The Iroquois Gens

The Gens Organization.—Its Wide Prevalence.—Definition of a Gens.—Descent in the Female Line the Archaic Rule.—Rights, Privileges and Obligations of Members of a Gens.—Right of Electing and Deposing its Sachem and Chiefs.—Obligation not to marry in the Gens.—Mutual Rights of Inheritance of the Property of deceased Members.—Reciprocal Obligations of Help, Defense and Redress of Injuries.—Right of Naming its Members.—Right of Adopting Strangers into the Gens.—Common Religious Rites, Query.—A Common Burial Place.—Council of the Gens.—Gentes named after Animals.—Number of Persons in a Gens.
— Orly

The first and most ancient form of government was a social organization, founded upon gentes, phratries and tribes - the ideal of blood relation. The second and latest in time was a political organization, founded upon territory and upon property. Under the first a gentile society was created, in which the government dealt with persons through their relations to a gens and tribe. These relations were purely personal. Under the second a political society was instituted, in which the government dealt with persons through their relations to territory, e. g.—the township, the county, and the state. These relations were purely territorial. The two plans were fundamentally different. One belongs to ancient society, and the other to modern.

The gentile organization opens to us one of the oldest and most widely prevalent institutions of mankind. It furnished the nearly universal plan of government of ancient society, Asiatic, European, African, American and Australian. It was the instrumentality by means of which society was organized and held together. Commencing in savagery, and continuing through the three sub-periods of barbarism, it remained until the establishment of political society, which did not occur until after civilization had commenced. The Grecian gens, phratry and tribe, the Roman gens, curia and tribe find their analogues in the gens, phratry and tribe of the American aborigines. In like manner, the Irish sept, the Scottish clan, the phrara of the Albanians, and the Sanskrit ganas, without extending the comparison further, are the same as the American Indian gens, which has usually been called a clan. As far as our knowledge extends, this organization runs through the entire ancient world upon all the continents, and it was brought down to the historical period by such tribes as attained to civilization. Nor is this all. Gentile society wherever found is the same in structural organization and in principles of action; but changing from lower to higher forms with the progressive advancement of the people. These changes give the history of development of the same original conceptions.

Gens, γένος, and ganas in Latin, Greek and Sanskrit have alike the primary signification of kin. They contain the same element as gigno, γίγνομαι, and ganamai, in the same languages, signifying to beget; thus implying in each an immediate common descent of the members of a gens. A gens, therefore, is a body of consanguinei descended from the same common ancestor, distinguished by a gentile name, and bound together by affinities of blood. It includes a moiety only of such descendants. Where descent is in the female line, as it was universally in the archaic period, the gens is composed of a supposed female ancestor and her children, together with the children of her female descendants, through females, in perpetuity; and where descent is in the male line—into which it was changed after the appearance of property in masses—of a supposed male ancestor and his children, together with the children of his male descendants, through males, in perpetuity. The family name among ourselves is a survival of the gentile name, with descent in the male line, and passing in the same manner. The modern family, as expressed by its name, is an unorganized gens; with the bond of kin broken, and its members as widely dispersed as the family name is found.

Among the nations named, the gens indicated a social organization of a remarkable character, which had prevailed from an antiquity so remote that its origin was lost in the obscurity of far distant ages. It was also the unit of organization of a social and governmental system, the fundamental basis of ancient society. This organization was not confined to the Latin, Grecian and Sanskrit speaking tribes, with whom it became such a conspicuous institution. It has been found in other branches of the Aryan family of nations, in the Semitic, Uralian and Turanian families, among the tribes of Africa and Australia, and of the American aborigines.

An exposition of the elementary constitution of the gens, with its functions, rights, and privileges, requires our first attention; after which it will be traced, as widely as possible, among the tribes and nations of mankind in order to prove, by comparisons, its fundamental unity. It will then be seen that it must be regarded as one of the primary institutions of mankind.

The gens has passed through successive stages of development in its transition from its archaic to its final form with the progress of mankind. These changes were limited, in the main, to two: firstly, changing descent from the female line, which was the archaic rule, as among the Iroquois, to the male line, which was the final rule, as among the Grecian and Roman gentes; and, secondly, changing the inheritance of the property of a deceased member of the gens from his gentiles, who took it in the archaic period, first to his agnatic kindred, and finally to his children. These changes, slight as they may seem, indicate very great changes of condition as well as a large degree of progressive development.

The gentile organization, originating in the period of savagery, enduring through the three sub-periods of barbarism, finally gave way, among the more advanced tribes, when they attained civilization, the requirements of which it was unable to meet. Among the Greeks and Romans, political society supervened upon gentile society, but not until civilization had commenced. The township (and its equivalent, the city ward), with its fixed property, and the inhabitants it contained, organized as a body politic, became the unit and the basis of a new and radically different system of government. After political society was instituted, this ancient and time-honored organization, with the phratry and tribe developed from it, gradually yielded up their existence. It will be my object, in the course of this volume, to trace the progress of this organization from its rise in savagery to its final overthrow in civilization; for it was under gentile institutions that barbarism was won by some of the tribes of mankind while in savagery, and that civilization was won by the descendants of some of the same tribes while in barbarism. Gentile institutions carried a portion of mankind from savagery to civilization.

