views updated May 21 2018


LOCATION: United States (New York, Wisconsin); Canada (Quebec, Ontario)
POPULATION: over 125,000 (U.S. and Canada)
LANGUAGE: English; various Iroquois dialects
RELIGION: Traditional tribal religions
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 2: Native North Americans


The Iroquoian peoples are a group of tribes from the Great Lakes area who speak dialects of the Iroquoian family of Native North American languages and have similar lifestyles. For our purposes, we will only consider those tribes who are members of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy (or League of the Iroquois): the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca, Cayuga, and Tuscarora. Other Iroquoian peoples include the Huron, Erie, and Wyandotte.

"Iroquois" is the name adopted by the French for the people they encountered in the Great Lakes region. The name was given them either by the Ojibwa (or Chippewa), in which case it means "poisonous snakes," or by the Algonquin, meaning "bad or terrifying man." Both the Ojibwa and Algonquin were enemies of the Iroquois. The Iroquois call themselves Houdenosaunee, or "People of the Longhouse." The Iroquois are most likely descended from the Owasco peoples, who lived in the Great Lakes area as long as 1,000 years ago. The Owasco were settled agriculturalists and supplemented their diet through hunting and fishing. The Iroquois continued in that tradition well into the 19th century, and even today the basic structure of their life remains the same, though on a much more limited scale.

The Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca, and Cayuga were constantly at war with one another over hunting and fishing grounds, honor and revenge, and, later, trapping grounds for the fur trade, in the early part of their history. Eventually, two men joined together to create the Iroquois Confederacy. An Onondaga named Hiawatha (not the same Hiawatha as in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem) began preaching peace among the Iroquois nations but found little support and even active resistance. According to legend, all three of his daughters died of illness or injuries thought to be caused by the evil wishes of his opponents, particularly an Onondaga chief named Thadodaho, who was very powerful and very antagonistic. In despair, Hiawatha left the Onondagas and wandered to the outskirts of a Mohawk village. There he met Deganawida, who was either a Mohawk or a Huron, and the two of them discovered a great sympathy toward each other. Together they convinced the Mohawk to be the first nation to join the Iroquois Confederacy. Soon the Oneida agreed to join as well. Hiawatha and Deganawida knew the Confederacy would not succeed without the support of Thadodaho, so they set about persuading him to join. Finally, Thadodaho agreed and the Onondaga became the third nation in the Confederacy. The Seneca and Cayuga then followed. The Mohawk, as the most eastern tribe, became the Keepers of the Eastern Door; the Seneca, as the westernmost tribe, were designated the Keepers of the Western Door, and the Onondaga, in the center, became the Keepers of the Council Fire. Every year, the 50 sachems (peace chiefs) who made up the Great Council of the Confederacy met at the Onondaga council house to discuss and vote on matters of the Confederacy. Sachems were always men, but they were chosen by the clan matrons, the elder women who headed each clan. Sachems served for life, or until their clan matron decided to remove them from office. Although the five nations each had a different number of sachems on the council, each nation had only one vote. So the sachems of each nation had to decide together how to use their one vote. In this way, each of the five nations had equal power in the Confederacy.

The first European known to have made contact with the Iroquois was the French explorer Jacques Cartier, who encountered the Iroquois in 1534. The Iroquois had already begun receiving European goods, such as metal knives and hatchets, guns, glass beads, and wool cloth, in trade with more eastern tribes. By the 17th century, the Iroquois were trading directly with the French, who were most interested in furs, particularly beaver pelts. The fur trade created tremendous hostilities between the Iroquois Confederacy tribes and their neighbors, especially the Huron. Competition was fierce for the best trapping grounds, and the French fueled the hostilities so that they could maintain control of the fur trade. In 1609 Samuel de Champlain, the governor of New France (now Canada), helped several neighboring, hostile tribes attack the Mohawk. At least 50 Mohawk were killed in the attack. Later, in 1649 the Iroquois invaded Huron territory in the search for more furs (as over-hunting had depleted the number of beaver and other fur-bearing animals in their home territory). The Iroquois decimated the Huron, killing most of them and forcing the others to relocate farther from Iroquois lands.

The Iroquois themselves had their population decimated during the 1600s by diseases introduced by Europeans for which the Iroquois had no immunities or known treatments. Epidemics of measles, influenza, smallpox, tuberculosis, and gastroenteritis (a stomach disorder) wiped out thousands of Iroquois and other Native North Americans. At the height of their power, the Iroquois Confederacy had boasted 10,000 or more members. By the end of the 18th century, their numbers had been reduced by more than half to about 4,000. At the turn of the 20th century (1910), their population had not yet fully recovered, reaching only a little over 7,000.

In 1722–23 the Tuscarora, an Iroquoian tribe from North Carolina, joined the Confederacy. They had been forced by European violence and abuses to move north, and they were surprised and delighted to find people speaking a very similar language, with a very similar lifestyle, living in New York. The Tuscarora settled down there, with the Oneida, and were soon accepted into the Confederacy.

The now Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy were split by the American Revolution (1775–83), when the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, and Mohawk were persuaded by Mohawk Joseph Brant (1742–1807) to become British allies, while the Oneida and Tuscarora chose to side with the American colonists. The Iroquois had remained neutral throughout the European struggles for control of the "New World" in the 17th and early 18th centuries. The Onondaga leader Teganissorens had convinced the Iroquois in 1700 not to become involved in the French and British wars, or the British and Dutch battles. Even when many of their Native North American neighbors chose sides in the French and Indian War (1761–63), the Six Nations refused to help either the French or the British. But this resolve fell apart during the long and disruptive American Revolution, and the Confederacy fell apart as well. When the American colonists finally won the war, many of the four Iroquois nations who had sided with the British relocated to Canada where the atmosphere was friendlier. Of those who stayed, the new U.S. government sent the Cayugas and Mohawks to a reservation (called a "reserve" in Canada) in Ontario, Canada, and forced most of the Oneidas to relocate to a reservation near Green Bay, Wisconsin. Some Iroquois were allowed to remain on their original homelands in what had become New York State, but European American settlement had greatly reduced their territories. Further European American expansion continued to squeeze out the Iroquois until finally the U.S. government (and Canada) confined the Iroquois to small reservations. The Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy were now reduced to small subsistence farmers, dependent on the U.S. and Canadian governments for their survival.

Because the Iroquois live in both Canada and the United States but think of themselves as one people, in 1974 they were given the right by a treaty to cross the border between the two countries without restriction. In 1924 the U.S. Congress passed a law rescinding this right, and the Iroquois were forced to fight in the courts to regain their rights. Clinton Rickard of the Tuscarora Nation founded the Indian Defense League in 1927 to help in the fight. This was the first advocacy organization for Native North Americans. In 1928 the Iroquois won back their right to cross the European-imposed borderline that passes through their lands. This victory is celebrated each year in July by a "Border Crossing" festival. Conflicts continue to arise, however, between the Iroquois Nations and the U.S. and Canadian nations over these rights. Legal battles also continue over land claims and water rights and over the right of the Iroquois people to possess their own history. Recently, the Iroquois finally succeeded in having some wampum belts (belts of strung beads that tell the stories of Iroquois history) returned to them that had been on display for decades at the New York State Museum.


The Iroquois live mainly on seven reservations in the Finger Lakes and Great Lakes region of New York State and on five reserves (as they are called in Canada) in Quebec and Ontario, Canada. Some Oneida also live on a small reservation near Green Bay, Wisconsin. The largest reservation, or reserve, is the Six Nations Grand River Reserve in Ontario, Canada. Most of the Iroquois on the Grand River Reserve are Mohawk or Cayuga. The reservations and reserves are all located (except for the Oneida reservation in Wisconsin) on the original home-lands of the Iroquois, though with only a fraction of the territory. The terrain of these lands is hilly and wooded, covered with deciduous and evergreen forests. The climate is temperate with four distinct seasons. Fertile soil, sufficient rainfall (and snowfall), and an adequate growing season combine to make this area very good for farming. The Iroquois have been settled agriculturalists throughout their history. An abundance of wild game and fish provided large amounts of easily obtained protein for their diet as well. The Iroquois, therefore, were a healthy people who were able to sustain themselves in large, permanent settlements. This allowed them to develop a highly organized social and governmental structure known as the Iroquois Confederacy or League of the Iroquois. Some see great similarities in the government and constitution of the new United States of America and the structure of the Iroquois Confederacy.

