North-South-East-West: American Indians and the Natural World
The Three Sisters: Sustainers of Life
The Women's World
Women have always had an honored place in Iroquois society, and they possess great
responsibility and power. Clan mothers, the leaders of the clan,
select the council members, or chiefs, and have veto power over the men's decisions.
Women not only manage the political life of the Iroquois, they are caretakers
of the agricultural cycle as well.
A woman gave the Three Sisters to the people, and the plants are named for women.
Because of this connection with the Earth, planting and gardening were a woman's
privilege. They have always planted, cultivated, harvested, and processed the crops.
Women also supplemented their families' diets by collecting a wide array of edible
wild plants from the forest. Berries, mushrooms, nuts, milkweed greens, wild onions,
and asparagus are just a few of the things that Iroquois cooks mixed with wild game
and cultivated foods.
The most basic unit of Iroquois society is the clan, a group of relatives that
traces its ancestry to a single woman. Each clan governs itself and also joins
with the other clans in governing the village and the tribe.
The Iroquois people organize themselves according to the model of the animal
world, and every clan is named for an animal. The Senecas, for example, have
eight clans--Bear, Beaver, Deer, Hawk, Heron, Snipe, Turtle, and Wolf.
Children are born into their mother's clan and consider all members of their
One of the main functions of the clan is to provide kinship with clan members
in other villages. For Iroquois men, who historically traveled away from home,
food and lodging always awaited them in the home of another clan member
regardless of the distance.
Image 1: Cornhusk Doll Pounding Corn
Robin Bucktooth, Nedrow, New York, Onondaga, 1993
Cornhusk (Zea mays), commercial cotton, unidentified
wood, glass, plastic, unidentified bone, commercial leather,
Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) feather, unidentified
shell; L 15.6 x W 8.4 x H 29.6 cm; 35564-1 a-c
Image 2: Floor Mat
Cornhusks (Zea mays), unidentified plant fiber;
L 78.5 x W 71.0 x H 6.5 cm; 36210-1