Grandmothers, Clan Mothers, and Crones

Have you ever heard the expression, The Great Leap Forward? It was a crystalline moment in human history when we ceased to be merely Stone Age cave dwellers fighting for our lives. We became the best of what we once were. And while the precise length of that moment remains fiercely debated, along with the details that might have led up to it, there is no debate that it took place.

Then, our brains were bigger than they are today, our language and cooperative social structure was egalitarian, and yet highly complex. We found music, art, prayer, and ritual. Food, clothing, shelter, and medicine came easily to us with little effort. The odds of this achievement had been impossible and yet, we did indeed accomplish it. Today, it seems as though humanity has de-civilized; it has become every-man-for-himself. The poor and the disabled are pretty much left along the side of the trail. The elderly, once revered, especially the elder women, are warehoused and forgotten. Our brains have shrunk and our hearts have hardened against everything and everyone including our beloved Earth.

The male bias in science is centuries old and unfortunately, the achievements of the Great Leap Forward have always been attributed to men. It was asserted, for example, that all shamans and all hunters were men. From that assertion it was deduced that the depictions of hunting, handprints, and ritual on cave walls throughout Spain and France were rendered entirely by men. And yet it was a man, Dean Snow of Pennsylvania State University that burst the bubble and convincingly established that at least 75% of the hand prints and paintings were done by women. The scientific community was also forced to concede that throughout history tribal community women have held prominent places of power in their communities, ranging from politics to shamanism; women had also been an integral part of hunting. These things remain true in the hunter-gatherer cultures that still exist today. Even our relatives the Bonobo (members of the genus Pan along with chimpanzees) are non-violent and egalitarian by nature, and have a complex matriarchal society. Isn’t it tantalizing to consider that for possibly 85 million years most if not all our primate and hominid ancestors constructed matriarchal, matrilineal societies? Now that’s a legacy worthy of our attention. And you know, outside of Western society, that legacy remains alive and well in other parts of the world. The misogyny and patriarchy of the last few millennia are little more than blips on the geological timeline, and for some groups entirely disregarded. Women do not have to gaze into the future and hope that equality will someday happen. It already has. We need to tap into that genetic memory and claim what has been ours for perhaps all of history.

So, let’s first consider the terminology needed to describe the cultural constructs to which I refer.  Matrilineal means that a person’s ancestry is traced through the mother’s line and her maternal relatives. Matrilineal cultures identify individuals with their mothers’ lineage, including the males. All inheritance whether property or authority is passed down to the women members. An extension of that is the term matrilocal. It means that when a couple marries they must set up their household within the territory of the bride’s mother, not the mother of the groom. Matriarchy extends the practice beyond head of household to include a government of women. There are perhaps a hundred contemporary societies that continue to function by varying degrees and interpretations of these concepts, and in any number of combinations. For example, the Boyowan of Australasia have established marriage to be patriarchal but the lineage is matrilineal. Other groups are both matrilocal and matrilineal. The some bands of the Sever in Africa have established marriage to be patriarchal and lineage to be both. In other words, it’s not as simple as one might first think.

Before the European invasion the predominant tribe in Northeast America was the Lenni Lenape. It was a matrilineal, agricultural, and mobile hunting society. The Lenape were known as A Nation of Women to other tribes, and to Europeans once they arrived. Lenape women were skilled hunters, gatherers, and gardeners. They controlled and oversaw Lenape land, had the last word in tribal politics, and were the tribe’s diplomats. That diplomacy in particular utterly confounded the patriarchs of Europe who would simply assume that Lenape men were in charge and would only negotiate for land and food with those men. Little did they realize that the land and food belonged to the women and Lenape men had no authority to enter into negotiations with Europeans for those commodities. Only later did Europeans come to know they had been barking up the wrong tree.

The Hopi, still living in Northeast Arizona, are both matrilineal and matrilocal. They believe that the Earth is feminine, and therefore conclude that women are superior. Women are the central figures in clans, households, economics, and society.  Men oversee political and ceremonial systems, but ultimately the Clan Mothers have the authority to overturn decisions made by the men regarding land distribution if that distribution is seen as unfair. In other words, women fully participate in tribal politics. It is thought that the belief in female superiority among the Hopi is fading. Frankly, I would be surprised if that turned out to be true. I know people from Hopi. Chances are they themselves perpetuated that rumor to keep Western patriarchs out of their tribal business.

