Skip to content Skip to main navigation Skip to footer


A recommended addition to an annotated bibliography
Posted June 19, 2017
Per the public invitation for submissions to the 5th edition of An Annotated Bibliography on Racism in the U.S. Food System, I made this official recommendation to the Center for Regional Food Systems, Michigan State University. Whether or not my recommendation gets included in any future edition, I consider this book is of such importance with such urgent information for Americans in 2017 that I am once again mentioning it in my blog. I cannot exaggerate this book’s value to Americans, especially to:
— U.S. women
— food-and-farm practitioners, researchers, and educators
— direct democracy advocates
— public policy strategists
— environmentalists
— civil rights advocates
— peace activists

If I have misinterpreted Dr. Mann’s work or any indigenous history, knowledge, etc., I hope someone will correct me.

Iroquoian Women: The Gantowisas
by Barbara Alice Mann
Prof. – Humanities, Univ. of Toledo; Member – Bear Clan, Seneca nation
Foreword by Paula Gunn Allen
“Gantowisas” is variously translated by Dr. Mann as clan mothers, government women, and indispensable women.

Book, 540 pages, extensive notes and bibliography, detailed index
Peter Lang (international academic publishers)
2000 (First printing), 2006 (Third printing)

Iroquoian Women: The Gantowisas provides a thorough, organized look at the social, political, economic, and religious roles of women among the Iroquois, explaining their fit with the larger culture. Gantowisas means more than simply woman – gantowisas is woman acting in her official capacity as fire-keeping woman, faith-keeping woman, gift-giving woman; leader, counselor, judge; Mother of the People. This is the light in which the reader will find her in Iroquoian Women. Barbara Alice Mann draws upon worthy sources, be they early or modern, oral or written, to present a Native American point of view that insists upon accuracy, not only in raw reporting, but also in analysis. Iroquoian Women is the first book-length study to regard Iroquoian women as central and indispensable to Iroquoian studies.

With a spotlight focused squarely on the agency of public authority and spiritually based power structures, Dr. Mann’s book is a comprehensive comparison between the Iroquoian food-and-farm system before European contact and the U.S. food-and-farm system (which became official in 1789 with the adoption of the U.S. Constitution). Dr. Mann delineates the historical transformation from one food system to the other through racisms imposed by European settlers, merchants, military, missionaries, scholars, and monarchs. The primary racisms were:

1. Systematic removal of indigenous women from their adult authority over the food-and-farm system of their families, clans, and nations
2. Active replacement of indigenous spiritual beliefs underpinning a living, place-based food-and-farm economy with institutionalized religions and abstract philosophies from other geographies and other eras
3. Slavery of non-Europeans (African-Americans, American Indians, especially the sexual enslavement of women)
4. Denial of the authority (freedom) of non-humans
5. Genocide

Of particular interest to U.S. food-and-farm system practitioners is Dr. Mann’s detailed description of the interlocking adult female responsibilities for the food economy. The clan mothers’ authority constituted more than 50% of the Iroquois League’s power structure and is codified in the Iroquois Constitution (AKA the Great Law of Peace, adopted about 1150 AD).

Key aspects of the Iroquois League’s food-and-farm economy were (and perhaps still are):
a. Women’s councils and men’s councils
b. Authority of women’s councils
— setting the agenda for both councils
— veto power over decisions of the men’s councils
— appointing chiefs (male and female)
— “ownership” of and responsibility for the distribution system (food, goods, farmland, etc.)
— maintenance of clan records: Identity and adoption
— farming, soil production
c. Authority of men’s councils
— forestry, hunting, fishing
— international relations, negotiations
d. Statement of principles (which the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution echoes)
e. A 5-year sunset clause (the agreement had to be renewed every 5 years, with or without amendments). My interpretation is that this clause made the Iroquois Constitution a “living” agreement, able to change with the times, in an organic manner.

The special and unique values of this book regarding how structural racisms are embedded in the U.S. food system are multiple:
— Written from an indigenous perspective, using both scholarly sources and oral traditions
— Takes on all the contradictions of current U.S. society — economic, political, spiritual, social, personal, environmental, academic, legal — and explicates them with facts, flair, and fun
— Details differences between the U.S. Constitution and the original model, the Iroquois Constitution: Shows exactly how the cornerstone of the U.S. was out of kilter from the beginning — and by how much and in what directions.
— Identifies key historical differences between the experiences of the Eastern native American Indians (east of the Mississippi) and Western native nations. Shows how the historical record has been skewed to reflect the Western Indian experience, especially the Plains nations, at the expense of making the Eastern nations almost invisible.
— Demonstrates how the food-and-farm system is connected to all other aspects of human life — spiritual, political, etc.
— Distinguishes “grassroots” democracy as a specific type of democratic organization and one that is most likely to manifest long-term equity in the food system

Unfortunately, as this book points out, despite the direct influence of the Iroquois League on the drafting of the U.S. Constitution, the U.S. Constitution is itself a racist, moneyist, abstract document without any grounding in a living food-and-farm system. A 21st century American need only compare our current U.S. food system with the Iroquoian food system to see the same structural racisms still at work. They are still obstructing the ability of all Americans — human and non-human — to feed ourselves, our families, and our communities, especially if we want to feed ourselves without interfering with other lands’ and peoples’ ability to feed themselves.


