Declaration of Sentiments at Seneca Falls. European women may have hoped for more independence when they crossed the ocean with their husbands and worked beside them to create a new life of opportunity, at considerable cost to them: the loss of their homeland, ancestral ties, identity, language.
The fact is that European women could be beaten by their husbands with impunity. They couldn’t own land. If a man died or divorced his wife, she had no rights to their children. Wealth a woman brought into the family from her family became her husband’s.
Today, a native woman can divorce her husband by putting his shoes outside the door. A man who would beat, abuse or humiliate a woman would be severely reprimanded or–in the case of recidivism–put out of the tribe or in older days, put to death. If he were a chief (and this still happens today) he would be removed from office by the clanmothers, the matrons, and possibly the Grand Council of Chiefs as a mark of their support for the Women’s Council decision, though–so far as I know–the Councils of Chiefs have no veto power over the Women’s Council and the clanmothers.
“Why is this so important to you?” a friend of mine who is both native American and Hispanic asked.
By mindlessly adopting a partrilineal model of tribalism in the 1960’s, radicals with their sights set on social change doomed their outcomes from the beginning. In the Black Power movement, Digger and other anarchistic movements, and the American Indian Movement (depending on whether the tribes involved were matrilineal or patrilineal!)-each of which invested in communal living and shared decisionmaking–women’s memoirs of those time record similar results: men spoke with the loudest voices, men who were abusive of girls and women were not brought into line, women were rarely given positions of power (even AFTER the gender equity of SDS et al) and women were often subtly silenced, all the air sucked out the room when they rose to speak.
Native groups who came from a matrilineal tradition fared better in the Sixties; men and women worked together on the barricades in Akwesasne/Mohawk battles and, I am told, at Pine Ridge for instance.
I love being in the company of my Lenape tribesmen and women. As an elder woman, I am among the most honored people in the tribe or band. Young men jump to their feet to offer me a seat. They listen carefully to what I have to say. I am among the company of my elder sisters to be first in the food line. Contrast that to the value of a woman past childbearing age in a western patrilineal culture where I am the least valued member of the community, so nearly invisible that I have to reintroduce myself repeatedly to certain men in my age group everytime we meet, and identify myself as the mother of one of my daughters, for instance, or the wife of my husband, though I have advanced degrees, books and credits to my own name.
Recent research into the “grandmother factor” which shows that children around the world raised in a household with the close proximity of a maternal (not paternal, interestingly) grandmother are more likely to survive their childhood has brought this question of the value of a woman elder back into public discourse in the mainstream culture.
But I don’t want to have to argue my rights and value at this point in my life. Why should I? It’s been a couple decades since I was adopted into the Big Horn Lenape Band. And, using inductive reasoning, I am concluding that I cannot say whether I carry native American bloodlines: the focus of my intellectual curiosity and comfort level with my native brothers and sisters, the subject of my books, my value system, the proximity of my own homelands and roots in European countries where my families are still the aboriginal people, the inductive way I came to conclude that I have Jewish bloodlines. All these lines of inquiry lead me to assert that anyone who has a family tree in this country from before the US Civil War must be agnostic on this question whether one has native American bloodlines. The frequency of European men marrying native women, the long history of those alliance particularly between the French and Dutch with the Eastern tribes, the propensity of families to “bury” their knowledge of native women in the family tree, and finally our patrilineal way of accounting for lineage, all lead me to be agnostic on the question of whether I have native American blood. Finally, even if I never find the entrypoint of native bloodlines into my family tree, I refuse to dishonor that (possibly) woman who enriched my bloodlines with hers by categorically denying that I have native blood.
Let me suggest this: matrilineality seems to be a form of tribalism that has been widely practiced on this continent in time immemorial. If we hope to become native to this continent, instead of being those who displaced what is native, cleaving to our watersheds to learn their way, asking to shadow our native friends in order to observe their relationship to their homelands, then may it not serve us better to choose a matrilineal structure, where both men and women “are created equal?”