The traditional role of the Native American woman in the Iroquois Confederacy, or Haudenosaunee, was one revolving around the typical female roles in a household. The Haudenosaunee lived a communal life with longhouses as their homes so many families were in residence under one roof. All fireside families within the extended longhouse family shared the workload and the fruits of their labors equally.
The Native American woman was responsible for cultivating the garden. Growing maize, beans, and squash, often called the “Three Sisters” of Native American cuisine, was an important part of life. The Haudenosaunee depended more on agriculture than on hunting and gathering for food so land management was a vital concern.
The governance of the women of the tribe was left to the Clan Mothers’ Council, which directed the way the Native American woman was to effectively use the tribal lands. Since agriculture was a woman’s job, land management and ownership concerns were directed by the women.
As a general rule, a plot of land was granted to a Native American woman to tend and cultivate in an environmentally responsible fashion. When the woman failed to keep the land tended or productive, the land reverted back to the tribe. Should another woman want it, she was often granted its use.
All land was tribal land, regardless of individual stewardship, so all crops produced from the land was distributed equitably throughout the tribe. Each year, the Clan Mothers’ Council would elect a leader, often an elderly woman, perhaps too frail for farming, to oversee crop production and workload distribution.
The Native American woman chosen to be the leader for the year was responsible for allocating the amount of seed to each of the women. She also made sure everyone worked cooperatively to harvest the crops and chop the wood needed for cooking and warmth.
Many scholars of today question how this completely shared existence led to any Native American woman or man being motivated to work when everything was shared equally. This was apparently not a problem with the Iroquois people. They were taught as children that individual productivity was an honor that benefited the entire tribe. Pride in one’s accomplishments was an important characteristic of the Iroquois way of life.