1) Calusa v. Iroquois: Leadership and Family Units

There are many different elements that come into play when considering the dynamics of a tribe. While the families and leaders of a tribe are of great importance, each tribe may vary on the type of ruler (or chief) that was in charge. The way that the leader was chosen also differed from tribe to tribe. While some tribes might have had similar ways of governing their tribes, others differed greatly. Two examples include the Calusa Indian tribe and the Northern Iroquois nation. Both tribes had leadership, yet the method of choosing whom would lead, and how decisions were made varied greatly.

The political system of the Calusa Indians was that of a chiefdom which, according to Randolph Widmer, “requires a large population, at least larger than those found in mobile hunters and gatherers” (pg. 261). The chiefdom was determined by family units which were actually pretty closely knit. Stephen Reilly shares that it was a custom of the Calusa cacique (chief) to marry one of his sisters so that another cacique may be born from within the family (pg. 410). If the family unit was large and powerful, they usually took over the smaller units who, “…do not or cannot realize the full potential” (Widmer, pg. 270). One of the many ways that the Calusa chief “sealed the deal” was through marriage. According to Stephen Reilly there were such customs as the chief of the victorious tribe marrying a sister of the leader of the tribe that was overtaken (pg. 296). This sort of acted as a way to seal the allegiance of the tribe that lost to the tribe of the victor.

The Calusa also had great reverence for their cacique. They believed their cacique was in control of how much food and water their tribe would be able to gather (MacMahon, pg. 78). Despite the great importance Calusa Indians placed on their leader, the cacique was not the only one in charge. There was also, typically, a religious leader and lead captain that were influential in the decision making for the tribe as a whole (MacMahon,  pg. 78). According to John Hann, the second in command was known as, “great captain” (pg. 192). Aside from the cacique, the captain was the most powerful. The captain was most often from the same family, as was the shaman—the religious leader (Hann, pg. 192). The cacique was typically succeeded by one of his sons. If the cacique had no son, then a nephew would take his place after his demise (Reilly, pg. 409).

Similarly, the Iroquois tribes also placed great importance on the family units. This was evident by the way that they would refer to each other as “brother and cousin” (Birch, pg. 195). Like the Calusa, the Iroquois confederacy tribes also had chiefdoms where their leader was chief for life (Lutz, pg. 103). The differences between the Calusa and Iroquois tribes become apparent when we consider the way in which power was passed from one leader, known as the sachem in the Iroquois nation, to the next. Instead of his son, the sachem’s nephew took over his position in the Iroquois tribes, “All possessions and hereditary titles…passed through the maternal lineage…nephew in the female line would inherit his position” (Birch, pg. 197). There was also much less importance stressed on the leadership role of the sachem in the Iroquois confederacy.

According to Crawford the Iroquois Confederacy consisted of five Indian tribes including: Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca (pg. 345). Each tribe had representatives (sachems) from their tribe that were present at meetings and councils. According to William Fenton these sachems worked in pairs (pg. 25). This was made possible because each tribe might have had a total of three sachems (Lutz, pg. 106). Donald Lutz explains how these three sachems were absolutely vital to the decision making process involved in the Iroquois nation. He explains that the decision making started with the Mohawks and trickled down to the other tribes. All the tribes would repeat this same process: each tribe had three representatives; two of the representatives held the discussion while the third observed to ensure that, “…there are no ‘errors’ and that no ‘proceeding is irregular’”; also, the decisions were required to be unanimous (Lutz, pg. 106). Such rituals were drastically different from the Calusa Indians.

In conclusion, there is enough evidence to show that the leadership and importance of family units differed among the Calusa and Iroquois peoples. For the Calusa tribe the title of cacique meant that this individual was the ultimate leader. Contrastively in the Iroquois nation each tribe had three sachems (leaders) that were in charge of the intricate decision making process where only unanimous decisions were allowed. The Calusa was more of a patriarchal community where the chief’s son would inevitably follow in command. Contrastively, in the Iroquois nation it was not the son of the sachem that would take his position but one of his sister’s sons instead. Based on this information we can already begin to see how the Northern and Southern Indian tribes may not be as similar was we are first taught to believe.


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