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The eternal feminine: the Canadian matriarchal Iroquois system as a mother of contemporary democracies

paola canale




These few lines wouldn’t mind to be the nth elegy to the “eternal feminine”, a concept fathered by Goethe who introduces it at the end of Faust, Part II,  who said: "The eternal feminine attracts us to the highest", who reduced it to a gateway of salvation,  a way of redemption from suffering and evil. This expression has been coined to point out the eternal, unchangeable features of feminine appeal. Femininity intended as the wholeness of feminine qualities and skills, of the characteristics that mark behaviors, attitude and intimate soul of women.  The eternal feminine is shortly the essential and eternal principle of femininity. In the light of it, we can note how exceptional women keep on marking our history representing an bright expression of fulfilled femininity. A femininity that has not hindered them from carrying out political, social, ecclesial and spiritual roles of the first order.  According to what nowadays Pope John Paul II has affirmed, “God is Father, and even more, He is Mother”, showing off the “Maternal face of God” and stressing the importance of women in present day society. The eternal feminine is what lends to the spirituality a compelling sense of poetry, magic, enchantment, transfiguration and mystery. Jesus was born from a woman of this Earth, Virgin Mary, “the Quintessential Woman". Also women were the greatest antiquity goddesses. We couldn’t remember the creating and generating power represented by Venus. And again the Ancient Greeks understood the fundamental role played by women on our unconsciousness. This myth has many faces: the sanctity of the mother, the purity of a virgin, the fecundity of the earth and the womb.

This is the right key to interpret the matriarchal system of Iroquois social organization. Peoples are generated by the creative power of Mother Earth, as recounted in the Creation story, and that sees in every woman a source of life, fertility and prosperity. They are the symbolic depositaries of the copious gift allowed by Mother Nature to feed and to develop their population. Iroquois woman is the Personification of Life and she represents the propellant power that makes everything in society work well and in harmony. Most of Iroquois ceremonies are to give thanks to the fertility of the earth, especially for crops, which are women's main concern. The three main crops grown by the women are corn, beans, and squash which are referred to as the "Three Sisters," "Our Mothers," and "Our Supporters." These "Three Sisters" are revered among the Iroquois, along with the female abilities of food provision and procreation. Iroquois woman, in fact, has a predominant role both in public and private realms. She’s an active agent, not a passive victim, kinship was traced through the female line, children were raised and, sometimes adopted by women, they own the land, the crops and the longhouses. They enjoy more privileges and greater freedom in comparison to other American Indian women mainly because of the great importance agriculture have in their economy. Not less important are the decision-making and counselling powers accorded to them by The Great Peace of Law, that considers them as “Progenitors of the Nations”, in the political organization and in war strategy.

Their political powers are essentially based on the economy, since they control the fields and the agricultural production, and it is an important part to understand how Iroquois defined democracy: in order to be equal, one had to have a stake in society. They are pivotal political actors. The gantowisas enjoy sweeping political powers, which range from the administrative and legislative to judicial. The gantowisas run the local clan councils. They hold all the lineage wampum, nominations belt and titles. They run funerals, retain exclusive rights over naming, nominate all male sachems as well as Clan Mothers to office and retain the power to impeach wrongdoers. They appoint warriors, declare wars, negotiate peace and mediate disputes. The gantowisas speak regularly at men’s councils through their official.  It is women and women only that could nominate men and women to office. In administering political affairs, they use white wampum  that symbolize peace and justice, the women’s gendered purview. Women hold property and hereditary leadership passed through their lines. They hold dwellings, horses and farmed land and a woman's property before marriage stay in her possession without being mixed with that of her husband. They have separate roles but real power in the nations.

Everything starting where our feet are placed-on Mother Earth, the purpose of The Great Law of Peace is to help us remember the natural laws of creation, according which woman is the necessary precondition for material creation, and she, like all of her creation, is fundamentally female. She’s the spirit that informs the right balance, true harmony, and these in turn order all relationships in conformity with her law. Beauty is wholeness. Health is wholeness. Goodness is wholeness and they are symbolized in the sacred hoop, a female symbol. Life is a cycle and everything has its place in it.