1. Omissions from the U.S. Constitution: Grassroots economics (AKA the food-and-farm system)
p. 212 -13
It is interesting to me that, in all of the debate furiously raging ever since Bruce Johansen’s Forgotten Founders (1982) rubbed academia’s nose in the fact that the authors of the U.S. Constitution had been strongly influenced by the Iroquoian Great Law, few have noticed the main disparity between Iroquoia and the United States. It was not the political presence or absence of women, or trial by jury, or a standing army, or any of a dozen other, readily spotted political differences that marked the distinction. It was, instead, the failure of the Founding Fathers also to adopt and adapt the Iroquoian system of grass–roots economics that complemented its political base of Ne” Gashasde”’sa’ (popular sovereignty).

The true failure of the resultant hybrid lay in the unthinking assumption by the Founding Fathers that European war-lord economics and Haudenosaunee Ne” gashasde”’sa’ could operate in harness without the plunder economics of Europe throwing the political system of Ne” Gashasde”’sa’ into disarray. By furthermore ignoring the sibling principles of Ne” Sken’no” (Health) and Ne” Gai’ihwiio (Righteousness) as practical tools of economic prosperity (as opposed to mere moralistic pieties), the Founding Fathers sabotaged hopes for real participatory democracy by writing the proprietary economics of Europe into their Constitution. It is this mismatch of popular but unfunded sovereignty bound to the naked exploitation of capitalism that is short-circuiting American Ne” gashasde”’sa’ today, subverting the political will of the people through the undue economic pressures exerted by a financially privileged elite. No such unbalancing access was possible in the prototype, however, for the clan level where Ne” Gashasde”’sa’ was fomented was also the level at which the confederated economy was managed. Power, will, and weal did not trickle down in Iroquoia; they percolated up.

2. Clan Mothers’ Authority
p. 236
Gifting, whether domestic or international, was obviously a crucial expression of Iroquoian economies. Nevertheless, Euro-American scholars are still interpreting the gifts of Gifting — the Keeping, selection, and distribution of the gift-goods and the management of the feasts associated with them–from an adamantly sexist perspective, presenting women’s roles as secondary and supportive, the housewifely duties of cooking and washing up afterwards. The gantowisas were not the scullery maids of the League, however. They were its Federal Reserve Board.

At bottom, Gifting was a means of distributing Mother Earth’s bounty. It was, therefore, under the express control of the gantowisas. The Clan Mothers managed what Judith Brown called a large “public treasury.”…Since it was the gantowisas who cultivated and kept both food and gift items, it was they who made the Gifting system possible, providing both the food and the goods. They called —and called off —the party.

p. 237
After four hundred years of colonization and the imposition of Europeanized concepts of economics, the old economic system of the Iroquois is now in disrepair. Under the successive hammer blows of first the Dutch, who turned wampum into money; then the British and French, who insisted on commercializing Gifting into trade; next of the Quakers, who sought to wedge the women apart from their fields and their economic independence; and finally of the Dawes Act, which did its level best to dismantle what remained of communalism, the principle of equitable distribution of wealth was dealt a series of staggering blows.

Due to the determined operation of wages and capital, ownership and dispossession, selfishness and greed, the spiritual economics of communal sharing once managed so smoothly by the gantowisas has now crumbled into the dust of history.

3. Iroquois League: Slavery as Economic Basis of American Colonialism
p. 44
…the League knew that two main considerations, slavery and colonial land-grabbing, motivated the war against themselves. Although by 1690, League gantowisas and sachems (an Algonkin term for “elecxted civil chief” generally used for all nations) were already deeply aware of the colonial push to enslave all non-European peoples, with Native Americans high on the list, they were galvanized by the horrific stories of plantation cruelty that had come into the League along with the Tuscaroras. Thus, when the Revolution broke out, League gantowisas and sachems understood well enough that one of its grand, if unsung, motives was the colonists’ intention of retaining slavery against Great Britain’s act outlawing the slave trade in 1772. It was not lost on the League that, at this time, the primary class of property in the colonies was the so-called human capital, i.e.,, the slaves.

The League was, therefore, fierce in its resistance to slavery, seeing forced labor, not “mercantilism”, as the economic basis of American colonialism. League counselors, male and female, excoriated slavery as a primary mechanism of oppression; the greatest insult one Haudenosaunee man could offer another was to alleged that he was a “slave of the white man.” The gantowisas were particularly horrified by the practice of concubinage, or sexual slavery. By 1700, the League gantowisas and sachems had developed a firm policy of resistance to slavery.