Not all Iroquois live on the reservations or reserves. Many have left to find work in cities. The largest groups of off-reservation Iroquois are in the cities of Buffalo, Rochester, Niagara Falls, and Brooklyn, New York.

The total population of Iroquois today is over 125,000.The Mohawk are the most numerous of the Iroquois nations, followed by the Oneida and Seneca. The Cayuga, Onondaga, and Tuscarora nations are much smaller.


All Iroquois speak dialects of the Iroquoian family of Native North American languages. There was no written language for most of their history (now it is written with the Roman alphabet), but the Iroquois did use wampum belts (belts of strung beads in various designs) to tell the stories of their history. These wampum belts were a form of recorded information. The Europeans sometimes used wampum belts as money in trade, but the Iroquois never did.

An Iroquois mother chooses her baby's name from a list of those names owned by her clan, choosing one that no other living person is using at that time.


The Iroquois have a combination earth-diver and culture-hero (or, in this case, two-hero) creation story. Before the earth or anything on it existed, the Sky People lived in Sky World, high in the heavens. They were ruled by Sky Chief and his wife, Sky Woman. When Sky Woman became pregnant, Firedragon—a notorious troublemaker—told Sky Chief that the child was not Sky Chief's. Sky Chief became enraged and tore the Tree of Life, which grew in the center of Sky World, from the ground. Sky Woman bent over to look through the hole it left in the ground. In some versions of the story, she simply fell through the hole. In other versions, Sky Chief pushed her. In any event Sky Woman fell out of Sky World towards the deep waters below. The birds and animals below managed to save her by first having the birds break her fall and support her on their wings, then sending various animals down into the waters to try to find some earth. All failed until Muskrat dove down very deep and came up with a bit of mud in his paw. The animals placed the mud on Turtle's back and the birds set Sky Woman down on top of it. This bit of mud on Turtle's back became the Earth.

Sky Woman eventually gave birth to twin boys, Good Twin and Bad Twin. Good Twin was born first, in the usual way, but Bad Twin was so impatient he pushed his way out of his mother's body through her armpit and she died. The plants that later became the Iroquois' staple foods sprang up from Sky Woman's grave. Good Twin and Bad Twin became enemies and fought a series of terrible battles, creating the things of this world as they went. Good Twin ultimately won and then created human beings to enjoy this world.

The Iroquois traditionally told stories around the fire during the long winter months when there was little else to do. These stories were told both for entertainment and to educate the young about Iroquois history and traditions.


There is a special longhouse in each village that serves as a cultural center for members of the Iroquois community where they can learn about practicing the traditional way of life. In the past, the longhouse was a dwelling and also a spiritual center for the Iroquois. To say someone is "longhouse" today means that they follow the traditional Iroquois way of life.

European missionaries of many denominations established missions among the Iroquois in the 1600s and attempted to convert them to Christianity. Many Iroquois have since become Christian or have combined Christianity with their traditional beliefs. Today some Iroquois remain purely traditional, but most of them are Christian.

One Mohawk who took strongly to Christianity was Kateri Tekawitha (1656–80). She converted to Christianity in 1670 and became a Catholic nun. Called a saint while still alive by those who knew her, Kateri became a candidate for sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church in 1884 and was declared "venerable" in 1943, then "blessed" in 1980. The campaign to have her declared a full saint continues.

Handsome Lake (?–1815) was a Seneca visionary who started a new religion in the early time called Gaiwiio, or "Good Word." Followers of Gaiwiio today refer to it as the New Religion.


The Iroquois celebrate seasonal changes and events relating to the production of food. There were traditionally six to eight festivals each year, including planting, ripening, and harvest times, maple sugar season and berry-picking seasons, and the New Year at midwinter. The most important was the New Year festival. One custom at the New Year festival was dream guessing. People would tell the community, through song, dance, or silent gestures, about a powerful dream they had had, and the members of the community would try to guess the dream. Then the community would come up with a way to make that dream come true. For example, if a woman dreamed of having a plot of land in which to plant corn, the community would give her that land. If someone dreamed of being angry with and doing violence to another member of the community, the people would find a way to work out the conflict through non-violent means. This custom allowed the Iroquois to resolve any tensions and fulfill unexpressed desires in their community.

A very significant ceremony developed after the founding of the Iroquois Confederacy. When a chief dies, a Condolence ceremony is held where the founding of the Confederacy is commemorated and the Condolence committee talks about the deceased chief and other leaders of the past. The Condolence ceremony helps comfort the mourners of the deceased chief and welcomes the new chief who has been chosen by the clan matron. Deer antlers are placed on the new chief's head.

A modern holiday among the Iroquois is Border Crossing Day, held on the third Saturday of July, which celebrates the birthday of Clinton Rickard, founder of the Indian Defense League of America in 1927. Rickard and the Indian Defense League helped win back the Iroquois' right to cross the U.S.-Canadian border without restriction.


Traditionally, babies were given a taste of animal oil right after birth to clean out their system and feed the guardian spirit that lived in their soul from birth until death. When a boy was born, he was then dipped in a stream to make him strong and courageous. The names given Iroquois infants were confirmed by the community at the next major festival.

Most boys upon reaching puberty would go on a Vision Quest. This entailed going alone into the woods without food and waiting for days, or even weeks, for that boy's personal guardian spirit to appear (in the form of an animal or bird). The guardian spirit would give the boy instructions for his adult life, and a special song to sing for courage and protection in times of danger.

At the time of a girl's first menstrual period, she would cook and eat her food alone from special pots. She would continue to do this at each menstrual period thereafter until menopause.


The Iroquois traditionally put a high value on self-reliance, endurance, and courage in both men and women. Gentle and considerate towards their own people, they could be cruel to their enemies. The Iroquois code of honor required revenge for injury or insult. Murder was avenged by murder.


Before they were confined to reservations, the Iroquois lived in large villages surrounded by wooden palisades (a fence of tall pointed stakes used for defense) with watchtowers along the top. The villages had to be moved every 10–20 years because the soil would become depleted and the available wood for building and fuel would be used up. They tried to make the new site as close as possible to the previous one.

Villages were made up of as many as 30 longhouses, each of which housed up to 100 or more people. A longhouse was so called because it was rectangular: 130 or more feet (40 or more meters) in length and about 30–33 feet in width. Each long-house had a center aisle where the cooking fires burned and separate rooms along both sides divided by hide or bark partitions. Each family had one room. Inside the family's room was a sleeping and sitting platform with the belongings stored underneath and shelves above to store food. Bearskins were used as bedcovers.

The Iroquois made elmbark canoes. These canoes were not as fast on the water or as maneuverable as birchbark canoes, but they were sturdier and could even be used as ladders to climb over the walls of enemy camps.

Today, the Iroquois live on reservations (called "reserves" in Canada) in modern housing and use cars and buses for everyday transportation. Health problems typical to all Native North Americans affect the Iroquois: diabetes, alcoholism, depression.


The Iroquois are matrilineal and matrilocal (lineage is inherited through the mother and newly married couples live near the bride's family). The extended family is very important to the Iroquois. The main unit of society in traditional times was the ohwachira, a group of relatives who trace their ancestry back to one woman. The eldest living woman was usually the head of the ohwachira. Two or more ohwachiras make up a clan. The Mohawk and Oneida had three clans: Turtle, Bear, and Wolf. The other Iroquois nations had these three clans and more, such as Beaver, Deer, and Hawk. Children in a matrilineal, matrilocal society are raised by their mother and her sisters and brothers, not by their father. Men helped raise their sisters' children, not their own.

Adoption of children and adults was common among the Iroquois. Enemy captives were sometimes adopted into a clan to keep it strong. Most captives were glad to be adopted because they could not return to their homes, having lost respect among the members of their former community by allowing themselves to be captured.

