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Title: Wyandot Government: A Short Study of Tribal Society - Bureau of American Ethnology
Author: Powell, John Wesley, 1834-1902
Language: English
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In the social organization of the Wyandots four groups are
recognized--the family, the gens, the phratry, and the tribe.


The family, as the term is here used, is nearly synonymous with the
household. It is composed of the persons who occupy one lodge, or, in
their permanent wigwams, one section of a communal dwelling. These
permanent dwellings are constructed in an oblong form, of poles
interwoven with bark. The fire is placed in line along the center, and
is usually built for two families, one occupying the place on each
side of the fire.

The head of the family is a woman.


The gens is an organized body of consanguineal kindred in the female
line. "The woman carries the gens," is the formulated statement by
which a Wyandot expresses the idea that descent is in the female line.
Each gens has the name of some animal, the ancient of such animal
being its tutelar god. Up to the time that the tribe left Ohio, eleven
gentes were recognized, as follows:

Deer, Bear, Highland Turtle (striped), Highland Turtle (black), Mud
Turtle, Smooth Large Turtle, Hawk, Beaver, Wolf, Sea Snake, and

In speaking of an individual he is said to be a wolf, a bear, or a
deer, as the case may be, meaning thereby that he belongs to that
gens; but in speaking of the body of people comprising a gens, they
are said to be relatives of the wolf, the bear, or the deer, as the
case may be.

There is a body of names belonging to each gens, so that each person's
name indicates the gens to which he belongs. These names are derived
from the characteristics, habits, attitudes, or mythologic stories
connected with, the tutelar god.

The following schedule presents the name of a man and a woman in each
gens, as illustrating this statement:

                          Wun-dát                  English.

  Man of Deer gens        De-wa-tí-re              Lean Deer.
  Woman of Deer gens      A-ya-jin-ta              Spotted Fawn.
  Man of Bear gens        A-tu-e-tĕs            Long Claws.
  Woman of Bear gens      Tsá-maⁿ-da-ka-é        Grunting for her
  Man of Striped Turtle   Ta-há-soⁿ-ta-ra-ta-se  Going Around the
    gens                                              Lake.
  Woman of Striped        Tso-we-yuñ-kyu           Gone from the Water.
    Turtle gens
  Man of Mud Turtle gens  Sha-yän-tsu-wat′         Hard Skull.
  Woman of Mud            Yaⁿ-däc-u-räs          Finding Sand Beach.
    Turtle gens
  Man of Smooth Large     Huⁿ'-du-cu-tá          Throwing Sand.
    Turtle gens
  Woman of Smooth         Tsu-ca-eⁿ              Slow Walker.
    Large Turtle gens
  Man of Wolf gens        Ha-ró-uⁿ-yû            One who goes about in
                                                      the Dark; a Prowler.
  Woman of Wolf gens      Yaⁿ-di-no              Always Hungry.
  Man of Snake gens       Hu-ta-hú-sa              Sitting in curled
  Woman of Snake gens     Di-jé-rons               One who Ripples the
  Man of Porcupine gens   Haⁿ-dú-tuⁿ           The one who puts up
  Woman of Porcupine      Ké-ya-runs-kwa           Good-Sighted.


There are four phratries in the tribe, the three gentes Bear, Deer,
and Striped Turtle constituting the first; the Highland Turtle, Black
Turtle, and Smooth Large Turtle the second; the Hawk, Beaver, and Wolf
the third, and the Sea Snake and Porcupine the fourth.

This unit in their organization has a mythologic basis, and is chiefly
used for religious purposes, in the preparation of medicines, and in
festivals and games.

The eleven gentes, as four phratries, constitute the tribe.

Each gens is a body of consanguineal kindred in the female line, and
each gens is allied to other gentes by consanguineal kinship through
the male line, and by affinity through marriage.

To be a member of the tribe it is necessary to be a member of a gens;
to be a member of a gens it is necessary to belong to some family; and
to belong to a family a person must have been born in the family so
that his kinship is recognized, or he must be adopted into a family
and become a son, brother, or some definite relative; and this
artificial relationship gives him the same standing as actual
relationship in the family, in the gens, in the phratry, and in the

Thus a tribe is a body of kindred.

