[Classics] The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State

3. The Iroquois Gens

We now come to another discovery made by Morgan, which is at least as important as the reconstruction of the family in its primitive form from the systems of consanguinity. The proof that the kinship organisations designated by animal names in a tribe of American Indians are essentially identical with the genea of the Greeks and the gentes of the Romans; that the American is the original form and the Greek and Roman forms are later and derivative; that the whole social organisation of the primitive Greeks and Romans into gens, phratry, and tribe finds its faithful parallel in that of the American Indians; that the gens is an institution common to all barbarians until their entry into civilisation and even afterward (so far as our sources go up to the present) – this proof has cleared up at one stroke the most difficult questions in the most ancient periods of Greek and Roman history, providing us at the same time with an unsuspected wealth of information about the fundamental features of social constitution in primitive times, before the introduction of the state. Simple as the matter seems once it is understood, Morgan only made his discovery quite recently. In his previous work, published in 1871, he had not yet penetrated this secret, at whose subsequent revelation the English anthropologists, usually so self-confident, became for a time as quiet as mice.

The Latin word gens, which Morgan uses as a general term for such kinship organisations, comes, like its Greek equivalent, genos, from the common Aryan root gan (in German, where following the law Aryan g is regularly replaced by k, kan), which means to beget. Gens, genos, Sanscrit jánas, Gothic kuni (following the same law as above), Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon kyn, English kin, Middle High German künne, all signify lineage, descent. Gens in Latin and genos in Greek are, however, used specifically to denote the form of kinship organisation which prides itself on its common descent (in this case from a common ancestral father) and is bound together by social and religious institutions into a distinct community, though to all our historians its origin and character have hitherto remained obscure.

We have already seen in connection with the punaluan family what is the composition of a gens in its original form. It consists of all the persons who in punaluan marriage, according to the conceptions necessarily prevailing under it, form the recognised descendants of one particular ancestral mother, the founder of the gens. In this form of family, as paternity is uncertain, only the female line counts. Since brothers may not marry their sisters but women of different descent, the children begotten by them with these alien women cannot according to mother right belong to the father’s gens. Therefore only the offspring of the daughters in each generation remain within the kinship organisation; the offspring of the sons go into the gentes of their mothers. What becomes of this consanguine group when it has constituted itself a separate group distinct from similar groups within the tribe?

As the classic form of this original gens, Morgan takes the gens among the Iroquois and especially in the Seneca tribe. In this tribe there are eight gentes, named after animals: (1) Wolf, (2) Bear, (3) Turtle, (4) Beaver, (5) Deer, (6) Snipe, (7) Heron, (8) Hawk. In every gens the following customs are observed:

  1. The gens elects its sachem (head of the gens in peace) and its chief (leader in war). The sachem had to be chosen from among the members of the gens, and his office was hereditary within the gens in the sense that it had to be filled immediately as often as a vacancy occurred. The military leader could be chosen from outside the gens, and for a time the office might even be vacant. A son was never chosen to succeed his father as sachem since mother right prevailed among the Iroquois, and the son consequently belonged to a different gens; but the office might and often did pass to a brother of the previous sachem or to his sister’s son. All voted in the elections, both men and women. The election, however, still required the confirmation of the seven remaining gentes, and only then was the new sachem ceremonially invested with his office by the common council of the whole Iroquois confederacy. The significance of this will appear later. The authority of the sachem within the gens was paternal and purely moral in character; he had no means of coercion. By virtue of his office he was also a member of the tribal council of the Senecas and also of the federal council of all the Iroquois. The war chief could only give orders on military expeditions.
  2. The gens deposes the sachem and war chief at will. This also is done by men and women jointly. After a sachem or chief had been deposed, they became simple braves, private persons, like the other members. The tribal council also had the power to depose sachems, even against the will of the gens.
  3. No member is permitted to marry within the gens. This is the fundamental law of the gens, the bond which holds it together. It is the negative expression of the very positive blood relationship by virtue of which the individuals it comprises become a gens. By his discovery of this simple fact Morgan has revealed for the first time the nature of the gens. How little the gens was understood before is obvious from the earlier reports about savages and barbarians in which the various bodies out of which the gentile organisation is composed are ignorantly and indiscriminately referred to as tribe, clan, thum, and so forth, and then sometimes designated as bodies within which marriage is prohibited. Thus was created the hopeless confusion which gave Mr McLennan his chance to appear as Napoleon, establishing order by his decree: All tribes are divided into those within which marriage is prohibited (exogamous) and those within which it is permitted (endogamous). Having now made the muddle complete, he could give himself up to the profoundest inquiries as to which of his two absurd classes was the older – exogamy or endogamy. All this nonsense promptly stopped of itself with the discovery of the gens and of its basis in consanguinity, involving the exclusion of its members from intermarriage with one another. It goes without saying that at the stage at which we find the Iroquois the prohibition of marriage within the gens was stringently observed.
  4. The property of deceased persons passed to the other members of the gens; it had to remain in the gens. As an Iroquois had only things of little value to leave, the inheritance was shared by his nearest gentile relations; in the case of a man, by his own brothers and sisters and maternal uncle; in the case of a woman, by her children and own sisters, but not by her brothers. For this reason man and wife could not inherit from one another, nor children from their father.
  5. The members of the gens owed each other help, protection, and especially assistance in avenging injury by strangers. The individual looked for his security to the protection of the gens and could rely upon receiving it; to wrong him was to wrong his whole gens. From the bonds of blood uniting the gens sprang the obligation of blood revenge, which the Iroquois unconditionally recognised. If any person from outside the gens killed a gentile member, the obligation of blood revenge rested on the entire gens of the slain man. First, mediation was tried; the gens of the slayer sat in council and made proposals of settlement to the council of the gens of the slain, usually offering expressions of regret and presents of considerable value. If these were accepted, the matter was disposed of. In the contrary case, the wronged gens appointed one or more avengers whose duty it was to pursue and kill the slayer. If this was accomplished, the gens of the slayer had no ground of complaint; accounts were even and closed.
  6. The gens has special names or classes of names which may not be used by any other gens in the whole tribe, so that the name of the individual indicates the gens to which he belongs. A gentile name confers of itself gentile rights.
  7. The gens can adopt strangers and thereby admit them into the whole tribe. Thus among the Senecas the prisoners of war who were not killed became through adoption into a gens members of the tribe, receiving full gentile and tribal rights. The adoption took place on the proposal of individual members of the gens; if a man adopted, he accepted the stranger as brother or sister; if a woman, as son or daughter. The adoption had to be confirmed by ceremonial acceptance into the tribe. Frequently, a gens which was exceptionally reduced in numbers was replenished by mass adoption from another gens, with its consent. Among the Iroquois the ceremony of adoption into the gens was performed at a public council of the tribe and therefore was actually a religious rite.
  8. Special religious ceremonies can hardly be found among the Indian gentes; the religious rites of the Indians are, however, more or less connected with the gens. At the six yearly religious festivals of the Iroquois, the sachems and war chiefs of the different gentes were included ex officio among the ‘Keepers of the Faith’ and had priestly functions.
  9. The gens has a common burial place. Among the Iroquois of New York State, who are hedged in on all sides by white people, this has disappeared, but it existed formerly. It exists still among other Indians – for example, among the Tuscaroras, who are closely related to the Iroquois; although they are Christians, each gens has a separate row in the cemetery; the mother is therefore buried in the same row as her children, but not the father. And among the Iroquois also the whole gens of the deceased attends the burial, prepares the grave, delivers funeral addresses, and so forth.
  10. The gens has a council, the democratic assembly of all male and female adult gentiles, all with equal votes. This council elected sachems, war chiefs and also the other ‘Keepers of the Faith’ and deposed them. It took decisions regarding blood revenge or payment of atonement for murdered gentiles; it adopted strangers into the gens. In short, it was the sovereign power in the gens.

Such were the rights and privileges of a typical Indian gens.

All the members of an Iroquois gens were personally free, and they were bound to defend each other’s freedom; they were equal in privileges and in personal rights, the sachem and chiefs claiming no superiority; and they were a brotherhood bound together by the ties of kin. Liberty, equality, and fraternity, though never formulated, were cardinal principles of the gens. These facts are material, because the gens was the unit of a social and governmental system, the foundation upon which Indian society was organised … It serves to explain that sense of independence and personal dignity universally an attribute of Indian character. (Morgan, pp. 85-6.)