Women were expected to give birth quietly and with courage. To cry or scream during labor, no matter how painful it was, was very bad form. Babies spent most of the first year of their life strapped to a cradleboard, a flat board with a footrest at the bottom and a wooden hoop to protect the baby's head at the top. Cradleboards could be carried on the mother's back or propped against a tree or house while the mother was working. Cattail fluff was used for diapers.

Once the Iroquois were confined to reservations, family life began to change. Nuclear family units began to live in separate houses, rather than together with their cousins, etc., in a longhouse. With the extended family no longer on the premises to help with childrearing, and European-dominated education that taught that the patrilineal European culture was superior to matrilineal Native North American culture, men became the heads of families rather than women. Traditional-ists among the Iroquois continue to struggle to maintain the old ways with matrilineal extended families and a strong clan system. But, swimming against the tide of modern Western European culture is difficult.


Modern Iroquois wear Western-style clothing for everyday purposes. For ceremonies and festivals and to make a statement at activist demonstrations, they will wear traditional clothing.

Traditionally, Iroquois clothing was made from animal skins and furs. The men brought home the skins and the women prepared them by removing the hair and flesh with a stone scraper, soaking the hide in boiled deer brains to soften it, then drying and smoking it to make it durable. The leather was then stitched together with sinew. The fur was left on beaver, bobcat, and squirrel skins for warmth and decoration.

Both men and women wore a soft deerskin loincloth in the summer and leather moccasins. Both sexes were generally bare from the waist up in warm weather. In cooler weather, men wore kilts and women wore longer skirts. Both wore leggings and close-fitting, hip-length shirts with sleeves. In the bitter cold of winter, they wore cloaks or robes made of bear, deer, buffalo, or beaver skins, with the fur left on. Clothing was often embroidered with dyed moose hair and porcupine quills.

Adults painted their bodies with figurative or geometrical designs, using paint made from natural materials, such as red and yellow ochre, bloodroot, and charcoal, mixed with sunflower seed oil. They wore fur and feather caps and collars and jewelry made of feathers, animal teeth, bone, and shell beads. Women wore their hair in a single braid down the back. Men's hairstyles varied. Warriors preferred the "scalp lock" (today often called a "Mohawk"), where the head was shaved bald except for a strip of hair down the center.

After the Europeans arrived, the Iroquois began to wear woolen clothes and to decorate their clothing with glass beads, both obtained in trade with Europeans or other tribes who had traded with the Europeans.


The Iroquois have been farmers since the beginning of their history. Women traditionally did all the planting, tending, and harvesting of crops, while the men supplemented the diet by hunting and fishing. The only crop grown by men was tobacco, used in religious ceremonies. The women also gathered wild plums, grapes, cherries, berries, crabapples, and nuts (chestnuts, black walnuts, and hickory nuts). In the late winter and early spring, maple sap was collected and boiled down into syrup and sugar. This was the only sweetener available to early Iroquois. Corn, squash, and beans were the staple foods, referred to as "the Three Sisters," daughters of Mother Earth. Corn was called "our life," and squash was "supporter of life." Dried corn was often boiled with wood ashes to add nutrition and help loosen the hulls. Once the hulls were removed, the remaining corn, called hominy, was washed and boiled until tender. The Iroquois usually only ate one large meal a day, at midmorning (what would now be called "brunch"), though food was available throughout the day.

John Bartram visited the Iroquois in 1743 and later described a feast they served him, consisting of a corn and fish soup, boiled squash and squash blossoms, and corn dumplings with beans. A modern version of Iroquois corn and fish soup can be made as follows:

Iroquois Soup

4 large mushrooms, sliced
1 medium onion, peeled and thinly sliced
2 (10½ oz.) cans beef consommé
Dash black pepper
¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons yellow corn meal
1 (12 oz.) package frozen haddock fillets
2 tablespoons minced parsley
1 (10 oz.) package frozen baby lima beans
1 clove garlic, crushed
1/3 cup dry sherry (optional)
½ teaspoon basil

Heat corn meal, consommé, mushrooms, garlic, parsley, and seasonings in a large saucepan. Once the liquid boils, reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes without covering. Add remaining ingredients (optional). If haddock is added, break into bite-size pieces as the soup continues to simmer, and stir occasionally. Simmer about 20 more minutes and serve hot. Makes 4-6 servings.

(Adapted from Kimball and Anderson, The Art of American Indian Cooking. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co., 1965, p. 169.)


Traditionally, Iroquois children learned the skills they needed to survive in their world by watching and participating in life with their parents, relatives, and other adults. The Iroquois were first introduced to Western European education by French priests at Quebec in 1608. The priests first tried going to the Native North American villages and learning the Native language so that they could then teach the Natives French culture and Christianity. The Natives simply ignored them. So the priests then tried taking young Native North Americans back to France to educate them there. The idea was that when these young European-educated Natives returned to their villages in North America, they would act as role models for the rest of their community. Instead, the young people found it impossible to adapt to such a foreign life in Europe, and when they returned they no longer fit in with their traditional society because they had not learned the skills necessary to survive there. So they became marginalized in both cultures and often turned to alcohol for comfort, becoming depressed alcoholics rather than role models.

The French priests decided then to send Native North American children to Roman Catholic boarding schools, but most of the children ran away from the schools, and their parents did not encourage them to return. Finally, the French set up reserves (known as "reservations" in the United States); each with a school, Christian church, and missionary hospital, then forced the Native North Americans to relocate there. The French hoped that the Natives would become acculturated to European ways by living on these reserves. Instead, the reserves became institutions of segregation, separating Native North Americans from the rest of European society (and vice versa). The Native peoples became even more resistant to adopting European ways as a result of their enforced segregation.

The Iroquois were never inclined to adopt Christianity or European ways, at least not in large numbers. A few Iroquois did become Christian, and surface accoutrements, such as Western-style clothing, have become standard. Educationally, the Iroquois have done fairly well in recent decades at making the European-dominated system work for them. Lloyd Elm (1934–), an Onondaga educator and administrator, served as the education programs specialist in the Office of Indian Education at the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C., from 1976–1981. Prior to that, he served on the board of directors for the National Education Association (1973–1974), and he now serves on the New York State Board of Regents (which oversees all education in New York).

Of Iroquois 25 years old and older in 1990, only 10.4% have less than a ninth grade education. Almost 72% (71.2% of men, 72.5% of women) are at least high school graduates, and over 41% have some college education. Only a fourth of those actually finish college—11.3% (11.2% of men, 11.5% of women) have a Bachelor of Arts degree or higher.

School enrollment is fairly high for primary and middle school students, but falls off somewhat in secondary school and falls drastically in college.



Traditional Iroquois musical instruments are water-drums (drums filled with water to produce a certain pitch), rattles, and the human voice. A modern Iroquois musician is John Kim Bell (1953–), a Mohawk who became the first Native North American symphony conductor when he was hired by the Toronto Symphony in 1980. Bell also produced and co-wrote the orchestral score for the first Native North American ballet, entitled "In the Land of the Spirits." He founded the Canadian Native Arts Foundation in 1988 to provide scholarships to young Native North Americans who wish to pursue training in the arts. Bell was named to the Order of Canada, a medal given by the governor general of Canada in recognition of outstanding merit and achievement.

The Iroquois language never had its own written form, so the oral tradition became strong and rich. Today, Iroquois write both in English and in the Iroquois language written down with the Roman alphabet. Modern Iroquois writers include Beth Brant (1941–), a Mohawk poet and prose author; and E. Pauline Johnson (1861–1913), an early Mohawk poet and performer. Johnson was also one of the first Native North American women to publish short fiction.

The Mohawk actor Jay Silverheels (1912–80) was best known for his portrayal of Tonto, the Lone Ranger's sidekick in the popular 1950s series. (Silverheels was actually the second actor to play Tonto in the series.) He did a great deal of other work in film and was a tireless activist in the areas of alcohol abuse and the elderly. In the 1960s, he founded the Indian Actors Workshop in Hollywood, and in 1979, the year before he died, he became the first Native North American to be awarded a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame.

Other modern Iroquois in show business include Gary Dale Farmer (1953–), a Cayuga actor, producer, and activist; Graham Greene (1950–), an Oneida actor perhaps best known for his portrayal of Kicking Bird in the 1991 film Dances with Wolves, and for his occasional role as Leonard in the television series Northern Exposure; and Joanne Shenandoah, an Oneida actress, singer, and songwriter who founded Round Dance Productions, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving Native North American culture.


