Seneca Women and Chief Red Jacket Speak Women’s Words to U.S. Delegation
This source, transcribed in 1791, is a recording of a speech that a native female leader delivered in a council meeting between leaders of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy and the United States government. The American envoys were seeking alliance with the Haudenosaunee in their battles with other native groups over land bordering the new United States. Red Jacket, also known as Sagoyewatha, was a chief of the Senecas. The "Great Ruler" in the speech refers to a divine leader, like a god. Based on reading this excerpt, what do the quotes show about the role that women played in Haudenosaunee politics? What was the role of women in governing in their culture? Imagine being present at this meeting, what do you think the goals were of the speaker for the Confederacy and how did women participate in setting them?
The Haudenosaunee Confederacy organized around a council made up of sachems, or chiefs, from each group. Haudenosaunee are matrilineal, with power and status flowing through the female line to male leaders. Each clan is headed by a clan mother, often the oldest woman in the clan. Sachems (tribal chiefs) are elected by clan mothers, and can be sanctioned and removed by them. The new United States government did not open formal avenues to power for free women, who instead used informal influence and public actions to act politically. When diplomats from the United States met with Indian confederacies, they had to take account of Indian women's direct influence. The matrilineal tradition and women's central importance continues in Haudenosaunee tribes to this day.
As your students read through this source, work with them to deconstruct the words and phrases of the text to discern the meaning of sentences individually and then together. Ask them the questions in the "for the student" section in order to help them understand how members of the Confederacy came together to form a response to the new political and military power of the United States at the end of the Revolutionary War. At these gatherings, women led discussions, delivered addresses, and formulated policies that would inform Indian-American relations for years.
“‘Brother—The Great Ruler has spared us until another day to talk together; for since you came here from General Washington, you and our uncles, the sachems, have been counseling together. Moreover, your sisters, the women, have taken the same into great consideration, because you and our sachems have said so much about it. Now, that is the reason we have come to say something to you, and to tell you that the Great Ruler hath preserved you, and that you ought to hear and listen to what we women shall speak, as well as the sachems; for we are the owners of this land, AND IT IS OURS! It is we that plant it for our and their use. Hear us, therefore, for we speak things that concern us and our children; and you must not think hard of us while our men shall say more to you, for we have told them’
Editor’s Note: They then designated Red Jacket as their speaker, and he took up the speech of his clients as follows:
‘…Now, listen, brothers; you know it has been the request of our head warriors, that we are left to answer for our women, who are to conclude what ought to be done by both sachems and warriors. So hear what is their conclusion… the elder of our women have said that our sachems and warriors must help you, for the good of them and their children, and you tell us the Americans are strong for peace.
Now all that has been done for you has been done by our women; the rest will be a hard task for us…And these are the words of our women to you, and the sachems and warriors who shall go with you.’”