Truth, reconciliation and clan families

[Artwork credit: “Clan Mothers” by Stan Natchez.]

By Tom Keefer

One of the most important things that I have learned in spending the last 10 years working with Onkwehon:we people is the significance of clan families in the past, present, and future of Indigenous life.

What I mean by this is that before European contact, the basic political unit for most Indigenous societies in North America was the matrilineal clan family. This was the basic unit of socialization and political governance across North America for thousands of years – and importantly, these families continue to exist as social and political units today. Clan families can be as small as a few dozen people or stretch into the hundreds or even thousands of people that are related through common descent according to the matrilineal line.

In diverse Indigenous societies, the clans met and organized themselves as much or as little as they needed to in order to meet the needs of their people and advance their collective interests as a group.

The most well-known example of the clan family structuring of a political system is that of the Great League of Peace of the Haudenosaunee. This league is made up of 49 founding families from five different Iroquoian nations (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca) but it also incorporated many other nations and held sway over a vast stretch of eastern North America.

In this system, each family has a Royani or Chief who holds the title of speaker for the voice of his clan within the Confederacy system. This Royani is selected by the Yokyaner (Clan Mother) in consultation with the people, and may also be “de-horned” or removed as Royani by the clan mother. She does this by directing the “war chief” of the family to act as her enforcer on behalf of the family.

The details are different, but before colonization, most indigenous peoples in what is now North America used some form of matrilineal clan based system to determine belonging and inclusion in group decision-making, as well as to decide the larger questions of allocation of resources, territory and political governance. And as might be expected in a matrilineal system, women played important and by no means subordinate roles in these systems.

Different political systems operate upon different political units. For the capitalist system it was individual private property owners organized in electoral ridings that elected parliament and thus controlled the state. In the original Russian communist system it was councils of workers, peasants and soldiers practicing direct democracy. For the Ancient Greek it was the assembly of free men in the polis. For the Onkwehonwe the basic unit is the matrilineal clan family.

The Onkwehonweh of the Five Nations developed a renowned decision making process and form of political governance which is not only the worlds oldest continuously operating direct democracy, but also provided inspiration and structure for the US Constitution and the United Nations. It is fundamentally based on the clan system.

However, settler colonialism – the moving over of an entire group of people from one culture into the territory of another peoples where they forcefully take up residence and monopolize the resources – was not compatible with the indigenous law of the land.

The European powers had to destroy the power of the indigenous clan system in order to avoid assimilating to the indigenous law and cultural norms of this land. In fact, there were large numbers of European people that favoured such assimilation and who voted with their feet. The large Métis population is good evidence of the practice of Europeans intermarrying with indigenous peoples and living in accordance to their ways.

However, the whole point of the establishment of the European colonies was to extract the wealth of the land and turn big profits for the money hungry aristocrats and slaveowners. Thus the captains of the colonial ship of state were hostile to Onkwehon:we values from the get go.

The process of colonialism deliberately suppressed the clan based systems, since it was these clans, organized in various kinds of non-hierarchical councils that were the basis of the system which had to be displaced in order for the nascent capitalist system to take root on this land. The resulting clearing was a cultural, linguistic, political, psychological, and physical genocide that created a system of capitalist white supremacist patriarchy in the place of what Indigenous scholar Rozanne Dunbar Ortiz has called “pre-Columbian socialism.”

The Onkwehonwe reacted to the arrival of the European (the Dutch, French, and English) by introducing these Europeans to the concept of the Two Row Wampum – a system of two structurally separate modes of production bound only by mutually beneficial trade and relations of peace, friendship and respect – and offering the familial ties of brotherhood.

Relatively weak and unable to implant themselves by force alone, the rulers of the colonial system treated the Indigenous clan families as the independent entities they were and either warred with them or allied themselves to them. But capitalism as a system is constitutionally incapable of staying in its lane. It must grow or die, and it finds huge profits in disrupting and devouring the value created by other economic systems.

Once the Europeans gained the upper hand, the clan system was targeted for annihilation from many different directions. Through religious instruction and manipulation, through a residential school system that destroyed minds and wrecked generations, and through the straight up forcible suppression of clan based governing systems (the imposition of the Indian act, the pass system, the persecution and murder of political leaders such as Deskaheh, Jake Ice, and others) the clan system was driven underground.

