Wyandots Indian Tribe

The Wyandot tribe was anciently divided into twelve clans, or gentes. Each of these had a local government, consisting of a clan council presided over by a clan chief. These clan councils were composed of at least five persons, one man and four women, and they might contain any number of women above four. Any business pertaining purely to the internal affairs of the clans was carried to the clan councils for settlement. An appeal was allowed from the clan council to the tribal council. The four women of the clan council regulated the clan affairs and selected the clan chief. The office of clan chief was in a measure hereditary, although not wholly so. The tribal council was composed of the clan chiefs, the hereditary sachem, and such other men of the tribe of renown as the sachem might with the consent of the tribal council call to the council fire. In determining a question the vote was by clans, and not by individuals. In matters of great importance it required a unanimous vote to carry a proposition.

The names of the ancient clans of the Wyandot tribe are as follows:

  1. Big Turtle.
  2. Little Turtle.
  3. Mud Turtle.
  4. Wolf.
  5. Bear.
  6. Beaver.
  7. Deer.
  8. Porcupine.
  9. Striped Turtle.
  10. Highland Turtle, or Prairie Turtle.
  11. Snake.
  12. Hawk.

These clan names are all expressed in Wyandot, words so long and hard to properly pronounce that they are omitted here. They are written in what the Wyandots call the Order of Precedence and Encampment, as I have recorded them above. On the march the warriors of the Big Turtle Clan marched in front, those of the Little Turtle Clan marched next to them, and so on down to the last clan, except the Wolf Clan, which had command of the march and might be where its presence was most necessary. The tribal encampment was formed “on the shell of the Big Turtle,” as the old Wyandots said. This means that the tents were arranged in a circular form as though surrounding the shell of the Big Turtle. The Big Turtle Clan was placed where the right fore-leg of the turtle was supposed to be and the other clans were arranged around in their proper order, except the Wolf Clan, which could be in the center of the enclosure on the turtle’s back, or in front of it where the turtle’s head was supposed to be, as it was thought best. In ancient times all their villages were built in this order, and in the tribal council the clans took this order in seating themselves, with the sachem either in the center or in the front of the door of the council chamber.

These clans were separated into two divisions, or phratries. The first phratry consisted of the following tribes:

  1. Bear.
  2. Deer.
  3. Snake.
  4. Hawk.

The second phratry consisted of the following tribes:

  1. Big Turtle.
  2. Little Turtle.
  3. Mud Turtle.
  4. Beaver.
  5. Porcupine.
  6. Striped Turtle.
  7. Highland Turtle, or Prairie Turtle.

The Mediator, Executive Power, and Umpire of the tribe was the Wolf Clan, which stood between the phratries, and bore a cousin relation to each.

All the clans of a phratry bore the relation of brothers to one another, and the clans of one phratry bore the relation of cousins to those of the other phratry.

Their marriage laws were fixed by this relationship. Anciently a man of the first phratry was compelled to marry a woman of the second phratry, and vice versa. This was because every man of a phratry was supposed to be the brother of every other man in it, and every woman in the phratry was supposed to be his sister. The law of marriage is now so modified that it applies only to the clans, a man of the Deer Clan being permitted to marry a woman of Bear, Snake, Hawk, or any other clan but his own. Indeed, even this modification had now almost disappeared. If a man of the Deer Clan married a woman of the Porcupine Clan, all of his children were of the Porcupine Clan, for the gens always follows the woman and never the man. The descent and distribution of property followed the same law; the son could inherit nothing from his father, for they were always of different clans. A man’s property descended to his nearest kindred through his mother. The woman is always the head of the Wyandot family.

Five of the ancient clans of the Wyandots are extinct. They are as follows: (1) Mud Turtle; (2) Beaver; (3) Striped Turtle; (4) Highland, or Prairie Turtle; (5) Hawk.

Those still in existence are as follows: (1) Big Turtle; (2) Little Turtle; (3) Wolf; (4) Deer; (5) Bear; (6) Porcupine; (7) Snake.

The present government of the Wyandot tribe is based on this ancient division of the tribes. An extract from the Constitution may be of interest. It was adopted September 23, 1873:

It shall be the duty of the said Nation to elect their officers on the second Tuesday in July of each year. That said election shall be conducted in the following manner. Each Tribe (clan), consisting of the following Tribes: The Big and Little Turtle, Porcupine, Deer, Bear, and Snake, shall elect a chief; and then the Big and Little Turtle and Porcupine Tribes shall select one of their three chiefs as a candidate for Principal Chief. The Deer, Bear, and Snake Tribes shall also select one of their three chiefs as candidate for Principal Chief; and then at the general election to be held on the day above mentioned, the one receiving the highest number of votes cast shall be declared the Principal Chief; the other shall be declared the Second Chief. The above-named tribes shall on the above named election day elect one or more sheriffs.