The Indians of the whole of North America at the time of its discovery were organised in gentes under mother right. The gentes had disappeared only in some tribes, as among the Dakotas; in others, as among the Ojibwas and the Omahas, they were organised according to father right.

Among very many Indian tribes with more than five or six gentes, we find every three, four, or more gentes united in a special group which Morgan, rendering the Indian name faithfully by its Greek equivalent, calls a ‘phratry’ (brotherhood). Thus the Senecas have two phratries: the first comprises gentes (1) to (4), the second gentes (5) to (8). Closer investigation shows that these phratries generally represent the original gentes into which the tribe first split up; for since marriage was prohibited within the gens, there had to be at least two gentes in any tribe to enable it to exist independently. In the measure in which the tribe increased, each gens divided again into two or more gentes, each of which now appears as a separate gens, while the original gens, which includes all the daughter gentes, continues as the phratry.

Among the Senecas and most other Indians, the gentes within one phratry are brother gentes to one another while those in the other phratry are their cousin gentes – terms which in the American system of consanguinity have, as we have seen, a very real and expressive meaning. Originally no Seneca was allowed to marry within his phratry, but this restriction has long since become obsolete and is now confined to the gens. According to Senecan tradition, the Bear and the Deer were the two original gentes from which the others branched off. After this new institution had once taken firm root, it was modified as required; if the gentes in one phratry died out, entire gentes were sometimes transferred into it from other phratries to make the numbers even. Hence we find gentes of the same name grouped in different phratries in different tribes.

Among the Iroquois the functions of the phratry are partly social, partly religious. (1) In the ball game one phratry plays against another. Each phratry puts forward its best players, while the other members, grouped according to phratries, look on and bet against one another on the victory of their players. (2) In the tribal council the sachems and the war chiefs of each phratry sit together, the two groups facing one another; each speaker addresses the representatives of each phratry as a separate body. (3) If a murder had been committed in the tribe and the slayer and the slain belonged to different phratries, the injured gens often appealed to its brother gentes; these held a council of the phratry and appealed in a body to the other phratry that it also should assemble its council to effect a settlement. Here the phratry reappears as the original gens and with greater prospect of success than the weaker single gens, its offspring. (4) At the death of prominent persons the opposite phratry saw to the interment and the burial ceremonies, while the phratry of the dead person attended as mourners. If a sachem died, the opposite phratry reported to the federal council of the Iroquois that the office was vacant. (5) The council of the phratry also played a part in the election of a sachem. That the election would be confirmed by the brother gentes was more or less taken for granted, but the gentes of the opposite phratry might raise an objection. In this case the council of the opposite phratry was assembled; if it maintained the objection, the election was void. (6) The Iroquois formerly had special religious mysteries, called medicine lodges by the white men. Among the Senecas, these mysteries were celebrated by two religious brotherhoods into which new members were admitted by formal initiation; there was one such brotherhood in each of the two phratries. (7) If, as is almost certain, the four lineages occupying the four quarters of Tlascalá at the time of the Conquest were four phratries, we here have proof that the phratries were also military units, like the phratries among the Greeks and similar kinship organisations among the Germans; these four lineages went into battle as separate groups each with its own uniform and flag and under its own leader.

As several gentes make up a phratry, so in the classic form several phratries make up a tribe; in some cases, when tribes have been much weakened, the intermediate form, the phratry, is absent. What distinguishes an Indian tribe in America?