Of the four groups thus described, the gens, the phratry, and the
tribe constitute the series of organic units; the family, or household
as here described, is not a unit of the gens or phratry, as two gentes
are represented in each--the father must belong to one gens, and the
mother and, her children to another.


Society is maintained by the establishment of government, for rights
must be recognized and duties performed.

In this tribe there is found a complete differentiation of the
military from the civil government.


The civil government inheres in a system of councils and chiefs.

In each gens there is a council, composed of four women, called
_Yụ-waí-yu-wá-na_. These four women councillors select a chief of
the gens from its male members--that is, from their brothers and sons.
This gentile chief is the head of the gentile council.

The coucil of the tribe is composed of the aggregated gentile
councils. The tribal council, therefore, is composed one-fifth of men
and four-fifths of women.

The sachem of the tribe, or tribal chief, is chosen by the chiefs of
the gentes.

There is sometimes a grand council of the gens, composed of the
councillors of the gens proper and all the heads of households and
leading men--brothers and sons.

There is also sometimes a grand council of the tribe, composed of the
council of the tribe proper and the heads of households of the tribe,
and all the leading men of the tribe.

These grand councils are convened for special purposes.


The four women councillors of the gens are chosen by the heads of
households, themselves being women. There is no formal election, but
frequent discussion is had over the matter from time to time, in which
a sentiment grows up within the gens and throughout the tribe that, in
the event of the death of any councillor, a certain person will take
her place.

In this manner there is usually one, two, or more potential
councillors in each gens who are expected to attend all the meetings
of the council, though they take no part in the deliberations and have
no vote.

When a woman is installed as councillor a feast is prepared by the
gens to which she belongs, and to this feast all the members of the
tribe are invited. The woman is painted and dressed in her best attire
and the sachem of the tribe places upon her head the gentile chaplet
of feathers, and announces in a formal manner to the assembled guests
that the woman has been chosen a councillor. The ceremony is followed
by feasting and dancing, often continued late into the night.

The gentile chief is chosen by the council women after consultation
with the other women and men of the gens. Often the gentile chief is a
potential chief through a period of probation. During this time he
attends the meetings of the council, but takes no part in the
deliberations, and has no vote.

At his installation, the council women invest him with an elaborately
ornamented tunic, place upon his head a chaplet of feathers, and paint
the gentile totem on his face. The sachem of the tribe then announces
to the people that the man has been made chief of the gens, and
admitted to the council. This is also followed by a festival.

The sachem of the tribe is selected by the men belonging to the
council of the tribe. Formerly the sachemship inhered in the Bear
gens, but at present he is chosen from the Deer gens, from the fact,
as the Wyandots say, that death has carried away all the wise men of
the Bear gens.

The chief of the Wolf gens is the herald and the sheriff of the tribe.
He superintends the erection of the council-house and has the care of
it. He calls the council together in a formal manner when directed by
the sachem. He announces to the tribe all the decisions of the
council, and executes the directions of the council and of the sachem.

Gentile councils are held frequently from day to day and from week to
week, and are called by the chief whenever deemed necessary. When
matters before the council are considered of great importance, a grand
council of the gens may be called.

The tribal council is held regularly on the night of the full moon of
each lunation and at such other times as the sachem may determine; but
extra councils are usually called by the sachem at the request of a
number of councilors.

Meetings of the gentile councils are very informal, but the meetings
of the tribal councils are conducted with due ceremony. When all the
persons are assembled, the chief of the Wolf gens calls them to order,
fills and lights a pipe, sends one puff of smoke to the heavens and
another to the earth. The pipe is then handed to the sachem, who fills
his mouth with smoke, and, turning from left to right with the sun,
slowly puffs it out over the heads of the councilors, who are sitting
in a circle. He then hands the pipe to the man on his left, and it is
smoked in turn by each person until it has been passed around the
circle. The sachem then explains the object for which the council is
called. Each person in the way and manner he chooses tells what he
thinks should be done in the case. If a majority of the council is
agreed as to action, the sachem does not speak, but may simply
announce the decision. But in some cases there may be protracted
debate, which is carried on with great deliberation. In case of a tie,
the sachem is expected to speak.

