Wyandot Government: A Short Study of Tribal Society

In the social organization of the Wyandot four groups are recognized, the family, the gens, the phratry, and the tribe.

Society is maintained by the establishment of government, for rights must be recognized and duties performed. In this tribe there is found a complete differentiation of the military from the civil government.

The civil government inheres in a system of councils and chiefs.

In each gens there is a council, composed of four women, called Yu?-waí-yu-wá-na. These four women councillors select a chief of the gens from its male members—that is, from their brothers and sons. This gentile chief is the head of the gentile council.

The council of the tribe is composed of the aggregated gentile councils. The tribal council, therefore, is composed one-fifth of men and four-fifths of women.

The sachem of the tribe, or tribal chief, is chosen by the chiefs of the gentes.

There is sometimes a grand council of the gens, composed of the councillors of the gens proper and all the heads of households and leading men—brothers and sons.

There is also sometimes a grand council of the tribe, composed of the council of the tribe proper and the heads of households of the tribe, and all the leading men of the tribe.

These grand councils are convened for special purposes.

Methods of Choosing and Installing Councillors and Chiefs
The four women councillors of the gens are chosen by the heads of households, themselves being women. There is no formal election, but frequent discussion is had over the matter from time to time, in which a sentiment grows up within the gens and throughout the tribe that, in the event of the death of any councilor, a certain person will take her place.

In this manner there is usually one, two, or more potential councillors in each gens who are expected to attend all the meetings of the council, though they take no part in the deliberations and have no vote.

When a woman is installed as councilor a feast is prepared by the gens to which she belongs, and to this feast all the members of the tribe are invited. The woman is painted and dressed in her best attire and the sachem of the tribe places upon her head the gentile chaplet of feathers, and announces in a formal manner to the assembled guests that the woman has been chosen a councilor. The ceremony is followed by feasting and dancing, often continued late into the night.

The gentile chief is chosen by the council women after consultation with the other women and men of the gens. Often the gentile chief is a potential chief through a period of probation. During this time he attends the meetings of the council, but takes no part in the deliberations, and has no vote.

At his installation, the council women invest him with an elaborately ornamented tunic, place upon his head a chaplet of feathers, and paint the gentile totem on his face. The sachem of the tribe then announces to the people that the man has been made chief of the gens, and admitted to the council. This is also followed by a festival.

The sachem of the tribe is selected by the men belonging to the council of the tribe. Formerly the sachemship inhered in the Bear gens, but at present he is chosen from the Deer gens, from the fact, as the Wyandots say, that death has carried away all the wise men of the Bear gens.

The chief of the Wolf gens is the herald and the sheriff of the tribe. He superintends the erection of the council-house and has the care of it. He calls the council together in a formal manner when directed by the sachem. He announces to the tribe all the decisions of the council, and executes the directions of the council and of the sachem.

Gentile councils are held frequently from day to day and from week to week, and are called by the chief whenever deemed necessary. When matters before the council are considered of great importance, a grand council of the gens may be called.

The tribal council is held regularly on the night of the full moon of each lunation and at such other times as the sachem may determine; but extra councils are usually called by the sachem at the request of a number of councilors.

Meetings of the gentile councils are very informal, but the meetings of the tribal councils are conducted with due ceremony. When all the persons are assembled, the chief of the Wolf gens calls them to order, fills and lights a pipe, sends one puff of smoke to the heavens and another to the earth. The pipe is then handed to the sachem, who fills his mouth with smoke, and, turning from left to right with the sun, slowly puffs it out over the heads of the councilors, who are sitting in a circle. He then hands the pipe to the man on his left, and it is smoked in turn by each person until it has been passed around the circle. The sachem then explains the object for which the council is called. Each person in the way and manner he chooses tells what he thinks should be done in the case. If a majority of the council is agreed as to action, the sachem does not speak, but may simply announce the decision. But in some cases there may be protracted debate, which is carried on with great deliberation. In case of a tie, the sachem is expected to speak.

It is considered dishonorable for any man to reverse his decision after having spoken.

Such are the organic elements of the Wyandot government.

History, Huron, Wyandot,

Powell, J. W. Wyandot Government: A short study of tribal society First Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology to the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution 1879-1880, p. 57-69. Washington Government Printing Office. 1881.

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