by Loretta Hall
The Iroquois Confederacy, an association of six linguistically related tribes in the northeastern woodlands, was a sophisticated society of some 5,500 people when the first white explorers encountered it at the beginning of the seventeenth century. The 1990 Census counted 49,038 Iroquois living in the United States, making them the country's eighth most populous Native American group. Although Iroquoian tribes own seven reservations in New York state and one in Wisconsin, the majority of the people live off the reservations. An additional 5,000 Iroquois reside in Canada, where there are two Iroquoian reservations. The people are not averse to adopting new technology when it is beneficial, but they want to maintain their own traditional identity.
The "Five Tribes" that first joined to form the Iroquois Confederacy, or League, were the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca (listed in order from east to west according to where they lived in an area that roughly corresponds to central New York state). They called themselves Haudenosaunee (pronounced "hoo-dee-noh-SHAW-nee"), or people of the longhouse, referring to the construction of their homes, in which extended families of up to 50 people lived together in bark-covered, wooden-framed houses that were 50 to 150 feet long. They also envisioned their extended community as occupying a symbolic longhouse some 300 miles long, with the Mohawk guarding the eastern door and the Seneca the western.
The origin of the name Iroquois is uncertain, although it seems to have involved French adaptations of Indian words. Among the possibilities that have been suggested are a blending of hiro (an Iroquois word used to conclude a speech) and koué (an exclamation); ierokwa ("they who smoke"); iakwai ("bear"); or the Algonquian words irin ("real") and ako ("snake") with the French -ois termination. One likely interpretation of the origin of the name is the theory that it comes from the Algonquian word "Irinakhoiw," which the French spelled with the -ois suffix. The French spelling roughly translates into "real adders" and would be consistent with the tendency of European cultures to take and use derogatory terms from enemy nations to identify various Native groups.
The Mohawk called themselves Ganiengehaka, or "people of the flint country." Their warriors, armed with flint arrows, were known to be overpowering; their enemies called them Mowak, meaning "man eaters." The name Oneida means "people of the standing stone," referring to a large rock that, according to legend, appeared wherever the people moved, to give them directions. The Onondaga ("people of the hills"), the Cayuga ("where they land the boats"), and the Seneca ("the people of the big hill") named themselves by describing their homelands.
Because the Algonquian people living on both sides of the Iroquois corridor are of a different culture and linguistic stock, it appears likely that the Iroquois migrated into this area at some time. No evidence has been found to indicate where they came from, however. The Cherokee people, whose historic homeland was in the southeastern United States, belong to the same linguistic group and share some other links with the Iroquois. Where and when they may have lived near each other is unknown.
Despite their common culture and language, relations among the Five Tribes deteriorated to a state of near-constant warfare in ancient times. The infighting, in turn, made them vulnerable to attacks from the surrounding Algonquian tribes. This period, known in the Iroquois oral tradition as the "darktimes," reached a nadir during the reign of a psychotic Onondaga chief named Todadaho. Legend has it that he was a cannibal who ate from bowls made from the skulls of his victims, that he knew and saw everything, that his hair contained a tangle of snakes, and that he could kill with only a Medusa-like look.
Into this terrible era, however, entered two heroic figures. Deganawidah came from his Huron homeland in the north, travelling unchallenged among the hostile Iroquois. Finally, he encountered a violent, cannibalistic Onondagan. According to legend, Deganawidah watched through a hole in the roof while the man prepared to cook his latest victim. Seeing the stranger's face reflected in the cooking pot, the barbarian assumed it to be his own image. He was struck by the thought that the beauty of the face was incompatible with the horrendous practice of cannibalism and immediately forsook the practice. He went outside to dispose of the corpse, and when he returned to his lodge he met Deganawidah. The foreigner's words of peace and righteousness were so powerful that the man became a loyal disciple and helped spread the message.
Deganawidah named his disciple Hiawatha, meaning "he who combs," and sent him to confront Todadaho and remove the snakes from the chief's hair. After enduring terrible hardships at his adversary's hands, and after convincing the other Iroquoian chiefs to accept the Good Message, Hiawatha finally convinced Todadaho as well. On the banks of Onondaga Lake, sometime between 1350 and 1600, Deganawidah established the Iroquois Confederacy, a league of nations that shared a positive code of values and lived in mutual harmony. Out of respect, the Iroquois refer to him as the Peacemaker.
When the first white explorers arrived in the early seventeenth century, they found the settled, agricultural society of the Iroquois a contrast to the nomadic culture of the neighboring Algonquians.
RELATIONS WITH NON-NATIVE AMERICANS
The French had established a presence in Canada for over 50 years before they met the Iroquois. During that period, the Iroquois began to acquire European trade goods through raids on other Indian tribes. They found the metal axes, knives, hoes, and kettles far superior to their implements of stone, bone, shell, and wood. Woven cloth began to replace the animal skins usually used for clothing materials.
The recurring raids prompted the French to help their Indian allies attack the Iroquois in 1609, opening a new technological era for the people of the Confederacy. French body armor was made of metal, whereas that of the Iroquois was made of slatted wood. Furthermore, the French fought with firearms, while traditional Iroquois weapons were bows and arrows, stone tomahawks, and wooden warclubs.
In response to European influence, the Iroquois gradually changed their military tactics to incorporate stealth, surprise, and ambush. Their motives for fighting also changed. In the past, they had fought for prestige or revenge, or to obtain goods or captives; now they fought for economic advantage, seeking control over bountiful beaver hunting grounds or perhaps a stash of beaver skins to trade for European goods.
Although it provided the Indians with better tools, European incursion into the territory was disastrous for the indigenous people. In the 1690s alone, the Iroquois lost between 1,600 and 2,000 people in fighting with other Indian tribes. In addition, European diseases such as smallpox, measles, influenza, lung infections, and even the common cold took a heavy toll on them since they had developed no immunity and knew no cures.
These seventeenth century population devastations prompted the Iroquois people to turn increasingly to their traditional practice of adopting outsiders into their tribes to replace members who had died from violence or illness. While some captives were tortured unmercifully to death, others were adopted into Iroquois families (the leading clanswomen decided prisoners' fates, sometimes basing their decision on the manner in which a relative of theirs had been killed). The adopted person, who was sometimes the opposite gender or of a significantly different age than the deceased Indian he replaced, was treated with the same affection, given the same rights, and expected to fulfill the same duties as his predecessor.
Most, if not all, of the Indians who were educated by the English returned to their native cultures at the first opportunity. Many colonists, on the other hand, chose to become Indians, either by joining Indian society voluntarily, by not trying to escape from captivity, or by staying with their Indian captors in the wake of peace treaties that gave them the freedom to return home.
