Long before the Five Nations formed the Rotinonhsión:ni Confederacy, they existed as one Iroquoian group.
At a time of great strife and poverty, it is said that a young man proposed a way for his people to organize themselves into different groups and encouraged them to move away from their village. The elders named this young man Ro’nikonhrowá:nen
As they left their village to start anew, the people encountered a river and tried crossing it. When their vine rope broke as they crossed the river, the people found themselves separated into two groups located on either side of the river. Ro’nikonhrowá:nen called upon the head women of each family and asked them to identify themselves (and their extended families) with a specific totem animal to represent them. The extended families that associated themselves with these totem animals would become known as clans.
The following clans were formed : Turtle Clan (Rotiniahton), Wolf Clan (Rona’thahion:ni), Bear Clan (Rotihskarè:wake), Beaver Clan, Deer Clan, Eel Clan, Heron Clan, Hawk Clan and Snipe Clan
From that point forward, clan identification would pass through a mother’s lineage to her children, and so on to the following generations.
Ro’nikonhrowá:nen then told the people that from that point forward, each side of the river would be responsible to help the other when they were in mourning or in need – thus providing a means of social organization based upon the virtues of interdependence and mutual aid. Therefore, each clan also practiced exogamy, meaning a person could not marry within their own clan.
The origins of Five Nations
Many years later, the descendants of these clans of people broke up into Five Nations : the Kanien’kehá:ka, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca. The Kanien’kehá:ka retained three clans : Turtle Clan, Wolf Clan, and Bear Clan.
Eventually, the Five Nations began to war amongst themselves until the Peacemaker came to them with a vision to unify themselves into one symbolic Longhouse as one extended family with one mind and one heart. When the Peacemaker brought the Kaianere’kó:wa (Great Law of Peace) to the Five Nations, he used the existing clan system as the basis for the political organization of the Rotinonhsión:ni Confederacy.
Each clan would be represented by a male leader called Roiá:ner, who is installed by a woman leader called Iakoiá:ner. It is also the responsibility of the Iakoiá:ner to watch over her Roiá:ner to ensure he is properly representing her clan family.
The Rotinonhsión:ni Clan System continues to live today.
People from the Turtle Clan (Rotiniahton) are the founders of the Mohawk Nation because according to the Creation story, the Earth’s origin would have started on the back of a turtle.
People from the Bear Clan (Rotihskarè:wake) are known to have learned about natural and traditional medicine. They are also known to adopt people who are not born into a specific clan, but who have managed to go through a process to get a “hang around the neck”.
People from the Wolf Clan (Rona’thahion:ni) are known to be people with good skills in language, culture and with knowledge of the songs and ceremonies that are still practiced today.