The Omaha Family

Anthropologists have long used the Omaha as the classic example of a family structure which is centered around a patrilineal clan. The Omaha clan is a named, extended lineage in which members observe common restrictions concerning food and have certain ritual obligations because of clan membership. Clans were exogamous, meaning that one could not marry someone from the same clan. There was also a prohibition from marrying within the mother’s clan. Membership in the clan is through the male line (patrilineal descent) which means that each individual, male or female, belongs to the father’s clan.

Among the Omaha, the ten clans were divided into two moieties: the Sky People and the Earth People. The Earth People were in charge of the physical welfare of the people, while the Sky People were the custodians of ceremonies relating to creation, the stars, and cosmic forces. While the Omaha clans were exogamous, the Omaha moieties, were not required to be exogamous. However, marriage outside of one’s own moiety was considered to be ideal.

During the buffalo hunt camps, the Sky People would camp in the northern half of the camp circle and the Earth People in the southern half. The Earth People included the Elk Clan (which controlled the sacred tent of war and war ceremonies), the Buffalo Clan (also called the Black Shoulder Clan), the Leader Clan (this clan traditionally provided the keepers for the tribe’s sacred objects), To the Left of the Leader Clan (this was a collection of sub-clans), and Kansa Clan. The Sky People included the Gray Wolf Clan (also known as the Earth Maker Clan), the Buffalo Tail Clan, the Deer Head Clan, the Red Newborn Buffalo Calf Dung Clan, and the Flashing Eyes Clan.

With regard to marriage among the Omaha, Bradley Ensor, in an article in Ethnology, reports:

“Marriage often involved individual choices sanctioned by the parents.”

There were times when a marriage was arranged by the girl’s parents. In an arranged marriage the groom was usually a mature, established man who paid a bride price.

In their entry on the Omaha in the Handbook of North American Indians, Margot Liberty, Raymond Wood, and Lee Irwin write:

“Most marriages took place through elopement, which was confirmed when the couple returned to the lodge of the husband’s father, where a feast was held and gifts were exchanged between the two families.”

Divorce was common and the children and the home remained with the wife.

When a young man married he lived with his wife’s family until the birth of their first child. Then he and his family would return to his father’s home where he would live.

A man was obliged to marry his brother’s widow. Ethnographers Alice Fletcher and Francis La Flesche, in their 1911 book The Omaha Tribe, report:

“Should he fail in this respect, he was liable to suffer in person or property, either by the act of the woman herself or by that of her near kin, in order to force him to recognize or make good her rights.”

The Omaha had a number of in-law avoidance practices. According to R.H. Barnes, in his book Two Crows Denies it: A History of Controversy in Omaha Sociology:

“A man would not speak to his wife’s parents or grandparents but had to converse with them by addressing his wife or child and requesting them to repeat the question or statement. A reply would be made through the same channel.”

The birth of a child was seen as more than an addition to the clan and tribe. Ethnographers Alice Fletcher and Francis La Flesche report that a child is

“a living being coming forth into the universe, whose advent must be ceremonially announced in order to assure it an accepted place among the already existing forms.”

Four days after birth, certain symbols would be placed on the child. Eight days after birth, a ceremony would be held to introduce the child to the world.

Cherokee Families

When the Europeans arrived in North America, they simply assumed that their concept of family was universal, moral, natural, and divinely-inspired. If there were any other kinds of families they must be immoral and inferior. For the Europeans, family implied a male-dominated institution, one run by the male in the household and whose children belonged to him. When Europeans encountered the Cherokee family, they: (a) were simply oblivious to the differences and superimposed their own concepts on it; (b) were totally baffled by the differences; and/or (c) assumed that the Cherokee family was immoral and unnatural.  

The Cherokee:

At the time of European contact, the Cherokee were divided into three broad groups: (1) the Lower Towns along the rivers in South Carolina, (2) the Upper or Overhill Towns in eastern Tennessee and northwestern North Carolina, (3) the Middle Towns which included the Valley Towns in southwestern North Carolina and northeastern Georgia and the Out Towns. There were some cultural and linguistic differences between these groups. The Cherokee language is a part of the Iroquoian language family.

Clans:

Understanding the Cherokee family begins with an understanding of Cherokee clans. First of all, clans are not just a bunch of people who are somehow vaguely related to each other. Clans are corporate entities with names, traditions, oral history, and membership rules. Traditionally, the Cherokee were a farming people and the fields were farmed by the clans. The land was owned by the village and allocated to the clans.

Membership in a Cherokee clan is determined by the mother: you belong to your mother’s clan. Among the Cherokee, as with many other American Indian tribes, clan membership is the most important thing a person has and was the most fundamental of Cherokee rights. To be without a clan is to be without identity as a Cherokee.

The Cherokee had seven clans:

Blue: (A ni sa ho ni) Also known as the Panther or Wild Cat clan

Long Hair: (A ni gi lo hi) The Peace Chief was usually from this clan

Bird: (A ni tsi s kwa)

Paint: (A ni wo di) Many of the medicine people were from this clan

Deer: (A ni ka wi)

Wild Potato: (A ni ga to ge wi) Also known as the Bear, Racoon, or Blind Savannah clan

Wolf: (A ni wa yah) Many war chiefs came from this clan

Marriage:

Among the Cherokee, individuals were not allowed to marry members of their own clan or members of their father’s clan. They were, however, encouraged to marry members of their maternal grandfather’s clan or their paternal grandfather’s clan. In general, marriage was regulated by the women of the village. This does not mean that women were told who to marry. No relative-not her mother, nor her uncles, nor her brothers-had any compulsory authority over her.

Premarital chastity was unusual and there were no cultural prohibitions against fornication or adultery. Cherokee women determined with whom they would have sexual relations. Cherokee marriage was not seen as binding on either the husband or wife. Married Cherokee women also enjoyed great latitude with regard to sexual freedom. Women were free to dissolve a marriage at will.

Cherokee women resided with their kinswomen, that is, with members of their own clan. They owned the homes and shared in the agricultural products of the clan’s fields.

Cherokee men often married women from outside of their own village. The men were expected to live in their wives’ village. Women, of course, owned the house.

The Cherokee wedding ceremony was brief and simple: it involved an exchange of gifts. It was not a religious ceremony and often involved only the two clans involved.

Fathers and Uncles:

Fathers had no official relationship to their children because their children belonged to a different clan. Fathers might love their children and provide them with some care, but still the children belonged to the mother’s clan. A father did not have the right to punish his children. In fact, if a father were to harm his children, the children’s clan (that is, the clan of their mother) could hold him responsible.

The traditional roles of uncles-more specifically, the mother’s brothers-were very important in traditional Cherokee culture. Traditional Cherokee education was based on the role of the maternal uncles. For a young boy, this meant that the most important men in his childhood were his uncles, not his father. It was his maternal uncle who would teach him about warfare and hunting. The uncle was the disciplinary and tutorial authority within the clan.

The designation “maternal uncle” was also different in Cherokee society than in European society. This simply indicated that the man was a member of the mother’s clan. The maternal uncle did not have to have the same mother as the mother.