In this modern industrial age, Iroquois (especially Mohawk) men have become famous as high steel construction workers. The work requires the same agility, coordination, and courage as traditional Iroquois occupations, such as hunting and warfare. Iroquois construction workers have traveled all over the U.S. and Canada to build bridges and skyscrapers. The work is very dangerous, and it pays well. Unfortunately, it often separates the men from their families and creates a great deal of stress for everyone—for the men, isolated in large cities, or traveling long distances from home, for weeks or months on end; and for their wives, parents, children, and other loved ones waiting at home, and worrying about their safety.

Many other Iroquois work off-reservation in factories or other industries. Others are professionals, such as teachers, nurses, social workers, doctors, and lawyers. Individual Iroquois have become known for their work as anthropologists, educators, historians, scholars, environmentalists, engineers, journalists, and activists. One well-known 19th-century Seneca, Ely S. Parker (1828–95), became the first Native North American Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Appointed to the post by U.S. president Ulysses S. Grant, a longtime friend of Parker's, he served from 1868 to 1871.


The Iroquois invented the game the French named lacrosse. It is now Canada's national sport. The Iroquois believe that their ancestors gave them the game to develop their endurance and make them great warriors. Boys began learning to play at a very early age. Many Iroquois today still start lacrosse lessons as small children. Lacrosse is played in much the same way as it was centuries ago. Two teams compete to try to move a small ball (traditionally made of wood or deer hide) down the field toward the other team's goal and, finally, into the goal. They carry and throw the ball with long wooden sticks that have a basket at the top, woven from leather thongs. Traditionally, at major festivals each team could have hundreds of men on it and the game could last for hours. Traditional lacrosse was much more violent than today's game. Injuries, often serious ones, were commonplace.

In earlier times children and adults also enjoyed playing a game called "snowsnake," in which a long stick carved and painted to resemble a snake was thrown along an icy path in the snow. The object was to throw it farther than anyone else. Bets were often made on this game. Women played "shinny," a sport resembling today's field hockey.


Entertainment and recreation for the Iroquois is similar to that for the general American population.


Iroquois today are known for their soapstone, wood, bone, and antler carvings and sculptures. They also make baskets, lacrosse sticks, and do leather, feather, and bead work.


The same problems afflicting other Native North Americans today, such as alcoholism, depression, and suicide, also afflict the Iroquois. They also struggle with the same conflict between traditionalists and progressives. This conflict has become particularly fierce at the Akwesasne Mohawk reservation, which straddles the U.S.–Canada border. Violence erupting between traditional and progressive factions has led to many arrests and even a few killings in recent years. In some places this conflict becomes tangled (or is one and the same) with the conflict between traditionally religious and Christian Iroquois.

The loss of land has been a serious problem for the Iroquois, as with other Native North American peoples. In the 1950s the Seneca lost more than 9,000 acres, forcing 130 families to leave their homes, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the Kinzua Dam near Warren, Pennsylvania. Damming the Allegheny River caused waters to flood over Seneca lands. In 1960 the Tuscaroras near Niagara Falls lost a significant amount of land to a public reservoir (an artificial pond or lake, used to store water for public consumption) built by the U.S. government. The Iroquois are currently engaged in many legal battles to regain ancestral lands that were stolen from them during the past two or three centuries by European Americans and Canadians.


Reciprocal dualism is a governing principle that applies to all of Iroquoian society, including gender relations. For the Iro quois there is a symbolic opposition of the sexes. This opposition is reflected in all aspects of Iroquoian society, including the spatial organization of traditional villages. Women's space includes the village and all of the areas of cleared fields to the edge of the woods. Men's space is the wooded areas.

Within the Iroquois longhouse, the senior living woman is the matriarch who controls the household. All of the individuals living in the household are related by blood or marriage to a common female ancestor. The matrilineal descent group is the primary unit of Iroquois government, since males who hold political office derive their positions through their female relatives.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage, the two major theoreticians of the early women's rights movement in the United States, wrote about the superior social, political, religious, and economic status of women among the Iroquois. Their work for women's rights was inspired and influenced by their knowledge of the Iroquois system of gender balance and harmony.

In precontact Iroquois society, individuals who changed gender were accepted; however, the evidence concerning their roles in society is sketchy at best. It is clear that following contact and the conversion of many Iroquois to Christianity, these gender changing individuals were no longer accepted or tolerated. There is evidence that, among the Iroquois, boys who began to demonstrate the characteristics of a woman-man were discouraged to follow the change in gender. As in other tribes where male prestige was based on warlike deeds, the Iroquois did not favor males who followed the female gender.


Champagne, Duane, ed. The Native North American Almanac. Detroit: Gale Research, 1994.

Lang, Sabine. Men as Women, Women as Men: Changing Gender in Native American Cultures. Austin: University of Texas, 1998.

Kimball, Yeffe, and Jean Anderson. The Art of American Indian Cooking. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co., 1965.

Reddy, Marlita A., ed. Statistical Record of Native North Americans, 2nd ed. Detroit: Gale Research, 1995.

Ridington, Jillian and Robin. People of the Longhouse: How the Iroquoian Tribes Lived. Buffalo, New York: Firefly Books, 1995.

Sherrow, Victoria. The Iroquois Indians. New York: Chelsea House, 1992.

Sneve, Virginia Driving Hawk. The Iroquois. New York: Holiday House, 1995.

Wagner, Sally Roesch. Sisters in Spirit: Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Influences on Early American Feminists. Nashville: Book Publishing Company, 2001.

Waldman, Carl. Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes. New York: Facts on File, 1988.

—by D. K. Daeg de Mott


views updated May 23 2018


ETHNONYMS: Five Nations, League of the Iroquois, Six Nations


Identification. The League of the Iroquois was originally a confederacy of five North American Indian tribes: the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca. A sixth tribe, the Tuscarora, joined the League in 1722 after migrating north from the region of the Roanoke River in response to hostilities with White colonists. In the 1980s members of the six Iroquoian tribes lived in Quebec and Ontario, Canada, and New York, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Oklahoma in the United States.

Location. On the eve of European contact the Iroquois territory extended from Lake Champlain and Lake George west to the Genesee River and Lake Ontario and from the St. Lawrence River south to the Susquehanna River. Within these boundaries each of the original five tribes occupied a north-south oblong strip of territory; from east to west, they were the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca. The region was primarily lake and hill country dissected by numerous rivers. Deciduous forests of birch, beech, maple, and elm dominated the region, giving way to fir and spruce forests in the north and in the higher elevations of the Adirondack Mountains. In aboriginal times fish and animal species were diverse and abundant.

Demography. In 1600 the population of the Five Nations is estimated to have been about fifty-five hundred and that of the Tuscarora about five thousand. By 1904 the six Iroquois tribes numbered at least sixteen thousand, not including several thousand persons of mixed blood. In the 1980s the total population of the six tribes was estimated to be over twenty thousand.

linguistic Affiliation. The languages of the six tribes are classified in the Northern Iroquoian branch of the Iroquoian language family. The languages of all six tribes are still spoken.

History and Cultural Relations

The Iroquoian confederacy was organized sometime between 1400 and 1600 for the purpose of maintaining peaceful relations between the five constituent tribes. Subsequent to European contact relations within the confederacy were sometimes strained as each of the five tribes sought to expand and maintain its own interests in the developing fur trade. For the most part, however, the fur trade served to strengthen the confederacy because tribal interests often complemented one another and all gained from acting in concert. The League was skillful at playing French and English interests off against one another to its advantage and thereby was able to play a major role in the economic and political events of northEastern North America during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Iroquois aggressively maintained and expanded their role in the fur trade and as a result periodically found themselves at war with their neighbors, such as the Huron, Petun, and the Neutral to the west and the Susquehannock to the south. Much of the fighting was done by the Seneca, the most powerful of the Iroquoian tribes.