The Iroquois League of Six Nations continues to recognize women as central in moral and political roles. Simply put, women are the center of all things because they create life. Iroquois clans are traced through women and Clan Mothers are the oldest women in the clans. They have their own council that oversees and scrutinizes the men’s council and its activities. Children belong to their mothers’ clans. Iroquois women have absolute control over the food for the entire tribe by having custodial control over the land and all its resources. Territorial and community issues are decided by women. The Keepers of Iroquois culture are women. They not only participate in politics, they belong to Medicine Societies, run the family’s longhouse, and own all the household goods.  Tribal politics mandates absolute equality. While men are the chiefs, they are appointed by women and the women hold the right to veto any inappropriate decision made by the chiefs. If a chief fails to meet the Clan Mothers’ expectations, the women hold absolute authority to throw him out of power. Women are expected to take leadership positions. The Iroquois might have been and certainly still are the only matriarchate in North America.

The Iroquois government is the oldest participatory democracy on Earth. The US Constitution is modeled after the Iroquois Great Law of Peace “committed to the highest degree of human freedom, emphasizing the power of reason to assure righteousness, justice, and health among humans. Peace came to the Iroquois, not through war and conquest, but through the exercise of reason guided by a spiritual mind. The Iroquois League is based not on force of arms or rule of law, but the spiritual concepts of natural law as it applies to human society.” The earliest Euro-American feminists were profoundly influenced by Iroquois women and Iroquois society.

Similar stories of political prowess can be found among the Cherokee, the Cheyenne, the Montagnais, the Tanoan Pueblos, and the Muskhogean, and probably many others. All are or were matrilineal.

Farther from home we find an impressive number of matrilineal cultures. The economic, political, and social organization of the Akan and Ashanti of Africa is based on matrilineal lines which are also the basis of inheritance and succession. Land is passed down to women only.

There is a surprising group in North Africa called the Tuareg. They are Berber Muslims that have a matrilineal clan base and their society is matrilocal. Social status passes through the women who are traditionally literate while the men aren’t. Livestock and all mobile property are owned by the Tuareg women.

Some of the Sever in Senegal have matriclans and matriarchs. The most revered of these clans formed the basis of Sever history, religion, and mythology. Assets are gender specific and inherited accordingly.

Other matrilineal cultures can be found in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, China, Cambodia, Vietnam, India, Malaysia, and Oceania. Some are matriarchal but most are egalitarian. Judaism is matrilineal provided the mother is either born Jewish or converts to Judaism.

Even in matrilineal groups where women pick the leaders, control the land and the food, and hold equal and sometimes superior political authority, there has always existed gender roles. It would seem that only the contemporary Westerner has a problem with this. In many tribal cultures gender roles are considered sacred, and the traditions are most often secret and zealously guarded because they wield extraordinary power.  Gender roles among North American groups vary from tribe to tribe. For example, all Apache children learn all basic skills to insure adaptation and survival of unforeseen circumstances. Among the Eastern Woodland Societies men did all the hunting and fishing while women managed the house, food, gardening, tanning, and sewing. Most but not all were matrilineal. The division of labor wasn’t necessarily strict and varied from tribe to tribe. Inuit societies are also widely varied. While most often egalitarian, some are patriarchal and it’s suspected that this is due to the influence on the tribe by the British. The Osage are considered patriarchal as are all Siouan tribes and yet they don’t have rigidly defined gender roles. The primary growers of corn and squash are women but the men often take part in that activity. Hunting is traditionally a male activity but women often take part in that as well. Homes and household possessions belong to the women. Most Pacific Northwest tribes are patriarchal but the Haide are matriarchal or matrilineal. It should be noted that in a matristic culture the brothers, uncles and nephews of the child’s mother are the male role models, not the fathers. Children belong exclusively to the mother and the women’s clans.

And then there is the third gender or Two-Spirit, individuals with both male and female spirits as well as people who identify with both male and female gender roles.  They are considered more whole and utterly sacred. Two-Spirits hold specific roles among cultures such as the Navajo, Ktunaxa, the Puebloan peoples, the Hopi, and the Sioux, and are often shamans. Two-Spirit people are frequently included in both male and female rituals and activities. Some inclusion of Two-Spirit individuals has been documented by 130 tribes, both male and female bodied Two-Spirits. The Zuni do not assign gender at birth but wait four or five years to do so to insure the gender of a child is identified correctly. As you must suspect this identification has absolutely nothing to do with anatomy. A Zuni child might be referred to only as “child” or referred to as both genders. Some tribes even recognize four genders, feminine and masculine males and feminine and masculine females. Two-Spirit is a modern term among North American groups but as a concept it is wide spread and ancient. Effeminate sorcerers and priest can be found in Borneo, South Celebes, Patagonia, and the Aleutians.

