Traditionally, the women of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) have stood in a position of power.
Long before the women’s suffrage movement in the U.S., Haudenosaunee women enjoyed a life of equality and power in their communities. The Haudenosaunee is a matriarchal society in which a child’s clan is passed down through the mother. When a woman married, it was the man who moved into the woman’s lodging with her family.
The women not only raised and taught the children but they also controlled land. By being the producer of the three sisters—corn, beans and squash—their role was one of control over the food staples as well. It was also the Haudenosaunee women that allocated land to other families that would need it.
The Haudenosaunee are composed of the six nations—the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk and Tuscarora—who joined the confederacy after its formation.
The women had tremendous political power, selecting chiefs and deciding if going to war was the appropriate course of action. It was also the women who decided if a man was to be removed from a position of power. If a man was found to be murderous, a thief or sexually abusive, he could be removed.
It is no coincidence that the women’s rights movement had its first meeting at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. Non-Native women who lead the women’s rights movement then, like Elizabeth Cody Stanton and Lucretia Mott, were heavily influenced by the power Haudenosaunee women held. It made them realize that they did not have to accept subservient roles to men.
It was the Haudenosaunee political structure that in part gave America’s Founding Fathers the idea to form a republic. The flaw in their system was excluding women from decision-making and power. The women of the Haudenosaunee gave a balance to the power structure that the U.S. lacked, and some say still lacks today.
Haudenosaunee women’s strength and power is not relegated to distant history. During the Oka Crisis in the early 1990s, when a golf course expansion was threatening Mohawk lands, it was Ellen Gabriel who was selected by the People of the Longhouse to be their spokesperson. After the crisis Gabriel became a teacher at the Mohawk Immersion school in Akwesasne, Quebec. In 2004 Gabriel was elected to the Quebec Native Women’s Association.
At Standing Rock there was a presence of Haudenosaunee women. In August, some of the women spoke at camp, sharing their views and offering support. On this same trip a young Tuscarora woman would sing powerful songs under a full moon at Red Warrior Camp.
On the evening of November 20 a group of men and women were getting ready to leave and go back home after their trip of bringing supplies. This was the night that the water protectors got sprayed with water in freezing temperatures and shot with rubber bullets. According to Hickory Edwards, Onondaga, it was a Haudenosaunee woman who gave the men the orders to go to the front line. Without question, they did. Edwards told Indian Country Media Network (ICMN), “Once things started to get really out of hand she told us we’re not leaving. That we had to go up to the front, so that’s what we did.”
Lisa Latocha, Oneida, says,, “The strength of the Haudenosaunee women is legendary. I’ve seen it since I was a little girl, even though I didn’t quite know it. Our mothers instill it in us since birth. I never realized that my mother was constantly preparing me for the world outside my bubble. Life is tough, but even more so if you’re a minority woman. Recently, a group of us from the confederacy attended the Women’s March on Washington, where I witnessed a crowd of thousands part to watch us walk by behind our purple and white flag.”