Matrilineal Culture of the Tuscarora Nation

Matrilineal Culture of the Tuscarora Nation

by Samantha Sheffield, ECU Public History major

As I undertook this research I came to find that very little information on the Tuscarora matrilineal practices exists.  All the information below is from an interview on November 8, 2012 with members of the Tuscarora Nation primarily Francine Patterson, White Bear Clan Mother.


Like many of the native populations in the Americas the Tuscarora Nation practiced a matrilineal system of identification.  While not a true matriarchy, the women did not rule over the clans, they did appoint the leaders and ancestry was traced through the female line.  The structure of the Tuscarora society is based around the clans.  Each have a male leader who is a chief and then the chiefs meet together in a council where they discuss issues and come to an agreement on how to proceed; much like American democracy.

The clan mother is responsible for appointing the clan chiefs.  A clan mother is a leader who is chosen by her clan because she has good leadership qualities, is highly respected, and is educated in the traditions and ways of the clan. She also is the “ears” for the male chief.

When the clan mother chooses the chief she looks for leadership qualities, strength of character, as well as what they call a “seven span thickness of skin.” This is the ability to take the abuses thrown at any leader who makes unpopular decisions.  Though the decision making is then left to the male chiefs the clan mother does have the ability to “chastise” the chief.  This is an important and rarely used right only when the chief has done something greatly opposed to the cultural traditions and is need of censure.

In the home life of the clans, families historically occupied a longhouse together.  When women married they did not leave home as in European cultures. They stayed and the men who moved into her family home.  Additionally, their children associate with the mother’s clan.  For instance, if a female White Bear marries a man from the Beaver clan, he leaves home and moves into her family’s longhouse.  Though he maintains his connection to the Beaver clan all their children are White Bears.  While today Tuscarora do not live in longhouses they still practice the matrilineal customs, meaning the children are still born into their mother’s clan.  This can create difficulties when Tuscarora men marry out of the nation because then their children have no clan and are no longer Tuscarora.

Historically, women and children were responsible for planting and harvesting while the men were the hunters. Education of both girls and boys was undertaken by the women, especially in the traditions of each clan.  Today education in the clan culture and providing for the family are undertaken by both parents.

Though the Tuscarora had to survive near annihilation they were able to survive and keep their family traditions present in their lives through today.  The women who fought ferociously against the English forces to protect their children inside the Fort Nooheruka can be still be found in the Tuscarora women today.  They have chosen their chiefs well and fought bravely to survive into the twenty-first century.