  1. Its own territory and name. In addition to its actual place of settlement, every tribe further possessed considerable territory for hunting and fishing. Beyond that lay a broad strip of neutral land reaching to the territory of the neighbouring tribe; it was smaller between tribes related in language, larger between tribes not so related. It is the same as the boundary forest of the Germans, the waste made by Caesar’s Suevi around their territory, the isarnholt (in Danish, jarnved, limes Danicus) between Danes and Germans, the Saxon forest, and the branibor (Slav, ‘protecting wood’) between Germans and Slavs, from which Brandenburg takes its name. The territory delimited by these uncertain boundaries was the common land of the tribe, recognised as such by neighbouring tribes and defended by the tribe itself against attacks. In most cases the uncertainty of the boundaries only became a practical disadvantage when there had been a great increase in population. The names of the tribes seem generally to have arisen by chance rather than to have been deliberately chosen; in the course of time it often happened that a tribe was called by another name among the neighbouring tribes than that which it used itself, just as the Germans were first called Germans by the Celts.
  2. A distinct dialect, peculiar to this tribe alone. Tribe and dialect are substantially coextensive; the formation through segmentation of new tribes and dialects was still proceeding in America until quite recently, and most probably has not entirely stopped even today. When two weakened tribes have merged into one, the exceptional case occurs of two closely related dialects being spoken in the same tribe. The average strength of American tribes is under 2,000 members; the Cherokees, however, number about 26,000, the greatest number of Indians in the United States speaking the same dialect.
  3. The right to install into office the sachems and war chiefs elected by the gentes and the right to depose them, even against the will of their gens. As these sachems and war chiefs are members of the council of the tribe, these rights of the tribe in regard to them explain themselves. Where a confederacy of tribes had been formed with all the tribes represented in a federal council, these rights were transferred to the latter.
  4. The possession of common religious conceptions (mythology) and ceremonies. “After the fashion of barbarians the American Indians were a religious people.” (Morgan, p. 117.) Their mythology has not yet been studied at all critically. They already embodied their religious ideas – spirits of every kind – in human form; but the lower stage of barbarism which they had reached still knows no plastic representations, so-called idols. Their religion is a cult of nature and of elemental forces in process of development to polytheism. The various tribes had their regular festivals with definite rites, especially dances and games. Dancing particularly was an essential part of all religious ceremonies; each tribe held its own celebration separately.
  5. A tribal council for the common affairs of the tribe. It was composed of all the sachems and war chiefs of the different gentes, who were genuinely representative because they could be deposed at any time. It held its deliberations in public surrounded by the other members of the tribe, who had the right to join freely in the discussion and to make their views heard. The decision rested with the council. As a rule, everyone was given a hearing who asked for it; the women could also have their views expressed by a speaker of their own choice. Among the Iroquois the final decision had to be unanimous, as was also the case in regard to many decisions of the German mark communities. The tribal council was responsible especially for the handling of relations with other tribes; it received and sent embassies, declared war and made peace. If war broke out, it was generally carried on by volunteers. In principle, every tribe was considered to be in a state of war with every other tribe with which it had not expressly concluded a treaty of peace. Military expeditions against such enemies were generally organised by prominent individual warriors; they held a war dance, and whoever joined in the dance announced thereby his participation in the expedition. The column was at once formed and started off. The defence of the tribal territory when attacked was also generally carried out by volunteers. The departure and return of such columns were always an occasion of public festivities. The consent of the tribal council was not required for such expeditions, and was neither asked nor given. They find their exact counterpart in the private war expeditions of the German retinues described by Tacitus, only with the difference that among the Germans the retinues have already acquired a more permanent character forming a firm core already organised in peacetime to which the other volunteers are attached in event of war. These war parties are seldom large; the most important expeditions of the Indians, even to great distances, were undertaken with insignificant forces. If several such parties united for operations on a large scale, each was under the orders only of its own leader. Unity in the plan of campaign was secured well or ill by a council of these leaders. It is the same manner of warfare as we find described by Ammianus Marcellinus among the Alemanni on the Upper Rhine in the fourth century.
  6. Among some tribes we find a head chief whose powers, however, are very slight. He is one of the sachems, and in situations demanding swift action he has to take provisional measures until the council can assemble and make a definite decision. His function represents the first feeble attempt at the creation of an official with executive power, though generally nothing more came of it; as we shall see, the executive official developed in most cases, if not in all, out of the chief military commander.

