In most of today’s cultures throughout the world, including the United States, family lineage is named after and traced back through the generations based upon the father’s side of the family. Our last names are passed along to us from our father’s last name. In many cultures, the father’s side of the family inherits property and all legal responsibilities are placed in the hands of this branch of the family tree.
This patrilineal heritage isn’t universal and doesn’t apply to some cultures even today. Those cultures that base their identity, status, and heritage on the mother’s side of the family are called matrilineal. This method of tracing family heritage is found in historic Native American genealogy and some tribes still follow this custom today.
One Indian nation that traces their Native American genealogy through the mother’s ancestry is the Iroquois. The historical Iroquois family was larger, more extended, than today’s typical nuclear family.
Studies of Native American genealogy tell us that the Iroquois lived in structures called long houses. These were very large buildings that housed several nuclear families, similar to apartment buildings today. Each “fireside family” within the long house consisted of a mother, father, and their children but the “long house family” included everyone living in the dwelling.
The eldest woman in a long house family was considered the head of the household and Native American genealogy issues – status, lineage, wealth, etc. – were based on her. When her daughters married, their husbands came to live in her long house, under her guidance, and a new fireside family was started. When her sons married, they moved to the long house of the bride’s mother and became a new fireside family within that long house family structure.
For those of us today familiar with our nuclear family structure, Native American genealogy can be confusing. The children of a long house family referred to all the other children in the long house as their sisters and brothers, even those outside their own nuclear (fireside) families. The children of the mother’s brothers, who lived in other long houses, were also called brothers and sisters. Today, we would call them our cousins.
There is a great deal of controversy today over claims of Native American genealogy. Perhaps the controversy, or confusion, comes from the different way some Native Americans trace familial lineage. Confusion might be eliminated, or at least minimized, if we would try to understand this different way of tracing family history instead of demanding their history meet our modern record keeping customs.