Among the Haudenosaunee are groups of people who come together as families called clan. As a matrilineal society, each clan is linked by a common female ancestor with women possessing a leadership role within the clan. The number of clans varies among the nations with the Mohawk only having three to the Oneida having nine. The clans are represented by birds and animals and are divided into the three elements: water, land and air. The bear, wolf and deer represent the land element, the turtle, eel and beaver represent the water element and the snipe, hawk and heron represent the air element.

Each member of a clan is considered a relative regardless of which nation they belong to. A wolf clan member of the Mohawk and a wolf clan member of the Seneca nation are still considered relatives. Family names and clans are passed down from mother to child. For example if a man belonging to the turtle clan were to marry a woman of the wolf clan the children would be of the wolf clan. Within certain clans there may also be different types of one animal or bird. For example, the turtle clan has three different types of turtles, the wolf clan has three different types of wolves and the bear clan includes three different types of bears allowing for marriage within the clan as long as each belongs to a different species of the clan.

In Haudenosaunee society each person has their own family, which includes their mother, father and brothers and sisters. But with this comes their extended family including everyone else belonging to the same clan. This system was especially helpful when traveling from nation to nation as people would search out members of their same clan who would then would provide food and shelter and care for them as part of their family. Because people of the same clan are considered family, marriages within the same clan are forbidden. The clan system still survives among those who follow the traditions.