Early in the eighteenth century the Tuscarora, another Iroquoian-speaking tribe living in North Carolina, moved into the territory occupied by the Confederacy. They had rebelled against the encroachment of colonial settlers, against continual fraudulent treatment by traders, and against repeated raids that took their people for the slave trade. They suffered a terrible defeat, with hundreds of their people killed and hundreds more enslaved. Those who escaped such fates made their way north and became the sixth nation of the Iroquois League.
The first half of the eighteenth century was a period of rebuilding. The Iroquois made peace with the French and established themselves in a neutral position between the French and the English. This strategy lasted until the French and Indian War erupted in 1754; though the Confederacy was officially neutral, the Mohawk sided with the English, and the Seneca with the French.
Before long, another conflict arose among the European colonists, and the Iroquois were faced with the American Revolutionary War. Again, the various tribes failed to agree on which side to support. Without unanimous agreement on a common position, each nation in the Confederacy was free to pursue its own course. The Oneida fought on the side of the colonists, eventually earning official commendation from George Washington for their assistance. A major faction of the Mohawk sided with the British and recruited other Iroquois warriors to their cause. The League as a political entity was severely damaged by the conflict, and the war itself brought death and devastation to the member tribes. After the war, American retaliatory raids destroyed Iroquois towns and crops, and drove the people from their homelands.
The Six Nations remained fragmented in political, social, and religious ways throughout the nineteenth century. The development of the New Religion, beginning in 1799, helped revitalize the traditional culture and facilitated the transition to reservation life. Finally, beginning in the 1950s, the Mohawk, Seneca, and Tuscarora became involved in major land disputes over power-production and flood-control projects proposed by the New York State Power Authority and the United States Army Corps of Engineers. Paired with the social climate favoring ethnic assertion in the mid-twentieth century, these land disputes helped foster a resurgence in Iroquois solidarity.
The Iroquois see themselves as a sovereign nation, not as merely another ethnic group within the United States population, and gaining further recognition of that status is a major objective. They have asserted their position in interesting ways. For example, when the United States declared war on Germany in 1917, the Iroquois Confederacy issued its own independent declaration and claimed status as an allied nation in the war effort. In 1949 a Haudenosaunee delegation attended groundbreaking ceremonies for the United Nations building in New York City. Iroquois statesmen and athletes use Haudenosaunee passports as they travel around the world.
Protecting the land is another priority. Since the 1940s, the Haudenosaunee have been involved in land issues involving projects as varied as the Kenzua Dam project, the St. Lawrence Seaway, and the Niagara Power Plant. After New York state attempted to condemn a portion of the Seneca's land for use in building a highway, a federal court ruled in the 1970s that the state would have to negotiate with the Iroquois as equal sovereigns. In another land issue, the St. Regis (Akwesasne) Mohawk reservation has been affected by off-reservation pollution sources, including a neighboring toxic-waste dump and nearby airfouling industrial plants. In the 1990s, struggles over land rights and protection of the land have also included the extension of leases on property and towns in western New York, as well as ongoing conflicts over pollution and the environment.
Resolving the question of gambling on the reservations is also an important issue. In 1990 the controversy erupted into a gun battle that left two Mohawk dead. The Onondaga Council of Chiefs issued a "Memorandum on Tribal Sovereignty" that said: "These businesses have corrupted our people and we are appalled at the Longhouse people who have become part of these activities. They have thrown aside the values of our ancient confederacy for personal gain" (The Onondaga Council of Chiefs Memorandum on Tribal Sovereignty ). On the other hand, the Oneida tribe saw a dramatic decrease in unemployment after building a bingo hall in 1985; first year profits of over $5 million were used by the tribe to acquire additional land adjacent to the reservation.
Acculturation and Assimilation
Even before the Europeans came to America, the Iroquois were an agricultural society. The men set out on hunting expeditions in dugout or bark canoes to provide meat and hides, while the women tended to the farming. They were a relaxed society with a minimum of rules.
The longhouses in which they lived were constructed with a vestibule at each end that was available for use by all residents. Within the body of the house, a central corridor eight feet wide separated two banks of compartments. Each compartment, measuring about 13 feet by six feet, was occupied by a nuclear family. A wooden platform about a foot above the ground served as a bed by night and chair by day; some compartments included small bunks for children. An overhead shelf held personal belongings. Every 20 feet along the central corridor, a fire pit served the two families living on its opposite sides. Bark or hide doors at the ends of the buildings were attached at the top; these openings and the smoke holes in the roof 15 to 20 feet above each hearth provided the only ventilation.
Villages of 300 to 600 people were protected by a triple-walled stockade of wooden stakes 15 to 20 feet tall. About every 15 years the nearby supplies of wild game and firewood would become depleted, and the farmed soil would become exhausted. During a period of two years or so, the men would find and clear an alternate site for the village, which would then be completely rebuilt.
The primary crops, revered as gifts from the Creator, were called the "Three Sisters": Corn provided stalks for climbing bean vines, while squash plants controlled weeds by covering the soil. The complimentary nutrient needs and soil-replenishing characteristics of the three crops extended the useful life of each set of fields. In addition to providing food, the corn plants were used to make a variety of other goods. From the stalks were made medicine-storing tubes, corn syrup, toy warclubs and spears, and straws for teaching children to count. Corn husks were fashioned into lamps, kindling, mattresses, clotheslines, baskets, shoes, and dolls. Animal skins were smoked over corn cob fires.
Although bows and arrows tipped with flint or bone were the primary hunting weapons, blow guns were used for smaller prey. Made from the hollowed stem of swamp alder, blow guns were about six feet long and one inch thick, with a half-inch bore; the arrows were two and a half feet long.
Elm bark was put to many useful purposes, including constructing houses, building canoes, and fashioning containers. Baskets were woven of various materials, including black ash splints. Pottery vessels were decorated with angular combinations of parallel lines.
Wampum (cylindrical beads about one-fourth inch long and one-eighth inch in diameter) was very important in the Iroquois culture. The beads were made of quahog, or large, hardshell clam shells and could only be obtained through trading or as tribute payments from coastal tribes. White and purple beads were made from the different sections of the shells. Although the beads were used as ornamentation on clothing, wampum had several more important uses. Strings of the beads were used in mourning rituals or to identify a messenger as an official representative of his nation. Wampum belts served as symbols of authority or of contract. Patterns or figures woven into wampum belts recorded the terms of treaties; duplicate belts were given to each of the contracting parties. Because of its important uses, wampum became a valuable commodity and was sometimes used as a form of currency in trading.
Traditional Iroquois games ranged from lively field contests like lacrosse to more sedentary activities involving the bouncing of dried fruit-pit "dice" from a wooden bowl. The games were played both as entertainment and as elements of periodic ceremonies. A favorite winter game called "snow-snake" involved throwing a long wooden rod and seeing how far it would slide down an icy track smoothed out on a snowy field.