Woman bears. Woman destroys. She also wars and hexes, mends and breaks. She brings corn and agriculture, potting, weaving, social systems, religion, ceremony, ritual, building, memory, intuition and their expressions in language, creativity, dance, human-to-animal relations, and she gives these offerings power and authority and blessed the people with the ability to provide for themselves and their progeny. She’s the only creator of thought and thought precedes creation. An American Indian woman is primarily defined by her tribal identity. In her eyes, her destiny is necessarily that of her people, and her sense of herself as a woman is first and foremost prescribed by her tribe.

She maintains peace and harmony among the people of the band, village or tribe, she presides over relations with other tribes and officiate over events that take people away from the village. She is Thought, Memory, Instinct, Tradition, and Medicine or Sacred Power; she is ritual, ceremony, food and shelter. The gantowisas are central to all spiritual endeavours: they maintain pivotal medicine societies. Women’s medicine society are formed around these activities, particularly “The Society of Sisters”, whose ceremonial dances allowed the gantowisas to address and thank the sustaining spirits of the Three Sisters.

As the power of woman is the center of the universe and is both earth (womb) and thought (creativity), is the power of corn that holds the thought of the All Power (deity) and connects the people to the power through the earth of Earth Woman. She is the breath of life because she’s sacred. Her flesh and bones are capable of generating life; because she is embued with power, she can share it with human beings. Another important point is that the love of the first mother carries several significances. The love of a mother is not a reference to sentimental attachment. It’s a way of saying that a mother is bonded to her offspring through her womb. Earth often means womb, except when it means vulva. But this cannot be understood to mean sex as sex; rather, sexual connection with woman means sexual connection with the womb, which is the container of power that women carry within their bodies.

Menstruating women are not allowed among warriors getting ready for battle, or those who have been wounded, because women are perceived to be possessed of a singular power, most vital during menstruation, puberty, and pregnancy, that weakens men’s power –physical, spiritual, or magical.  Menstruation was something sacred and a girl’s first period was greeted by celebration. Menstruation had a strange power that could bring harm under certain circumstances. Moreover, lesbians as well as homosexuality, generally speaking, is as accepted as heterosexuality.

They are considered the life givers, even if control over conception and births in the name of the autonomy of their bodies are admitted especially if they cannot support children comfortably, in respect of a deep sense of community. The Iroquoian pedagogy is founded on peace and harmony and on the exercise of moral virtues. No violence is allowed, being considered sufficient the critical judgement of the tribe whose ethics is based on the principle of living in peace and harmony. They control life in the longhouse, harvest the crops and lead the Iroquoian economy, not just through their ultimate legal ownership of the means of all production (Mother Earth) but above all through their sole tight to keep and distribute Her bounty.

 It was reinforced the image of “unjust drudgery” supposedly imposed upon Native women by “barbarous” Native men. “In the nineteenth century the Quakers tried to save the women from the fields but with shaky results, as the best-laid plans of mice and Quakers came to nought. But the gantowisas refused to quit farming and displayed a complete lack of interest in such home arts as spinning, knitting and soap-making – except as entrepreneurial ventures. Even if accused of drudgery, the gantowisas has always had a lot of free time and amused themselves –going to dances and feasts, chatting and killing time, and doing just what they like with their leisure. “Nothing was more real than woman’s superiority”. The Gantowisas would hardly submit to be loaded with unjust or unequal burdens.

Iroquoian economic system is a spiritual one and sharing and cooperation are paramount social values. The gantowisas own the means of production, plus all products; they manage production for abundance; they achieve breath-taking levels of plenty; they conserve the entire community and they maintain enough surplus to nurture international alliances based on foreign distribution of “gifts”. Progenitors of the Nations, they shall own the land and the soil. They are Keepers of Mother Earth, not Her grasping overlords. What they hold is a sacred trust, not an exploitative right. Balance not extraction is their must.

The Earth was created for a woman, Sky woman. The Earth was a woman, the Lynx. Women have the sacred right to bring forth new life from the Womb of Mother Earth – i.e., the farm. The fertility of Mother Earth was thus seen as one of a thread with that of gantowisas. It was especially invoked on nights of Full Moon, when GrandMother Moon – Sky Woman- smiled down from space upon the reclining form of her beloved daughter, the Earth.

