An Idealistic and Improbable Endeavor
By Lloyd Divine
Wyandotte Nation Culture Committee
May 11, 2010
I was twenty years old before I began to understand what being a Wyandotte tribal member meant. Why wasn’t I taught about being a Wyandotte when I was a child? There wasn’t much my parents could tell me, whereas much of our culture and the glue that held it all together, our clan affiliation, had already been lost. I do remember my mother teaching me how to say our name by circling her hand with a pointed index finger in front of me, and then poking my belly button. She would always say wind, as in winding a clock – holding the d for what seemed forever – and then quickly saying dot, with the precise, tickly poke to my stomach. This was the extent of my cultural indoctrination. Thankfully, that has been rectified. My daughters know more about who they are as a Wyandotte today, than most tribal members could have dreamt about knowing over the last 100 years.
We were easy targets for termination in 1956, partly because of our cultural identity loss, when the Federal Government’s policy of tribal termination affected many tribes across the country (Kappler 758). It would take 22 years of self-sacrifice from a dedicated few within the tribe, and their intense petitioning of the US Senate before our reinstatement in 1978 (LOC).
Plus, my parents were trying to protect me by not disclosing too much about our Wyandotte heritage. Being an Indian back then was enough reason to get yourself into a lot of trouble. After all, my grandfather died in 1967 from appendicitis after being taken to a local hospital, where he wasn’t given adequate care until it was too late. He died because of a laundry list of “resulting complications,” but the family knows it was actually because he looked too much like an Indian. My generation has now lost many of the identifying features that would have disallowed the immediate, surgical attention that appendicitis demands.
Why did my grandfather have to die? What was so wrong about his being and looking like an Indian? Where was our clan to help insure this kind of atrocity wouldn’t happen to another family? These questions lead me to search for answers, and what I found or didn’t find was so concerning, I’ve made the personal commitment to try and change things by educating our people and empowering them with the knowledge of who they are as a Wyandotte. Let’s investigate the reasons as to why our clan system died, and why trying to reinstate it today would be an idealistic and improbable endeavor. I am a proponent of reinstating all that pertains to our culture, but our clans are one area we are well advised to leave alone.
When my interest in our history was first kindled, I inherited many beliefs that were proven woefully inaccurate, after I began studying and verifying them for myself. I was shocked and dismayed to realize how much of our culture had been lost within 45 years of the tribe moving to Indian Territory, present day Oklahoma, in 1867. Our culture, language, and traditions were already known to be compromised, when in 1874 the tribal council tried to stop the slide to assimilation by requiring eligible voters to register by clan. Only 76 men, from 7 of the 12 clans, were found eligible to vote (Hancks 453-55). The effort, though noble, proved futile.
It was beginning to look as though all had been lost except for the knowledge of who we were and from where we came, and even this was embattled in controversy. It reached the point of no return when shortly after the turn of the century; the majority of eligible voters could no longer register themselves with a clan. The essence of our tribal culture and traditions appeared dead, our clans had faded into antiquity, and no one could disprove that unfortunate reality.
According to Elizabeth Tooker, an anthropologist at Temple University specializing in the study of North American Indian cultures, “…the smaller the society, the greater the number of people so related. But, the smaller the society, the less the need for reliance on kinship [clans]…” (Tooker Clans and Moieties 359). Knowing this, the primary cause resulting in the loss of Wyandotte clans can easily be contributed to a decimated population. The Treaty of 1867 required a census of all Wyandotte, and it netted 521 souls of which only 151 were accounted for in Indian Territory (Garrad). An ensuing migration from Kansas to Indian Territory, along with natural repopulation, increased the number to 379 by 1907. The next tribal census conducted in 1913 showed 437 Wyandotte now living in Oklahoma (Butterfield). Even though our population was steadily increasing, enough damage had already been incurred within the clans, because of small numbers, to insure the demise of the system that had served the tribe long after memories could explain from when, and where they originated.
