Indian Clans or Gens

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. Clan 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 lineage. 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 have

(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 councils.
(9) The right to certain personal names, to be bestowed upon its members.
(10) The right to adopt aliens through the action of a constituent ohwachira.
(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 following:
(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 their death.
(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 neogĕn, ‘cloven foot’, while the clan name is hadinioñgwaiiu’, ‘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 hadiniadéñ’, ‘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 other phratry. 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 same principle.

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 Kitamat 6. 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.


Hodge, Frederick Webb, Compiler. The Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. Bureau of American Ethnology, Government Printing Office. 1906.

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