I was just visiting friends in Syracuse, New York, not anticipating any mind-blowing new understandings, just expecting to enjoy friends I’d not seen for a long time. My host, William, had arranged a visit to the Skanonh Great Law of Peace Center, situated on Onondaga Lake. Onondaga Lake had at one time been the most polluted lake in the US; but efforts have been underway to clean it up, and it looks lovely from its shoreline. The Center is tucked away behind a parking lot and some trees, a bit difficult to find.
We were met by a man who’d spent decades working with the Haudenosaunee (the Iroquois) to strengthen their voice, protect their treaty rights, and inform the public about them: Jack Manno. He took us through the Center, adding to the information available on well done videos of Native Americans from the region explaining philosophical, religious, and day-to-day features of their lives. The five groups that made up what was then called ‘the Iroquois Nation’ included the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca—all names very familiar in this part of the US. The Center also displayed the usual material artefacts.
I had learned small tidbits of information about these groups in school: The Mohawk are famous for their lack of fear of heights, having been instrumental in the building of skyscrapers in New York City. Iroquois women were reputed to be vicious in warfare, delighting in torturing their victims. The Iroquois lived in longhouses and wigwams, made and used canoes, hunted and grew corn, beans, and squash. But that’s about all I knew—-despite the fact that I now live a stone’s throw from Cayuga Lake and easy driving distance from Onondaga and Oneida Lakes.
The Center showed me many facts about the Haudenosaunee way of life. But the most important thing I learned that day was about the interactions between the Haudenosaunee and the early Euro-American feminists. The early Euro-American feminists, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Matilda Gage, were active in the struggle to grant American women the vote. Their most famous action was the organizing of the Seneca Falls Women’s Convention in July 1848. Seneca Falls is a short drive up Cayuga Lake from Ithaca, NY. Stanton and Gage lived in what had been Haudenosaunee country (as do I); and Mott visited and was influenced by them.
Women’s Studies scholar Sally Roesch Wagner examined the relations between the Haudenosaunee and the early feminists in a book entitled Sisters in Spirit: Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Influence on Early American Feminists (2001, Native Voices, Summertown, Tennessee). She was prompted to study this issue by this persistent question in her mind: From their oppressed situation, totally under the thumbs of their husbands, fathers, brothers, sons, the church and the law, how did the early feminists come to imagine a world in which women were more equal? Using historical and ethnographic sources, Wagner found her answer in the interactions between these early feminists and the Haudenosaunee. Her book vividly contrasts the dismal world of Euro-American women of the time with that of Haudenosaunee women.
The Haudenosaunee were (and are) matrilineal, and women were active in governing. One of their tasks was to select their chiefs, whom they were also entitled to remove from office. Women had the right to keep and dispose of their own possessions, in sharp distinction from the Euro-American women. Wagner writes that
Native women’s honored obligation, recognized by the men, was to direct the home and the community’s agriculture. Satisfying and sacred, women’s work harmoniously complemented the hunting/diplomatic duties of men; both were equally valued. Within this framework of community responsibility, individual liberty flourished.
Wagner complements these observations with telling quotations from men and women of the time, including descriptions from a Euro-American woman, Mary Jemison, who was captured as a child and opted to remain with the Seneca throughout her life.
I found this visit and this book to be satisfying confirmation of my own inclination to see certain elements of the lifeways of the Kenyah Dayaks (of Borneo) as a potential model for others to follow. They, like the Haudenosaunee, grant women equal respect; Kenyah women are likewise responsible for the home and gain much satisfaction and pride from their involvement in agricultural production. They have a strong voice in community decisions, though typically ‘behind the scenes’, and family life. Perhaps the influence of the Haudenosaunee on early Euro-American feminists might be replicated in Indonesia, using the Kenyah as an example. Indonesian feminists so far, to the best of my knowledge, have ignored the wondrous variety of cultural groups, many with egalitarian gender norms, in their own country.
The Center has piqued my interest in this nearby group, and I will try to learn more. It’s a bit galling that I find myself, as an anthropologist, so ignorant of a nearby indigenous group!