As a tribe we have come to accept the loss of much of our culture. It’s hard to know just how much we’ve lost when we can’t remember what was there to begin with. In a modern society much of it would no longer be applicable, but still we diligently and cautiously seek to restore as much of it as we possibly can. One way we’re doing this is to freely share printed knowledge as retained in books. We are blessed to have many first-hand, detailed historical accounts for that purpose, from men such as the Rev. James Bradley Finley (1781-1856), Horatio Hale (1817-1896), John Wesley Powell (1834-1902), William Elsey Connelley (1855-1930) and Charles Marius Barbeau (1883-1969). It’s in their work and love of the Wyandotte people that we find many written words with clarifying details; however, one thing they could not do with their pens was to capture our very breath of life, the essence of what made our clans so innately special. Reinstatement of the clans with their subtle, complex, intimate and inherent structure is the one area we have had reluctance in exploring.
However, during an E-mail conversation in 2004 with Richard Zane Smith, he unofficially set in motion an ongoing and embattled debate regarding clan reinstatement that has followed us to this day. He stated, when discussing clan reinstatement, “…we can each assume the last recorded clan in our family to start with.” Richard, a member of the Wyandot Nation of Kansas, had recently moved to Oklahoma after living with the Navajo tribe in New Mexico for many years. Before moving to New Mexico, and resigning his position as a member of the Wyandot Nation of Kansas Culture Committee, he had been raised and currently lived in the Greater St. Louis metropolitan area (English).
The Wyandot Nation of Kansas is a non-recognized band of the Wyandot people that accepted United States citizenship in 1855, which prompted our relocation to Indian Territory in 1867. Subsequently, we were reinstatement as the Federally recognized tribe whereas they were not. Because of the actions of their ancestors over 150 years ago, members of the Wyandot Nation of Kansas may neither be admitted nor adopted into the Wyandotte Nation today.
After being asked how the clans would function in a modern society, Richard further stated that they would essentially be “secret societies” and “…we can look at the old stories to see how clans were decided and were born.” He was suggesting that we start from scratch and make up our own system, mimicking to the best of our ability, stories contained in a collection by Charles Marius Barbeau called, The Traditional Narratives. However, Mr. Barbeau expressed caution in accepting many of theses stories as purely Wyandot, because of noted inclusions as to what he referred to as “foreign elements” (Barbeau Foreign 83).
Ake Hultkrantz, a noted anthropologist specializing in Native American studies as related to traditional religions, noted a drop in interest given to Native American cultures after 1920, “…because the supposedly “pure” cultures were gone…” (113). Mr. Barbeau was in Oklahoma for a few short months in 1911-1912 collecting data. Is this too close to 1920 that we do not have any guarantees that what he recorded is pure? Obviously, he had concerns. Could our traditional stories have been tainted with Seneca-Cayuga, Mohawk, Delaware, French or even Arabic influences? This is something that need be studied before we accepted them as our “Bible” to reconstruct the old Wyandotte ways, as further suggested by Richard during a casual conversation I had with him a few years ago.
I think it best said by Bruce Trigger in his book review of Elizabeth Tooker’s, An Ethnography of the Huron Indians, 1615-1649, where he complimented her on her analysis, rather than reconstruction of Huron life. “…The data themselves would not permit the latter unless they were eked out with a great deal of speculation and interpolation, nor do they allow for functional interpretations that likewise are not highly speculative…” (807). What he is essentially saying is, don’t make things up that you can’t prove or have no knowledge of. Our clans and culture deserves more than speculation and a fanciful recreation simply because we think we can do it.
Let’s look at one more critical question before divulging ourselves into what we do know about basic clan structure. Who would be in control of the newly reinstated clan system? Since clan chiefs yielded great influence socially, spiritually and politically, who would be our clan chief? Traditionally, the pick was reserved for the elder women of the clan (Connelley, Folk-Lore 25). Sherri Clemons, Wyandotte Nation Tribal Heritage Director, recently stated that, “Reviving the clans would almost be impossible. We don’t have any elders alive today that know enough about the clans, ceremonies, and the old ways to try and bring them back to life.”
Elizabeth Tooker, in her analysis of Iroquoian clans, religion and secularism, finds it difficult to “separate the secular and religious functions of leaders” (Tooker Clans and Moieties 361). What would our tribe do, create an appointed position for the clan chief, along with our elected civil chief? If we do it properly, there would be a clan chief for each clan we resurrect. Would this require that we change our tribal constitution? Could both chiefs function separately? If not which one would hold the greatest power and influence within the tribe? Before a clan system is blindly reinstated, these types of questions need to be thoroughly investigated and resolved. Knowing this, let’s explore what we do know about the clans and see if it’s possible and practical to reinstate them for even the most basic ceremonial purposes.