This organization may be successfully studied both in its living and in its historical forms in a large number of tribes and races. In such an investigation it is preferable to commence with the gens in its archaic form, and then to follow it through its successive modifications among advanced nations, in order to discover both the changes and the causes which produced them. I shall commence, therefore, with the gens as it now exists among the American aborigines, where it is found in its archaic form, and among whom its theoretical constitution and practical workings can be investigated more successfully than in the historical gentes of the Greeks and Romans. In fact to understand fully the gentes of the latter nations a knowledge of the functions, and of the rights, privileges and obligations of the members of the American Indian gens is imperatively necessary.

In American Ethnography tribe and clan have been used in the place of gens as an equivalent term, from not perceiving its universality. In previous works, and following my predecessors, I have so used them.50 A comparison of the Indian clan with the gens of the Greeks and Romans reveals at once their identity in structure and functions. It also extends to the phratry and tribe. If the identity of these several organizations can be shown, of which there can be no doubt, there is a manifest propriety in returning to the Latin and Grecian terminologies which are full and precise as well as historical. I have made herein the substitutions required, and propose to show the parallelism of these several organizations.

The plan of government of the American aborigines commenced with the gens and ended with the confederacy, the latter being the highest point to which their governmental institutions attained. It gave for the organic series: first, the gens, a body of consanguinei having a common gentile name; second, the phratry, an assemblage of related gentes united in a higher association for certain common objects; third, the tribe, an assemblage of gentes, usually organized in phratries, all the members of which spoke the same dialect; and fourth, a confederacy of tribes, the members of which respectively spoke dialects of the same stock language. It resulted in a gentile society (societas), as distinguished from a political society or state (civitas). The difference between the two is wide and fundamental. There was neither a political society, nor a citizen, nor a state, nor any civilization in America when it was discovered. One entire ethnical period intervened between the highest American Indian tribes and the beginning of civilization, as that term is properly understood.

In like manner the plan of government of the Grecian tribes, anterior to civilization, involved the same organic series, with the exception of the last member: first, the gens, a body of consanguinei bearing a common gentile name; second, the phratry, an assemblage of gentes, united for social and religious objects; third, the tribe, an assemblage of gentes of the same lineage organized in phratries; and fourth, a nation, an assemblage of tribes who had coalesced in a gentile society upon one common territory, as the four tribes of the Athenians in Attica, and the three Dorian tribes at Sparta. Coalescence was a higher process than confederating. In the latter case the tribes occupied independent territories.

The Roman plan and series were the same: First, the gens, a body of consanguinei bearing a common gentile name; second, the curia, an assemblage of gentes united in a higher association for the performance of religious and governmental functions; third, the tribe, an assemblage of gentes organized in curiae; and fourth, a nation, an assemblage of tribes who had coalesced in a gentile society. The early Romans styled themselves, with entire propriety, the Populus Romanus.

Wherever gentile institutions prevailed, and prior to the establishment of political society, we find peoples or nations in gentile societies, and nothing beyond. The state did not exist. Their governments were essentially democratic, because the principles on which the gens, phratry and tribe were organized were democratically. This last proposition, though contrary to received opinions, is historically important. The truth of it can be tested as the gens, phratry and tribe of the American aborigines, and the same organizations among the Greeks and Romans are successively considered. As the gens, the unit of organization, was essentially democratic, so necessarily was the phratry composed of gentes, the tribe composed of phratries, and the gentile society formed by the confederation, or coalescing of tribes.

The gens, though a very ancient social organization founded upon kin, does not include all the descendants of a common ancestor. It was for the reason that when the gens came in, marriage between single pairs was unknown, and descent through males could not be traced with certainty. Kindred were linked together chiefly through the bond of their maternity. In the ancient gens descent was limited to the female line. It embraced all such persons as traced their descent from a supposed common female ancestor, through females, the evidence of the fact being the possession of a common gentile name. It would include this ancestor and her children, the children of her daughters, and the children of her female descendants, through females, in perpetuity; whilst the children of her sons, and the children of her male descendants, through males, would belong to other gentes; namely, those of their respective mothers. Such was the gens in its archaic form, when the paternity of children was not certainly ascertainable, and when their maternity afforded the only certain criterion of descents.

This state of descents, which can be traced back to the Middle Status of savagery, as among the Australians, remained among the American aborigines through the Upper Status of savagery, and into and through the Lower Status of barbarism, with occasional exceptions. In the Middle Status of barbarism, the Indian tribes began to change descent from the female line to the male, as the syndyasmos family of the period began to assume monogamian characteristics. In the Upper Status of barbarism, descent had become changed to the male line among the Grecian tribes, with the exception of the Lycians, and among the Italian tribes, with the exception of the Etruscans. The influence of property and its inheritance in producing the monogamian family which assured the paternity of children, and in causing a change of descent from the female line to the male, will be considered elsewhere. Between the two extremes, represented by the two rules of descent, three entire ethnical periods intervene, covering many thousands of years.

