Indian Family

    There are important material differences in the organization and in the functions of the family as found respectively in savagery barbarism and civilization, and even within each of these planes of culture several marked types of the family, differing radically one from another in many characteristic features, exist.

     To determine definitely even the main organic features of the family systems in a majority, not to say all, of the Indian tribes north of Mexico, is not yet possible, owing to lack of material. In communities like those of the Muskhogean and the Iroquoian tribes, in which the clan system has been so highly developed, two radically different organic groups of persons exist to which the term family may properly be applied; and within each of these groups a more or less complex system of relationships definitely fixes the status of every person, a status that, acquired by birth or adoption, determines the civil or other rights, immunities, and obligations of the person. Among the Iroquois the ohwachira (the common Iroquoian name for the maternal blood family) was becoming merged into the clan (q.v. ), so that in specific cases the two are virtually identical, although in other cases several ohwachira are comprised under one clan. The term ohwachira is common to all the known dialects of the Iroquoian stock. On the other hand there are found in these dialects several different names designating the group called a clan, seemingly indicating the probability that the family as an institution existed long before the development of the clan organization, when the several tribes still had a common history and tradition. But it is not strictly accurate to call an ohwachira a family, or a clan a family. The first and larger group, includes the entire body of kindred of some one person, who is usually denominated the propositus.

     In view of the rights and obligations of the father’s clan to a person, in addition to those inherited from the clan of the mother, it appears that the family group among the Iroquois and Muskhogean tribes is composed of the maternal and paternal clans. The clan owes the child of its son certain civil and religious rights, and is bound to the child by obligations which vitally concern the latter’s life and welfare, present and future. The youth’s equipment for life would not he regarded as complete were the performance of these clan duties neglected. The tutelar of every person is named and made, by the members of the paternal clan. The duties just mentioned do not end with the death of the person; if occasioned by war or by murder the loss must he made good by the paternal clan supplying a prisoner or the scalp of an enemy.

     Some of the duties and obligations of the clan or clans whose sons have taken wives from a clan stricken by death are to condole with it, prepare the death feasts, provide suitable singers to chant the dirges at the wake lasting one or more nights, guard and care for the body lying in state and prepare it for burial, make the bark burial case or wooden coffin, construct the scaffold or dig the grave, and to perform all the other needful duties due from clans bound together by marriage. It was regarded as unseemly for the stricken clan to do anything but mourn until the body of the dead had been placed in its final resting place and until after the feast of “re-associating with the public,” held ten days subsequent to the death of the deceased, at which his property was divided among his heirs and friends. In case of the death of a chief or other noted person the clan mourned for an entire year, scrupulously refraining from taking part in public affairs until the expiration of this period and until after the installation of a successor to the dead officer. During the interim the bereaved clan was represented by the clan or clans hound to it by the ties of marriage and offspring.

     These two clans are exogamic groups, entirely distinct before the child’s birth, and form two subdivisions of a larger group of kindred-the family-of which any given person, the propositus, is the focal point or point of juncture. Strictly speaking, both clans form incest groups in relation to him. Every member of the community is therefore the point of contact and convergence of two exogamic groups of persons, for in these communities the clan is exogamic; that is to say, each is an incest group in so far as its own members are concerned. Within these clans or exogamic groups the members are governed by rules of a more or less complex system of relationships, which fix absolutely the position and status of everyone in the group, and the clan is thus organized and limited. Those, then, who have common blood with one another, or with a third person belong to the same family and are kindred. Both of these clans owe the off spring the rights and obligations of kindred, but in differing degrees. Thus a person may be said to have two clans, in some measure, that of his mother and that of his father. Both clans exercise rights and are bound by obligations to the household of which he became a member; both have, moreover, in different measure, the rights and obligations of kinship to him.

     The second and smaller group, the fireside or household, includes only the husband, his wife or wives, and their children. Where there are several wives from several different families, this group in its family relations becomes very intricate, but is nevertheless under the rigid control of family law and usage.

