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Iroquois kinship (also known as bifurcate merging) is a kinship system used to define family. Identified by Lewis Henry Morgan in his 1871 work Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family, the Iroquois system is one of the six major kinship systems (Eskimo, Hawaiian, Iroquois, Crow, Omaha, and Sudanese).
The system has both classificatory and descriptive terms. In addition to gender and generation, Iroquois kinship also distinguishes 'same-sex' and 'cross-sex' parental siblings: the brothers of Ego's father, and the sisters of Ego's mother, are referred to by the same parental kinship terms used for Ego's Father and Mother. The sisters of Ego's father, and the brothers of Ego's mother, on the other hand, are referred to by non-parental kinship terms, commonly translated into English as "Aunt" and "Uncle".
The children of one's parents' same-sex siblings, i.e. parallel cousins, are referred to by sibling kinship terms. The children of Aunts or Uncles, i.e. cross cousins, are not considered siblings, and are referred to by kinship terms commonly translated into English as "cousin". In some systems, the kinship terms applied to cross-cousins are the same as those applied to brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law, due to preferential marriage practices (see below).
Ego (the subject from whose perspective the kinship is based) is encouraged to marry his cross cousins but discouraged or prohibited from marrying his parallel cousins. In many societies with Iroquois kinship terminologies, the preferred marriage partners include not only first cousins (mother's brother's children and father's sister's children), but more remote relatives who are also classified as cross cousins by the logic of the kinship system. Preferential cross-cousin marriage can be useful in reaffirming alliances between unilineal lineages or clans.
The term Iroquois comes from the six Iroquois tribes of northeastern North America. Another aspect of their kinship was that the six tribes all had matrilineal systems, in which children were born into the mother's clan and gained status through it. Women controlled some property, and hereditary leadership passed through the maternal line. A woman's eldest brother was more important as a mentor to her children than their father, who was always of a different clan.
Some groups in other countries also happen to be independently organized for kinship by the Iroquois system. It is commonly found in unilineal descent groups. These include:
- The Anishinaabe of North America, who include the Algonquin, Nipissing, Mississauga, Ojibwe, Saulteaux, Odawa and Potawatomi peoples. Many of these people were traditional neighbors to the Iroquois, but they spoke languages of the Algonquian family.
Other populations found to have the Iroquois system are
- The entire population of South India;
- The Dravidian population of India and Sri Lanka;
- Most of the Bantu-speaking cultures of Eastern and Southern sub-Saharan Africa — see Sesotho kinship for an example.
South India and Sri Lanka
The entire Hindu population of South India, numbering in the vicinity of 250 million people, uses the kinship tradition described above. This includes not only the traditional encouragement of wedding ties between cross-cousins, but also the use of kinship terms in the following format:
- One's mother's sister is also called mother, and her husband is called father;
- One's father's brother is also called father, and his wife is called mother;
- But, one's mother's brother is called father-in-law, and his wife is called mother-in-law; and,
- One's father's sister is called mother-in-law, and her husband is called father-in-law
Parallel cousins are considered siblings. It is forbidden for Ego to wed them. Cross cousins are NOT considered siblings but termed Cousins; Ego may wed them.
Until recently, rural Chinese societies used the same system of kinship.
- William Haviland, Cultural Anthropology, Wadsworth Publishing, 2002. ISBN 0-534-27479-X
- The Nature of Kinship
- Schwimmer: Kinship and Social Organization: An Interactive Tutorial: Iroquois terminology
- Hammond-Tooke, W. D., 2004. Southern Bantu origins: light from kinship terminology. Southern African Humanities Vol. 16 Pages 71–78 Pietermaritzburg December, 2004