With descent in the male line, the gens embraced all persons who traced their descent from a supposed common male ancestor, through males only, the evidence of the fact being, as in the other case, the possession of a common gentile name. It would include this ancestor and his children, the children of his sons, and the children of his male descendants, through males, in perpetuity; whilst the children of his daughters, and the children of his female descendants, through females, would belong to other gentes; namely, those of their respective fathers. Those retained in the gens in one case were those excluded in the other, and vice versâ. Such was the gens in its final form, after the paternity of children became ascertainable through the rise of monogamy. The transition of a gens from one form into the other was perfectly simple, without involving its overthrow. All that was needed was an adequate motive, as will elsewhere be shown. The same gens, with descent changed to the male line, remained the unit of the social system. It could not have reached the second form without previously existing in the first.

As intermarriage in the gens was prohibited, it withdrew its members from the evils of consanguine marriages, and thus tended to increase the vigor of the stock. The gens came into being upon three principal conceptions, namely the bond of kin, a pure lineage through descent in the female line, and non-intermarriage in the gens. When the idea of a gens was developed, it would naturally have taken the form of gentes in pairs, because the children of the males were excluded, and because it was equally necessary to organize both classes of descendants. With two gentes started into being simultaneously the whole result would have been attained, since the males and females of one gens would marry the females and males of the other, and the children, following the gentes of their respective mothers, would be divided between them. Resting on the bond of kin as its cohesive principle the gens afforded to each individual member that personal protection which no other existing power could give.

After considering the rights, privileges and obligations of its members it will be necessary to follow the gens in its organic relations to a phratry, tribe and confederacy, in order to find the uses to which it was applied, the privileges which it conferred, and the principles which it fostered. The gentes of the Iroquois will be taken as the standard exemplification of this institution in the Ganowánian family. They had carried their scheme of government from the gens to the confederacy, making it complete in each of its parts, and an excellent illustration of the capabilities of the gentile organization in its archaic form. When discovered the Iroquois were in the Lower Status of barbarism, and well advanced in the arts of life pertaining to this condition. They manufactured nets twine and rope from filaments of bark; wove belts and burden straps, with warp and woof, from the same materials; they manufactured earthen vessels and pipes from clay mixed with siliceous materials and hardened by fire, some of which were ornamented with rude medallions; they cultivated maize, beans, squashes, and tobacco, in garden beds, and made unleavened bread from pounded maize which they boiled in earthen vessels; they tanned skins into leather with which they manufactured kilts leggings and moccasins; they used the bow and arrow and war-club as their principal weapons; used flint stone and bone implements, wore skin garments, and were expert hunters and fishermen. They constructed long joint-tenement houses large enough to accommodate five, ten, and twenty families, and each household practiced communism in living; but they were unacquainted with the use of stone or adobe-brick in house architecture, and with the use of the native metals. In mental capacity and in general advancement they were the representative branch of the Indian family north of New Mexico. General F. A. Walker has sketched their military career in two paragraphs: “The career of the Iroquois was simply terrific. They were the scourge of God upon the aborigines of the continent.”

From lapse of time the Iroquois tribes have come to differ slightly in the number, and in the names of their respective gentes. The largest number being eight, as follows:

Senecas.—1. Wolf.  2. Bear.  3. Turtle. 4. Beaver.  5. Deer.  6. Snipe.  7. Heron.  8. Hawk.

Cayugas.—1. Wolf.  2. Bear.  3. Turtle.  4. Beaver.  5. Deer.  6. Snipe.  7. Eel.  8. Hawk.

Onondagas.—1. Wolf.  2. Bear.  3. Turtle.  4. Beaver.  5. Deer.  6. Snipe.  7. Eel.  8. Ball.

Oneidas.—1. Wolf.  2. Bear.  3. Turtle.

Mohawks.—1. Wolf.  2. Bear.  3. Turtle.

Tuscaroras.—1. Gray Wolf.  2. Bear.  3. Great Turtle.  4. Beaver.  5. Yellow Wolf.  6. Snipe.  7. Eel.  8. Little Turtle.

These changes show that certain gentes in some of the tribes have become extinct through the vicissitudes of time; and that others have been formed by the segmentation of over-full gentes.

With a knowledge of the rights, privileges and obligations of the members of a gens, its capabilities as the unit of a social and governmental system will be more fully understood, as well as the manner in which it entered into the higher organizations of the phratry, tribe, and confederacy.

The gens is individualized by the following rights, privileges, and obligations conferred and imposed upon its members, and which made up the jus gentilicium.

I. The right of electing its sachem and chiefs.

II. The right of deposing its sachem and chiefs.

III.T he obligation not to marry in the gens.

IV. Mutual rights of inheritance of the property of deceased members.

V. Reciprocal obligations of help, defense, and redress of injuries.

VI. The right of bestowing names upon its members.

VII. The right of adopting strangers into the gens.

VIII. Common religious rites, query.

IX. A common burial place.


A council of the gens.