The Iroquois had no stringed musical instruments. The only wind instrument, the wooden "courting flute," had six finger stops and was blown from the end. Single-tone rhythm instruments provided the only musical accompaniment for ceremonial dancing and singing. Rattles were made by placing dried corn kernels inside various materials including turtle shells, gourds, bison horns, or folded, dried bark. The traditional drum was about six inches in diameter, made like a wooden pail, and covered with stretched animal skin; just the right amount of water was sealed inside to produce the desired tone when the drum was tapped with a stick.
TRANSFORMATION OF CULTURE
The Iroquois have been willing to adapt to a changing world, but they have resisted efforts to substitute a European culture for their own heritage. For example, in 1745 the Reverend David Brainerd proposed to live among them for two years to help them build a Christian church and become accustomed to the weekly worship cycle. They were direct in declining his offer: "We are Indians and don't wish to be transformed into white men. The English are our Brethren, but we never promised to become what they are" (James Axtell, The European and the Indian: Essays in the Ethnohistory of Colonial North America. [New York: Oxford University Press, 1981] p. 78).
Yet changes were inevitable. In 1798 a Quaker delegation worked among the Seneca, teaching them to read and write. They also instructed them in modern farming methods and encouraged men to work on the farms, which represented a major cultural shift. A respected Seneca warrior named Gaiantwaka, known as The Cornplanter, helped bring about this change, as did his half brother, Ganiodayo (Handsome Lake).
More Iroquois began to accept the concept of private ownership of land; historically, tribal lands were held in common, although individuals might have the right to farm certain parcels during their lifetime. During the nineteenth century, the Iroquois sold large amounts of land in exchange for useful trade goods. Leading chiefs were sometimes induced to support such sales by the offer of lifetime pensions. Shrinking land holdings made hunting increasingly difficult and left the men with little to do, which contributed to the Quakers' success in turning them to agricultural work. Families were encouraged to leave the longhouses and live separately on small farms so the men could work in their fields without being embarrassed by being seen doing women's work. Today, longhouses are used only for religious and ceremonial purposes.
In the mid-1800s a rather abrupt change occurred in the style of artwork used to decorate clothing with beads, quills, and embroidery. Rather than the traditional patterns of curving lines and scrolls, designs became representational images of plants and flowers, influenced by the floral style prominent among the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French.
Eventually, the Onondaga discovered that non-Indians would be willing to pay to see their ceremonial dances, and they experimented with public performances. In 1893 the annual Green Corn Festival was delayed several weeks for the convenience of the audience, and the council house was filled three times with spectators who paid 15 cents admission. The contemporary historian William M. Beauchamp wrote, "Of course, this deprived the feast of all religious force, and made it a mere show; nor did it quite satisfy those who saw it" ("Notes on Onondaga Dances," An Iroquois Source Book, Volume 2, edited by Elisabeth Tooker. [New York: Garland Publishing, 1985] p. 183).
As was the case with other Native Americans, much of the friction between the Iroquois and non-Indians has involved different attitudes toward land. During the 1950s and 1960s the long-standing disparity was brought into sharp focus during the planning and construction of the Kinzua Dam, which flooded over 9,000 acres of Seneca Land. The Indians fought the dam, claiming it violated the treaty between the Six Nations and the United States. The government reimbursed the tribe financially, but the reservation was disrupted. The grave of the revered Cornplanter had to be moved to accommodate the dam; his descendant Harriett Pierce commented, "The White man views land for its money value. We Indians have a spiritual tie with the earth, a reverence for it that Whites don't share and can hardly understand" (Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., Now That the Buffalo's Gone: A Study of Today's American Indians [New York: Alfred A. Knoph, 1982] p. 129).
Traditional values are sustained on the various Iroquois reservations. The ancient languages are spoken and taught, traditional ceremonies are observed, and baskets are woven. Material wealth is not characteristic of reservation Indians, but Tonawanda Seneca Chief Corbett Sundown, keeper of the Iroquois "spiritual fire," disputes the assessment that the people are poor. He told a National Geographic writer: "We're rich people without any money, that's all. You say we ought to set up industries and factories. Well, we just don't want them. How're you going to grow potatoes and sweet corn on concrete? You call that progress? To me "progress" is a dirty word" (Arden Harvey, "The Fire that Never Dies," National Geographic [September 1987] p. 398).
MISCONCEPTIONS AND STEREOTYPES
"Hiawatha" is one of the most widely recognized Indian names among non-Indian Americans, thanks to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Unfortunately, his character is a classic case of mistaken identity. The real subject of the poem, an Ojibwe hero named Nanabozho, was confused with the Iroquoian Hiawatha in a mid-nineteenth century work by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft that inspired Longfellow.
The Longfellow poem, at least, presented a sympathetic image of an Iroquois-named character. In his eloquent history of the Tuscarora Indians, Chief Elias Johnson wrote in 1881: "Almost any portrait that we see of an Indian, he is represented with tomahawk and scalping knife in hand, as if they possess no other but a barbarous nature. Christian nations might with equal justice be always represented with cannon and balls, swords and pistols, as the emblems of their employment and their prevailing tastes" (Elias Johnson, Legends, Traditions and Laws of the Iroquois, or Six Nations, and History of the Tuscarora Indians [New York: AMS Press, 1978 (reprint of 1881 edition)] p. 13).
Corn is the traditional staple of the Haudenosaunee diet. It was baked or boiled and eaten on or off the cob; the kernels were mashed and either fried, baked in a kettle, or spread on corn leaves that were folded and boiled as tamales. Some varieties of corn were processed into hominy by boiling the kernels in a weak lye solution of hardwood ashes and water. Bread, pudding, dumplings, and cooked cereal were made from cornmeal. Parched corn coffee was brewed by mixing roasted corn with boiling water.
Besides corn, and the beans and squash they raised with it, the Iroquois people ate a wide variety of other plant foods. Wild fruits, nuts, and roots were gathered to supplement the cultivated crops. Berries were dried for year-round use. Maple sap was used for sweetening, but salt was not commonly used.
The traditional diet featured over 30 types of meat, including deer, bear, beaver, rabbit, and squirrel. Fresh meat was enjoyed during the hunting season, and some was smoked or dried and used to embellish corn dishes during the rest of the year. The Iroquois used the region's waterways extensively for transportation, but fish was relatively unimportant as food.
The fundamental item of men's clothing was a breechcloth made of a strip of deerskin or fabric. Passing between the legs, it was secured by a waist belt, and decorated flaps of the breechcloth hung in the front and back. The belt, or sash, was a favorite article; sometimes worn only around the waist, and sometimes also over the left shoulder, it was woven on a loom or on the fingers, and might be decorated with beadwork.
The basic item of women's clothing was a short petticoat. Other items that were worn by both sexes included a fringed, sleeveless tunic, separate sleeves (connected to each other by thongs, but not connected to the tunic), leggings, moccasins, and a robe or blanket. Clothing was adorned with moose-hair embroidery featuring curved line figures with coiled ends. Decorated pouches for carrying personal items completed the costumes. Women used burden straps, worn across the forehead, to support litters carried on their backs.
