The Iroquois Longhouse

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The Iroquois Longhouse


Home to Many. As an example of the distinctive ways in which many Indian groups adapted their housing to fit their physical environment and social needs, the Iroquois longhouse stands out. In every Iroquois village stood thirty or more longhouses. Positioned side by side in parallel rows, longhouses were about twenty feet wide and stretched from forty to two hundred feet in length. Their framework consisted of saplings anchored in the ground and arched into a roof about fifteen feet tall. Sheets of elm bark formed the walls and roof. Inside the longhouse a central corridor, interspersed with fireplaces every twenty or so, traveled the length of the building. Living compartments, one on each side of a hearth, housed separate but related nuclear families. Each dwelling represented a particular matrilineage. Everyone living in a longhouse, except for husbands who moved into their wives apartments, belonged to a lineage traced through the female line. The oldest generation of women, the matrons, in each longhouse dominated its domestic affairs and united the families.

Symbol for a People. The five tribes of the Iroquois (the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas) identified themselves collectively as the Haudenosaunee, meaning the Extended House or the Long-house. The five central council fires of the member tribes stretched across Iroquoia, what is today upstate New York, just like the fires of a longhouse extended the length of its walls. The Haudenosaunee was also called the League of Peace to represent the amicable relations between the Iroquois groups. The culture heroes Deganawidah and Hiawatha established the League of Peace sometime around 1400 a.d. to end a destructive civil war among the Iroquois tribes. They adopted the Longhouse as a metaphor that all Iroquoians would recognize and understand. Just as the longhouse roof united all families living under it to care for one another, the Haudenosaunee joined the Iroquois tribes under one connection of peace. Thus the shelter that Iroquoian people selected as befitting their natural environment developed into the symbol for their identity as a distinct people.

Champlain Shoots Two Mohawk Chiefs

Native Americans were astounded at the power of firearms when they first encountered them. This excerpt was written by Samuel de Champlain in 1609 as he accompanied Montagnais and Algonkin warriors down the Richelieu River into the lake that bears his name. The goal of the party was to war against the Iroquois, and the battle that resulted changed forever the face of Indian warfare in northern New England. Mohawks had no experience with guns, and after their encounter here the traditional rituals, defensive tactics, and woven shields were forgotten in favor of guerrilla warfare. Mohawks and Frenchmen became inveterate enemies from this point onward. Champlain described the battle:

I marched on until I was within some thirty yards of the enemy, who as soon as they caught sight of me halted and gazed at me and I at them. When I saw them make a move to draw their bows upon us, I took aim with my arquebus and shot straight at one of the three chiefs, and with this shot two fell to the ground and one of their companions was wounded who died thereof a little later. I had put four bullets into my arquebus.... The Iroquois were much astonished that two men should have been killed so quickly, although they were provided with shields made of cotton thread woven together and wood, which were proof against their arrows. This frightened them greatly.

Source: Colin G. Calloway, ed., Dawnland Encounters: Indians and Europeans in Northern New England (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1991), pp. 137141.


Daniel K. Richter, The Ordeal of the Longhouse: The Peoples of the Iroquois League in the Era of European Colonization (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992).

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