These functions and attributes gave vitality as well as individuality to the organization, and protected the personal rights of its members.

I. The right of electing its sachem and chiefs.

Nearly all the American Indian tribes had two grades of chiefs, who may be distinguished as sachems and common chiefs. Of these two primary grades all other grades were varieties. They were elected in each gens from among its members. A son could not be chosen to succeed his father, where descent was in the female line, because he belonged to a different gens, and no gens would have a chief or sachem from any gens but its own. The office of sachem was hereditary in the gens, in the sense that it was filled as often as a vacancy occurred; while the office of chief was non-hereditary, because it was bestowed in reward of personal merit, and died with the individual. Moreover, the duties of a sachem were confined to the affairs of peace. He could not go out to war as a sachem. On the other hand, the chiefs who were raised to office for personal bravery, for wisdom in affairs, or for eloquence in council, were usually the superior class in ability, though not in authority over the gens. The relation of the sachem was primarily to the gens, of which he was the official head; while that of the chief was primarily to the tribe, of the council of which he, as well as the sachem, were members.

The office of sachem had a natural foundation in the gens, as an organized body of consanguinei which, as such, needed a representative head. As an office, however, it is older than the gentile organization, since it is found among tribes not thus organized, but among whom it had a similar basis in the punaluan group, and even in the anterior horde. In the gens the constituency of the sachem was clearly defined, the basis of the relation was permanent, and its duties paternal. While the office was hereditary in the gens it was elective among its male members. When the Indian system of consanguinity is considered, it will be found that all the male members of a gens were either brothers to each other, own or collateral, uncles or nephews, own or collateral, or collateral grandfathers and grandsons. This will explain the succession of the office of sachem which passed from brother to brother, or from uncle to nephew, and very rarely from grandfather to grandson. The choice, which was by free suffrage of both males and females of adult age, usually fell upon a brother of the deceased sachem, or upon one of the sons of a sister; an own brother, or the son of an own sister being most likely to be preferred. As between several brothers, own and collateral, on the one hand, and the sons of several sisters, own and collateral, on the other, there was no priority of right, for the reason that all the male members of the gens were equally eligible. To make a choice between them was the function of the elective principle.

Upon the death of a sachem, for example among the Seneca-Iroquois, a council of his gentiles was convened to name his successor. Two candidates, according to their usages, must be voted upon, both of them members of the gens. Each person of adult age was called upon to express his or her preference, and the one who received the largest number of affirmative declarations was nominated. It still required the assent of the seven remaining gentes before the nomination was complete. If these gentes, who met for the purpose by phratries, refused to confirm the nomination it was thereby set aside, and the gens proceeded to make another choice. When the person nominated by his gens was accepted by the remaining gentes the election was complete; but it was still necessary that the new sachem should be raised up, to use their expression, or invested with his office by a council of the confederacy, before he could enter upon its duties. It was their method of conferring the imperium. In this manner the rights and interests of the several gentes were consulted and preserved; for the sachem of a gens was ex officio a member of the council of the tribe, and of the higher council of the confederacy. The same method of election and of confirmation existed with respect to the office of chief, and for the same reasons. But a general council was never convened to raise up chiefs below the grade of a sachem. They awaited the time when sachems were invested.

The principle of democracy, which was born of the gentes, manifested itself in the retention by the gentiles of the right to elect their sachem and chiefs, in the safeguards thrown around the office to prevent usurpation, and in the check upon the election held by the remaining gentes.

The chiefs in each gens were usually proportioned to the number of its members. Among the Seneca-Iroquois there is one chief for about every fifty persons. They now number in New York some three thousand, and have eight sachems and about sixty chiefs. There are reasons for supposing that the proportionate number is now greater than in former times. With respect to the number of gentes in a tribe, the more numerous the people the greater, usually, the number of gentes. The number varied in the different tribes, from three among the Delawares and Munsees to upwards of twenty among the Ojibwas and Creeks; six, eight, and ten being common numbers.


II. The right of deposing its sachem and chiefs.

III. The obligation not to marry in the gens.

Although a negative proposition it was fundamental. It was evidently a primary object of the organization to isolate a moiety of the descendants of a supposed founder, and prevent their intermarriage for reasons of kin. When the gens came into existence brothers were intermarried to each other’s wives in a group, and sisters to each other’s husbands in a group, to which the gens interposed no obstacle. But it sought to exclude brothers and sisters from the marriage relation which was effected, as there are good reasons for stating, by the prohibition in question. Had the gens attempted to uproot the entire conjugal system of the period by its direct action, there is not the slightest probability that it would have worked its way into general establishment. The gens, originating probably in the ingenuity of a small band of savages, must soon have proved its utility in the production of superior men. Its nearly universal prevalence in the ancient world is the highest evidence of the advantages it conferred, and of its adaptability to human wants in savagery and in barbarism. The Iroquois still adhere inflexibly to the rule which forbids persons to marry in their own gens.

