Faculty-Student Research: Documenting the Worldview of a Matrilineal Society

Led by powerful Clan Mothers, the people of the Haudenosaunee Nation (Iroquois) are retrieving their history, rebuilding their nation, and creating a bridge between ancient wisdom and today’s society. For Theology and Religious Studies Professor Jeanette Rodriguez, the documentation of the worldview of this ancient matrilineal society has given new meaning to history, resilience, and spirituality that is up close and personal.

The Haudenosaunee have influenced the world by their democracy, their example for the feminist movement, and their commitment and concern for the care of the earth. Clan Mothers hold powerful positions in this matrilineal society: they name the chiefs, decide whether to go to war, lead ceremonies, and educate the children. Currently located in villages on both sides of the Canadian and United States border, the Haudenosaunee, like many indigenous people, are now dealing with centuries of cultural disruption in the form of violence, alcoholism, and social malaise.

Clan Mother Tewakierakwa is leading the process of rebuilding the nation and retrieving ancestral wisdom. Tewakierakwa met Rodriguez, a member of the American Indian Institute, at a gathering in 2010.

“This spoke to me deeply because of my previous work on cultural memory,” Rodriguez said. “I told the Clan Mother of my work with indigenous communities in the South, and she later invited me to visit the Haudenosaunee Nation in New York State.”

There, Rodriguez met with more than 100 women—lawyers, tribal police, and movers and shakers—committed to retrieving what they call “mother law.” She was also privileged to be present for their rites of passage and saw how the community adapts into contemporary modern times ancient custom.

The preparation for the rite of passage for boys and girls ages 12 to 23 takes place over a four-year period during which they learn about their culture, language and how to pray and be part of the community. At the end, they go out from the community and build their huts within a specific area that is their base for four days and four nights. They have no food or water, only blankets, flint for fires, and tobacco that they use for prayer. Their task is to be in prayer with the hope that they receive a message from the spirits that will benefit the community.

“As a theologian, it was a transformative experience for me too,” Rodriguez noted. “Their spirituality is their way of life; it’s a way of being grateful, being in the world, being conscious of that gratitude. I was a witness to that.”

Accepting the invitation to work with Clan Mother and write about the worldview of the Haudenosaunee women, Rodriguez began gathering historical documents and conducting field research. Thanks to a grant from the Dean’s Research Fund, Rodriguez enlisted the aid of history and political science junior Lauren Woo-Ermacoff. Woo-Ermacoff helped with editing, literature review, organizing historical documents, and examining how treaties have impacted the Haudenosaunee.

“It’s interesting to see a woman who is so clearly fighting to keep tradition alive and wants to make sure the tradition is translating into an acceptable, more modern format,” she said. “Having a professor that allowed me to see the more human side of history has been life-changing. Ancient wisdom should be admired and preserved, and Dr. Rodriguez helps to continue that.”

The book, entitled “Lifting Songs to Pierce the Sky: Haudenosaunee Women and the Sisterhood of Clanships,” published by SUNY Press, is due out in 2015.

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Published September 2014.