By the end of the eighteenth century, trade cloth replaced deerskin as the basic clothing material. Imported glass beads replaced porcupine quills as decorative elements.
The annual cycle consists of six regular festivals, which are still observed among the Iroquois. In addition, ceremonies are held as needed for wakes, memorial feasts, burials, adoptions, or sealing of friendships.
The new year began with the Mid-Winter Festival, which was held in late January or early February when the men returned from the fall hunt. It lasted five days, followed by another two or three days of game playing. This was a time of spiritual cleansing and renewal, and included a ritual cleaning of homes. Public confessions were made, and penitents touched a wampum belt as a pledge of reform. Playing a traditional dice game commemorated the struggle between the Creator and his evil twin brother for control over the earth. Thanks were offered to the Creator for protection during the past year. Dreams were always considered to be supernatural messages, and everyone was obliged to help the dreamer by fulfilling the needs or desires expressed in the dream; particular attention was devoted to dream guessing during the Mid-Winter Festival. On a pre-festival day, names were conferred on babies, young adults, and adoptees so they could participate in the upcoming ceremonies.
In the spring, when the sap rose, it was time for the Thanks-to-the-Maple Festival. This one-day celebration included social dances and the ceremonial burning of tobacco at the base of a maple tree.
In May or June, corn seeds saved from the previous year were blessed at the Corn Planting Ceremony. This was a half-day observance in which the Creator was thanked and spirit forces were implored for sufficient rain and moderate sun.
Ripening strawberries in June signaled time for the Strawberry Festival. Dancers mimicked the motions of berry pickers. This one-day celebration was a time for giving thanks.
In August or early September, the corn was ready to eat. This event was marked by the Green Corn Festival, which involved ceremonies on four successive mornings. The first day included general thanksgiving, a Feather Dance honoring those who worked to put on the festival, and the naming of children. The second day saw more dances and the bestowing of names on young adults and adoptees. The third day was dedicated to personal commitment and sacrifice, and included a communal burning of tobacco. Speeches and dancing were followed by a feast. On the fourth day the ceremonial dice game was played as it was at the Mid-Winter Festival. Finally, the women who worked the fields sang thanksgiving for the crops.
When all the crops had been harvested and stored away, and before the men left for the fall hunt, the Harvest Festival was held. This one-day celebration took place in October.
The use of masks, or "false faces," is a major component of Iroquois rituals. They symbolized spirit forces that were represented by the person wearing the mask at festivals or healing ceremonies. One group of spirits was depicted by masks carved from living trees, while another group was represented by masks made from braided corn husks. Miniature corn husk masks, three inches across or less, were kept as personal charms; in ancient times the miniatures were also made of clay or stone.
DEATH AND BURIAL
When a person died, everyone who had similar names gave them up until a period of mourning was completed. Later, if another person was adopted into the clan, he was often given the name of the deceased person whose place he took.
A wake was held the night following a death. After a midnight meal, the best orators of the village spoke about the deceased, and about life and death in general. The body was placed on a scaffold for several days on the chance that the person only appeared dead and might revive, which happened occasionally. After decomposition began, the remains might be buried, or the cleaned bones might be housed in or near the family lodge. When the village relocated, all of the unburied skeletons were interred in a common grave. By the end of the nineteenth century, burials were conducted according to European customs.
Upon death both the soul and the ghost left the body. Using food and tools offered by the survivors, the soul journeyed to the land of the dead. The ghost, on the other hand, became a spiritual inhabitant of the village. At a yearly Feast of the Dead, tobacco and songs were offered to the resident ghosts.
Traditional Iroquois rituals addressed both physical and mental health issues. Medicine men (or women) used herbs and natural ointments to treat maladies including fevers, coughs, and snake bites. Wounds were cleaned, broken bones were set, and medicinal emetics were administered.
Another type of healer, known as a conjurer, sang incantations to combat maladies caused through witchcraft. They might remove an affliction from the patient's body by blowing or sucking. Twice a year groups of False Faces visited each house in the village, waving pine boughs and dispelling illness. Shamans were empowered to combat disorders caused by evil spirits.
In the realm of mental health, modern psychologists see the value in the Iroquois practice of dream guessing. Everyone in the community had a responsibility to resolve conflicts and unmet needs made evident through any person's dreams.
The six Iroquoian dialects are similar enough to allow easy conversation. The Mohawk and Oneida are quite similar, as are the Cayuga and Seneca; the Onondaga and Tuscarora are each different from the five others. One common characteristic is the lack of labial sounds formed by bringing the lips together.
The language is rich in words for tangible things, but lacking in abstract expressions. A 1901 treatise noted, "for the varieties, sexes, and ages of a single animal they would have a multitude of terms, but no general word for animal. Or they would have words for good man, good woman, good dog, but no word for goodness" (Lewis H. Morgan, League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee or Iroquois [New Haven: Human Relations Area Files, 1954] p. 243).
Historically, the Iroquois language was oral. In the mid-1800s a Congregational missionary named Asher Wright devised a written version using the English alphabet and edited a Seneca newspaper. During the latter half of the 1900s, written dictionaries and grammar texts have been developed for teaching the languages on the reservations. However, Barbara Graymont noted at the 1965 Conference on Iroquois Research that no written material existed in Tuscarora, other than an "unreadable" nineteenth century hymnal (Barbara Graymont, "Problems of Tuscarora Language Survival," Iroquois Culture, History, and Prehistory [Albany: The University of the State of New York, 1967] pp. 27-8).
GREETINGS AND OTHER POPULAR EXPRESSIONS
Some of the basic Mohawk expressions are: shé:kon ("SHAY kohn") or kwé kwé ("KWAY KWAY")— hello; hén ("hun")—yes; iáh ("yah")—no; niá:wen ("nee AH wun")—thank you.
Family and Community Dynamics
CLAN AND FAMILY STRUCTURE
The Iroquois tribes were organized into eight clans, which were grouped in two moieties: Wolf, Bear, Beaver, and Turtle; and Deer, Snipe, Heron, and Hawk. In ancient times, intermarriage was not allowed within each four-clan group, but eventually intermarriage was only forbidden within each clan. Tribal affiliation did not affect clan membership; for example, all Wolf clan members were considered to be blood relatives, regardless of whether they were members of the Mohawk, Seneca, or other Iroquois tribes. At birth, each person became a member of the clan of his or her mother.
Within a tribe, each clan was led by the clan mother, who was usually the oldest woman in the group. In consultation with the other women, the clan mother chose one or more men to serve as clan chiefs. Each chief was appointed for life but the clan mother and her advisors could remove him from office for poor behavior or dereliction of duty.
Traditionally, a man and woman wishing to marry would tell their parents, who would arrange a joint meeting of relatives to discuss the suitability of the two people for marriage to each other. If no objections arose during the discussion, a day was chosen for the marriage feast. On the appointed day the woman's relatives would bring her to the groom's home for the festivities. Following the meal, elders from the groom's family spoke to the bride about wifely duties, and elders from the bride's family told the groom about husbandly responsibilities. Then the two began their new life together.
