Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
August 2004

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Indian Adoption



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico . It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]



Adoption was an almost universal political and social institution which originally dealt only with persons but later with families, clans or gentes, bands, and tribes. It had its beginnings far back in the history of primitive society and, after passing through many forms and losing much ceremonial garb, appears today in the civilized institution of naturalization. In the primitive mind the fundamental motive underlying adoption was to defeat the evil purpose of death to remove a member of the kinship group by actually replacing in person the lost or dead member. In primitive philosophy, birth and death are the results of magic power; birth increases and death decreases the orenda [orenda is a supernatural force, the inner spirit, the source of power and life of the individual. The group, which also has orenda, would be weakened if the orenda of a dead person was not replaced by that of an adoptee] of the clan or family of the group affected. In order to preserve that magic power intact, society, by the exercise of constructive orenda, resuscitates the dead in the person of another in whom is embodied the blood and person of the dead. As the diminution of the number of the kindred was regarded as having been caused by magic power - by the orenda of some hostile agency - so the prevention or reparation of that loss must be accomplished by a like power, manifested in ritualistic liturgy and ceremonial. From the view-point of the primitive mind adoption serves to change, by a fiction of law, the personality as well as the political status of the adopted person. For example, there were captured two white persons (sisters) by the Seneca, and instead of both being adopted into one clan, one was adopted by the Deer and the other by the Heron clan, and thus the blood of the two sisters was changed by the rite of adoption in such wise that their children could intermarry. Furthermore, to satisfy the underlying concept of the rite, the adopted person must be brought into one of the strains of kinship in order to define the standing of such person in the community, and the kinship name which the person receives declares his relation to all other persons in the family group; that is to say, should the adopted person be named son rather than uncle by the adopter, his status in the community would differ accordingly. From the political adoption of the Tuscarora by the Five Nations, about 1728, it is evident that tribes, families, clans, and groups of people could be adopted like persona. A fictitious age might be conferred upon the person adopted, since age largely governed the rights, duties, and position of persons in the community. In this wise, by the action of the constituted authorities, the age of an adopted group was fixed and its social and political importance thereby determined. Owing to the peculiar circumstances of the expulsion of the Tuscarora from North Carolina it was deemed best by the Five Nations, in view of their relation to the Colonies at that time, to give an asylum to the Tuscarora simply by means of the institution of adoption rather than by the political recognition of the Tuscarora as a member of the League. Therefore the Oneida made a motion in the federal council of the Five Nations that they adopt the Tuscarora as a nursling still swathed to the cradleboard. This having prevailed, the Five Nations, by the spokesman of the Oneida , said: "We have set up for ourselves a cradle-board in the extended house," that is, in the dominions of the League. After due probation the Tuscarora, by separate resolutions of the council, on separate motions of the Oneida, were made successively a boy, a young man, a man, an assistant to the official woman cooks, a warrior, and lastly a peer, having the right of chiefship in the council on an equal footing with the chiefs of the other tribes. From this it is seen that a tribe or other group of people may be adopted upon any one of several planes of political growth, corresponding to the various ages of human growth. This seems to explain the problem of the alleged subjugation and degradation of the Delawares by the Iroquois, which is said to have been enacted in open council. When it is understood that the Five Nations adopted the Delaware tribe as men assistants to the official cooks of the League it becomes clear that no taint of slavery and degradation was designed to be given by the act. It merely made the Delawares probationary heirs to citizenship in the League, and citizenship would be conferred upon them after suitable tutelage. In this they were treated with much greater consideration than were the Tuscarora, who are of the language and lineage of the Five Nations. The Delawares were not adopted as warriors or chiefs, but as assistant cooks; neither were they adopted, like the Tuscarora, as infants, but as men whose duty it was to assist the women whose official function was to cook for the people at public assemblies. Their office was hence well exemplified by the possession of a corn pestle, a hoe, and petticoats. This fact, misunderstood, perhaps intentionally misrepresented, seems to explain the mystery concerning the "making women" of the Delawares . This kind of adoption was virtually a state of probation, which could be made long or short.


The adoption of a chief's son by a fellow chief, customary in some of the tribes of the N. W. coast, differs in motive and effect from that defined above, which concerns persons alien to the tribe, upon whom it confers citizenship in the clan, gens and tribe, as this deals only with intra-tribal persons for the purpose of conferring some degree of honour upon them rather than citizenship and political authority.


The Iroquois, in order to recruit the great losses incurred in their many wars, put into systematic practice the adoption not only of individuals but also of entire clans and tribes. The Tutelo, the Saponi, the Nanticoke , and other tribes and portions of tribes were forced to incorporate with the several tribes of the Iroquois confederation by formal adoption.

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Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada, Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada, Ottawa, 1913, 632p., pp. 7-8.

© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College