The Two-Spirit introduction has been included because of the sophistication of shamanism among Paleo-Siberians, including Mongolians, and the other tribes of that region such as the Altai. They have elevated the Two-Spirit concept to a thing of utter beauty, and it would appear as though male shamans do their level best to emulate women in every possible way. And given that many Indigenous American cultures descended from the people of this region it is likely that they too enjoyed similar sophistication before the invasion.

Most of the shamans in the Paleo-Siberian region are women because it is believed that by their very nature women are shamans.  And because of that men often experience what is called the “mystical change of sex” and transform into women. Although it isn’t unheard of, far fewer women change their sex to male. The Siberian male shamans often display two iron rings on their coats that represent women’s breasts. They part their hair and braid it like women do. It is common for men to wear women’s clothes and assume varying degrees of women’s roles if the spirit dictates it. Occasionally these men become so entrenched in women’s medicine that they seek male lovers, but more frequently they have wives and children.  Unlike the cultures of the Crone and Clan Mother, Paleo-Siberian women are believed at their most powerful when they are young and childless. It is thought that a woman loses most of her power with the birth of her first child. Curiously this belief surfaces in Castaneda’s stories about the ancient sorcerers that still exist among a few tribes living in Old Mexico.

I have merely skimmed the surface of the Paleo-Siberian attitude and respect toward women. It is vastly more complex than what I have introduced here. But I wanted to illustrate that outside of the patriarchal western world there are many cultures that hold women in high esteem. Some like the Paleo-Siberians male shamans manifest as females because they know that is where the power resides. We live under the misconception that equality for women is a state of grace that exists in the distant future. Nothing could be farther from the truth. It has saturated all of human and hominid reality for many millions of years. Our ancestors were matriarchal, matristic, matrilineal, and matrilocal. Females stand as the most powerful individuals in history. We managed it all, and we each often secretly know that we still do. If you really want to know what equality and egalitarian societies are all about, you must travel what feels like a long way back in history, and you must search for the remaining “islands” of survivors such as the Siberians and North Americans. You must study them and re-learn how such societies function before you can change the circumstances of your life, before you can assert that you are a Grandmother, Clan Mother, or Crone, a shaman, a medicine woman, or a spirit handler. Behind each of these words is a concept, and within each of those concepts is a complex way of life that has taken millions of years to create. Women exemplify knowledge and wisdom. Learn it, seek it, become it. Wisdom belongs to you.

References and further reading:

Two Spirit
Two-Spirit Identity Theory
Gender Roles among the Indigenous Peoples of North America
Clan Mother
List of Matrilineal or Matrilocal Societies   (Please note that this was not the Neolithic era but rather Paleolithic) -painters-in-europe-were-mostly-women-researcher-says.html -Europes-oldest-work-of-art.html Clan System and Responsibilities The Iroquois Women’s Role in the Longhouse How the Role of Women in Haudenosaunee Culture Inspired the Early Feminist Movement  (Note that Haudenosaunee is the name Iroquois people call themselves)  Women’s “rights” in the Iroquois Confederation (Note. Don’t you wonder why the author used a lower case R and quotations on the word rights? Even the grammar check on my computer found that offensive) Iroquois????? Native American Women American Indian Women Chapter XII Shamanism and Sex Shamanism in Russia and Mongolia Secrets of Siberian Shamanism Summoning the Spirits of their Ancestors: Shamans from Around the World Gather in Siberia for Ceremony Timed to Coincide with Cosmic Cycles Shamans and Native Mysticism Path of the Shaman
http:/  Women in Haudenosaunee Culture select essays from blogs titled Sacred First Foods, Turtle Island, and Magic Makers. Numerous blogs have appendixes, and references listed in either the bibliography or at the end of an essay.
Beverly Hungry Wolf, “Daughters of the Buffalo Women”, Canadian Caboose Press, 1996
Beverly Hungry Wolf, “The Ways of My Grandmothers”, Canadian Caboose Press
Gunlog Fur, “A Nation of Women”, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009
Robert S. Grumet, “Voices from the Delaware Big House Ceremony, University of Oklahoma Press: Norman, 2001 (Note: The Lenni Lenape were called Delaware by the European invaders)

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