It is considered dishonorable for any man to reverse his decision
after having spoken.

Such are the organic elements of the Wyandot government.


It is the function of government to preserve rights and enforce the
performance of duties. Rights and duties are co-relative. Rights imply
duties, and duties imply rights. The right inhering in the party of
the first part imposes a duty on the party of the second part. The
right and its co-relative duty are inseparable parts of a relation
that must be maintained by government; and the relations which
governments are established to maintain may be treated under the
general head of rights.

In Wyandot government these rights may be classed as follows:

  First--Rights of marriage.
  Second--Rights to names.
  Third--Rights to personal adornments.
  Fourth--Rights of order in encampments and migrations.
  Fifth--Rights of property.
  Sixth--Rights of person.
  Seventh--Rights of community.
  Eighth--Rights of religion.

To maintain rights, rules of conduct are established, not by formal
enactment, but by regulated usage. Such custom-made laws may be called


Marriage between members of the same gens is forbidden, but
consanguineal marriages between persons of different gentes are
permitted. For example, a man may not marry his mother's sister's
daughter, as she belongs to the same gens with himself; but he can
marry his father's sister's daughter, because she belongs to a
different gens.

Husbands retain all their rights and privileges in their own gentes,
though they live with the gentes of their wives. Children,
irrespective of sex, belong to the gens of the mother. Men and women
must marry within the tribe. A woman taken to wife from without the
tribe must first be adopted into some family of a gens other than that
to which the man belongs. That a woman may take for a husband a man
without the tribe he must also be adopted into the family of some gens
other than that of the woman. What has been called by some
ethnologists endogamy and exogamy are correlative parts of one
regulation, and the Wyandots, like all other tribes of which we have
any knowledge in North America, are both endogamous and exogamous.

Polygamy is permitted, but the wives must belong to different gentes.
The first wife remains the head of the household. Polyandry is

A man seeking a wife consults her mother, sometimes direct, and
sometimes through his own mother. The mother of the girl advises with
the women councilors to obtain their consent, and the young people
usually submit quietly to their decision. Sometimes the women
councilors consult with the men.

When a girl is betrothed, the man makes such presents to the mother as
he can. It is customary to consummate the marriage before the end of
the moon in which the betrothal is made. Bridegroom and bride make
promises of faithfulness to the parents and women councilors of both
parties. It is customary to give a marriage feast, in which the gentes
of both parties take part. For a short time at least, bride and groom
live with the bride's mother, or rather in the original household of
the bride.

The time when they will set up housekeeping for themselves is usually
arranged before marriage.

In the event of the death of the mother, the children belong to her
sister or to her nearest female kin, the matter being settled by the
council women of the gens. As the children belong to the mother, on
the death of the father the mother and children are cared for by her
nearest male relative until subsequent marriage.


It has been previously explained that there is a body of names, the
exclusive property of each gens. Once a year, at the green-corn
festival, the council women of the gens select the names for the
children born during the previous year, and the chief of the gens
proclaims these names at the festival. No person may change his name,
but every person, man or woman, by honorable or dishonorable conduct,
or by remarkable circumstance, may win a second name commemorative of
deed or circumstance, which is a kind of title.


Each clan has a distinctive method of painting the face, a distinctive
chaplet to be worn by the gentile chief and council women when they
are inaugurated, and subsequently at festival occasions, and
distinctive ornaments for all its members, to be used at festivals and
religious ceremonies.


The camp of the tribe is in an open circle or horse-shoe, and the
gentes camp in following order, beginning on the left and going around
to the right:

Deer, Bear, Highland Turtle (striped), Highland Turtle (black), Mud
Turtle, Smooth Large Turtle, Hawk, Beaver, Wolf, Sea Snake, Porcupine.

The order in which the households camp in the gentile group is
regulated by the gentile councilors and adjusted from time to time in
such a manner that the oldest family is placed on the left, and the
youngest on the right. In migrations and expeditions the order of
travel follows the analogy of encampment.


