Iroquoians around 1500

The importance of the clan

One big family

For the Iroquoian people, belonging to a clan is very important. Since they are matrilineal societies, children belong to their mother’s clan. In the 1500s, they lived with their mother’s family in a longhouse. The oldest woman was the clan mother. The clan was made up of a group of several longhouses.

To better understand this, think of a tree. Imagine that the clan is the trunk, the branches are the longhouses and the leaves are the individuals.

“Not everyone living in your longhouse is a member of your longhouse family. For example, your father lives in your longhouse but remains a member of his mother’s longhouse family. And some members of your longhouse family (e.g., your mother’s married brothers) may live elsewhere, in their wives’ longhouses.”

So, the Iroquoian people’s society itself was organized entirely around the clan. For them, the clan was like one big extended family. All the members of a clan shared a distant ancestor and helped one other.

Each clan was also represented by a symbol, which was usually a bird or animal. For example, there may be the wolf clan, deer clan, heron clan or turtle clan.

Image source and more information at: Oneida Nation Cultural Symbols:
In and Around the Oneida Reservation

Clan emblems of the three Kanienkehaka clans: Turtle, Wolf, and Bear.  

Image source via  Deerfield History Museum 


Each clan had two chiefs: a civil chief, who handled day-to-day affairs, and a war chief. The civil chief was a man and was chosen by the clan mothers. He was able to express himself clearly and was good at getting people to agree on decisions. Decisions were not imposed, but made as a group. The chief acted as the clan’s spokesperson in council meetings or during encounters with other nations. The war chief had different qualities: He had to have proven warrior skills. Usually, he was a man who was 30 to 40 years old.


Author: Service national du Récit de l’univers social

See also:  Iroquois Women


Important concepts and big ideas:

[glossary slug=’clansystem’]

Quickly check your knowledge:

Teacher's Corner

Teacher resources to help cover the society of the Iroquoian people around 1500.