Seneca Women - A Lecture by Dr. DeAnna Beachley

This lecture was written and performed by Dr. DeAnna Beachley.

Audio Version

"Women in Native American society
Case Study: Seneca Women

Women of the Seneca tribe, and for that of most of the tribes in the Eastern US, dominated agricultural production. The Seneca women provided
tribes with half of the subsistence, and had well-tended fields in
Western New York. As a result, women in this tribe had high status
and community power.

In fact, in the origin myth of the League of the Iroquois, of which the Seneca were associated, incorporates women in the story. The female deity falling from the sky gave birth to the first woman. Sky Woman brought to earth seeds, roots and domestic plants like potatoes, beans, squash and corn. Corn Maiden taught the women to plant the corn, how to prepare the corn, how to dance the corn dance and instructed them on which songs to sing. There were festivals to celebrate various phases of the agricultural cycle, like planting and harvesting that were key to the tribal activities throughout the year.

In some areas, tribal women had as many as 2000 acres under cultivation. Some managed to accumulate surplus that could be traded for other items.

Seneca family life centered on the long house, which was a joint tenement shared by families of kin. Older women regulated the domestic economy. They were responsible for the distribution of goods to families and guests. Groups of longhouses formed villages or towns. A village consisted of about 20-30 longhouses, a town had 100-150. The towns were usually only occupied for about 10 years before they had to be moved, villages were occupied longer, about 20 years.

Living in the villages and towns was communal. The women of the villages and towns provided stable care for all children of the village, including orphans. This was a matrilineal society. Children inherited from their mothers. Marriages were arranged and the young couples usually joined the one of the couple’s communal households. If a husband was too long away from home or did not provide adequately, the woman could take on another partner. Evidence suggests that most were monogamous. A divorce was also possible, but up to the wife to determine. All she had to do was to place all the husband’s belongings outside of the longhouse. Women had possessory rights to all cultivated land within the tribal area. Women’s clans distributed the land to households according to their size. Smaller longhouses had fewer acres to cultivate, larger ones had more acres for cultivation. Women’s clans also organized the farming communally. Each town and village elected a chief matron who directed the work on the land, determined what to plant and when to harvest. The chief matron also ensured that the sick and injured were cared for and created mutual aid societies to provide for their needs.
The women controlled the distribution of surplus food and demanded captives to replace murdered kinsfolk. They influenced warfare, and had the power to elect civilian rulers. They could depose those who were guilty of misconduct, incompetence or disregard of the public welfare.

After contact with Europeans lives of Seneca women were altered. In addition to diseases, they lost land and trade altered their lives. They now had iron and steel hoes, awls and other items. Missionaries and teachers also moved in to help Christianize. These things led to the end of women’s domination over agriculture, but not a total loss of power. Older women still adhered to the traditional ways, while the younger generations became more assimilated.

While this is not a complete history of the Seneca women or the experience of Native American women, it nonetheless provides us with a good view of role of Native women right at the time of contact with the Europeans. When you look at the two documents on the views of Native American women, you can see that European observers offered some interesting views of the ways of the women in Native culture."

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