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The Five Principal Clans of the Menominee

Menominee developed the clan system as a means to address vital issues the tribe faced. The origin story describes the process whereby the clans came into being, their order and function within the society. It articulates the creation of five Brothers or principal clans as organs through which the culture flowed and tribal life attained meaning. Each Brother assumed specific responsibilities with the tribal whole; the culture manifested itself through their considered actions. As each assisted the culture, in turn, it sustained them.

The Bear Principal Clan

The Bear assumed the duties of civil administration throughout the tribe. The Eagle took as its lot war, fire carrying, and camp laborers. The Wolf pursued hunting, and the Crane construction obligations. The Moose accepted as his duty camp security, overseeing of the wild rice beds, supervising rice harvest and distribution of the grain. To some extent the Younger Brothers shared in these tasks, although most, in turn, had other specific obligations for their clan; the Sturgeon, for example, were historians in addition to being Younger Brother to the Bear.

The Bear Clan regulated civil affairs. The pipe carried in the crook of his left arm signifies this obligation to the society and the heavy responsibilities it entailed. The bowl of the original pipe was carved from wood or from stone, usually pipestone, and had a wooden stem. As part of his duties, the Bear called the tribe into general council meetings and in an orderly fashion directed the deliberations that followed. He also watched over the civil affairs of the tribe to be certain things flowed smoothly.

The Bear did not possess the power to compel by force or to move by edict his wishes or fancies, for the culture alone moved the individual Menominee to action. A directive or order if given would fall to the ground unheard. A strong and vigorous culture elicited respect and a desire on the part of the members to sustain it by following its principles. Peace and relative order marked the affairs of traditional society, a phenomenon consistently reported by the earliest European explorers and settlers. Of course, this meant that the cultural systems had to be constantly worked at and re-vitalized to enable them to become significant. But the culture provided for this element too.

The Golden Eagle Principal Clan

The Golden Eagle Clan took up war responsibilities and served as fire carriers. To the tribe, peace was ideal and war disrupted it. Consequently they sought, if at all possible, to avoid battle. And, when they fought, the war was in defensive terms. Thus, to meet the difficulties posed to them by this factor of force intrusive to the peace the Menominee focused much attention and cultural barriers upon this clan, a task requiring much thought and careful reasoning about its issues. We must not overlook the fact that all male Menominee adults served as warriors, not merely members of the Eagle Clan.

Eagle members had the duty of planning military strategy, performing ceremonies associated with war, and ensuring that the tribe followed the activities associated with war-making. As points of interest we note the Menominee did not have or use shields; their knives hung in sheaths by straps around the neck. As fire carriers they made certain fire would be available whether in travel, in camp, or in the village. They had a special way of ensuring this through the use of a fire bundle where slow burning or smoldering punk wrapped in a covering would remain for a long time, ready to expose the coals to air and fuel and burst into flames. Of course, this does not mean the several Younger Brother Clans of the Golden Eagle Clan lit everyone’s fire for them. Rather they saw to it that this important component of the ongoing life would be available. Perhaps, for example, in a camp they would start a fire so that all could obtain a light from it.

The Wolf Principal Clan

The Wolf Clan’s primary obligation within Menominee culture revolved around hunting, or more properly, the harvest of resources, for the taking of fish, fowl, and game went far beyond recreation. As one of two harvesting clans (Moose was the other). Its function was of central importance and encompassed a host of activities, ceremonies, cultural obligations and kindred functions. We ought not to forget that all male and many female Menominee hunted and fished.

The Crane Principal Clan

The Crane Clan served as the Menominee scientists. With it the culture met a major problem in tribal life. Members of the tribe did not achieve their ends in life by direct contact with one another and with products of their natural world, but rather approached them indirectly through a system of objects, intermediaries as it were. Baskets held nuts, canoes carried fishermen, birch bark made bags, stakes with interwoven laths of willow directed the movement of fish into traps. The culture held this feature of life to be of critical value and accordingly developed a tribal organ—the Crane Clan--to address it. Songs, dances, prayers, rituals, designs, colors, stories, legends, and many other features suffused the Crane duties to assist it in fulfilling tribal ends.