From 1667 to the 1680s the Iroquois maintained friendly relations with the French, and during this time Jesuit missions were established among each of the five tribes. Iroquois aggression and expansion, however, eventually brought them into conflict with the French and, at the same time, into closer alliance with the English. In 1687, 1693, and 1696 French military expeditions raided and burned Iroquois Villages and fields. During Queen Anne's War (1702-1713) the Iroquois allied with the English and at the war's end were acknowledged to be British subjects, though they continued to aggressively maintain and extend their middleman role Between English traders at Fort Orange (Albany) and native groups farther west. The victory of the English over the French in North America in 1763 weakened the power of the Confederacy by undermining the strategic economic and Political position of the tribes and by promoting the rapid Expansion of White settlement.

When the American Revolution broke out in 1775 neither the League as a whole nor even the tribes individually were able to agree on a common course of action. Most of the Iroquois allied with the British and as a result during and after the Revolution were forced from their homelands. In the period following the American Revolution the members of the Iroquois tribes settled on reservations in western New York state, southern Quebec, and southern Ontario, where many of their descendants remain today.


Villages were built on elevated terraces in close proximity to streams or lakes and were secured by log palisades. Village populations ranged between three hundred and six hundred persons. Typically, an enclosed village included numerous longhouses and several acres of fields for growing crops; surrounding the village were several hundred more acres of cropland. Longhouses were constructed of log posts and poles and covered with a sheathing of elm bark; they averaged twenty-five feet in width and eighty feet in length, though some exceeded two hundred feet in length. Villages were semiPermanent and in use year round. When soil fertility in the fields declined and firewood in the vicinity became scarce, the Village was moved to a new site. This was a gradual process, with the new village being built as the old one was gradually abandoned. The settlements of the five tribes lay along an eastwest axis and were connected by a system of trails.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Traditionally, the Iroquois were farmers and hunters who practiced a slash-and-burn form of horticulture. In addition, they fished and gathered berries, plants, and roots. Before the arrival of Europeans the primary weapons were bows and arrows, stone axes, knives, and blowguns; however, by the late seventeenth Century European trade goods had almost completely replaced the traditional weapons and tools. The principal crops were maize, beans, and squash which, in addition, were prominent in ceremonial activities. In good years surplus crops were dried and stored for future use. After the harvest of crops in the late summer, the seasonal round included fall hunting that lasted until the winter solstice, early spring fishing and hunting of passenger pigeons, and then spring and summer clearing and planting of fields. Farming has now been largely abandoned by the Iroquois, although the annual cycle of festivals and ceremonies associated with planting, harvesting, and other traditional economic activities persist. In the 1980s most Iroquois who are employed work off the reservations Because economic opportunities are so limited on them. Some men, for example, work in high steel construction, which has been an important source of employment for the Iroquois since the late nineteenth century.

Industrial Arts. The Iroquois knew how to bend and shape wood when green or after steaming. House frames, pack frames, snowshoes, toboggans, basket rims, lacrosse sticks, and other wood products were made using these techniques. Rope was made from the inner bark of hickory, basswood, and slippery elm, and burden straps and prisoner ties were made from the braided fibers of nettle, milkweed, and hemp. Pipes of fired clay were among the many types of items manufactured by the Iroquois. They are known for making ash and maple splint baskets, although this craft may be of European origin.

Trade. Long before European contact the Iroquois, as mentioned above, were involved in an intricate trade network with other native groups. Clay pipes were an important trade item that reached other native groups all along the east coast of North America. The aggressive behavior the Iroquois exhibited toward their neighbors during the fur trade period has been interpreted by some as the result of their aim to protect and expand their middleman role. Others have suggested that the behavior was related to the scarcity of furs in their own territory and the resulting difficulty in obtaining European trade goods. According to this theory, the Iroquois warred primarily to obtain the trade goods of their neighbors who were in closer contact with Europeans. After the center of fur trading activities had moved farther west, the Iroquois continued to play an important role as voyageurs and trappers.

Division of Labor. Traditionally, men hunted and fished, built houses, cleared fields for planting, and were responsible for trade and warfare. In addition, men had the more visible roles in tribal and confederacy politics. Farming was the responsibility of women, whose work also included gathering wild foods, rearing children, preparing food, and making clothing and baskets and other utensils.

Land Tenure. Matrilineages were the property-holding unit in traditional Iroquoian society.


Kin Groups and Descent. Matrilineages were organized into fifteen matrisibs. Among the Cayuga, Onondaga, Seneca, and Tuscarora, the matrisibs were further organized into moieties. Among the Mohawk and the Oneida, no Moiety division was recognized. Descent was matrilineal. In Modern times, the stress placed on patrilineal inheritance by Canadian authorities has undermined the traditional system.

Kinship Terminology. Traditional kinship terminology followed the Iroquoian pattern. In one's own and the first ascending and descending generations parallel relatives were classed with one's lineal relatives and cross relatives were referred to separately.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. At one time marriages were a matter of Individual choice, but in the historic period the matrilineage, particularly the mother, played an increasingly important role in the arrangement of marriages. Postmarital residence was matrilocal. Polygyny was practiced, but by the late eighteenth century had entirely disappeared. Divorce was possible, and when it occurred the mother retained full control over her children.

Domestic Unit. The basic economic unit consisted of matrilineally extended family groups of women, their spouses, and their children. Each extended family group occupied a longhouse within which individual nuclear families occupied designated sections and shared common hearths. Each longhouse was under the control and direction of the elder women in the extended family group.

Inheritance. Traditionally, property was inherited Matrilineally. In the 1980s matrilineal inheritance continued to be practiced among Iroquois on reservations in the United States, but not so for those in Canada, where the government has enforced a patrilineal system of inheritance.

Socialization. The life cycle pattern of the Iroquois is not well understood. There was a clear dividing line between the activities of men and women and the ideals of male and female behavior, and roles were communicated to children by elders through oral traditions. Except for those who achieved political office, no formalized rites of passage marked the transition to adulthood for boys or girls.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The members of matrisibs cooperated in economic activities and were obligated to avenge the death or injury of any other member. Moieties had reciprocal and complementary ceremonial functions and competed against one another in games. Matrisibs cut across tribal boundaries so that members were found in each tribe and Village and often within each longhouse.

Political Organization. The Iroquois confederacy operated under a council of fifty sachems representing the five original tribes. When the Tuscarora joined the League in 1722, no new sachem positions were created for it. The Council was a legislative, executive, and judicial body that deliberated only on the external affairs of the confederacy, such as peace and war, and on matters common to the five constituent tribes. The council had no voice in the internal affairs of the separate tribes. Tribal representation on the council was unequally distributed among the five tribes, although abuse of power was limited by the requirement of unanimity in all council decisions. Below the level of the League council were separate tribal councils concerned with the internal affairs of each tribe and each tribe's relations with external groups. The tribal council was composed of the sachems who represented the tribe on the League council. Sachem positions were hereditary within each tribe and belonged to particular matrisibs. The women of the matrisib nominated each new sachem, who was always a male, and had the power to recall or "dehorn" a chief who failed to represent the interests of his people. Theoretically, each sachem was equal to the others in power, but in practice those with better oratorical skills wielded greater influence. After the confederacy had been functioning for a period of time a new, nonhereditary office of pine tree chief was created to provide local leadership and to act as adviser to the council sachems, although later they actually sat on the League council and equaled the sachems in power. Pine tree chiefs held their position for life and were chosen by the women of a matrisib on the basis of skill in warfare. Iroquois involvement in the fur trade and war with the French increased the importance and solidarity of the League council and thereby strengthened the confederacy. Its strength continued to grow until the time of the American Revolution when Iroquois alliances were divided between the British and the American colonists.

Social Control. Part-time religious specialists known as keepers of the faith served in part to censure antisocial behavior. Unconfessed witches detected through council proceedings were punished with death, while those who confessed might be allowed to reform.

