Kin Naming Systems: Part 2

  Map of Omaha, Crow, and Iroquois territories of North America


The remaining kin terminological systems are named after three North American Indian cultures that used them: Omaha click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, Crow click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, and Iroquois click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced.  The fact that these naming systems are strikingly different from each other is a reminder that there was considerable cultural diversity among the original inhabitants of the western hemisphere.

In order to comprehend the Omaha, Crow, and Iroquois naming systems, it is important to first understand a common distinction made between types of cousins in societies following unilineal descent.  For the majority of people in contemporary Europe and the Americas whose cultures use the bilateral descent principle, these cousin differences seem to be irrelevant and unnecessary.  However, they are logical and easy to understand when viewed in their cultural context.

Parallel cousins are ego's father's brother's children and mother's sister's children.  In contrast, cross cousins are ego's father's sister's children and mother's brother's children.  In other words, there is a crossing of gender in the parent generation with cross cousins but not with parallel ones.  The gender of the cousin is not relevant in making this distinction.

Diagram of parallel and cross cousins

The importance of this categorization of cousins can be understood in terms of descent relationships.  Note that in the red patrilineage shown below, parallel cousins are members of ego's unilineage, while cross cousins are not.

Diagram of patrilateral cross and parallel cousins

The same is true with matrilineages--only parallel cousins are relatives.  These distinctions can be critical in determining who an individual may and may not marry and with whom there is likely to be mutual assistance obligations.

Diagram of matrilateral parallel and cross cousins


Omaha
System

The Omaha kin naming system is characteristic of societies that use patrilineal descent.  Relatives are lumped together on the basis of descent and gender.  Siblings and parallel cousins of the same gender are given the same term of reference (5 = males and 6 = females).  Father and father's brothers also have the same kin term (1).

Diagram of the Omaha kin naming system with terms for siblings, parallel cousins, and father's brother labeled with numbers

Other people in ego's mother's patrilineage are lumped across generations  (2 = female and 4 = male).  This reflects the comparative unimportance of the mother's side of the family in a society that strongly follows the patrilineal descent principle.

Diagram of the Omaha kin naming system with terms for distant collateral relatives labeled with numbers


Crow
System

An almost mirror image of the Omaha pattern is the matrilineally based Crow kin naming system.  Relatives are also lumped together on the basis of descent and gender.  Siblings and parallel cousins of the same gender are given the same term of reference (5 = male and 6 = female).  Mother and mother's sister also have the same kin term (2).

Diagram of the Crow kin naming system with terms for siblings, parallel cousins, and mother's sister labeled with numbers

Other people in ego's father's matrilineage are lumped across generations   (1 = male and 3 = female).  This reflects the comparative unimportance of the father's side of the family in a society that strongly follows the matrilineal principle of descent.

Diagram of the Crow kin naming system with terms for distant collateral relatives labeled with numbers

Differences between the Omaha and Crow systems can be seen in the terms of reference for cross cousins and whether or not uncles and aunts are lumped with them.  These differences stem from the fact that the Omaha system is patrilineal and the Crow is matrilineal.  Compare the two kin naming systems and note the similarities and differences.

Omaha
system
   
Crow
system
 


Iroquois
System

In the Iroquois kin naming system, the same term of reference is used for father and father's brother (1) as well as mother and mother's sister (2).  This merging is related to shared membership in unilineages, as it is in the Omaha and Crow systems.  However, the Iroquois system may be either patrilineal or matrilineal and is usually not as strongly one or the other.

Diagram of the Iroquois kin naming system with terms for ego's parents and some of their siblings labeled with numbers

Also like the Omaha and Crow patterns, the Iroquois system lumps together parallel cousins from both sides of the family with siblings but distinguishes them by gender (5 = male and 6 = female).  What sets the Iroquois system apart is the fact that cross cousins are also lumped together and distinguished by gender (7 = male and 8 = female).  The reason is that there usually is a preference for marriage to cross cousins in societies that use the Iroquois system.

diagram of the Iroquois kin naming system with terms for ego's siblings and some more distant collateral relatives labeled with numbers


Summary

There are six distinct kin naming systems used around the world.  They are referred to as the Eskimo, Hawaiian, Sudanese, Omaha, Crow, and Iroquois systems.  Keep in mind that they are not limited to the cultures for which they were named.  It is also important to understand that these systems are seldom followed exactly--they usually have unique cultural variations.

Kin naming systems are complex and confusing for most students.  If you are still not clear on how they work, it would be a good idea to go over them again.

 

  Previous Topic 

  Return to Menu  

  Practice Quiz  


This page was last updated on Wednesday, June 28, 2006.
Copyright 1997-2006 by Dennis O'Neil. All rights reserved.
Illustration credits