William Elsey Connelley recorded most of our knowledge pertaining to the basic structure of the clans, after interviewing tribal members in Kansas and Oklahoma. He began the process of collecting data in 1879 that culminated with the publishing of Wyandot Folk-Lore in 1899. In the prefatory notes of his masterpiece and tribal treasure he states, “There is not so much as a half-blood Wyandot now living. The last full-blood Wyandot died in Canada about 1820. I began the work at a most fortunate time” (Connelley Folk-Lore 8). Indeed, we are all most fortunate for his work, and it serves as the foundation for much that we know about our clan structure, mythology, early tribal government and tribal social organization.
In 1877 Matthew Mudeater and Nicholas Cotter made a trip to Washington D.C. as delegate Chiefs of the Wyandotte Tribe of Oklahoma. While in Washington they were interviewed by John Wesley Powell, director of the Bureau of Ethnology (Thomas 65). Four years later in a report to the Smithsonian Institution, he published this first-hand account of our tribal government and its structure, as told to him by Matthew and Nicholas. Wyandot Government: A Short Study of Tribal Society, and Wyandot Folk-Lore are crucial historical documents, when combined, give us an in-depth look into our clans, their governance and basic structure. A quick synopsis follows:
The births of our clans are lost in antiquity (Connelley Folk-Lore 31; Connelley A Standard History 253). Our ancient Wyandot ancestors believed they descended from the animals, from which their clans were named. The animals are not the same animals of today as they were deities, zoological gods and creators of the universe. There were twelve, resulting in twelve associated clans. Each clan had its own government headed by the clan chief, who was chosen by the clan’s women elders and it was most often a hereditary position. He presided over the clan council that consisted of at least one man and four women (Connelley A Standard History 251). Anciently, each clan functioned as an absolute true democracy. If consensus was not achieved, a decision on the matter was not reached, both at the clan and tribal level. Unlike in many “more modern and civilized cultures,” women within the tribe shared an equal voice, and vote with the men (Connelley Folk-Lore 9-10).
When Mr. Connelley collected information about our clans he noted two phratries dividing the twelve clans; seven of them were still in existence while five were known to be extinct. Those still in existence from the first phratry were the Bear, Deer and Snake. While those from the second phratry still in existence, were the Big Turtle, Little Turtle and Porcupine. The mediator, or “executive power” of the clans that stood between both phratries was the Wolf, and it was still in existence. The phratries divided the clans into two exogamous divisions, which meant that clan members could not marry within their own phratry. As the system began to crumble and clans became extinct, marriage ultimately applied only to the clans and not the phratry. Each clan had a specific way of painting their bodies and special ornamentation was used to distinguish their clan affiliation (Powell). The five clans known to be extinct, at the time of Mr. Connelley collecting his data, were the Striped Turtle, Highland Turtle, Hawk, Mud Turtle and Beaver (Connelley Folk-Lore 27-28; Connelley A Standard History 252-53).