IV. Mutual rights of inheritance of the property of deceased members.

In the Status of savagery, and in the Lower Status of barbarism, the amount of property was small. It consisted in the former condition of personal effects, to which, in the latter, were added possessory rights in joint-tenement houses and in gardens. The most valuable personal articles were buried with the body of the deceased owner. Nevertheless, the question of inheritance was certain to arise, to increase in importance with the increase of property in variety and amount, and to result in some settled rule of inheritance. Accordingly we find the principle established low down in barbarism, and even back of that in savagery, that the property should remain in the gens, and be distributed among the gentiles of the deceased owner. It was customary law in the Grecian and Latin gentes in the Upper Status of barbarism, and remained as written law far into civilization, that the property of a deceased person should remain in the gens. But after the time of Solon among the Athenians it was limited to cases of intestacy.

The question, who should take the property, has given rise to three great and successive rules of inheritance. First, that it should be distributed among the gentiles of the deceased owner. This was the rule in the Lower Status of barbarism, and so far as is known in the Status of savagery. Second, that the property should be distributed among the agnatic kindred of the deceased owner, to the exclusion of the remaining gentiles. The germ of this rule makes its appearance in the Lower Status of barbarism, and it probably became completely established in the Middle Status. Third, that the property should be inherited by the children of the deceased owner, to the exclusion of the remaining agnates. This became the rule in the Upper Status of barbarism.

Theoretically, the Iroquois were under the first rule; but, practically, the effects of a deceased person were appropriated by his nearest relations within the gens. In the case of a male his own brothers and sisters and maternal uncles divided his effects among themselves. This practical limitation of the inheritance to the nearest gentile kin discloses the germ of agnatic inheritance. In the case of a female her property was inherited by her children and her sisters, to the exclusion of her brothers. In every case the property remained in the gens. The children of the deceased males took nothing from their father because they belonged to a different gens. It was for the same reason that the husband took nothing from the wife, or the wife from her husband. These mutual rights of inheritance strengthened the autonomy of the gens.

V. Reciprocal obligations of help, defense, and redress of injuries.

In modern society the state assumes the protection of persons and of property. Accustomed to look to this source for the maintenance of personal rights, there has been a corresponding abatement of the strength of the bond of kin. But under gentile society the individual depended for security upon his gens. It took the place afterwards held by the state, and possessed the requisite numbers to render its guardianship effective. Within its membership the bond of kin was a powerful element for mutual support. To wrong a person was to wrong his gens; and to support a person was to stand behind him with the entire array of his gentile kindred.

In their trials and difficulties the members of the gens assisted each other. Two or three illustrations may be given from the Indian tribes at large. Speaking of the Mayas of Yucatan, Herrera remarks, that “when any satisfaction was to be made for damages, if he who was adjudged to pay was like to be reduced to poverty, the kindred contributed.”55 By the term kindred, as here used, we are justified in understanding the gens. And of the Florida Indians: “When a brother or son dies the people of the house will rather starve than seek anything to eat during three months, but the kindred and relations send it all in.” Persons who removed from one village to another could not transfer their possessory right to cultivated lands or to a section of a joint-tenement house to a stranger; but must leave them to his gentile kindred. Herrera refers to this usage among the Indian tribes of Nicaragua; “He that removed from one town to another could not sell what he had, but must leave it to his nearest relation.” So much of their property was held in joint ownership that their plan of life would not admit of its alienation to a person of another gens. Practically, the right to such property was possessory, and when abandoned it reverted to the gens. Garcilasso de la Vega remarks of the tribes of the Peruvian Andes, that “when the commonalty, or ordinary sort, married, the communities of the people were obliged to build and provide them houses.”58 For communities, as here used, we are justified in understanding the gens. Herrera speaking of the same tribes observes that “this variety of tongues proceed from the nations being divided into races, tribes, or clans.” Here the gentiles were required to assist newly married pairs in the construction of their houses.

The ancient practice of blood revenge, which has prevailed so widely in the tribes of mankind, had its birthplace in the gens. It rested with this body to avenge the murder of one of its members. Tribunals for the trial of criminals and laws prescribing their punishment, came late into existence in gentile society; but they made their appearance before the institution of political society. On the other hand, the crime of murder is as old as human society, and its punishment by the revenge of kinsmen is as old as the crime itself. Among the Iroquois and other Indian tribes generally, the obligation to avenge the murder of a kinsman was universally recognized.

It was, however, the duty of the gens of the slayer, and of the slain, to attempt an adjustment of the crime before proceeding to extremities. A council of the members of each gens [Pg 78]was held separately, and propositions were made in behalf of the murderer for a condonation of the act, usually in the nature of expressions of regret and of presents of considerable value. If there were justifying or extenuating circumstances it generally resulted in a composition; but if the gentile kindred of the slain person were implacable, one or more avengers were appointed by his gens from among its members, whose duty it was to pursue the criminal until discovered, and then to slay him wherever he might be found. If they accomplished the deed it was no ground of complaint by any member of the gens of the victim. Life having answered for life the demands of justice were appeased.

The same sentiment of fraternity manifested itself in other ways in relieving a fellow gentilis in distress, and in protecting him from injuries.