Conflict. Witchcraft was the most serious type of antisocial behavior. The Iroquois believed that witches, in concert with the Evil Spirit, could cause disease, accident, death, or other misfortune. Because witches were thought to be able to transform themselves into other objects, they were difficult to catch and punish.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The supernatural world of the Iroquois included numerous deities, the most important of which was Great Spirit, who was responsible for the creation of human beings, the plants and animals, and the forces of good in nature. The Iroquois believed that Great Spirit indirectly guided the lives of ordinary people. Other important deities were Thunderer and the Three Sisters, the spirits of Maize, Beans, and Squash. Opposing the Great Spirit and the other forces of good were Evil Spirit and other lesser spirits responsible for disease and other misfortune. In the Iroquois view ordinary humans could not communicate directly with Great Spirit, but could do so indirectly by burning tobacco, which carried their prayers to the lesser spirits of good. The Iroquois regarded dreams as important supernatural signs, and serious attention was given to interpreting dreams. It was believed that dreams expressed the desire of the soul, and as a result the fulfillment of a dream was of paramount importance to the individual.

Around 1800 a Seneca sachem named Handsome Lake received a series of visions which he believed showed the way for the Iroquois to regain their lost cultural integrity and promised supernatural aid to all those who followed him. The Handsome Lake religion emphasized many traditional elements of Iroquoian culture, but also incorporated Quaker beliefs and aspects of White culture. In the 1960s, at least half of the Iroquoian people accepted the Handsome Lake Religion.

Religious Practitioners. Full-time religious specialists were absent; however, there were part-time male and female specialists known as keepers of the faith whose primary responsibilities were to arrange and conduct the main religious ceremonies. Keepers of the faith were appointed by matrisib elders and were accorded considerable prestige.

Ceremonies. Religious ceremonies were tribal affairs Concerned primarily with farming, curing illness, and thanksgiving. In the sequence of occurrence, the six major ceremonies were the Maple, Planting, Strawberry, Green Maize, Harvest, and Mid-Winter or New Year's festivals. The first five in this sequence involved public confessions followed by group Ceremonies which included speeches by the keepers of the faith, tobacco offerings, and prayer. The New Year's festival was usually held in early February and was marked by dream interpretations and the sacrifice of a white dog offered to purge the people of evil.

Arts. One of the most interesting Iroquoian art forms is the False Face Mask. Used in the curing ceremonies of the False Face Societies, the masks are made of maple, white pine, basswood, and poplar. False Face Masks are first carved in a living tree, then cut free and painted and decorated. The masks represent spirits who reveal themselves to the mask maker in a prayer and tobacco-burning ritual performed Before the mask is carved.

Medicine. Illness and disease were attributed to supernatural causes. Curing ceremonies consisted of group shamanistic practices directed toward propitiating the responsible Supernatural agents. One of the curing groups was the False Face Society. These societies were found in each village and, except for a female keeper of the false faces who protected the ritual paraphernalia, consisted only of male members who had dreamed of participation in False Face ceremonies.

Death and Afterlife. When a sachem died and his successor was nominated and confirmed, the other tribes of the League were informed and the League council met to perform a condolence ceremony in which the deceased sachem was mourned and the new sachem was installed. The sachem's condolence ceremony was still held on Iroquois reservations in the 1970s. Condolence ceremonies were also practiced for common people. In early historic times the dead were buried in a sitting position facing east. After the burial, a captured bird was released in the belief that it carried away the spirit of the deceased. In earlier times the dead were left exposed on a wooden scaffolding, and after a time their bones were deposited in a special house of the deceased. The Iroquois believed, as some continue to believe today, that after death the soul embarked on a journey and series of ordeals that ended in the land of the dead in the sky world. Mourning for the dead lasted a year, at the end of which time the soul's journey was believed to be complete and a feast was held to signify the soul's arrival in the land of the dead.


Fenton, William N. (1971). "The Iroquois in History." In North American Indians in Historical Perspective, edited by Eleanor B. Leacock and Nancy O. Lurie, 129-168. New York: Random House.

Fenton, William N. (1978). "Northern Iroquoian Culture Patterns." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 15, Northeast, edited by Bruce G. Trigger, 296-321. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Morgan, Lewis H. (1901). League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee or Iroquois. Edited by Herbert M. Lloyd. 2 vols. New York: Dodd, Mead. Originally published, 1851.

Oswalt, Wendell H. (1966). "The Iroquois." In This Und Was Theirs: A Study of North American Indians, edited by Wendell H. Oswalt, 397-461. New York: John Wiley.

Tooker, Elisabeth (1978). The League of the Iroquois: Its History, Politics, and Ritual. In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 15, Northeast, edited by Bruce G. Trigger, 418-441. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.



views updated May 29 2018



The Iroquois were a Native North American confederacy of five nations whose aboriginal territory included much of upstate New York. The Iroquois thought of this territory as a longhouse, a rectangular multifamily dwelling with a door at each end and a series of hearths in the aisle that ran the length of the dwelling. Each of the five Iroquois nations occupied one of the five fireplaces in this metaphorical longhouse. From east to west these were the Mohawk, the Oneida, the Onondaga, the Cayuga, and the Seneca. As the western-most nation in the Iroquois longhouse, the Senecas were considered the Doorkeepers of the Confederacy and the Mohawks are often styled the Keepers of the Eastern Door. Iroquois refer to themselves as Haudenosaunee (with variant spellings) meaning, roughly, people of the longhouse, a designation many contemporary Haudenosaunee prefer. Iroquois was the name utilized by the French; the English usually referred to the confederacy as the Five (later, Six) Nations.

At the time of contact with Europeans the Iroquois lived in large villages consisting of elm-bark longhouses, each housing a number of families. Surrounding the village were fields in which the women planted the three sisterscorn, beans, and squash. These crops were the staples of Iroquois diet.

Each of the Iroquois nations was divided into exogamous matrilineal clans. The Wolf, Bear, and Turtle clans were found in all five nations; five or six additional clans were found among the Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas. The clans were further divided into matrilineages, each headed by a senior female, the lineage matron. Some of these lineage matrons enjoyed considerable political power. The Iroquois Confederacy Council consisted of fifty positions, each hereditary within a matrilineage. The lineage matron appointed a male member of her matrilineage to that position and had the right to depose him if he proved negligent or incompetent in that role.

Dean Snow estimated the Iroquois population as almost 22,000 in 1630, prior to their first experience of smallpox (Snow 1994, p. 110). Diseases introduced to North America from Europe took a terrible toll in Iroquoia, but these population losses were to some degree offset by the Iroquois practice of adopting war captives and incorporating refugee populations. One refugee group, the Tuscarora, arrived in the 1720s, and after their arrival the confederacy was often known to the English as the Six Nations.

Initially the Iroquois established a strong trading relationship with the Dutch colony of New Netherland. The Iroquois quickly adopted elements of European culture such as brass kettles and steel axes and knives. These economic and political ties continued after the English replaced the Dutch as governors of the colony, having renamed it New York.

Occupying a highly strategic position between the English colonies on the Atlantic Coast and the French in Canada, the Iroquois usually maintained neutrality between the two colonial powers. On occasion Mohawks took the field as allies to the British whereas the Senecas, close to the French trading post at Niagara, sometimes fought beside the French. There were several Mohawk colonies on the St. Lawrence River established by converts to Catholicism who were persuaded by their Jesuit priests to migrate to a locale remote from English influences. These people, from the founding of their communities in the 1670s, consistently fought as allies to the French.

By the outbreak of the American Revolution the Iroquois had largely abandoned the multifamily bark longhouses and were living in smaller houses, often log cabins. The Mohawks had converted to the Church of England. The Oneida were heavily influenced by the New England missionary Samuel Kirkland (17411808). Those nations farther to the west were not yet Christian, but their towns closely resembled those of the non-Indian inhabitants of the frontier.

The American Revolution divided the Iroquois Confederacy. The Oneidas and Tuscaroras aided the supporters of the Continental Congress; Mohawks, Cayugas, and Senecas (and later the Onondagas) fought as allies to the British. The treaty that ended that conflict in 1783 made no provisions for the Indian allies of the Crown, and Britain surrendered all interests in the Iroquois homeland south of Lake Ontario. Many Iroquois moved north of the new American border to lands secured for them by Quebec governor Frederick Haldimand. These lands included the Tyendinaga Mohawk Reserve (or Territory) on the Bay of Quinté and the Six Nations Reserve on the Grand River, both in what is now Ontario. The latter was settled predominantly by Mohawks, Cayugas, and Onondagas. Most of the Senecas remained in New York State, and a series of treaties (Fort Stanwix [1784], Canandaigua [1794], and Big Tree [1797]) established several reservations, of which Allegany, Cattaraugus, Oil Spring, and Tonawanda remain in Seneca hands. The Onondaga Nation retains territory near Syracuse, New York, but Cayuga and Oneida lands in New York were purchased through treaties of questionable legality with the State of New York. The larger portion of the Oneidas migrated to lands secured in Wisconsin and Ontario early in the nineteenth century.