Idolatry of woman, thus, as astonishingly depicted by Cezanne (“The Eternal Feminine”, 1877 – Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA,) an exceptional figure shown in his nudity, as a gravitational point of attraction, surrounded by men, priests, generals, a child, oldsters, workers and judges, even not exempt from a sexual desire that makes her look bloody in her eyes. Woman as mother of complexity and different aspects of reality, that by her inner peace-making attitudes, harbingers of harmony, melt them together and let them coexist in the dynamic rhythms and cycles of life. Far from being the man-killer praying mantis, as a culture resonated in US, according which women kill the spirits of their male mates, Iroquois culture is the dream comes true of many feminists battles who lamented a chauvinistic mentality and claimed to upset an imbalanced way of living imposed for centuries by the predominance of a patriarchal hegemony. Iroquois culture overturns a dead-end way of thinking, founded in man’s subjectivity rather than objectivity and who doesn’t accept what Simone de Beauvoir called in her “The Second Sex” The Other, that is the Woman, that is not inessential but fundamental as source of life, productive not only reproductive, a womb for her men but from which springs out life, continuity, cyclicity. A woman who is immanent but not static, introspective but who can project her inner qualities in a real concretization on their communal life, who rejects the passive role of “angel of the earth” behind a dictatorial men-dominated scene, secluded in the closed-off realm of a domestic life. As Simone de Beauvoir affirmed “man learn his power”, a power that instead naturally belongs to women, a power which is displayed and manifested itself in a swinging “waving” dance on a polyphonic choir of the cosmogonic elements, as a routinary never-ending turning around of a carillon, which is our existence, that is not the eternal return to the same asserted by Nietzsche, whose opinion was that God is dead  and who conceives the Eternal Feminine in the Will of Power in the philosophy of opposing principles, but that is life coming from woman, it is Beauty, Good and the True, the three Platonic ideals, that have their counterparts in the following capacities of the soul: thinking, willing and feeling, not just willing, as affirmed by Nietzsche, who believed thinking and feeling stemmed from willing. The soul from the perspective of the Platonic ideals is a multi-dimensional being connecting to the Reals through Ideals. Nietzsche reduces soul to the dimension of a blind will.

So, we stressed, as Samuel Aun Weor did, the primogenial role of a Cosmic Mother, which we see in the glow of the eyes of all the innumerable women of history, who should love and in which we should figure out a mother, the living representation of the Eternal Feminine Principle. If the consciousness of people were awakened, they would appreciate that being who is the mother. We should thus remind more often ourselves what the Eternal Feminine Principle is.

Therefore, in a matriarchal system, in which Mother Earth worship and the nature play a fundamental role, at the basis of daily activities and development of society were different values, such as collaboration and co-operation, replacing domination and control, forgiveness, compassion, sensitivity, and the ability to love and nurture life and one another were essential, women leaded the way towards a quantum shift in consciousness that transforms divisive systems of destruction into creative systems that served and sustained the sacred inherent in all life.

This social system inspired, then, contemporary democracies and feminist battles during  last centuries in Canada: first-wave feminism was oriented around the station of middle - or upper-class white women and involved suffrage and political equality. Second-wave feminism attempted to further combat social and cultural inequalities. Third-wave feminism includes renewed campaigning for women's greater influence in politics. For Iroquois women, who have maintained many of their traditional ways despite two centuries of white America's attempts to "civilize and Christianize" them, the concept of women's "rights" actually has little meaning. It is simply their way of life molded upon qualities such as sensitivity and an highly degree of collaboration and diplomacy. Their egalitarian relationships and their political authority are a reality feminists often dreamed of. In facts, a feminist utopia would be the description of a place where, emphasizing the differences between women and men, women's positions are better than men's.

Notwithstanding with all these debates, we must say that even committed feminist scholars knew little about contemporary Native American women and have a tendency to miss the Native point and in their rush to demolish patriarchy don’t hesitate to manipulate Native cultural truths, really oriented towards a gendered and balanced society in which the role of women is prevailing in the spiritual roots of its traditions but, in the matter of facts, is based on the cooperation and communistic organization and has been subjected to different attempts to be converted and reversed to a patriarchal system by the colonizers.