VI. The right of bestowing names upon its members.

Among savage and barbarous tribes there is no name for the family. The personal names of individuals of the same family do not indicate any family connection between them. The family name is no older than civilization.61 Indian personal names, however, usually indicate the gens of the individual to persons of other gentes in the same tribe. As a rule each gens had names for persons that were its special property, and, as such, could not be used by other gentes of the same tribe. A gentile name conferred of itself gentile rights. These names either proclaimed by their signification the gens to which they belonged, or were known as such by common reputation.

After the birth of a child a name was selected by its mother from those not in use belonging to the gens, with the concurrence of her nearest relatives, which was then bestowed upon the infant. But the child was not fully christened until its birth and name, together with the name and gens of its mother and the name of its father, had been announced at the next ensuing council of the tribe. Upon the death of a person his name could not be used again in the life-time of his oldest surviving son without the consent of the latter.

Two classes of names were in use, one adapted to childhood, and the other to adult life, which were exchanged at the proper period in the same formal manner; one being taken away, to use their expression, and the other bestowed in its place. O-wi′-go, a canoe floating down the stream, and Ah-wou′-ne-ont, hanging flower, are names for girls among the Seneca-Iroquois; and Gä-ne-o-di′-yo, handsome lake, and Do-ne-ho-gä′-weh, door-keeper, are names of adult males. At the age of sixteen or eighteen, the first name was taken away, usually by a chief of the gens, and one of the second class bestowed in its place. At the next council of the tribe the change of names was publicly announced, after which the person, if a male, assumed the duties of manhood. In some Indian tribes the youth was required to go out upon the war-path and earn his second name by some act of personal bravery. After a severe illness it was not uncommon for the person, from superstitious considerations, to solicit and obtain a second change of name. It was sometimes done again in extreme old age. When a person was elected a sachem or a chief his name was taken away, and a new one conferred at the time of his installation. The individual had no control over the question of a change. It is the prerogative of the female relatives and of the chiefs; but an adult person might change his name provided he could induce a chief to announce it in council. A person having the control of a particular name, as the eldest son of that of his deceased father, might lend it to a friend in another gens; but after the death of the person thus bearing it the name reverted to the gens to which it belonged.

Among the Shawnees and Delawares the mother has now the right to name her child into any gens she pleases; and the name given transfers the child to the gens to which the name belongs. But this is a wide departure from archaic usages, and exceptional in practice. It tends to corrupt and confound the gentile lineage. The names now in use among the Iroquois and among other Indian tribes are, in the main, ancient names handed down in the gentes from time immemorial.

The precautions taken with respect to the use of names belonging to the gens sufficiently prove the importance attached to them, and the gentile rights they confer.

Although this question of personal names branches out in many directions it is foreign to my purpose to do more than illustrate such general usages as reveal the relations of the members of a gens. In familiar intercourse and in formal salutation the American Indians address each other by the term of relationship the person spoken to sustains to the speaker. When related they salute by kin; when not related “my friend” is substituted. It would be esteemed an act of rudeness to address an Indian by his personal name, or to inquire his name directly from himself.

Our Saxon ancestors had single personal names down to the Norman conquest, with none to designate the family. This indicates the late appearance of the monogamian family among them; and it raises a presumption of the existence in an earlier period of a Saxon gens.

VII. The right of adopting strangers into the gens.

Another distinctive right of the gens was that of admitting new members by adoption. Captives taken in war were either put to death, or adopted into some gens. Women and children taken prisoners usually experienced clemency in this form. Adoption not only conferred gentile rights, but also the nationality of the tribe. The person adopting a captive placed him or her in the relation of a brother or sister; if a mother adopted, in that of a son or daughter; and ever afterwards treated the person in all respects as though born in that relation. Slavery, which in the Upper Status of barbarism became the fate of the captive, was unknown among tribes in the Lower Status in the aboriginal period. The gauntlet also had some connection with adoption, since the person who succeeded, through hardihood or favoritism, in running through the lines in safety was entitled to this reward. Captives when adopted were often assigned in the family the places of deceased persons slain in battle, in order to fill up the broken ranks of relatives. A declining gens might replenish its numbers, through adoption, although such instances are rare. At one time the Hawk gens of the Senecas were reduced to a small number of persons, and its extinction became imminent. To save the gens a number of persons from the Wolf gens by mutual consent were transferred in a body by adoption to that of the Hawk. The right to adopt seems to be left to the discretion of each gens.

Among the Iroquois the ceremony of adoption was performed at a public council of the tribe, which turned it practically into a religious rite.

VIII. Religious rites in the gens. 

Among the Grecian and Latin tribes these rites held a conspicuous position. The highest polytheistic form of religion which had then appeared seems to have sprung from the gentes in which religious rites were constantly maintained. Some of them, from the sanctity they were supposed to possess, were nationalized. In some cities the office of high priest of certain divinities was hereditary in a particular gens. The gens became the natural centre of religious growth and the birthplace of religious ceremonies.