In 1799 a Seneca, Handsome Lake (17351815), experienced a vision that led him to preach a message of both nativism and reform that established the contemporary practice of traditional Iroquois (or Longhouse) religion. Anthony F. C. Wallaces ethnohistorical analysis of these events formed the basis of anthropological understanding of revitalization movements (Wallace 1970).

In the 1840s Lewis H. Morgan pursued personal contacts, particularly through a bilingual Seneca youth, Ely S. Parker, among the Tonawanda Senecas to compile what has been touted as the first ethnographic monograph describing a Native North American culture (Morgan 1851).

Any estimate of current Iroquois population is subject to error, but a compilation of numbers of those formally enrolled in various Iroquois communities between 1990 and 2000 states that 16,829 are enrolled in New York Iroquois communities, 42,857 belong to communities in Ontario, 10,831 are enrolled in Quebec Iroquois bands, 11,000 belong to the Wisconsin Oneida community, and 2,460 belong to a Seneca-Cayuga group that resides in Oklahoma (Lex and Abler 2004, p. 744).

Some Iroquois communities have pursued land claims for nearly two centuries (see Vecsey and Starna 1988), seeking the return or compensation for lands felt to be fraudulently taken. These claims have led to violent clashes with authorities, as at Ganienkeh in northern New York in the 1970s and at Kanesatake outside Montreal in 1990. Legalized gambling and other economic activities have also deeply divided many communities, creating internal conflicts that have led in some cases to violence, arson, and even deaths.

SEE ALSO Native Americans


Fenton, William N. 1998. The Great Law and the Longhouse: A Political History of the Iroquois Confederacy. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Lex, Barbara, and Thomas S. Abler. 2004. Iroquois. In Encyclopedia of Medical Anthropology: Health and Illness in the Worlds Cultures, eds. Carol R. Ember and Melvin Ember, 743754. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum.

Morgan, Lewis H. 1851. League of the Ho-dé-no-sau-nee or Iroquois. Rochester, NY: Sage.

Parker, Arthur C. 1968. Parker on the Iroquois, ed. William N. Fenton. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

Shimony, Annemarie Anrod. 1994. Conservatism among the Iroquois at the Six Nations Reserve. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

Snow, Dean. 1994. The Iroquois. Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell.

Vecsey, Christopher, and William A. Starna, eds. 1988. Iroquois Land Claims. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

Wallace, Anthony F. C. 1970. Death and Rebirth of the Seneca. New York: Knopf.

Thomas S. Abler


views updated Jun 08 2018


IROQUOIS. The Iroquois of the seventeenth century were a confederation of five closely related but separate nations: the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas. Around the year 1500, these were independent nations speaking related languages that were arrayed in the order given from east to west across what became upstate New York. They were related to other Iroquoian-speaking nations and confederacies of the interior Northeast, namely the Neutrals, Petuns, Hurons, Wenros, Eries, and Susquehannocks. Even closer linguistic relatives, the Tuscaroras and Meherrins, lived in interior North Carolina. Iroquoians began expanding northward into what are now New York and Ontario beginning around a.d. 600. They were horticulturalists attracted by improved climatic conditions and fertile glacial soils, and they absorbed or displaced the thinner hunter-gatherer populations they encountered. The expansion also cut off the Eastern Algonquian-speaking peoples of the Northeast from the Central Algonquians of the Great Lakes basin.

Iroquois Communities

The ancestral Iroquois depended upon maize, beans, and squash as staples. Wild plant and animal foods supplemented this diet and deer hides provided most of their clothing prior to the introduction of trade cloth. Communities appear to have been organized along matrilineal lines from an early date. Communal households were led by senior women whose sisters and daughters comprised its social framework. Men moved to their wives' houses when they married. This household form eventually led to the emergence of the classic Iroquois longhouse, a segmented structure that accommodated pairs of nuclear families that shared common hearths in individual compartments. A single long aisle connected compartments,

which were added to the ends of the longhouses as new marriages required.

Iroquois longhouse villages of the seventeenth century were compact and densely populated communities that could hold up to two thousand people before becoming politically unstable. They were lived in year round, but were designed to last only a decade or two. Without large domesticated animals and the fertilizer they might have provided, fields became unproductive after a few years. In addition, local firewood supplies became exhausted and longhouses were strained by changes in family age and composition. These pressures led to relocations, often to places just a few miles away. If displaced by warfare, Iroquois villagers moved much greater distances, a practice that accounts for their colonization of new regions and the clustering of village sites around those destinations as the result of subsequent shorter moves.

Warfare and the League of Iroquois

Both archaeology and oral tradition point to a period of internecine warfare in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

By the latter part of the sixteenth century, the League of the Iroquois (Hodenosaunee) developed as a mutual nonaggression pact between the five Iroquois nations. This did not stop regional warfare, but it allowed the Iroquois nations to redirect their aggression toward other nations and emerging confederacies in the region. The Iroquois numbered around 22,000 by this time. By the middle of the seventeenth century, they had destroyed or dispersed the Huron, Neutral, and Erie confederacies as well as the independent Petun and Wenro nations. The Susquehannocks held out only a few years longer.

The Iroquois League, and the political confederacy that it eventually became, was founded on existing clan structure and funerary ritual. Leading clan segments from each of the five constituent nations provided league chiefs (sachems) who met frequently to maintain internal peace and discuss external affairs. Much of the earlier violence had been predicated on the shared assumption that most deaths were deliberately caused by enemies. Even what might otherwise have been considered natural deaths were usually attributed to witchcraft, which prompted cycles of revenge violence. Thus, a principal activity of the league chiefs was mutual condolence designed to stop cycles of revenge-motivated warfare. The vehicle for this was elaborate funerary ritual and the prompt raising up of new leaders to replace deceased ones. Replacements assumed the names of the deceased, providing both continuity and comfort to the bereaved.

Relations with Europeans

Smallpox and other diseases devastated the Iroquois beginning about 1634. The nations survived by taking in large numbers of refugees. Some of these were displaced from New England and other parts of the eastern seaboard that were experiencing European colonization. Many others were the remnants of nations that the Iroquois had defeated in war. The immigrants replaced lost relatives, often taking on their identities.

The Iroquois became the principal native power brokers in the colonial Northeast, treating first, in 1615, with the Dutch on the Hudson River and the French on the St. Lawrence River. After the English seized New Netherland in 1664 they forged a "covenant chain" with the Iroquois, principally through the Mohawks, who lived closest to Albany. French Jesuit missionaries established missions in several Iroquois villages. When the Jesuits retreated back to New France in the face of English expansion they took many Mohawks, Onondagas, and some other Iroquois with them.

The Iroquois also made peace with the French at the beginning of the eighteenth century, and successfully played the two colonial powers off each other until the English expelled the French from North America in 1763, after the French and Indian War. The Iroquois survived the war politically intact despite the fact that while many were allied with the English, Catholic Mohawks and other pro-French Iroquois fought with the other side. By that time, the Iroquois had absorbed many native refugees, both individually and as whole nations. The Tuscaroras moved north in the early part of the eighteenth century to become a sixth member of the confederacy. A large fraction of the Delawares were absorbed as a dependent nation in the mid-eighteenth century. The Tutelo refugees took shelter in New York under Iroquois protection at about the same time, with other refugee communities doing the same soon after. By this time, the traditional longhouses had been replaced by dispersed communities of individual cabins.

The American Revolution shattered the Iroquois confederacy. Most Oneidas sided with the colonists while most other Iroquois aligned with the British. The Mohawks soon fled to Canada and large fractions of western Iroquois communities were eventually also displaced by the fighting. The League of the Iroquois was dissolved.

