Marriage Practices of The Iroquois Indians – “More Than Just a Totem Pole” – A Cultural Review

* Please excuse the use of past tense. I understand that there are still Iroquois people and these traditions are still a part of their culture.  The tense is meant for the events that occurred as opposed to the traditions.

History and Location

Historically, the Iroquois held land in the American northeast in places that stretched from upstate New York across Lake Ontario.  After (roughly) three hundred years, the Iroquois now hold much smaller reservations in these areas due to the conflict with the Europeans caused by unequal treaties.  Although these small reservations are encapsulated within the United States, many of their traditions endure.


Matrilineal and Matrilocal

To understand the structure of Iroquois marriage we must first understand the type of society they live in.  The Iroquois live in a matrilineal and matrilocal society.  The following definitions are based on an (social) anthropological view.

“In a matrilineal descent system, an individual is considered to belong to the same descent group as her or his mother. This matrilineal descent pattern is in contrast to the more common pattern of patrilineal descent from which a family name is usually derived.”

Matrilocal residence or matrilocality (also uxorilocal residence or uxorilocality) is a term referring to the societal system in which a married couple resides with or near the wife’s parents.”

Matrilineal kinship comprise only 15% of the world’s cultures.  Most of the matrilineal societies are based on horticulture, simple farming, and digging sticks, but not the use of the plow.  Matrilineal societies are rarely found in agrarian societies or pastoral societies.

Division of Labor

In the early 1900s, the Iroquois used simple tools, most commonly digging sticks.  These sticks would be used to prepare the soil for planting.  The Iroquois cultivated three important crops that are known as the “sister crops”.  These included: corn, beans, and squash.

The division of labor is consistent throughout horticultural societies.  Land clearing and heavy labor was/is assigned to the men mostly because of their biological capability to exert more force over a shorter period of time.  Women, in contrast to men, have the ability to exert more force over a longer period of time.  The duties for the women were lighter and lasted for most of the day.  The women prepared the soil, planted seeds, tended to the plants, and harvested.  Without the use of the plow land became exhausted and the fertility of the land would be used up in a matter of years.

Anthropologically, kinship systems were used to assign cultivation rights to specific persons within a community on a basis of fixed identity.  Assigning identity through lineage ensured that membership would be recognizable.  The ability to recognize identity became important in ownership of parcels of land.  This identity would be established through birth or marriage.

In the Iroquois case, this kinship identity gave a “right to cultivate” as compared to a “right of ownership”.  Land was communal, but the right to perform duties on areas of land was determined by lineage.  Although husbands and wives worked at different economical activities, all were treated as complementary and equal.  The partial stratification of “rank”, which is typically found in horticultural societies, is a diverse system of kinship, residence, and marriage.

Within the matrilineal society such as the Iroquois, there are male chiefs that are determined by their female line of descent.  This creates a balance in this type of society by granting powerful roles to both genders.



A longhouse is defined as an elongated dwelling that is divided into individual compartments in which component families lived.  This focused on the line of descent which in this case is female.  These longhouses are occupied by matrilineages which can extend into several houses depending on the amount of daughters born into it.

The longhouses were comprised of elm bark that stretched about 100 feet in length and would peak at 23 feet high.  They had a central corridor that would extend the length of the house that included hearths with smokes holes to accommodate the two families athwart each other.  In this hearth the women of longhouse would arrange meals like corn stew. Corn stew is known to be the most common meal of the Iroquois.

The longhouses needed to be rebuilt periodically because of the breakdown and decay of the elm.  Roughly around the same time the land had become exhausted.  Permanent settlement in horticultural societies was not supported by their mode of agriculture. The Iroquois villages had a short lifecycle and were abandoned every 12 years.


In this type of society (matrilineal and matrilocal) each girl born into a lineage will remain with her family for a lifetime.  She will stay in the household with her mother and sisters.  In comparison, the men live with their natal families until they marry.  Once they marry, the men join the wife’s family in their longhouse and become a part of her lineage.

An important aspect of the Iroquois culture is the family totem.  This may seem like a nice piece of art to have in a home, but the totem carries much weight for the Iroquois.  When two or more matrilineages belong to one clan they are identified by a totem animal that symbolizes that lineage.  Matri-clans (matriclans) are known by this totem animal and those belonging to it shared in a common identity.  While lineage is important in arrangement of marriage, clan identity was a greater influence.  It was required by the Iroquois that people marry outside of their clan and lineage.  The requirement that marriage occur outside of clan membership is known as clan exogamy and is a means of regulating marriage in society.  A marriage that occurred within the same clan or lineage was/is considered incestuous.


The female lineage elders played a pivotal role in the determination of who would be eligible to marry.  Once chosen, the mothers of the bride and groom would arrange the marriage. The bride and groom were not consulted of the decision.  Affection between the couple was not considered a positive recommendation and typically the bride would be older than the groom.  This was to ensure that the groom would have a wife that was experienced in the affairs of life.

Marriage ceremony was modest and marital life began with the movement of the groom to the bride’s longhouse.  In regards to lineage, he was only a part of his wife’s line of descent, but the groom was not alienated from his natal family and was able to visit.

If the marriage should fail, he could return to his natal family with his few belongings.  Neither party involved would have a bad reputation.  To divorce meant the husband would not only leave the marriage but he would also leave his children.  Although he may be unhappy leaving his children, custody and their place in society were not an issue.  The Iroquois structure their society on efficiency.

“In the study of matrilineal societies, anthropologists have discovered that to focus primarily on the bond between husband and wife in marriage actually distorts the important family dynamics that link the lives and futures of brother and sisters, as well as mothers and daughters.” – Janice Stockard

Information taken from: Marriage in Culture by Janice E. Stockard

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