But the Indian tribes, although they had a polytheistic system, not much unlike that from which the Grecian and Roman must have sprung, had not attained that religious development which was so strongly impressed upon the gentes of the latter tribes. It can scarcely be said any Indian gens had special religious rites; and yet their religious worship had a more or less direct connection with the gentes. It was here that religious ideas would naturally germinate and that forms of worship would be instituted. But they would expand from the gens over the tribe, rather than remain special to the gens. Accordingly we find among the Iroquois six annual religious festivals, (Maple, Planting, Berry, Green-Corn, Harvest, and New Years Festivals)66 which were common to all the gentes united in a tribe, and which were observed at stated seasons of the year.

Each gens furnished a number of “Keepers of the Faith,” both male and female, who together were charged with the celebration of these festivals. The number advanced to this office by each was regarded as evidence of the fidelity of the gens to religion. They designated the days for holding the festivals, made the necessary arrangements for their celebration, and conducted the ceremonies in conjunction with the sachems and chiefs of the tribe, who were, ex officio, “Keepers of the Faith.” With no official head, and none of the marks of a priesthood, their functions were equal. The female “Keepers of the Faith” were more especially charged with the preparation of the feast, which was provided at all councils at the close of each day for all persons in attendance. It was a dinner in common. The religious rites appertaining to these festivals, which have been described in a previous work,68 need not be considered further than to remark, that their worship was one of thanksgiving, with invocations to the Great Spirit, and to the Lesser Spirits to continue to them the blessings of life.

With the progress of mankind out of the Lower into the [Pg 83]Middle, and more especially out of the latter into the Upper Status of barbarism, the gens became more the centre of religious influence and the source of religious development. We have only the grosser part of the Aztec religious system; but in addition to national gods, there seem to have been other gods, belonging to smaller divisions of the people than the phratries. The existence of an Aztec ritual and priesthood would lead us to expect among them a closer connection of religious rites with the gentes than is found among the Iroquois; but their religious beliefs and observances are under the same cloud of obscurity as their social organization.

IX. A common burial place.

An ancient but not exclusive mode of burial was by scaffolding the body until the flesh had wasted, after which the bones were collected and preserved in bark barrels in a house constructed for their reception. Those belonging to the same gens were usually placed in the same house. The Rev. Dr. Cyrus Byington found these practices among the Choctas in 1827; and Adair mentions usages among the Cherokees substantially the same. “I saw three of them,” he remarks, “in one of their towns pretty near each other; * * * Each house contained the bones of one tribe separately, with the hieroglyphical figures of each family [gens] on each of the odd-shaped arks. They reckoned it irreligious to mix the bones of a relative with those of a stranger, as bone of bone and flesh of flesh should always be joined together.” The Iroquois in ancient times used scaffolds and preserved the bones of deceased relatives in bark barrels, often keeping them in the house they occupied. They also buried in the ground. In the latter case those of the same gens were not always buried locally together unless they had a common cemetery for the village. The late Rev. Ashur Wright, so long a missionary among the Senecas, and a noble specimen of the American missionary, wrote to the author as follows; “I find no trace of the influence of clanship in the burial places of the dead. I believe that they buried promiscuously. However, they say that formerly the members of the different clans more frequently resided together than they do at the present time. As one family they were more under the influence of family feeling, and had less of individual interest. Hence, it might occasionally happen that a large proportion of the dead in some particular burying place might be of the same clan.” Mr. Wright is undoubtedly correct that in a particular cemetery members of all the gentes established in a village would be buried; but they might keep those of the same gens locally together. An illustration in point is now found at the Tuscarora reservation near Lewiston, where the tribe has one common cemetery, and where individuals of the same gens are buried in a row by themselves. One row is composed of the graves of the deceased members of the Beaver gens, two rows of the members of the Bear gens, one row of the Gray Wolf, one of the Great Turtle, and so on to the number of eight rows. Husband and wife are separated from each other and buried in different rows; fathers and their children the same; but mothers and their children and brothers and sisters are found in the same row. It shows the power of gentile feeling, and the quickness with which ancient usages are reverted to under favorable conditions; for the Tuscaroras are now christianized without surrendering the practice. An Onondaga Indian informed the writer that the same mode of burial by gentes now prevailed at the Onondaga and Oneida cemeteries. While this usage, perhaps, cannot be declared general among the Indian tribes, there was undoubtedly in ancient times a tendency to, and preference for this mode of burial.

Among the Iroquois, and what is true of them is generally true of other Indian tribes in the same status of advancement, all the members of the gens are mourners at the funeral of a deceased gentilis. The addresses at the funeral, the preparation of the grave, and the burial of the body were performed by members of other gentes.

The Village Indians of Mexico and Central America practiced a slovenly cremation, as well as scaffolding, and burying in the ground. The former was confined to chiefs and prominent men.

X. A council of the gens.

The council was the great feature of ancient society, Asiatic, European and American, from the institution of the gens in early society to modern civilization. It was the instrument of government as well as the supreme authority over the gens, the tribe, and the confederacy. Ordinary affairs were adjusted by the chiefs; but those of general interest were submitted to the determination of a council. As the council sprang from the gentile organization the two institutions have come down together through the ages. The Council of Chiefs represents the ancient method of evolving the wisdom of mankind and applying it to human affairs. Its history, gentile, tribal, and confederate, would express the growth of the idea of government in its whole development, until political society supervened into which the council, changed into a senate, was transmitted.

