Edward S. Curtis, 'Two Apache Indian women at campfire, cooking pot in front of one' c. 1903 (courtesy Library of Congress)

Why Do Tribes Have Matrilineal Societies?

Sonny Skyhawk

Women have always played a significant role in the existence and administrations of tribal nations. They have been instrumental due to their innate ability to reason and dispense wisdom. They also were characterized as wise because they originated the teachings for the children. The men were allowed to articulate, enforce and deliver these teachings, but it was the women who monitored and allowed them to speak. They were the faith keepers and, for Eastern tribes, the originators of the Longhouse system of government, whereby they designated who amongst the men was to articulate the laws.

As a Lakota, I experienced matrilineal authority early on. My mother ran everything. She paid the bills, bought the groceries, and decided when and where we would go. She settled all arguments and her word was law in our family. I don?t know if that qualifies as having matrilineal authority, but she clearly possessed it. My grandmother was also the same way. She took no guff, and you had better not roll your eyes at her either. She was strict but fair in all her decisions. She could swing a mean ax when it came to chopping wood too. All the women that I came in contact with as a young man were strong women. They had to be, because they were experiencing tough times.

Today's Indian women are no different. They have to face some of the same challenges, only in a different time. Today, we have different issues and concerns, but, our women still have the majority vote when it comes to making the important decisions. What impresses me these days is how educated they are and how willing they are to take the lead when it comes to the welfare of their people.

Matrilineal societies existed amongst the Eastern tribes for sure, but they also existed in other tribes, like the plains tribes, but the women were behind the scenes. They made the decisions, but allowed the men to articulate them—how smart was that?

We have always had deep respect and love for our women, for the unique Creator-given ability to procreate and a host of other reasons. Modern times, assimilation and the cultural and lifestyle changes we have gone through as a people, have somewhat clouded the standing and reverence we once had for our women, and that is not a good thing. My only hope is that the new generations will come to the realization that our women—our mothers, and our grandmas—are the ultimate reason we are still here, and a viable people, today.


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sierra's picture
Submitted by sierra on
Excellent article, Mr. Skyhawk. I enjoy your writings very much, as they're always so nicely and warmly expressed and well rounded. Your mom and the women you knew while growing up sound similar to that generation back here. Even today, there have been and are times when us family members rely on our moms or our sisters or aunties who are moms, to keep us together. They do it sometimes simply by being there, and by cooking and sharing laughter, hugs and way more. Writings such as yours here, are shared by many others who understand the tremendous workload and responsibility these matrons take on, on a daily basis. My aunt told me some powerful incidents she experienced at different times - the other day. She told me of at least 4 instances where she knew something was wrong among her family, and 3 according to a gut feeling she gets, and the fourth in the form of a dream. The first one was when her youngest child was in a bus accident. Before that, something was bothering her so much so that, she paced restlessly around, waiting to hear of something that was not right. Not long into the day, she found out about the bus accident. Luckily, it wasn't too bad of an accident. Another time, if I recall it correctly, was when she herself had a blood clot somewhere and had to go in to get checked. Some time later, her oldest daughter was complaining of some kind of ailment that was bothering her, and my aunt somehow knew her daughter had a blood clot as well. It turned out she did, and had my aunt not had that intuitive feeling/sixth sense, her oldest daughter could've died from it. And this was told to my aunt from either the doctor or nurse who updated her about her daughter's condition. The 3rd fascinating incident she told me about the other day, was that when her dog apparently met a fisher cat - (sizeable animals which live in the wooded areas, and which are predators of dogs and cats), my aunt again had this feeling that she was going to receive a call from one of her children about something. Sure enough, just as she looked at her cell phone - it lit up before the ringer even sounded, and one of them called her about their dog trying to jump through the door from how scared it was having encountered one of those. Nia:wen for this, Sonny. Here's hoping there is more sharing on this wonderful article of yours. :)

fayeseay's picture
Submitted by fayeseay on
My Grandmother was the most Spiritual people I have ever known.

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
I've always been curious about which tribes in particular observed matrilineal lineage, but haven't found a comprehensive guide. Either way, my grandmother and my mother (both have walked on) were the strongest people I've ever known. My mother stayed to raise three kids (I was already in the military by then) when my father left the family. She worked mostly minimum wage jobs, but my brothers and sister NEVER went hungry. In these times when garnish, useless, pseudo-celebrities like the Kardasians and the housewives of New Jersey hold the attention of TV viewers, it's good to reflect on the hard work and sacrifices the women in our lives have undergone to make our lives better. Thank you for a well-written, well-thought out article, Mr. Skyhawk.