The Wyandot of Kansas

The Wyandot tribe was anciently divided into twelve clans, or gentes. Each of these had a local government, consisting of a clan council presided over by a clan chief. These clan councils were composed of at least five persons, one man and four women, and they might contain any number of women above four. Any business pertaining purely to the internal affairs of the clans was carried to the clan councils for settlement. An appeal was allowed from the clan council to the tribal council. The four women of the clan council regulated the clan affairs and selected the clan chief. The office of clan chief was in a measure hereditary, although not wholly so. The tribal council was composed of the clan chiefs, the hereditary sachem, and such other men of the tribe of renown as the sachem might with the consent of the tribal council call to the council fire. In determining a question the vote was by clans, and not by individuals. In matters of great importance it required a unanimous vote to carry a proposition.

The names of the ancient clans of the Wyandot tribe are as follows:

  1. Big Turtle
  2. Little Turtle
  3. Mud Turtle
  4. Wolf
  5. Bear
  6. Beaver
  7. Deer
  8. Porcupine
  9. Striped Turtle
  10. Highland Turtle, or Prairie Turtle
  11. Snake
  12. Hawk

These clan names are all expressed in Wyandot, words so long and hard to properly pronounce that they are omitted here. They are written in what the Wyandot call the Order of Precedence and Encampment, as I have recorded them above. On the march the warriors of the Big Turtle Clan marched in front, those of the Little Turtle Clan marched next to them, and so on down to the last clan, except the Wolf Clan, which had command of the march and might be where its presence was most necessary. The tribal encampment was formed “on the shell of the Big Turtle,” as the old Wyandot said. This means that the tents were arranged in a circular form as though surrounding the shell of the Big Turtle. The Big Turtle Clan was placed where the right fore-leg of the turtle was supposed to be and the other clans were arranged around in their proper order, except the Wolf Clan, which could be in the center of the inclosure on the turtle’s back, or in front of it where the turtle’s head was supposed to be, as it was thought best. In ancient times all their villages were built in this order, and in the tribal council the clans took this order in seating themselves, with the sachem either in the center or in the front of the door of the council chamber.

These clans were separated into two divisions, or phratries. The first phratry consisted of the following tribes:

  1. Bear
  2. Deer
  3. Snake
  4. Hawk

The second phratry consisted of the following tribes:

  1. Big Turtle
  2. Little Turtle
  3. Mud Turtle
  4. Beaver
  5. Porcupine
  6. Striped Turtle
  7. Highland Turtle, or Prairie Turtle

The Mediator, Executive Power, and Umpire of the tribe was the Wolf Clan, which stood between the phratries, and bore a cousin relation to each.

All the clans of a phratry bore the relation of brothers to one another, and the clans of one phratry bore the relation of cousins to those of the other phratry.

Their marriage laws were fixed by this relationship. Anciently a man of the first phratry was compelled to marry a woman of the second phratry, and vice versa. This was because every man of a phratry was supposed to be the brother of every other man in it, and every woman in the phratry was supposed to be his sister. The law of marriage is now so modified that it applies only to the clans, a man of the Deer Clan being permitted to marry a woman of Bear, Snake, Hawk, or any other clan but his own. Indeed, even this modification has now almost disappeared. If a man of the Deer Clan married a woman of the Porcupine Clan, all of his children were of the Porcupine Clan, for the gens always follows the woman and never the man. The descent and distribution of property followed the same law; the son could inherit nothing from his father, for they were always of different clans. A man’s property descended to his nearest kindred through his mother. The woman is always the head of the Wyandot family.

Five of the ancient clans of the Wyandot are extinct. They are as follows: (1) Mud Turtle; (2) Beaver; (3) Striped Turtle; (4) Highland, or Prairie Turtle; (5) Hawk.

Those still in existence are as follows: (1) Big Turtle; (2) Little Turtle; (3) Wolf; (4) Deer; (5) Bear; (6) Porcupine; (7) Snake.

The present government of the Wyandot tribe is based on this ancient division of the tribes. An extract from the Constitution may be of interest. It was adopted September 23, 1873:

It shall be the duty of the said Nation to elect their officers on the second Tuesday in July of each year. That said election shall be conducted in the following manner. Each Tribe (clan), consisting of the following Tribes: The Big and Little Turtle, Porcupine, Deer, Bear, and Snake, shall elect a chief; and then the Big and Little Turtle and Porcupine Tribes shall select one of their three chiefs as a candidate for Principal Chief. The Deer, Bear, and Snake Tribes shall also select one of their three chiefs as candidate for Principal Chief; and then at the general election to be held on the day above mentioned, the one receiving the highest number of votes cast shall be declared the Principal Chief; the other shall be declared the Second Chief. The above-named tribes shall on the above named election day elect one or more sheriffs.

The Wolf Tribe shall have the right to elect a chief whose duty shall be that of Mediator.

In case of misdemeanor on the part of any Chief, for the first offense the Council shall send the Mediator to warn the party; for the second offense the party offending shall be liable to removal by the Mediator, or Wolf and his Clan, from office.

The origin of these clans is hidden in the obscurity of great antiquity. They are of religious origin. We learn something of them from the Wyandot mythology, or folk-lore. The ancient Wyandot believed that they were descended from these animals, for whom their clans were named. The animals from which they were descended were different from the animal of the same species to-day. They were deities, zoological gods. The animals of the same species are descended from them. These animals were the creators of the universe. The Big Turtle made the Great Island, as North America was called, by the Wyandot, and he bears it on his back to this day. The Little Turtle made the sun, moon, and many of the stars. The Mud Turtle made a hole through the Great Island for the sun to pass back to the East through after setting at night, so he could arise upon a new day. While making this hole through the Great Island the Mud Turtle turned aside from her work long enough to fashion the future home of the Wyandot, their happy hunting-grounds, to which they go after death. The sun shines there at night while on his way back to the East. This land is called the land of the Little People, a race of pigmies created to assist the Wyandot. They live in it, and preserve the ancient customs, habits, beliefs, language and government of the Wyandot for their use after they leave this world by death. These Little People come and go through the “living rock,” but the Wyandot must go to it by way of a great underground city where they were once hidden while the works of the world were being restored after destruction in a war between two brothers who were gods.

History, Wyandot,


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