In ancient times adultery was rare. When it was discovered, the woman was punished by whipping, but the man was not punished. If a couple decided to separate, both of their families would be called to a council. The parties would state their reasons for wanting a divorce, and the elders would try to work out a reconciliation. If those efforts failed, the marriage ended. In ancient times, fathers kept their sons and mothers kept their daughters when a divorce occurred; by the early eighteenth century, however, mothers typically kept all of the children.
Children were valued among the Iroquois; because of the matrilineal society, daughters were somewhat more prized than sons. The birth of a couple's first child was welcomed with a feast at the mother's family home. The couple stayed there a few days, and then returned to their own home to prepare another feast.
Birthing took place in a hut located outside the village. As her time drew near, the mother and a few other women withdrew to the hut and remained there until a few days after the birth. Until he was able to walk, an Iroquois baby spent his days secured to a cradleboard, which his mother would hang from a tree branch while she worked in the fields.
Babies were named at birth; when the child reached puberty, an adult name was given. Names referred to natural phenomena (such as the moon or thunder), landscape features, occupations, and social or ceremonial roles; animal names were very rare. Some examples of the meanings of names are: In the Center of the Sky, Hanging Flower, He Carries News, and Mighty Speaker. A person was never addressed by his name during conversation; when speaking about a person, especially to a relative, the name was only used if he could not otherwise be clearly identified by terms of relation or the context of the discussion.
Mothers had primary responsibility for raising their children and teaching them good behavior. In keeping with the easy-going nature of Haudenosaunee society, children learned informally from their family and clan elders. Children were not spanked, but they might be punished by splashing water in their faces. Difficult children might be frightened into better behavior by a visit from someone wearing the mask of Longnose, the cannibal clown.
Puberty marked the time of acceptance into adult membership in the society. On the occasion of her first menses, a girl would retire to an isolated hut for the duration of her period. She was required to perform difficult tasks, such as chopping hardwood with a dull axe, and was prohibited from eating certain foods. The period of initiation for a young man was more lengthy; when his voice began to change, he went to live in a secluded cabin in the forest for up to a year. An old man or woman took responsibility for overseeing his well-being. He ate sparsely, and his time was spent in physically demanding activities such as running, swimming, bathing in icy water, and scraping his shins with a stone. His quest was completed when he was visited by his spirit, which would remain with him during his adult life.
A speaker at the 1963 American Anthropological Association convention described the Iroquois as "virtually 100% literate today" (Cara E. Richards, "Women Use the Law, Men Suffer From It: Differential Acculturation Among the Onondaga Indians in the 1950's & 60's," Iroquois Women: An Anthology [Ohsweken, Ontario: Iroqrafts Ltd, 1990] p. 167). The 1980 Census found that 60 percent of the Iroquois over the age of 25 were high school graduates, and nine percent were college graduates.
Iroquois children attending reservation schools learn not only the subjects typically taught at non-Indian schools, but also study their tribal culture and history. The stated goals of the Akwesasne Freedom School, for example, are "to facilitate learning so that the students will have a good self-concept as Indians, promote self-reliance, promote respect for the skills of living in harmony with others and the environment and master the academic and/or vocational skills necessary in a dualistic society" (The Native North American Almanac, edited by David Champagne [Detroit: Gale Research, 1994] p. 886).
From ancient times the Haudenosaunee believed that a powerful spirit called Orenda permeated the universe. He created everything that is good and useful. The Evil Spirit made things that are poisonous, but the Great Spirit gained control of the world.
During the seventeenth century, French Jesuit missionaries converted many of the Iroquois to Catholicism. Kateri Tekakwitha, who was baptized in 1635, became the first Native American nun. She was extraordinarily devout; since her death many visions and miraculous cures have been attributed to her intervention. She was beatified by the Catholic Church in 1980 and is a candidate for canonization to sainthood. The "Blessed Kateri" is revered at the feasts and celebrations of many Native American nations, particularly those who have incorporated Catholicism into their spiritual belief systems.
In 1710 three Mohawk chiefs, along with another from the Mahicans, visited Queen Anne in England to ask for military assistance against the French and for Anglican missionaries to teach their people. As the years passed, Quakers, Baptists, Methodists, and an interdenominational Protestant group called the New York Missionary Society joined the effort of proselytizing the Iroquois. An intense rivalry developed between the pagan and Christian factions. In fact, in 1823 a group of Oneidas led by Eleazar Williams, a Mohawk from Canada who had become an Episcopalian minister, left their New York homeland and moved to Wisconsin, where they established a reservation.
In 1799, amidst the Christian missionary efforts, a revival of the ancient Longhouse religion developed. A Seneca known as Handsome Lake had spent much of his life in dissolute living and fell gravely ill when he was about 65 years old. He expected to die, but instead, he experienced a profound vision and recovered. Inspired, he began to spread the Good Word among his fellow Iroquois. The New Religion was essentially a revitalization of the ancient pagan beliefs, although some Quaker influence can be detected.
Major tenets of the New Religion included shunning of alcoholic beverages, abandonment of beliefs in witchcraft and love potions, and denunciation of abortion. The fact that Handsome Lake's message had come in a dream gave it a profound impact among the Haudenosaunee. The religion was instrumental in showing many Iroquois how to retain their own culture while adapting to a world dominated by non-Indians.
The Longhouse religion continues to be a major spiritual focus among the Iroquois people. Some adhere solely to its practice, while others maintain a parallel membership in a Christian church.
Employment and Economic Traditions
Although the Haudenosaunee's bond to the land remains, most no longer live as farmers. Census data from 1980 show that two-thirds of the Iroquois people lived in urban areas. About half of those living outside urban settings actually lived on reservations. Ties to the homeland and the tribal culture are strong, however, and those who live off the reservation return from time to time to visit relatives and to spiritually renew themselves.
In a modern rendition of their ancient sojourns away from the village to hunt, Iroquois men today may support their families by living and working in a city but returning home periodically. In particular, there is a cohesive group of Indians, including many Mohawk, living in Brooklyn during the week but returning to their families on weekends.
Iroquois men, especially Mohawk, are famous as ironworkers in construction. They walk steel girders high in the air unhampered by any fear of heights. Consequently, they are in demand around the country for skyscraper and bridge building projects, which have included such landmarks as the World Trade Center and the Golden Gate Bridge. Fathers pass their ironworking tools on to their sons (or sometimes daughters) in an atmosphere reminiscent of ancient rituals.
The 1980 census indicated that about nine percent of the employed Iroquois were engaged in construction, although over half of the men of the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation are members of the ironworker union. Factory work was actually the largest occupation, accounting for one-fourth of the jobs held by Iroquois people. Nineteen percent of the employed Iroquois worked in "professional and related services," including health and education. Another 13 percent were engaged in retail trade.