But although the Onkwehonwe clan system was gravely weakened, it was never fully destroyed. Meeting away from the watchful eyes of colonial authorities, Iroquoian people have maintained their system of governance, and the political practices and structures of their great peace are increasingly known and celebrated. The clan families, even if some are dysfunctional or inactive, still exist and the people are aware of their heritage and responsibilities.

The Haudenosaunee Confederacy Chiefs Council as well as the Grand Council at Onondaga resolutely define themselves in clan terms, and justify their existence and draw their legitimacy from the perpetuation of this concept.

Other Onkwehonwe, especially since the 2006 reclamation of Kanonhstaton, have made a turn towards organizing their own clan families as part of what they term the Deyodyohkwahnhasta movement. Their solution to all Onkwehonwe problems return ultimately to the task of rebuildIng and reorganization the clan family system to meet the needs of its people – especially keeping in mind the interests of the faces yet to come.

Elsewhere across the continent, the traditional people are those people that are organized clan families for their political self-expression. The Unistoten camp is happening under the framework of a clan family reasserting its jurisdiction over its territory.

The conceit of Canadians is to think that our colonial problem has long ago been resolved. Or at least that the shattered Indigenous remnants can be reconciled with and assimilated into a slightly better version of the status quo. Most Canadians have no idea of what a clan based political system is, and do not comprehend that there are Indigenous peoples still living by and operating according to this system.

The fact is that the clan families still exist. And Indigenous people are increasingly returning to them as the key to achieving decolonization.

The logical conclusion to this line of practice appears to be clan families opening up new communities outside of the Indian act system to use and enjoy their own territory and resources to promote cooperative economics and defacto independence and self-reliance. The independent Indian state of Ganienkeh is probably the most advanced of these models, and is especially significant for its successful confrontation with the US state and continued existence for more than 40 years.

Because the clans still exist, and it was the forefathers of those clan people who acted as spokespeople for the clan families that signed all the non-fraudulent treaties with the Europeans, these clan families are the ones that the Crown should be negotiating with today concerning outstanding issues.

And not only that, but the continued existence and growth of the clan family system expresses an actual and embodied alternative to the political and economic system of settler colonialism. Indeed, political organizations such as the Kayenere:kowa are the remnants of the political superstructure of the co-operative and non exploitative mode of production of the Onkwehonwe. An economy rooted in a society which did not have an oppressive and alienating state or surplus extracting mechanism that exploited the people.

Because the clans were also the basic economic unit promoting the sharing and recirculation of goods and services within Indigenous socieities, their revitalization and the development of economic alternatives on a clan based system is most significant.

This is not to say that the political work and alliance building that Indigenous people do who are not operating within a clan based system is not important and meaningful on its own terms, but merely to point out that but by definition it is operating under the framework, language, and imagination of the settler colonial framework. It might fight for inclusion and recognition, and achieve “reconciliation,” but in succeeding it will become part of the system itself.

It is in this sense that the “reconciliation” efforts that are underway by the Canadian government may in fact be more of a new strategy of assimilation than anything else. The word reconciliation implies a coming together of two separated sides. But the side the government of Canada is seeking reconciliation with is not the clan families. These are the people that actually hold the treaties with Canada, and for the people that Canada never made treaties with but should have. Canada doesn’t talk to these people and certainly does nothing to legitimate them or make their lives better in any way. In not dealing with the clan families as legitimate voices of the original peoples no real reconciliation can take place.

So, if you are a Canadian who is aware of the fundamental injustices of our society and you want to do something against colonialism, recognize that anything that strengthens the Onkwehonwe clan system weakens colonialism. Consider the possibility of building political and economic relationships between your organization or workplace and representatives of these clan systems. Do what you can to recognize, learn from, and work with these kinds of efforts, and the practice and theory of “truth and reconciliation” will get a whole lot deeper and more meaningful.


Tom Keefer is a 7th generation descendent of United Empire Loyalists on his fathers side, and 3rd generation descendent of Ukrainian peasants on his mothers side who lives in Southern Ontario. Tom has been actively involved in solidarity with Onkwehonwe people for the last decade, and is a founder and owner of the weekly indigenous newspaper the Two Row Times. He currently works producing media with Real People’s Media at

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