The Wolf Tribe shall have the right to elect a chief whose duty shall be that of Mediator.

In case of misdemeanor on the part of any Chief, for the first offense the Council shall send the Mediator to warn the party; for the second offense the party offending shall be liable to removal by the Mediator, or Wolf and his Clan, from office.

The origin of these clans is hidden in the obscurity of great antiquity. They are of religious origin. We learn something of them from the Wyandot mythology, or folk-lore. The ancient Wyandots believed that they were descended from these animals, for whom their clans were named. The animals from which they were descended were different from the animal of the same species to-day. They were deities, zoological gods. The animals of the same species are descended from them. These animals were the creators of the universe. The Big Turtle made the Great Island, as North America was called, by the Wyandots, and he bears it on his back to this day. The Little Turtle made the sun, moon, and many of the stars. The Mud Turtle made a hole through the Great Island for the sun to pass back to the East through after setting at night, so he could arise upon a new day. While making this hole through the Great Island the Mud Turtle turned aside from her work long enough to fashion the future home of the Wyandots, their happy hunting-grounds, to which they go after death. The sun shines there at night while on his way back to the East. This land is called the land of the Little People, a race of pigmies created to assist the Wyandots. They live in it, and preserve the ancient customs, habits, beliefs, language and government of the Wyandots for their use after they leave this world by death. These Little People come and go through the “living rock,” but the Wyandots must go to it by way of a great underground city where they were once hidden while the works of the world were being restored after destruction in a war between two brothers who were gods.

All Wyandot proper names had their foundation in this clan system. They were clan names. The unit of the Wyandot social and political systems was not the family nor the individual, but the clan. The child belonged to its clan first, to its parents afterwards. Each clan had its list of proper names, and this list was its exclusive property which no other clan could appropriate or use. They were necessarily clan names.

The customs and usages governing the formation of clan proper names demanded that they be derived from some part, habit, action or peculiarity of the animal from which the clan was supposed to be descended. Or they might be derived from some property, law, or peculiarity of the element in which such animal lived. Thus a proper name was always a distinctive badge of the clan bestowing it.

When death left unused any original clan proper name, the next child born into the clan, if of the sex to which the vacant name belonged, had such vacated name bestowed upon it. If no child was born, and a stranger was adopted, this name was given to such adopted person. This was the unchangeable law, and there was but one proviso or exception to it. When a child was born under some extraordinary circumstances, or peculiarity, or with some distinguishing mark, or a stranger adopted with these, the council-women of the clan informed themselves of all the facts and devised a name in which all these facts were imbedded. This name was made to conform to the ancient law governing clan proper names if possible, but often this could not be done. These special names died with their owners, and were never perpetuated.

The parents were not permitted to name the child; the clan bestowed the name. Names were given but once a year, and always at the ancient anniversary of the Green Corn Feast. Anciently, formal adoptions could be made at no other time. The name was bestowed by the clan chief. He was a civil officer of both his clan and the tribe. At an appointed time in the ceremonies of the Green Corn Feast each clan chief took an assigned position, which in ancient times was the Order of Precedence and Encampment, and parents having children to be named filed before him in, the order of the ages of the children to be named. The council-women stood by the clan chief, and announced to him the name of each child presented, for all clan proper names were made by the council-women. This he could do by simply announcing the name to the parents, or by taking the child in his arms and addressing it by the name selected for it.

The adoption of a stranger was into some family by consent, or at the instance of the principal woman of the family. It was not necessary that the adoption be made at the Green Corn Feast. The adoption was not considered complete, however, until it was ratified by the clan chief at the Green Corn Feast. This ratification might be accomplished in the simple ceremonial of being presented at this time to the clan chief by one of the Sheriffs. His clan name was bestowed upon him, and he was welcomed in a few well-chosen words, and the ceremony was complete. Or the adoption might be performed with as much display, ceremony and pomp as the tribal council might, from any cause, decree. The tribal council controlled in some degree the matter of adoptions. In ancient times, when many prisoners of war were brought in it determined how many should be tortured and how many adopted.

Lalemant says the original and true name of the Wyandots is Ouendat.

In history the Wyandots have been spoken of by the following names:

  1. Tionnontates,
  2. Etionontates,
  3. Tuinontatek,
  4. Dionondadies,
  5. Khionontaterrhonons,
  6. Petuneux or Nation du Petun (Tobacco).

They call themselves:—

  1. When’-duht, or
  2. When’-dooht.

They never accepted the name Huron, which is of French origin.

The Wyandots have been always considered the remnant of the Hurons. That they were related to the people called Hurons by the French, there is no doubt. After having studied them carefully for almost twenty years, I am of the opinion that the Wyandots are more closely related to the Senecas than they were to the ancient Hurons.

Additional Wyandot History


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