Within the area claimed by the tribe each gens occupies a smaller
tract for the purpose of cultivation. The right of the gens to
cultivate a particular tract is a matter settled in the council of the
tribe, and the gens may abandon one tract for another only with the
consent of the tribe. The women councillors partition the gentile land
among the householders, and the household tracts are distinctly marked
by them. The ground is re-partitioned once in two years. The heads of
households are responsible for the cultivation of the tract, and
should this duty be neglected the council of the gens calls the
responsible parties to account.

Cultivation is communal; that is, all of the able-bodied women of the
gens take part in the cultivation of each household tract in the
following manner:

The head of the household sends her brother or son into the forest or
to the stream to bring in game or fish for a feast; then the
able-bodied women of the gens are invited to assist in the cultivation
of the land, and when this work is done a feast is given.

The wigwam or lodge and all articles of the household belong to the
woman--the head of the household--and at her death are inherited by
her eldest daughter, or nearest of female kin. The matter is settled
by the council women. If the husband die his property is inherited by
his brother or his sister's son, except such portion as may be buried
with him. His property consists of his clothing, hunting and fishing
implements, and such articles as are used personally by himself.

Usually a small canoe is the individual property of the man. Large
canoes are made by the male members of the gentes, and are the
property of the gentes.


Each individual has a right to freedom of person and security from
personal and bodily injury, unless adjudged guilty of crime by proper


Each gens has the right to the services of all its women in the
cultivation of the soil. Each gens has the right to the service of all
its male members in avenging wrongs, and the tribe has the right to
the service of all its male members in time of war.


Each phratry has the right to certain religious ceremonies and the
preparation of certain medicines.

Each gens has the exclusive right to worship its tutelar god, and each
individual has the exclusive right to the possession and use of a
particular amulet.


The violations of right are crimes. Some of the crimes recognized by
the Wyandots are as follows:

  1. Adultery.
  2. Theft.
  3. Maiming.
  4. Murder.
  5. Treason.
  6. Witchcraft.

A maiden guilty of fornication may be punished by her mother or female
guardian, but if the crime is flagrant and repeated, so as to become a
matter of general gossip, and the mother fails to correct it, the
matter may be taken up by the council women of the gens.

A woman guilty of adultery, for the first offense is punished by
having her hair cropped; for repeated offenses her left ear is cut


The punishment for theft is twofold restitution. When the prosecutor
and prosecuted belong to the same gens, the trial is before the
council of the gens, and from it there is no appeal. If the parties
involved are of different gentes, the prosecutor, through the head of
his household, lays the matter before the council of his own gens; by
it the matter is laid before the gentile council of the accused in a
formal manner. Thereupon it becomes the duty of the council of the
accused to investigate the facts for themselves, and to settle the
matter with the council of the plaintiff. Failure thus to do is
followed by retaliation in the seizing of any property of the gens
which may be found.


Maiming is compounded, and the method of procedure in prosecution is
essentially the same as for theft.


In the case of murder, if both parties are members of the same gens,
the matter is tried by the gentile council on complaint of the head of
the household, but there may be an appeal to the council of the tribe.
Where the parties belong to different gentes, complaint is formally
made by the injured party, through the chief of his gens, in the
following manner:

A wooden tablet is prepared, upon which is inscribed the totem or
heraldic emblem of the injured man's gens, and a picture-writing
setting forth the offense follows.

The gentile chief appears before the chief of the council of the
offender, and formally states the offense, explaining the
picture-writing, which is then delivered.

A council of the offender's gens is thereupon called and a trial is
held. It is the duty of this council to examine the evidence for
themselves and to come to a conclusion without further presentation of
the matter on the part of the person aggrieved. Having decided the
matter among themselves, they appear before the chief of the council
of the aggrieved party to offer compensation.

If the gens of the offender fail to settle the matter with the gens of
the aggrieved party, it is the duty of his nearest relative to avenge
the wrong. Either party may appeal to the council of the tribe. The
appeal must be made in due form, by the presentation of a tablet of

Inquiry into the effect of a failure to observe prescribed formalities
developed an interesting fact. In procedure against crime, failure in
formality is not considered a violation of the rights of the accused,
but proof of his innocence. It is considered supernatural evidence
that the charges are false. In trials for all offenses forms of
procedure are, therefore, likely to be earnestly questioned.