It is thus apparent that these two groups of persons are in fact radically distinct, for the lesser group is not merely a portion of the larger. The relative status of the husband and his wife or wives and their children makes this evident.

     Custom, tradition, and the common law do not regard the wife or wives of the household as belonging to the clan of the husband. By marriage the wife acquires no right of membership in her husband’s clan, but remains a member of her own clan, and, equally important, she transmits to her children the right of membership in her clan; and she acquires no rights of inheritance of property either from her husband or from his clan. On the other hand, the husband acquires no rights from his wife or from her clan, and he, likewise, does not become a member of his wife’s clan.

     But the fireside, or household, is the product of the union by marriage of two persons of different clams, which does not establish between the husband and wife the mutual rights and obligations arising from blood feud and from inheritance. It is precisely these mutual rights and obligations that are peculiarly characteristic of the relations between clansmen, for they subsist only between persons of common blood, whether acquired by birth or by adoption. Therefore, husband and wife do not belong to the sauce clan or family.

     As there is a law of the clan or exogamic kinship group governing acts and relations as between members of the same clan group, so there are rules and usages governing the household or fireside and defining the rights and obligations belonging to its jurisdiction. The relations of the various members of the fireside are affected by the fact that every member of it is directly subject to the general rule of the clan or higher kinship group, the husband to that of his clan, the wife or wives to those of their respective clans, and the children to those of both parents, but in different kind and degree.

     The dominating importance of the family is the social organization of a primitive people is apparent; it is one of the most vital institutions founded by private law and usage. In such a community every member is directly obligated to the family, first of all, for the protection that safeguards his welfare. The members of the family to which he belongs are his advocates and his sureties. In the grim blood feud the family defends him and his cause, even with their lives, if need be, and this care ends not with his death, for if he be murdered the family avenges his murder or exacts payment there for. In the savage and barbaric ages, even to the beginning of civilization, the community placed reliance largely on the fancily for the maintenance of order, the redress of wrongs, and the punishment of crime.

     Concerned wholly with the intimate relations of private life, family custom and law are administered within the family and by its organs; such customs and laws constitute daily rules of action, which, with their underlying motives, embody the common sense of the community. In a measure they are not within the jurisdiction of public enactment, although in specific cases the violation of family rights and obligations incurs the legal penalties of tribal or public law, and so sometimes fancily government comes into conflict with public law and welfare. But by the increasing power of tribal or public law through centralization of power and political organization the independence of the family in private feuds, regarded as dangerous to the good order of the community, is gradually limited. And when the family becomes a unit or is absorbed in a higher organization the individual acquires certain rights at the expense of the family, the right of appeal to the higher tribunal is one of these.

     The wealth and power of a clan or family depend primarily on the dearth or abundance of its numbers. Hence the loss of a single person is a great loss, and there is need that it be made good by replacing the departed with another or by many others, according to the relative standing and importance of the person to be restored. For example, Aharihon, an Onondaga chieftain of the 17th century, sacrificed 40 men to the shade of his brother to show the great esteem in which he held him. But among the Iroquois the duty of restoring the loss does not devolve directly on the stricken clan or exogamic kinship group, but upon all allied to it by the ties of what is termed hontoñnishoñ i. e., upon those whose fathers are clansmen of the person to be replaced. So the birth or the adoption of many men in a clan or exogamic kinship group is a great advantage to it; for although these men become separated through the obligation of marrying into clans or such groups other than their own, the children of such unions are bound in a measure to the clan or exogamic kinship group of their fathers. This is a principle so well established that the chief matron of the paternal clan or exogamic kinship might oblige these offspring of diverse households (as many as might suffice) to go to war in fulfillment of their obligation, as seemed good to her; or she might stop them if they wished to undertake a war which was not, from its expediency, pleasing to her and her advisers. Therefore this chief matron. having decided that the time was at hand “to raise again the fallen tree” or “to put back on the vacant mat” one of the clan whom death removed, would inform one of the children whose fathers were her clansmen, their hontoñnishoñ, that it was her desire that he form and lead a war party against their enemies for the purpose of securing a prisoner or a scalp for the purpose named. The person whom she selected was one judged most capable of executing her commission. This was soon accomplished. She enforced and confirmed this commission with a belt of wampum. So powerful was this chief matron of a clan that when the council chiefs did not favor the designs of certain ambitious war chiefs in raising levies for military purposes, fearing that they might injure the best interests of the tribe, one of the surest methods they might employ to frustrate these enterprises was to win the chief matrons of the clans whose clansmen were the fathers of the recruits from the other clans, for these chief matrons had only to interpose their influence and authority to bring to naught the best concerted designs and enterprises of these ambitious war chiefs. This is ample evidence that these women had an influence in some degree exceeding that of the council of the ancients and tribal chiefs.