Today Mr. Connelley’s list of clans, as published in 1899, serves as our accepted and recognized list; however, there are others and they do not contain the same names for each clan as recorded by him. In 1970, Elizabeth Tooker compiled a list of all know sources relating Wyandot clans, and did a side-by-side comparative analysis of each (Tooker Sociopolitical 94). She ascertained eight different primary sources, spanning from Rev. James B. Finley in 1840, to Charles Marius Barbeau in 1917 and lastly Lewis H. Morgan in 1959. As I have personally researched Wyandotte clans, I too have noticed some obvious variances in the lists and questioned why they exist. Charles Marius Barbeau in Huron and Wyandot Mythology recorded a most obvious, and recent deviation while working in Oklahoma between 1911 and 1912 (Barbeau Huron 86). The snipe clan doesn’t appear on any other list and reflects a probable influence from the Seneca-Cayuga, with whom many Wyandotte intermarried, after our purchasing of land and sequential move to Indian Territory in 1867. A condensed list of Mrs. Tookers compilation here follows:
Finley Clarke Powell Connelley Barbeau Morgan
1840 1870 1881 1899 1917 1959
Big Turtle Big Turtle Smooth Large Big Turtle Big Turtle Great Turtle
Land Terrapin (two smaller Highland Prairie, or Prairie Turtle
Turtles) (Black) Turtle Highland, or
Highland Striped Turtle
Little Turtle Little Turtle
Mud Turtle Mud Turtle Mud (Small)
Wolf Wolf Wolf Wolf Wolf Wolf
Bear Bear Bear Bear Bear Bear
Deer Deer Deer Deer Deer Deer
Beaver Beaver Beaver Beaver Beaver
Snake Snake Sea Snake Snake Snake Snake
Porcupine Porcupine Porcupine Porcupine Porcupine Porcupine
Eagle Hawk Hawk Hawk Hawk Hawk
In A Standard History of Kansas and Kansans, Mr. Connelley continued by stating that the woman was always the head of the Wyandot family, and a son couldn’t inherit anything from his father. A man’s property was passed to his nearest relation through his mother, usually the eldest nephew. Parents were not permitted to name their children as the clan gave them their names. Names were given once a year at the Green Corn Feast by the clan chief. All Wyandot names have their roots in the clan system. The basic essence of the Wyandot social and political system was not the family or the individual, but the clan. The child belonged to its clan first, and then to its parents (Connelley A Standard History 254).
Civil justice was administered by each clan and it was often swift and if needful very severe. Rev. James B. Finley illustrates this quite graphically with his recital of a trial and ensuing execution of a murderer:
When any person was found murdered, it was the duty of those finding him to bring him to the nearest town or village. Then runners were sent to summon the whole nation; and if any refused to come, they were suspected and brought by force. The dead body was placed in the middle of the council, and all the assembly was seated round it. Then there were examiners appointed to call on each person to give an account of himself, and to communicate any suspicions or circumstances, that might bring the murderer to light. All who could not clearly show that no suspicion lay against them were placed in the middle. Then a second examination took place of the suspicious ones, and the offender exhorted to confess his crime; for if an innocent person should suffer in his place, his guilt would be double. By this method they found out the offender. When the sentence of guilt was passed, the body of the murdered person was taken and placed on a smooth piece of bark, supported by a scaffold of forks and poles, two or three feet from the ground, and so fixed that all the matter from the putrefying carcass should drop from a certain place. The murderer was then tied, and so firmly pinioned to the ground by tugs and stakes, as not to be able to move in the least. A gag was then put into his mouth, so as to keep it open, which was so placed as to receive the drops from the putrefying body. In this position he lay, without one moment’s respite, until death came to his relief; and this, the chief said, would be from ten to fifteen days. (Finley Mission 62-63).
The simplest and most quintessential cornerstone of clan membership flowed from a mother to her children (Powell). Clan affiliation can only be passed from mother to child, a matrilineal society, unlike that which we live in today. Using my family as an example lets go back to the capture of Robert Armstrong, from whom my family descends, and see what our generational progression looks like since his formal adoption into the Wyandot tribe in 1783.
A party of Wyandot and Seneca Indians captured a white boy, Robert Armstrong, four miles upriver from Fort Pitt on the Allegheny River. He was only eight years old. A young adult that was traveling with Robert didn’t fare as well; he was brutally killed. Robert’s abduction was most likely for the purpose of replenishing a loss suffered by someone within the tribe; hence the young boy was chosen while the older was not. Ultimately taken by the Wyandot to Ohio, Robert’s name was changed to O-no-ran-do-Roh, and adopted into the Big Turtle clan (Finley Indians 453-55). His adoption was blind to the fact that he was white, and he immediately benefited from a society that accepted him with perfect harmony into a system that was as old as time. He was now a Wyandot, and would never return to the white world from which he came.
He being placed into the Big Turtle clan came through his adopted mother. Any child born, or as in Roberts case adopted, was assured placement into their mothers clan by the clan chief at the Green Corn Feast. His final adoption could have been a simple, quiet ceremony with his presentation to the clan chief by one of the councilwomen; or it may have been observed with much celebration if the clan council thought it necessary (Connelley, Folk Lore 34).
