Book Review – Iroquoian Women: The Gantowisas

Iroquoian Women

Barbara Alice Mann discusses the roles of the Gantowisas (women) in Iroquoian culture, past and present. On the surface, it appears that the text focuses on the social, economic, political, and spiritual roles of the Gantowisas among the confederacy of Iroquois Nations whose ancestral territories covered not only New York State, but also portions of Canada, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Ohio; and now because of European colonization also expands into Wisconsin, Oklahoma, and beyond. However, this book is also a critique of other experts of Iroquoian history and culture. Thus, Mann compared primary source materials such as missionary tales, ethnographic research, and other early historical accounts to one another, but more importantly she compared them to the oral Keepings of voices that were often overlooked in the accounts recorded by male researchers – those of the Gantowisas. Mann found that much of the early research was incomplete, inaccurate, misinterpreted, and misrepresented by those who held or were influenced by a male-dominated society and who held a Western worldview. She named the results of such biased research “Euro-formed”.

The purpose of Mann’s work is to fill in the gap and to straighten out distorted perceptions; something that she explains is often referred to in Iroquoian cultures as untangling someone’s hair, and untangle she does. Mann made clear that although often missing from historical accounts, as Mother of the Nations, the Gantowisas were the leaders in their societies, acting with official capacity as mediators, counselors, and judges. Furthermore, they were the fire-keepers, faith-keepers, peacekeepers, and shamans or medicine women. Mann walked her readers through the Iroquoian historical record known as the Epochs of Time, showing that women have always been leaders in their society. In short, Mann revealed that the Gantowisas are and have always been the highly respected foundation of the Iroquoian world.

Another important element in Mann’s account of Iroquoian culture was that the society that the Gantowisas created was rather egalitarian. Specifically, the Iroquoian concept of a gendered world referred to complementary ‘twin’ forces that interact with one another as balanced pairs in order to maintain a cosmic balance. This served to shape a worldview where individuals, living in community, maintained cooperative and reciprocal relationships and where power was balanced. This is quite different from notions of opposing genders that shape a worldview centered on competition and conflict, and a good/evil dichotomy, and a hierarchical social order, which is the norm in Western thought and theory. This is one of the primary tenets of the text: Euro-formed interpretations and analysis often did not reflect the important distinctions between worldviews, and therefore researchers applied a Euro-Western twist, which Mann straightened out. Barbara Alice Mann is performing in the leadership role of Gantowisas today, as is demonstrated by her Iroquoian Woman shaping a more accurate and balanced record of Iroquoian culture and history.

Iroquoian Women: The Gantowisas Foreword by Paula Gunn Allen Third Printing by Barbara A. Mann

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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