     In the blood feud the paternal kin did not interfere except by counsel; but to avenge the death of a clansman of their father was an obligation. Outlaws were denied family and tribal rights. The renunciation of clan kinship entailed the loss of every right and immunity inhering in kinship. The fundamental concept in the organic structure of the family with its right, immunities, and obligations is that of protection. To exercise the right of feud was lawful only to avenge the guilty murder of a clansman.

     The clan or family was made useful by the tribe as a police organization, through which control was exercised over lawless men who otherwise were beyond restraint. Every clan had jurisdiction over the lives and property of its members, even to the taking of life for cause.

     The mutual obligations of kindred subsist between persons who can act for themselves; but there are duties of protection by these toward those who an not act for themselves for any reason whatever, for it is a principle of humanity that they who are legally independent should protect those who are legally dependent. The modern law of guardianship of minors and imbeciles is evidently but a survival and extension of this obligation of protection in the primitive family and clan.

     Speaking generally of the tribes of the northwest coast, Swanton (Am. Anthrop., n. s. vii, no. 4, 1905) says that in addition to the ” husband, wife, and children, a household was often increased by a number of relations who lived with the house owner on almost equal terms, several poor relations or protégés who acted as servants, and on the xnorth Pacific coast as many slaves as the house owner could afford or was able to capture.”

     In tribes where a clan or gentile organization similar to that of the Iroquoian and the Muskhogean tribes does not exist, it is known that the incest groups on the maternal and the paternal sides are largely determined by the system of relationships, which fixes the position and status of every person within an indefinite group, and the incest group is reckoned from each propositus. That is to say, marriage and cohabitation may not subsist between persons related to each other within prescribed limits on both the maternal and paternal sides, although kinship may be recognized as extending beyond the prescribed limit. Among the Klamath these relationships are defined by reciprocal terms defining the relation rather than the persons, just as the term “cousin” is employed between cousins.

     In speaking of the fierce, turbulent, and cruel Athapascan tribes of the valley of the Yukon, Kirkby (Smithson. Rep. 1864, 1865), says: “There is, however, another division among them, of a more interesting and important character than that of the tribes just mentioned. Irrespective of tribe they are divided into three classes, termed, respectively, Chit-sa, Nate-sa, and Tanges-at-sa, faintly representing the aristocracy, the middle classes, and the poorer orders of civilized nations, the former being the most wealthy and the latter the poorest. In one respect, however, they greatly differ, it being the role for a man not to marry in his own, but to take a wife from either of the other classes. A Chit-sa gentleman will marry a Tanges-at-sa peasant without the least feeling infra dig. The offspring in every case belong to the class of the mother. This arrangement has had a most beneficial effect in allaying the deadly feuds formerly so frequent among them.” As no further data are given, it is impossible to say what, if any, was the internal structure and organization of these three exogamic classes, with female descent, mentioned above.  Apparently a similar social organization existed among the Natchez, but no detailed information on the subject is available.

Additional Indian History Resources:


The books presented are for their historical value only and are not the opinions of the Webmasters of the site.   Handbook of American Indians, 1906


Indian Tribal History


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

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