After the League's Dissolution

Many Iroquois took up residence on Canadian reserves awarded to them after the war by a grateful English government. Others remained on new reservations in central and western New York, under the protection of the Canandaigua Treaty of 1794 and other agreements. While the Tuscaroras and four of the five original Iroquois nations achieved reservation status, the Mohawks did not return. Their only presence in New York was on the small St. Regis (Akwesasne) reservation-reserve, which straddles the New York, Ontario, and Quebec boundaries.

The League of the Iroquois was recreated both at Onondaga in New York and on the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario, but neither revival could hope to wield much power in the face of the U.S. and Canadian governments. Poverty and alcoholism on the reservations prompted a native religious revival in 1799. The prophet of the updated revival of Iroquois traditional belief was Handsome Lake, a Seneca. The Handsome Lake religion eventually spread to most other Iroquois communities and continues to provide both a rallying point and a source of controversy in many of them.

Iroquois reservation lands were reduced through the course of relocations and land deals in the nineteenth century. The legality of some these cessions were still being argued in courts in the early twenty-first century. A few gains were also realized by the Iroquois, and by the end of the twentieth century, there were even two new Mohawk communities in eastern New York. The Senecas remained on three reservations in western New York, while the Tuscaroras, Onondagas, and Oneidas had one each. The Cayugas had a small presence and claims on a larger one. The Oneidas, who had close relatives on a reservation in Wisconsin and a reserve in Ontario, pursued a land claim and had business success in casino operations. Many other Iroquois lived on reserves in Canada.


Fenton, William N. The Great Law and the Longhouse: A Political History of the Iroquois Confederacy. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998. For the serious reader, a masterpiece by the dean of Iroquoian scholars.

Morgan, Lewis Henry. League of the Iroquois. New York: Corinth Books, 1962. Originally published in 1851 as League of the Ho-dé-no-sau-nee or Iroquois.

Snow, Dean R. The Iroquois. Cambridge, U.K.: Blackwell, 1994. The best place to start for the general reader.

Sturtevant, William C., gen. ed. The Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 15, Northeast. Edited by Bruce G. Trigger. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1978. This volume is the best single source for the Algonquian and Iroquoian speaking tribes of the Northeast.


See alsoArchitecture, American Indian ; French and Indian War ; Indian Economic Life ; Indian Land Cessions ; Indian Languages ; Indian Policy, Colonial ; Indian Policy, U.S.: 1775–1830, 1830–1900, 1900–2000 ; Indian Political Life ; Indians in the Revolution ; Tribes: Northeastern ; Warfare, Indian ; Wars with Indian Nations: Colonial Era to 1783 ; andvol. 9:The Origin of the League of Five Nations ; Treaty with the Six Nations, 1784 .


views updated May 17 2018



Early History. The League of the Iroquois was a confederacy of native peoples living in present-day western New York. Originally made up of five nations, the Senecas, Cayugas, Onandagas, Oneidas, and Mohawks, the Iroquois were united in the 1400s by Hiawatha. Along with his mentor, Deganawidah, Hiawatha helped the Iroquois to negotiate a peace that ended many generations of war among them. According to Iroquois tradition Hiawatha was deeply depressed and grief stricken by the deaths of all his daughters in quick succession. Wandering in the forest, eventually he met Deganawidah, the Peacemaker, who showed him new religious rituals that eased his mind and restored his sanity. Hiawatha believed that this new religion could unite the Iroquois and asked Deganawidah to share it. But Deganawidah was unable to speak in public, so the task of spreading the word fell to Hiawatha, who used Deganawidahs rituals to heal the old wounds among the Five Nations of the Iroquois and unite them in a Great League of Peace and Power. (They added a sixth nation in 1711, when the Tuscaroras of North Carolina migrated north and sought their protection.)

Covenant Chain. In the early years of the seventeenth century the French positioned themselves in Canada; the Dutch dropped anchor in New York harbor; and the British established settlements in New England. The Iroquois, therefore, held the strategically important central territory around which the European powers were arrayed. All sides needed them as trading partners and were willing to make concessions in exchange for their business. By maintaining unity and following a policy of playing one power off against the other two, the Iroquois

maximized their power and preserved their territorial integrity for many years, despite the inevitability of decline. In 1677 the Iroquois assumed a durable position of regional leadership with the establishment of a Covenant Chain with the British. (Earlier in the seventeenth century they had formed a Covenant Chain with the Dutch.) Through this series of treaties the British declared the Iroquois to be the leaders of all native peoples in most of present-day New York and Pennsylvania. This recognition empowered the Iroquois and made life simpler for Anglo-American colonists. While each tribe retained its own sovereignty for most purposes, they were willing to become clients of the Iroquois and Britain in order to obtain arms and trade goods at low prices. Further, by placing the Iroquois in the role of first among equals, the Covenant Chain created a mechanism for resolving native differences peacefully. The Covenant Chain operated in practice through meetings between the colonial governor of New York and the Iroquois sachems, or leaders, who would often speak for other Indians in attendance. The Chain promoted the social and political authority of native peoples, but it also acknowledged the limits of native power in the context of superior European technology. In the eighteenth century the Chain empowered the Iroquois to avoid war by agreeing to give away the lands of the Delawares and Shawnees over the objections of those tribes. Despite the Chain, however, the Iroquois consistently tried to show the British that their loyalty could not be taken for granted. Although they sided with the British against the Dutch and later the French during wartime, the Iroquois always attempted to preserve at least a posture of independence during peacetime. In addition to commercial and military factors, the alliance was strong because of warm personal relationships. Sir William Johnson, the British Indian superintendent for the Northern District, lived in Iroquois territory, participated in ceremonial life, and had for a consort Molly Brant, sister of Joseph Brant.


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);

Neal Salisbury, Native People and European Settlers, in The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas, volume 1, North America, edited by Bruce C. Trigger and Wilcomb E. Washburn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 440453.


views updated May 29 2018


The Iroquois, or Iroquois League, was an American Indian confederacy made up of the Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, and SenecaIroquoianspeaking Eastern Woodlands tribes that had settled in the area of present-day New York, west of the Hudson River. The confederacy was formed sometime between the late 1300s and mid-1400s as the League of Five Nations. Member tribes agreed they would not undertake war without the agreement of the other tribes. Within the confederacy each nation had a role; the Mohawks, for example, were charged with defending the eastern end of Iroquois territory.

The Iroquois were mighty warriors. Other tribes either looked to the league for protection or viewed them as a menace. Among the Iroquois enemies were the Huron, a tribe in the Great Lakes region. As the French and British encroached on Indian lands, the bond among the Five Nations grew stronger. In 1722 a sixth tribe, the Tuscarora, joined the league, expanding its territories and its number. (Thereafter the confederacy is alternately known as the League of Six Nations.)

When fighting broke out in the colonies between the French and the British, the Iroquois sided with the British, in what would be known as the French and Indian War (17541763). Some historians view the Indian-British alliance as the critical factor in the British victory in the conflict. These historians promote the idea that had it not been for Iroquois involvement, North America would have been divided between the French and British.

When the American Revolution (17751783) began, the Iroquois split their loyalties: All tribes except the Oneida sided with the British. During the course of the war, Mohawk chief Thayendanegea, better known as Joseph Brant (17421807), led the Iroquois in many raids including the massacre at Cherry Valley, New York, in 1778. The following summer an American army marched through upstate New York, devastating Indian lands. After the war ended, most of the Iroquois were moved to lands in Ontario.

See also: Eastern Woodlands Indians


views updated May 18 2018

Ir·o·quois / ˈirəˌkwoi/ • n. (pl. same) 1. a member of a former confederacy of North American Indian peoples originally comprising the Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, and Seneca peoples (known as the Five Nations), and later including also the Tuscarora (thus forming the Six Nations).2. any of the Iroquoian languages.• adj. of or relating to the Iroquois or their languages.


views updated Jun 08 2018

Ir·o·quoi·an / ˈirəˌkwoiən/ • n. a language family of eastern North America, including the languages of the Five Nations, Tuscarora, Huron, Wyandot, and Cherokee. With the exception of Cherokee, all its members are extinct or nearly so.• adj. of or relating to the Iroquois people or the Iroquoian language family.