The great majority of the American Indians did not advance to any higher form of association than the tribe. Living in small tribes, separated from one another by wide tracts between their frontiers, weakened by incessant wars, they occupied an immense territory with few people. Here and there alliances between related tribes came into being in the emergency of the moment and broke up when the emergency had passed. But in certain districts tribes which were originally related and had then been dispersed joined together again in permanent federations, thus taking the first step toward the formation of nations. In the United States we find the most developed form of such a federation among the Iroquois. Emigrating from their homes west of the Mississippi where they probably formed a branch of the great Dakota family, they settled after long wanderings in what is now the State of New York. They were divided into five tribes: Senecas, Cayugas, Onondagas, Oneidas and Mohawks. They subsisted on fish, game and the products of a crude horticulture, and lived in villages which were generally protected by a stockade. Never more than 20,000 strong, they had a number of gentes common to all the five tribes, spoke closely related dialects of the same language, and occupied a continuous stretch of territory which was divided up among the five tribes. As they had newly conquered this territory, these tribes were naturally accustomed to stand together against the inhabitants they had driven out. From this developed at the beginning of the fifteenth century at latest a regular ‘everlasting league’, a sworn confederacy, which in the consciousness of its new strength immediately assumed an aggressive character and at the height of its power, about 1675, conquered wide stretches of the surrounding country, either expelling the inhabitants or making them pay tribute. The Iroquois confederacy represents the most advanced social organisation achieved by any Indians still at the lower stage of barbarism (excluding, therefore, the Mexicans, New Mexicans and Peruvians).

The main provisions of the confederacy were as follows:

  1. Perpetual federation of the five consanguineous tribes on the basis of complete equality and independence in all internal matters of the tribe. This bond of kin represented the real basis of the confederacy. Of the five tribes, three were known as father tribes and were brother tribes to one another; the other two were known as son tribes and were likewise brother tribes to one another. Three gentes, the oldest, still had their living representatives in all five tribes, and another three in three tribes; the members of each of these gentes were all brothers of one another throughout all the five tribes. Their common language, in which there were only variations of dialect, was the expression and the proof of their common descent.
  2. The organ of the confederacy was a federal council of fifty sachems, all equal in rank and authority; the decisions of this council were final in all matters relating to the confederacy.
  3. The fifty sachems were distributed among the tribes and gentes at the foundation of the confederacy to hold the new offices specially created for federal purposes. They were elected by the respective gentes whenever a vacancy occurred and could be deposed by the gentes at any time; but the right of investing them with their office belonged to the federal council.
  4. These federal sachems were also sachems in their respective tribes, and had a seat and a vote in the tribal council.
  5. All decisions of the federal council had to be unanimous.
  6. Voting was by tribes, so that for a decision to be valid every tribe and all members of the council in every tribe had to signify their agreement.
  7. Each of the five tribal councils could convene the federal council, but it could not convene itself.
  8. The meetings of the council were held in the presence of the assembled people; every Iroquois could speak; the council alone decided.
  9. The confederacy had no official head or chief executive officer.
  10. On the other hand, the council had two principal war chiefs, with equal powers and equal authority (the two ‘kings’ of the Spartans, the two consuls in Rome).

That was the whole public constitution under which the Iroquois lived for over 400 years and are still living today. I have described it fully, following Morgan, because here we have the opportunity of studying the organisation of society which still has no state. The state presupposes a special public power separated from the body of the people, and Maurer, who with a true instinct recognises that the constitution of the German mark is a purely social institution differing essentially from the state though later providing a great part of its basis, consequently investigates in all his writings the gradual growth of the public power out of and side-by-side with the primitive constitutions of marks, villages, homesteads, and towns. Among the North American Indians we see how an originally homogeneous tribe gradually spreads over a huge continent; how through division tribes become nations, entire groups of tribes; how the languages change until they not only become unintelligible to other tribes but also lose almost every trace of their original identity; how at the same time within the tribes each gens splits up into several gentes, how the old mother gentes are preserved as phratries, while the names of these oldest gentes nevertheless remain the same in widely distant tribes that have long been separated – the Wolf and the Bear are still gentile names among a majority of all Indian tribes. And the constitution described above applies in the main to them all, except that many of them never advanced as far as the confederacy of related tribes.

But once the gens is given as the social unit we also see how the whole constitution of gentes, phratries, and tribes is almost necessarily bound to develop from this unit, because the development is natural. Gens, phratry, and tribe are all groups of different degrees of consanguinity, each self-contained and ordering its own affairs, but each supplementing the other. And the affairs which fall within their sphere comprise all the public affairs of barbarians of the lower stage. When we find a people with the gens as their social unit, we may therefore also look for an organisation of the tribe similar to that here described; and when there are adequate sources, as in the case of the Greeks and the Romans, we shall only not find it, but we shall also be able to convince ourselves that where the sources fail us, comparison with the American social constitution helps us over the most difficult doubts and riddles.