Cara E. Richards of Cornell University conducted an acculturation study focusing on the Onondaga tribe during the 1950s and early 1960s (Richards, pp. 164-67). At that time 70 percent of the tribal women who held jobs worked as domestics in off-reservation homes. This put them in the position of interacting with upper- and middle-class families in home environments that exposed them to radio and television programs, non-Indian lifestyles, modern home appliances, and even different types of foods. Onondaga men, on the other hand, worked primarily in factories or on construction sites. Although they interacted with non-Indian men, there was little exchange of cultural information. Differential patterns of acculturation resulted, in which the women were more comfortable and successful in relating to non-Indian agencies, including law enforcement.
Economic activity varies markedly among the various Iroquois reservations. For example, the Onondaga reservation does not offer services for tourists, but the Mohawk welcome tourists to their museum and marinas.
Politics and Government
The Great Peace forged by Deganawidah and Hiawatha produced an unwritten but clearly defined framework for the Iroquois Confederacy (a written constitution was developed about 1850). Three principles, each with dual meanings, formed the foundation of the League government. The Good Word signified righteousness in action as well as in thought and speech; it also required justice through the balancing of rights and obligations. The principle of Health referred to maintaining a sound mind in a sound body; it also involved peace among individuals and between groups. Thirdly, Power meant physical, military, or civil authority; it also denoted spiritual power. The founders envisioned the resulting peace spreading beyond the original League members, so that eventually all people would live in cooperation. Law and order remained the internal concern of each tribe, but the League legally prohibited cannibalism.
Under the structure of the Confederacy, the 50 clan chiefs (called sachems) from all the tribes came together to confer about questions of common concern. The successor of the Onondaga chief Todadaho served as a chairman who oversaw the discussion, which continued until a unanimous decision was reached. If no consensus could be achieved, each tribe was free to follow an independent course on that matter.
The League functioned well for generations, fostering peace among the Six Nations. Even when the tribes failed to agree regarding an external dispute, such as one between the French and the Dutch, they would find a way to fight their respective enemies without confronting another League tribe. However, they were unable to do this during the American Revolution. The Confederacy nearly collapsed in the wake of that war, and traditionalists are still trying to rebuild it. During the latter half of the twentieth century, it has strengthened significantly.
In 1802 the Mohawk living within the United States officially discarded their traditional clan-based structure and established an elective tribal government. In 1848 a faction of Seneca instituted a similar change, establishing the Seneca Nation. Voting rights were denied to Seneca women, who had historically chosen the tribal leaders; women's suffrage was not reinstated until 1964. Other tribes eventually followed suit, either abandoning their ancestral governments or modifying them to incorporate elections. Traditionalists clung to the ancient structure, however, and today two competing sets of governments exist on several reservations. Violence occasionally erupts between the opposing factions.
The United States government has tried in various ways to relocate, assimilate, or disband Indian tribes. A core group of the Iroquois people has steadfastly resisted these efforts. In 1831 some Seneca and Cayuga moved to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) as part of the federal removal effort; other Iroquois factions held their ground until the policy was overturned in 1842 and ownership of some of the Seneca land was restored. In 1924 Congress passed legislation conferring U.S. citizenship to all American Indians; the Haudenosaunee rejected such status.
The Iroquois have actively worked to reclaim sacred artifacts and ancestral remains from museums. In 1972 a moratorium was enacted prohibiting archaeologists from excavating native burial sites in New York state; tribal members would be notified to arrange proper reburials for remains unearthed accidentally. Wampum belts held by the New York State Museum in Albany were removed from public display in deference to the Indians' belief that they should not be treated as curiosities, and were finally returned to the Onondagas (as Keeper of the Central Fire for the Iroquois League) in 1989. Years of effort were rewarded in the early 1990s when the Smithsonian Institution and its National Museum of the American Indian committed to returning human remains, burial artifacts, sacred objects, and other articles of cultural patrimony to Indian tribes.
Individual and Group Contributions
Although disputed by some, there is significant evidence that the Iroquois Confederacy served as a model or inspiration for the U.S. Constitution. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine were well acquainted with the League. John Rutledge, chairman of the committee that wrote the first draft of the Constitution, began the process by quoting some passages from the Haudenosaunee Great Law. The Iroquois form of government was based on democracy and personal freedom, and included elements equivalent to the modern political tools of initiative, referendum, and recall. In 1987 Senator Daniel Inouye sponsored a resolution that would commemorate the Iroquois' contributions to the formation of the federal government.
Many Iroquois people have made notable contributions to society and culture that transcend political boundaries. A dramatic example is Oren Lyons (1930– ), an Onondaga chief who has led political delegations to numerous countries in support of the rights of indigenous people. Twice named an All-American lacrosse goal-keeper, he led his 1957 team at Syracuse University to an undefeated season and was eventually enrolled in the sport's Hall of Fame. He was a successful amateur boxer in both the U.S. Army and in the Golden Gloves competition. He worked as a commercial artist for several years before returning to the reservation to assume his position as faithkeeper. An author and illustrator, he has served as Chairman of American Studies at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo and as publisher of Daybreak, a national quarterly newspaper of Native American views. In 1992 he became the first indigenous leader to have addressed the United Nations General Assembly.
ACADEMIA AND SCHOLARSHIP
Arthur C. Parker (Seneca, 1881-1955) was a leading authority on Iroquois culture as well as museum administration. He joined the New York State Museum at Albany as an archeologist in 1906 and became director of the Rochester Museum of Arts and Sciences in 1925. He wrote 14 major books and hundreds of articles.
Dr. John Mohawk (Seneca) teaches Native American law and history at SUNY in Buffalo. He has written extensively on the Iroquois philosophy and approach to government. He founded Akwesasne Notes, a quarterly activist magazine, and the Indigenous Press Network, a computerized news service focusing on Indian affairs.
The poetry of Roberta Hill Whiteman (Oneida) has been published in anthologies and magazines including American Poetry Review. She has been involved with Poets-in-the-Schools programs in at least seven states and has taught at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
Robert L. Bennett (Oneida) and Louis R. Bruce Jr. (Mohawk) served in the 1960s and early 1970s as commissioners of the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs. Ely Parker (Seneca, 1828-1895), the first Native American to hold that post, had been appointed by Ulysses S. Grant in 1869.
Katsi Cook (Mohawk), a midwife and lecturer on women's health, is active is the Akwesasne Environment Project. Her health-related writings have appeared in national magazines as well as in medical books.
Amber Coverdale Sumrall (Mohawk), a writer and poet, has been active in the Sanctuary Movement. She also lectures and teaches workshops on the topic of disabilities.
Tahnahga (Mohawk) has a degree in Rehabilitation Counseling; she incorporates traditional Native American healing methods into her work with chemical dependency. She also uses her talent as a poet and storyteller to show Indian youth how to use visions and dreaming to enhance their lives.