Anyway, this woman-centred tribal societies, in which matrilocalocality, matrifocality, matrilinearity, maternal control of household goods and resources has been proved by the colonizers who persecuted and hung women as witches or delimiting them within the house. It was a simple way to keep under control the feminine hemisphere which man considered “the other”, ”the unknown”, and thus “the uncontrollable” he was afraid of. By hanging women or “keeping them confined, barefoot and pregnant, powerless, silent and endlessly available.

Once the Iroquois were settled in reserves, in 1870, and subjected to European laws, the influence of women declined, although it has never been completely annihilated. Eventually many families’ve become patrilinear, with respect to both name and inheritance. Iroquois men took English names or an English translation of Iroquois names. This transition was formally defined in Canada by the “Act of For The Gradual Enfranchisement Of Indians” of 1869. By this act if an Indian woman marry a non- Indian men they became non- Indian, subjected to their husband, as European women ere and lost their property rights. It became suddenly clear that European and American wished to deal only with men, no more with women. Furthermore, women gradually lost their power within the political structure of Iroquois society. Despite all these impositions upon Iroquois to change, on most reservations “two” separated communities have emerged: one derived from Christianity/European ethics and the other from longhouses ethics.

Traditional or longhouses Iroquois have not completely accepted Canadian and European values and their attempts of assimilation but rather have retained much of their own culture owed to what has been described as a sort of “superiority complex” . Thus, although an Iroquoian child inherits the surname of his father, he may at the same time inherit the title of sachem through his mother. Furthermore, it is evident by the resurgence of interest in traditional present day Iroquois that the role of  women will continue to be of significance.

Nowadays, local and provincial governments are more remote from Aboriginal peoples, both physically and culturally, and tend to be less responsive to the Aboriginal electorate than would their own governments exercising greater responsibility for their own affairs. Greater recognition of indigenous legal traditions could provide some counter-weight to a dominant bi-culturalism and bi-elitism, as a matter of facts,  that sometimes infects Canada’s policy, internationally recognized, instead, as a culturally diverse nation that emphasizes the concept of "The Mosaic". From this point of view any efforts should be made in order to protect Iroquois identity in the diversity and to prevent the risk of extinction and the lost of significance of their secular traditions, not forgetting that they are the precursors of contemporary democratic systems of law.

As illustrated in Marget Atwood’s novel Lady Oracle, Canadian culture is like a mirror that doesn’t enframe the image of the subject who is reflected in. Marget Atwood disrupts the traditional role of the mirror. By transforming the closed, static mirror into an open one, she disrupts the conventional duplicated mirror image of the body as an object, splitting and facing itself, remarked by Umberto Eco and Lacan philosophy that established by the division of the subject the predominant phallus as signifier, and she overcomes it by displaying a multiplicity of divisions and a complete fragmentation of the self. Her fluid vision opens, spreads, flows over, and multiplies boundaries.

No other country in the world, in fact, encompasses inhabitants from so many different backgrounds who exhibit strong loyalty towards Canada, while still preserving their cultural heritage. All this in contrast with U.S.A. ideal of the "Melting Pot", which attempts to shape all of their citizens into a set mold and tells immigrants that no matter who they have been in the past, upon landing on American shores, they are Americans and are expected to adopt and follow the American way and laws.

But the Third epoch is believed not be concluded because the Handsome Lake code and all the consequences brought by the colonization and the establishment of contemporary capitalistic democracies must be balanced with feminine element. Iroquois believe women will be the guardian of next generation.


- Andersen Wayne Andersen Wayne, “Cezanne and The Eternal Feminine”, Cambridge University Press, 2004, p. 26

-Simone de Beauvoir, Le deuxième sexe, Gallimard, Paris, 1949

- LeClerc, undated, as cited in Vachon, Andrè, Eloquence Indienne. Ottawa, Fides, coll. Classiques canadiens, 1968, p. 87-91

- M. Burke, The Canadian Identity and Multiculturalism, Ethic Canadians: Culture and Education, ed. M.L. Kovaca, Regina, 1978, p.419

- Jessie Givner, Mirror Images in Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle, Studies in Canadian Literature, 1989, pp.139-143



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