The Crane Clan had to master the knowledge of making things out of the materials presented to it by nature and to be certain the tribe maintained this arduously obtained information, along with the many manufacturing techniques that the work required. In effect, the material basis of Menominee society fell to the lot of the Crane.

The Moose Principal Clan

The fifth principal clan, the Moose, protected the wild rice beds during the growing season, supervised the harvest of the grain, and made certain the crop was equitably distributed among the members. In addition it provided camp security. The very name of the tribe, The People of the Wild Rice, suggests the key role wild rice played in the society. The nutritious grain that grew in shallow waters of rivers and lakes throughout the ancestral lands provided an excellent, storable, food source. Accordingly much attention was given to the control of the resource and the management of the harvest.

Political dimension of the clans

The political dimension of the clans illustrates more than any other characteristic their vital role in Menominee life. When the tribe confronted a problem or had to make a tribal decision, all clans addressed the issue. Each clan would gather all its members, discuss the question and come to a consensus on the answer they wished to give to it. Then the clan members would send a spokesperson or messenger from their number to convey their decision to a meeting of all the clans within the Phratry. Each is known as a Phratry meaning the Brother and his Younger Brothers--Bear, Wolf, Eagle, Moose, and Crane Phratries.

At the Phratry level all spokespersons voiced the decision their clans had reached. Thus for the Crane Brother Phratry the voices spoke for the Crane Clan or Principal Clan and the Great Blue Heron, Old Squaw Duck, Coot, Loon, and Turkey Buzzard Clans. By consensus the Phratry decided on the plan of action members would or should follow in resolving the issue before them. From their midst they then sent their spokesperson to represent them at the tribal council meeting. The spokesperson from the five Brothers merely represented the will of the clans.

At the council meeting the clans discussed the topic and then by consensus arrived at a decision on how to meet the question posed. If we trace the line of political authority we discover it flows from the membership through the clans to the council with severe limitations placed upon possible actions their spokesperson might take apart from the expressed will of the people. In effect the tribe functioned as a whole and the political form it chose furthered that principle.

Social dimensions of the clans

The clan system determined several social dimensions of Menominee life. One of these inviolate features was membership. Membership in a clan depended solely on birth; for one took membership in his or her father’s clan. One left a clan only by death. But in addition to membership clans regulated marriage. One’s mother was of one Phratry or Brother and his or her father was of another. One must marry from one of the unrelated remaining three Phratries, for all persons in the several Phratry clans of one’s parents were related by blood.

Not only did clans define where one belonged and where one’s life companion must come from but also they regulated aspects of art and education as well as other dimensions of tribal life. Belonging to specific clans certain colors and designs carried cultural and historical meaning steeped in legends and traditions. Moreover in the education system of the tribe each clan had special stories, or sacred legends that belonged only to that clan and no other. In rearing youth to fulfill their role in the larger whole of Menominee life these stories embraced principles and ideas that were vital to the tribe.

Reflection

The artist Jim Frechette reflected on the principal clans he had carved, painted, and assembled:

This group of five carvings comes from the Menominee origin story. This revelation defined the relationship of the people, culturally and politically. It provided the Menominee people the way to exist and function as an integral society. The function of the concepts in the story provides the strengths needed for survival of the people and their identity.

Devine Gifts

Golden Eagle Spirit

Within the world we inhabit and in which we work, we find numerous features that are of unusual and unsurpassed importance to us. They assist us in meeting our responsibilities, performing daily tasks, and are of great aid during ceremonials. When we look at the natural world, however, we discover that many of the elements within it are mundane and quite limited in usefulness, and really do not possess the qualities of these unusual objects that make our life so much better.

How can we explain the qualitative differences in these objects? The reason for the singular richness of the Menominee lies in powers beyond their control or ability to regulate which they derive from the special assistance of the Great Spirit. We have been blessed.

To have received such blessings, though, the Menominee must have lived lives of reverence for the world in which they existed, and to have sustained the culture which also derived from the Great Spirit.

Here we have depicted a Golden Eagle Spirit, a Thunderer, or messenger from the Cosmic Force, who comes bearing a gift of fire to the Menominee. The artist expressed his observations about the carving by saying:

The Menominee received many gifts from Great Grandfather. Things like medicines, knowledge of ways to do things, the many different foods, and fire came from Him.