VISUAL ARTS AND LITERATURE
Richard Hill (1950– ) followed in his father's footsteps and became an ironworker in construction before enrolling in the Art Institute of Chicago. His watercolor paintings include a series on Iroquois culture, and he has also documented the culture through photography. Since the early 1970s, he has curated numerous art shows, prepared museum exhibits for such clients as the Smithsonian Institution, and written many articles about history and art. A past Director of the North American Indian Museums Association, he has also taught at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
Maurice Kenny (Mohawk), a poet nominated for the Pulitzer prize, received the American Book Award in 1984 for The Mama Poems. His work has been widely anthologized, and he has been Writerin-Residence at North County Community College in Saranac Lake, New York. He is described as having "a distinctive voice, one shaped by the rhythms of Mohawk life and speech, yet one which defines and moves beyond cultural boundaries" (Joseph Bruchac, New Voices from the Longhouse: An Anthology of Contemporary Iroquois Writing [Greenfield Center, NY: Greenfield Review Press, 1989] p. 161). He has also received the National Public Radio Award for Broadcasting.
Daniel Thompson (Mohawk, 1953– ) has been a photographer, graphic artist, and editor of several publications including the Northeast Indian Quarterly published by Cornell University. He writes poetry in both English and Mohawk and is working to devise an improved written form for the Mohawk language. He has also served as news director for the Mohawk radio station.
Using the knowledge she acquired when earning bachelor's and master's degrees in zoology, Carol Snow (Seneca) has written and illustrated a dozen reports on endangered and rare species for the Bureau of Land Management. As an artist, in 1980 she created a technique incorporating ink and acrylic paint, which she employed in her renderings of Native American and wildlife themes.
Tuscarora sculptor Duffy Wilson works in both wood and stone. Tom Huff, another stone sculptor, is also a writer and poet; he served as editor of the Institute of American Indian Arts' literary journal in 1979. Alex Jacobs (Mohawk), whose sculptures, paintings, and prints can be found in New York galleries, has had his written works included in several Native American poetry and literature anthologies.
FILM TELEVISION, AND THEATER
Jay Silverheels (Mohawk,1918-1980) was born on the Six Nations Indian Reservation in Ontario. Siverheels was an actor perhaps best known for his portrayal of Tonto, the loyal Indian sidekick to the Lone Ranger series, which ran from 1949 to 1957. His noted performances include his depiction of the Apache Indian chief, Geronimo, in Broken Arrow (1950), a film acclaimed by many as the first picture to portray Native Americans in a sympathetic light, as well as three "Lone Ranger" films. Silverheels was the first Native American to be given a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame.
Gary Dale Farmer (Cayuga, 1953-), born on the Six Nations Indian Reservation, is an actor, film producer and activist. Farmer appeared in the movies Friday the Thirteenth and Police Academy. He also appeared on the television series Miami Vice and China Beach. After 1989, Farmer began lecturing on Native American culture and issues on many campuses in the United States and Canada, focusing on media, environmental, and social topics relevant to Native communities. In 1998, Farmer had a role in the well-received film Smoke Signals.
Graham Greene (Oneida, 1952-) is a film actor who has found success in both Canada and the United States. Greene is one of the most visible Native American actors working on the stage and in film today. He is best known for his roles in Dances with Wolves (1990), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, and Thunderheart (1992). Greene also appeared in the films Maverick (1994) and Die Hard: With a Vengeance, as well as on the television series Northern Exposure.
This quarterly magazine is published by the Mohawk tribe.
Contact: Mark Narsisian, Editor.
Address: P.O. Box 196, Rooseveltown, New York 13683-0196.
Telephone: (518) 358-9535.
Ka Ri Wen Ha Wi.
This monthly newsletter contains reservation news and items about the Akwesasne Library/Cultural Center.
Contact: Janice Brown, Editor.
Address: Akwesasne Library, Rural Route 1, Box 14 C, Hogansburg, New York 13655.
Telephone: (518) 358-2240.
Fax: (518) 358-2649.
The Seneca Nation of Indians Official Newsletter.
Quarterly publication that prints news and special interest pieces about the Seneca Nation.
Contact: Debbie Hoag, Editor.
Address: G.R. Plummer Building, P.O. Box 321, Salamanca, New York 14779-0321.
Telephone: (716) 945-1790.
Radio station owned and operated by the Mohawk tribe on the St. Regis Reservation in New York. It broadcasts music 24 hours a day, including country, adult contemporary, rock, and blues segments. In addition, it airs hourly local news summaries, community announcements (sometimes in Mohawk or French) three times a day, and live coverage of local lacrosse games.
Contact: Kallen Martin, General Manager.
Address: P.O. Box 140, Rooseveltown, New York 13683-0140.
Telephone: (518) 358-3426.
Organizations and Associations
The Onondaga Nation.
Contact: Chief Irving Powless, Jr.
Address: Box 319B, Onondaga Reservation, Nedrow, New York 13120.
Telephone: (315) 492-4210.
Fax: (315) 469-1725.
St. Regis Mohawk Tribe.
Contact: Edward Smoke, CEO.
Address: St. Regis Reservation, Rural Route #1, Box 8A, Hogansburg, New York 13655.
Telephone: (518) 358-2272.
Fax: (518) 358-3203.
The Seneca Nation, Allegany Reservation.
Contact: Dennis Bowen Sr., President.
Address: G.R. Plummer Building, P.O. Box 321, Salamanca, New York 14779-0321.
Telephone: (716) 945-1790.
E-mail: [email protected].
The Seneca Nation of Indians, Cattaraugus Reservation.
Contact: Adrian Stevens, Treasurer.
Address: William Seneca Building, 1490 Route 438, Irving, New York 14081.
Telephone: (716) 532-4900.
E-mail: [email protected].
Tonawanda Band of Senecas.
Contact: Chief Emerson Webster.
Address: 7027 Meadville Road, Basom, New York 14013.
Telephone: (716) 542-4244.
Fax: (716) 542-4244.
Museums and Research Centers
Akwesasne Cultural Center/Akwesasne Museum.
Displays traditional Mohawk artifacts and basketry, contemporary Iroquois artifacts, and ethnological exhibitions.
Contact: Carol White, Director.
Address: Rural Route 1, Box 14 C, Hogansburg, New York 13655.
Telephone: (518) 358-2240; or 358-2461.
Fax: (518) 358-2649.
The Iroquois Indian Museum.
Features the history of the Iroquois and displays contemporary arts and crafts. A library is available for research.
Contact: James Schafer, Director.
Address: P.O. Box 7, Caverns Road, Howes Cave, New York 12092.
Telephone: (518) 296-8949.
Fax: (518) 296-8955.
E-mail: [email protected].
The National Shrine of the Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha and Native American Exhibit.
Displays artifacts and maintains the only completely excavated and staked-out Iroquois village in the United States.
