November 24, 1999

PBS Omission—What Suffragettes Owed The Iroquois

By Jacqueline Keeler

The new PBS series on women's fight for the vote is marred by a major — but not surprising — omission.

"Not for Ourselves Alone" documents 70 years in the lives of two remarkable women, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who galvanized American women to fight for citizenship and equality. But the new documentary, by Ken Burns, does not ask an important question — where did they get the idea?

The narrator notes that when the women organized the first women's rights convention in 1848 at Seneca Falls, New York, and demanded the right to the vote "not one nation in the world ... allowed women to vote."

In fact, there was a nation in their midst that gave women — and only women — the right to vote. Only a stone's throw from the Wesleyan Chapel where the conference was held, women of the Iroquois Nation had been electing leaders for centuries.

The women of Seneca Falls were very well aware of this. In those days, before the reservation system, American Indian communities and European American communities were in daily contact with each other.

Seneca was the name of one of the Six Nations of the Iroquois, and Lucretia Mott, a well-known abolitionist and Stanton's mentor, spent the summer of 1848 with Seneca women in nearby Cattaragus. There she saw women reorganize their nation's governmental structure — and she then headed directly to Seneca Falls and inspired Stan-ton to put on the convention.

Historian Sally Roesch Wagner notes, "Stanton envied how American Indian women `ruled the house' and how `descent of property and children were in the female line'" — rights women did not have under American law.

At the convention, Stanton read her "Declaration of Sentiments" (patterned on the Declaration of Independence) which stated a woman was, "if married, in the eye of the law, civilly dead," and had "taken from her all right in property, even to the wages she earns." A woman was "compelled to promise obedience to her husband, he becoming, to all intents and purposes, her master" and she had no rights to her children in the case of divorce.

American Indian women were quick to notice that women's rights were curtailed under Christianity and civilization. Alice Fletcher, an ethnographer, told delegates to the 1888 International Council of Women of an Indian who told her, "As an Indian woman I was free. I owned my own home, my person, the work of my hands, and my children would never forget me. I was better as an Indian woman than under white law."

The first part of the documentary ends with black and white men dropping the cause of universal suffrage to ensure Negro suffrage. But American Indian men were noted for their continued support of it.

In 1893, when suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage was arrested for the criminal act of trying to vote in a school board election, the Iroquois once again stepped in to support her. After she was released they honored her by adopting her into the Wolf Clan of the Mohawk nation and with the name, "Karonienhawi", Sky Carrier.

None of this appears in Burns' documentary, though as Laguna/Sioux Indian scholar Paula Gunn Allen notes, to "search the memories and lore of tribal peoples . . . The evidence is all around us."

American Indian egalitarian societies not only inspired democracy but also inspired Marx, John Locke, and Rousseau, as well as Stanton and Anthony.

Yet my ancestors were villainized as "savages." Europeans noted with horror our habits of bathing frequently, derision of authoritarian structures, and worst of all, their "petticoat governments." Yet, these qualities (except the last) have come to be the mark of Americanism and modernism. To become an American is therefore a large part to become "Indianized."

Jacqueline Keeler is a member of the Dineh Nation and the Yankton Dakota Sioux, a writer and filmmaker.

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