Treason consists in revealing the secrets of the medicine preparations
or giving other information or assistance to enemies of the tribe, and
is punished by death. The trial is before the council of the tribe.


Witchcraft is punished by death, stabbing, tomahawking, or burning.
Charges of witchcraft are investigated by the grand council of the
tribe. When the accused is adjudged guilty, he may appeal to
supernatural judgment. The test is by fire. A circular fire is built
on the ground, through which the accused must run from east and west
and from north to south. If no injury is received he is adjudged
innocent; if he falls into the fire he is adjudged guilty. Should a
person accused of having the general reputation of practicing
witchcraft become deaf, blind, or have sore eyes, earache, headache,
or other diseases considered loathsome, he is supposed to have failed
in practicing his arts upon others, and to have fallen a victim to
them himself. Such cases are most likely to be punished.


The institution of outlawry exists among the Wyandots in a peculiar
form. An outlaw is one who by his crimes has placed himself without
the protection of his clan. A man can be declared an outlaw by his own
clan, who thus publish to the tribe that they will not defend him in
case he is injured by another. But usually outlawry is declared only
after trial before the tribal council.

The method of procedure is analogous to that in case of murder. When
the person has been adjudged guilty and sentence of outlawry declared,
it is the duty of the chief of the Wolf clan to make known the
decision of the council. This he does by appearing before each clan in
the order of its encampment, and declaring in terms the crime of the
outlaw and the sentence of outlawry, which may be either of two

In the lowest grade it is declared that if the man shall thereafter
continue in the commission of similar crimes, it will be lawful for
any person to kill him; and if killed, rightfully or wrongfully, his
clan will not avenge his death.

Outlawry of the highest degree makes it the duty of any member of the
tribe who may meet with the offender to kill him.


The management of military affairs inheres in the military council and
chief. The military council is composed of all the able-bodied men of
the tribe; the military chief is chosen by the council from the
Porcupine gens. Each gentile chief is responsible for the military
training of the youth under his authority. There is usually one or
more potential military chiefs, who are the close companions and
assistants of the chief in time of war, and in case of the death of
the chief, take his place in the order of seniority.

Prisoners of war are adopted into the tribe or killed. To be adopted
into the tribe, it is necessary that the prisoner should be adopted
into some family. The warrior taking the prisoner has the first right
to adopt him, and his male or female relatives have the right in the
order of their kinship. If no one claims the prisoner for this
purpose, he is caused to run the gauntlet as a test of his courage.

If at his trial he behaves manfully, claimants are not wanting, but if
he behaves disgracefully he is put to death.


There is an interesting institution found among the Wyandots, as among
some other of our North American tribes, namely, that of fellowhood.
Two young men agree to be perpetual friends to each other, or more
than brothers. Each reveals to the other the secrets of his life, and
counsels with him on matters of importance, and defends him from wrong
and violence, and at his death is chief mourner.

       *       *       *       *       *

The government of the Wyandots, with the social organization upon
which it is based, affords a typical example of tribal government
throughout North America. Within that area there are several hundred
distinct governments. In so great a number there is great variety, and
in this variety we find different degrees of organization, the degrees
of organization being determined by the differentiation of the
functions of the government and the correlative specialization of
organic elements.

Much has yet to be done in the study of these governments before safe
generalizations may be made. But enough is known to warrant the
following statement:

Tribal government in North America is based on kinship in that the
fundamental units of social organization are bodies of consanguineal
kindred either in the male or female line; these units being what has
been well denominated "gentes."

These "gentes" are organized into tribes by ties of relationship and
affinity, and this organization is of such a character that the man's
position in the tribe is fixed by his kinship. There is no place in a
tribe for any person whose kinship is not fixed, and only those
persons can be adopted into the tribe who are adopted into some family
with artificial kinship specified. The fabric of Indian society is a
complex tissue of kinship. The warp is made of streams of kinship
blood, and the woof of marriage ties.

With most tribes military and civil affairs are differentiated. The
functions of civil government are in general differentiated only to
this extent, that executive functions are performed by chiefs and
sachems, but these chiefs and sachems are also members of the council.
The council is legislature and court. Perhaps it were better to say
that the council is the court whose decisions are law, and that the
legislative body properly has not been developed.