The simplest and lowest form of the council was that of the gens. It was a democratic assembly because every adult male and female member had a voice upon all questions brought before it. It elected and deposed its sachem and chiefs, it elected Keepers of the Faith, it condoned or avenged the murder of a gentilis, and it adopted persons into the gens. It was the germ of the higher council of the tribe, and of that still higher of the confederacy, each of which was composed exclusively of chiefs as representatives of the gentes.

Such were the rights, privileges and obligations of the members of an Iroquois gens; and such were those of the members of the gentes of the Indian tribes generally, as far as the investigation has been carried. When the gentes of the Grecian and Latin tribes are considered, the same rights privileges and obligations will be found to exist, with the exception of the I, II, and VI; and with respect to these their ancient existence is probable though the proof is not perhaps attainable.

All the members of an Iroquois gens were personally free, and they were bound to defend each other’s freedom; they were equal in privileges and in personal rights, the sachem and chiefs claiming no superiority; and they were a brotherhood bound together by the ties of kin. Liberty, equality, and fraternity, though never formulated, were cardinal principles of the gens. These facts are material, because the gens was the unit of a social and governmental system, the foundation upon which Indian society was organized. A structure composed of such units would of necessity bear the impress of their character, for as the unit so the compound. It serves to explain that sense of independence and personal dignity universally an attribute of Indian character.

Thus substantial and important in the social system was the gens as it anciently existed among the American aborigines, and as it still exists in full vitality in many Indian tribes. It was the basis of the phratry, of the tribe, and of the confederacy of tribes. Its functions might have been presented more elaborately in several particulars; but sufficient has been given to show its permanent and durable character.

At the epoch of European discovery the American Indian tribes generally were organized in gentes, with descent in the female line. In some tribes, as among the Dakotas, the gentes had fallen out; in others, as among the Ojibwas, the Omahas, and the Mayas of Yucatan, descent had been changed from the female to the male line. Throughout aboriginal America the gens took its name from some animal, or inanimate object, and never from a person. In this early condition of society, the individuality of persons was lost in the gens. It is at least presumable that the gentes of the Grecian and Latin tribes were so named at some anterior period; but when they first came under historical notice, they were named after persons. In some of the tribes, as the Moqui Village Indians of New Mexico, the members of the gens claimed their descent from the animal whose name they bore—their remote ancestors having been transformed by the Great Spirit from the animal into the human form. The Crane gens of the Ojibwas have a similar legend. In some tribes the members of a gens will not eat the animal whose name they bear, in which they are doubtless influenced by this consideration.

With respect to the number of persons in a gens it varied with the number of the gentes, and with the prosperity or decadence of the tribe. Three thousand Senecas divided equally among eight gentes would give an average of three hundred and seventy-five persons to a gens. Fifteen thousand Ojibwas divided equally among twenty-three gentes would give six hundred and fifty persons to a gens. The Cherokees would average more than a thousand to a gens. In the present condition of the principal Indian tribes the number of persons in each gens would range from one hundred to a thousand.

One of the oldest and most widely prevalent institutions of mankind, the gentes have been closely identified with human progress upon which they have exercised a powerful influence. They have been found in tribes in the Status of savagery, in the Lower, in the Middle, and in the Upper Status of barbarism on different continents, and in full vitality in the Grecian and Latin tribes after civilization had commenced. Every family of mankind, except the Polynesian, seems to have come under the gentile organization, and to have been indebted to it for preservation, and for the means of progress. It finds its only parallel in length of duration in systems of consanguinity, which, springing up at a still earlier period, have remained to the present time, although the marriage usages in which they originated have long since disappeared.

From its early institution, and from its maintenance through such immense stretches of time, the peculiar adaptation of the gentile organization to mankind, while in a savage and in a barbarous state, must be regarded as abundantly demonstrated.



Lewis Henry Morgan (November 21, 1818 – December 17, 1881) was a pioneering American anthropologist and social theorist who worked as a railroad lawyer. He is best known for his work on kinship and social structure, his theories of social evolution, and his ethnography of the Iroquois. Interested in what holds societies together, he proposed the concept that the earliest human domestic institution was the matrilineal clan, not the patriarchal family.

Also interested in what leads to social change, he was a contemporary of the European social theorists Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who were influenced by reading his work on social structure and material culture, the influence of technology on progress. Morgan is the only American social theorist to be cited by such diverse scholars as Marx, Charles Darwin, and Sigmund Freud. Elected as a member of the National Academy of Sciences, Morgan served as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1879.
— Orly

Adapted from:  Lewis Morgan, LL.D. , Ancient Society or Researches in the LInes of Human Progress from Savagery, through Barbarism to Civilization


Mound Builder: Etowah Mounds

Maya: Quetzalcoatl and the Ball Game

Maya: Quetzalcoatl and the Ball Game