Robert was fortunate and his adoption purposeful, he could not have known at the time but he was destined to be a cornerstone of the tribe. Robert was adopted into the Wyandot during one of the greatest times of influence for our tribe in the Ohio Valley. It too was a time of great change and the adoption of whites into the tribe, both in Ohio and Michigan, served to enhance and strengthen; however in later years through intermarriages, and not formal adoptions, the tribe was weakened. Weakened from the sole perspective that the timeless knowledge held by the clans and their inherent dependency on clan, family and tribe, was ultimately lost to stories preserved in books and journals.
The following genealogy is common knowledge within my family, and it begins when Robert married a full-blood Wyandot in 1801. Her name was Tishatoons, the daughter of Mononcue, and for whatever reason their marriage didn’t last very long. Before Robert remarried we do know that they had at least one son and they named him George. We’re unaware as to what clan she belonged to; therefore George’s clan is a mystery, but this is fortunately an incidental piece of genealogical information. George in turn married Ska’ Mehn-Dah-teh (Elizabeth) in 1831, she was of the Porcupine clan.
They had six children, the third born in 1838 was Eliza, and she too would have been Porcupine as clan membership flows through the mother. Eliza married John Bland, a white man from Kentucky. She and John lived on the far western line of what was once the Wyandot Reservation in Kansas. They too had six children, the fifth and eldest son they named John Bland, Jr. They moved to Indian Territory soon after his birth in 1867 for inclusion on the roll, as Eliza did not accept United States citizenship.
John Bland, Jr. would have been a Porcupine, again following the progression from his mother Eliza Armstrong Bland. John married a white woman named Lula Armsby, and with her being white she obviously had no clan affiliation, nor was she formally adopted into the tribe and given a clan. What has now happened? Since clans are inherited through the mother, where one doesn’t exist, the clan lineage is broken. Starting with John and Lula’s children, future Bland generations are now without a clan. Clans couldn’t have been reinstated even for their grandchildren, because John and Lula had all girls. This meant that even if John and Lula’s daughters married Wyandotte men, who were members of a particular clan, it was meaningless. Remember that clan affiliation is handed down through the mother, not the father.
The Bland’s are now six generations removed from John and Lula and no one within my extended family has remarried into another Wyandotte family with clan affiliation intact, that can be passed from mother to child. This condition is the second reason the Wyandotte clan system failed, and it ties directly into the first reason as noted earlier, a declining tribal population. Many tribal members had to step out of the tribal boundaries to find a spouse. Once it materialized it wasn’t just localized families that felt its effects, it was a tribal wide issue.
The ancient Wyandotte clan system wasn’t flawed, because when in a pristine, innocent and untarnished state it worked perfectly. A clan system like we once had didn’t have any tolerance or exceptions for deviation (Connelley Folk-Lore 33). Official adoption at the clan and tribal level was their solution to potential deviation, that unbeknown to our ancient mothers, would be set aside for “licensed” marriage among people from external cultures.
Today we’re faced with a frequent and very perplexing request, “…let’s reinstate the clans.” Our only legitimate reply is how? What has happened to my family’s clan heritage is not unique. Dana Butterfield, Wyandotte Nation Family Services Assistant Director, the tribal official that would be given the assignment and oversight of the reimplementation of the clans recently said, “To my knowledge there is not one Wyandotte who can definitively say they are this clan or that, as everyone at some point has had a non-Wyandotte mother.” Many within the Wyandotte tribe don’t even know to which clan their ancestors belonged. An official tribal list was not kept of who belonged to what clan, except for registered voters who were all male, making that list realistically useless (Butterfield).
If the clans are reinstated what would we have, clans, clubs or secret societies? Clans were essentially a “code of unwritten law” defining social interaction, marriage, adoption, the naming of children, property and personal rights, how to smoke a pipe during council, plus so much more we can’t even begin to understand (Powell). We do know that naming a child was a right belonging to the clan and not the family. How would this practice be received and implemented in our modern society (Connelley Kansans 254)? Can we pick and choose only the parts that work for us and discard the rest?
Doing so may be an insult to the thousands upon thousands of lives, our ancestors, which lived by its unspoken and unpublished code. I propose that we leave it well enough alone, rather than create something new that may hold dire consequences for our generation, and untold generations to come. Either way it will be inevitably felt, I believe for the bad of our tribe. This is why clan reinstatement is an idealistic and improbable endeavor we must be guarded against, and respectfully question the motives of those who are so adamant that we reinstate the clans.
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