In general, crimes are well defined. Procedure is formal, and forms
are held as of such importance that error therein is _prima facie_
evidence that the subject-matter formulated was false.

When one gens charges crime against a member of another, it can of its
own motion proceed only to retaliation. To prevent retaliation, the
gens of the offender must take the necessary steps to disprove the
crime, or to compound or punish it. The charge once made is held as
just and true until it has been disproved, and in trial the cause of
the defendant is first stated. The anger of the prosecuting gens must
be placated.

In the tribal governments there are many institutions, customs, and
traditions which give evidence of a former condition in which society
was based not upon kinship, but upon marriage.

From a survey of the facts it seems highly probably that kinship
society, as it exists among the tribes of North America, has developed
from connubial society, which is discovered elsewhere on the globe. In
fact, there are a few tribes that seem scarcely to have passed that
indefinite boundary between the two social states. Philologic research
leads to the same conclusion.

Nowhere in North America have a people been discovered who have passed
beyond tribal society to national society based on property, i.e.,
that form of society which is characteristic of civilization. Some
peoples may not have reached kinship society; none have passed it.

Nations with civilized institutions, art with palaces, monotheism as
the worship of the Great Spirit, all vanish from the priscan condition
of North America in the light of anthropologic research. Tribes with
the social institutions of kinship, art with its highest architectural
development exhibited in the structure of communal dwellings, and
polytheism in the worship of mythic animals and nature-gods remain.


Adultery, Wyandot law for, 66

Chiefs, Wyandot, Election of, 61, 62
Crimes, Wyandot laws for, 66, 67

Encampment regulations (Wyandot), 64

Family, The term, defined, 59
Fellowhood, Wyandot institution of, 68

Gens, The term, defined, 59
Government, Wyandot civil, 61
  Functions of, 63

Kinship society, 68, 69

Maiming, Wyandot law for, 66
Marriage regulations (Wyandot), 63, 64
Migration regulations (Wyandot), 64
Military government (Wyandot), 68
Murder, Wyandot law for, 66

Name regulations of the Wyandot tribe, 64

Outlawry, Wyandot institution of, 67

Personal adornment regulations (Wyandot), 64
Phratry defined, 60, 61

Society, Kinship, 68, 69

Theft, Wyandot law for, 66
Treason, Wyandot law for, 67
Tribal government based on kinship, 68, 69
Tribal society, A study of (Wyandot), 59-69

Witchcraft, Wyandot law for, 67
Wyandot criminal laws, 66, 67
  for adultery, 66
  for maiming, 66
  murder, 66
  of outlawry, 67
  for theft, 66
  for treason, 67
  for witchcraft, 67
Wyandot government, 59-69
Wyandot military government, 68
Wyandot regulations, 63, 64
  of encampment, 64
  of migration, 64
  of name, 64
  of personal adornment, 64
Wyandot rights, 65
  of community, 65
  of person, 65
  of religion, 65

[Transcriber's Note: This index is a subset of the original index
assocated with _First Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology to the
Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, 1879-80_, by J. W. Powell.]

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translation, optical character recognition or other areas where access to a
large amount of text is helpful, please contact us. We encourage the use of
public domain materials for these purposes and may be able to help.

+ Keep it legal -  Whatever your use, remember that you are responsible for
ensuring that what you are doing is legal. Do not assume that just because
we believe a book is in the public domain for users in the United States,
that the work is also in the public domain for users in other countries.
Whether a book is still in copyright varies from country to country, and we
can't offer guidance on whether any specific use of any specific book is
allowed. Please do not assume that a book's appearance in Doctrine Publishing
ISYS search  means it can be used in any manner anywhere in the world.
Copyright infringement liability can be quite severe.

About ISYS® Search Software
Established in 1988, ISYS Search Software is a global supplier of enterprise
search solutions for business and government.  The company's award-winning
software suite offers a broad range of search, navigation and discovery
solutions for desktop search, intranet search, SharePoint search and embedded
search applications.  ISYS has been deployed by thousands of organizations
operating in a variety of industries, including government, legal, law
enforcement, financial services, healthcare and recruitment.