And a wonderful constitution it is, this gentile constitution, in all its childlike simplicity! No soldiers, no gendarmes or police, no nobles, kings, regents, prefects, or judges, no prisons, or lawsuits – and everything takes its orderly course. All quarrels and disputes are settled by the whole of the community affected, by the gens or the tribe, or by the gentes among themselves; only as an extreme and exceptional measure is blood revenge threatened – and our capital punishment is nothing but blood revenge in a civilised form, with all the advantages and drawbacks of civilisation. Although there were many more matters to be settled in common than today – the household is maintained by a number of families in common and is communistic; the land belongs to the tribe, only the small gardens are allotted provisionally to the households – yet there is no need for even a trace of our complicated administrative apparatus with all its ramifications. The decisions are taken by those concerned, and in most cases everything has been already settled by the custom of centuries. There cannot be any poor or needy – the communal household and the gens know their responsibilities toward the old, the sick, and those disabled in war. All are equal and free – the women included. There is no place yet for slaves, nor, as a rule, for the subjugation of other tribes. When about the year 1651 the Iroquois had conquered the Eries and the ‘Neutral Nation’, they offered to accept them into the confederacy on equal terms; it was only after the defeated tribes had refused that they were driven from their territory. And what men and women such a society breeds is proved by the admiration inspired in all white people who have come into contact with unspoiled Indians, by the personal dignity, uprightness, strength of character, and courage of these barbarians.

We have seen examples of this courage quite recently in Africa. The Zulus a few years ago and the Nubians a few months ago – both of them tribes in which gentile institutions have not yet died out – did what no European army can do. Armed only with lances and spears, without firearms, under a hail of bullets from the breechloaders of the English infantry – acknowledged the best in the world at fighting in close order – they advanced right up to the bayonets and more than once threw the lines into disorder and even broke them, in spite of the enormous inequality of weapons and in spite of the fact that they have no military service and know nothing of drill. Their powers of endurance and performance are shown by the complaint of the English that a Kaffir travels farther and faster in 24 hours than a horse. His smallest muscle stands out hard and firm like whipcord, says an English painter.

That is what men and society were before the division into classes. And when we compare their position with that of the overwhelming majority of civilised men today, an enormous gulf separates the present-day proletarian and small peasant from the free member of the old gentile society.

That is the one side. But we must not forget that this organisation was doomed. It did not go beyond the tribe. The confederacy of tribes already marks the beginning of its collapse, as we shall see later, and was already apparent in the attempts at subjugation by the Iroquois. Outside the tribe was outside the law. Wherever there was not an explicit treaty of peace, tribe was at war with tribe, and wars were waged with the cruelty which distinguishes man from other animals and which was only mitigated later by self-interest. The gentile constitution in its best days, as we saw it in America, presupposed an extremely undeveloped state of production and therefore an extremely sparse population over a wide area. Man’s attitude to nature was therefore one of almost complete subjection to a strange incomprehensible power, as is reflected in his childish religious conceptions. Man was bounded by his tribe, both in relation to strangers from outside the tribe and to himself; the tribe, the gens, and their institutions were sacred and inviolable, a higher power established by nature to which the individual subjected himself unconditionally in feeling, thought, and action. However impressive the people of this epoch appear to us, they are completely undifferentiated from one another; as Marx says, they are still attached to the navel string of the primitive community.[1] The power of this primitive community had to be broken, and it was broken. But it was broken by influences which from the very start appear as a degradation, a fall from the simple moral greatness of the old gentile society. The lowest interests – base greed, brutal appetites, sordid avarice, selfish robbery of the common wealth – inaugurate the new, civilised, class society. It is by the vilest means – theft, violence, fraud, treason – that the old classless gentile society is undermined and overthrown. And the new society itself during all the 2,500 years of its existence has never been anything else but the development of the small minority at the expense of the great exploited and oppressed majority; today it is so more than ever before.


[1] K. Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, Penguin, 1976, pp. 172-3. – Ed.

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