“When we are gone, who will remember us? To humans, we are only monsters.”
—Kovok-mah, in Clan Daughter

Orcs and Iroquois

Orcs evoke powerful impressions. In The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien described them as so malicious that they hated their own kind: the epitome of cruelty and savagery. Tolkien’s orcs have set a literary standard. In much of fantasy fiction, orcs are portrayed as crude, bloodthirsty warriors—often green and fanged—with massive muscles and tiny brains.

But in Queen of the Orcs, they are sympathetic characters. To explain how orcs could be so different from their accepted image, I turned to history’s example. After every conflict, the victors write the losers’ story. If orcs were a defeated race, their conquerors would naturally malign them. Such was the fate of Native Americans in the nineteenth century. The settlers and soldiers who slaughtered them to seize their lands considered them devils. The proverb “The only good Indian is a dead one” reflected the prevailing sentiment. In 1894, William Nye wrote in his History of the United States: “The real Indian has the dead and unkempt hair of a busted buggy cushion filled with feathers. He lies, he steals, he assassinates, he mutilates, he tortures.”

I envisioned orcs as in a similar situation. Dispossessed of their traditional lands, they buy a measure of peace by fighting in the armies of their oppressors. There, they are feared, despised, and misunderstood.

One Native American tribe in particular inspired my depiction of orcs. Haudenosaunee means “people of the longhouse,” and they once dominated central New York. The tribe is more commonly called the Iroquois, which is a French mispronunciation of an enemy’s term for them meaning “black snakes.” In similar fashion, “orc” is a human distortion of “urkzimmuthi,” which means “children of the Mother.”

The concept that orcish females possess authority within their society derives from the Haudenosaunee example. Their women owned the dwellings and the crops in the fields. They also determined which men governed the tribe. With orcs, I took matters further and had them ruled by matriarchs and a queen. Orc clans are modeled after Haudenosaunee ones, which were matrilineal. All the women in a longhouse belonged to the same clan. When a man married, he moved to his wife’s hearth, where he lived surrounded by her female relatives. Children belonged to their mother’s clan.

The Haudenosaunee practice of adopting outsiders into their tribe is also reflected in Queen of the Orcs. Such persons were accepted so wholeheartedly that even former captives often refused to leave when given the chance. The most famous of these was Mary Jemison, who was captured as a teenager in 1758. In her later life she recalled being treated as “a long lost child” upon her adoption. Mary became Dickewamis, and her descendents are still members of the tribe.

The Haudenosaunee were formidable warriors. Both the French and British sought them as allies in their struggle for the continent. The tribe preserved their territory by playing each side against the other. Though skilled diplomats, the Haudenosaunee misjudged the nature of the American Revolution and remained loyal to the British. Thus, like the orcs, they fell to a more numerous foe whose approach to warfare was far more systematic and ruthless.

My orcs are fictional, but their creation was influenced by fact. Studying Haudenosaunee history and culture showed me how two races come into conflict. Like the heroine in my story, I found that understanding can lead to respect and even love.

The William Nye quote is from After Columbus: The Smithsonian Chronicle of the North American Indians by Herman J. Viola, copyright 1990.

The Mary Jemison quote is from James E. Seaver’s interview of Mary published in 1823.