Contact: Fr. Jim Plavcan.
Address: P.O. Box 627, Fonda, New York 12068.
Telephone: (518) 853-3646.
The Oneida Nation Museum.
Preserves the culture of the Wisconsin tribe and serves as a point of contact for the Oneida Reservation.
Contact: Denise Vigue, Director.
Address: P.O. Box 365, Oneida, Wisconsin 54155-0365.
Telephone: (414) 869-2768.
The Rochester Museum and Science Center.
Offers changing exhibits as well as a permanent display, "At the Western Door," that focuses on relations between the Seneca Indians and European colonists. Also on display are a furnished 1790s Seneca cabin, six life-size figure tableaus, and over 2,000 artifacts.
Contact: Richard C. Shultz, Director.
Address: 657 East Avenue, P.O. Box 1480, Rochester, New York 14603-1480.
Telephone: (716) 271-1880.
The Seneca-Iroquois National Museum.
Located on the Allegany Reservation, this museum houses 300,000 articles portraying the life and culture of the Seneca and other Iroquois Indians, including wampum belts, costumes, games, and modern art.
Contact: Midge Deanstock, Director.
Address: 794 Broad Street, Salamanca, New York 14779.
Telephone: (716) 945-1738.
Sources for Additional Study
Arden, Harvey. "The Fire That Never Dies," National Geographic, September 1987.
A Basic Call to Consciousness. Rooseveltown, NY: Akwesasne Notes, 1978.
Bruchac, Joseph. New Voices from the Longhouse: An Anthology of Contemporary Iroquois Writing. Greenfield Center, NY: Greenfield Review Press, 1989.
Fenton, Willam N. The Great Law and the Long-house: A Political History of the Iroquois Confederacy. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.
Graymont, Barbara. The Iroquois. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.
"Indian Roots of American Democracy," Northeast Indian Quarterly, edited by Jose Barreiro. Winter/Spring, 1987/1988.
An Iroquois Source Book, Volumes 1 and 2, edited by Elisabeth Tooker. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1985.
Iroquois Women: An Anthology, edited by W. G. Spittal. Ohsweken, Ontario: Iroqrafts Ltd, 1990.
Johnson, Elias. Legends, Traditions and Laws of the Iroquois, or Six Nations, and History of the Tuscarora Indians. New York: AMS Press, 1978 (reprint of 1881 edition).
Josephy, Alvin M., Jr. Now That the Buffalo's Gone: A Study of Today's American Indians. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982.
Snow, Dean R. The Iroquois. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1996.
Tooker, Elisabeth. Lewis H. Morgan on Iroquois Material Culture. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1994.
For more information on an individual tribe within the Iroquois Confederacy, please see the Mohawk entry.
Iroquois (pronounced EAR-uh-kwoy) Confederacy. The Iroquois call themselves Haudenosaunee (pronounced hoo-dee-noh-SHAW-nee), meaning “people of the longhouse.” The nations that were members of the Iroquois Confederacy, also known as the Five (later Six) Nations of the Haudenosaunee, thought of themselves as forming a longhouse (the typical Iroquois dwelling), with the different tribes at important corners of the jointly run central building. Another name the Six Nations call themselves is Ongwehonweh, meaning “Original People” or “First People.”
The tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy lived in west central New York. They now own eight reservations in New York and Wisconsin, and two in Ontario, Canada, where members of the various tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy reside. Iroquois also live in Oklahoma and near Montreal, Quebec, Canada, along the St. Lawrence River.
There were 5,500 Iroquois in the seventeenth century. In the1990 U.S. Census, 52,557 people said they were members of Iroquois tribes, making the Iroquois the country’s seventh-largest Native American group. The 2000 census showed 45,212 people identified themselves as Iroquois only, while 80,822 claimed some Iroquois heritage. In 1995 U.S. and Canadian census figures reported 74,518 Iroquois in the two countries. The population of registered Iroquois both on and off the reserves in Canada was 32,637 in 2007.
Origins and group affiliations
The six tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy are: Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca, and Tuscarora. Five of the six tribes that make up the Iroquois Confederacy probably originated in present-day New York. The sixth tribe, the Tuscarora, came from North Carolina.
The Iroquois Confederacy was an association of five (later six) tribes who lived in the northeastern woodlands at the time of the first contact with Europeans. Theirs was a sophisticated society of some 5,500 people when the first white explorers encountered it at the beginning of the seventeenth century. The confederacy is said to be the only nation of Native Americans in the New World that was never conquered by white people. Today, Iroquoian tribes own seven reservations in New York State, one in Wisconsin, one in Oklahoma, and more in Canada. The majority of the people live away from the reservations.
Legends of heroes
Depending on the legend, the Iroquois Confederacy was formed sometime between the years 1350 and 1600. These legends are probably combinations of the many different people and events that brought about the peaceful union of the great tribes of the Haudenosaunee.
As legend has it, the Mohawk, Onondaga, Seneca, Cayuga, and Oneida nations were engaged in near-constant warfare with one another and with neighboring tribes. This period, known as the “dark times,” reached its lowest point during the reign of an Onondaga chief named Todadaho. People said that Chief Todadaho knew and saw everything, that his hair contained a tangle of snakes, and that he could kill with only a look. He was also reported to be a cannibal.
Into this warlike era entered a heroic figure, Deganawida, a member of either the Huron or the Mohawk tribes. Frustrated with the warring going on in his own village, Deganawida journeyed far from home. He met Hiawatha (of either the Mohawk or Onondaga tribes), and Hiawatha spoke to him about rules of life, good government, and peace. Impressed, Deganawida brought Hiawatha back to his own village to teach his people these rules. Then the two men went to other nations, and soon the Mohawk, Oneida, and Cayuga nations had united, persuaded by these two messengers of peace. One day they came upon the home of Todadaho.
Todadaho sees the light
According to one legend Deganawida watched through a hole in the roof as Todadaho prepared to cook his latest victim. Seeing Deganawida’s face reflected in the cooking pot, Todadaho felt that, as a man with such a beautiful face, he no longer wanted to eat his victim. Going outside to dispose of the corpse, he met Deganawida. The stranger’s words were so convincing that Todadaho became a loyal follower and helped spread the message of peace. In another legend, when Todadaho encountered the two messengers his rage sprouted from his head in the form of serpents. Deganawida (or Hiawatha) asked the chief to join the confederacy and then reached forward and combed the serpents from his head. In both versions the Onondaga chief agreed to join the union.
So it was that Deganawida and Hiawatha made peace among the five warring tribes and established the Iroquois Confederacy ruled by the Great Law. The five tribes shared a code of positive values and lived in mutual harmony. The Grand Council of Chiefs made up the governmental structure of the Iroquois Confederacy. The council included the Chief of the Chiefs and forty-nine other chiefs: nine chiefs from the Mohawk, fourteen from the Onondaga, ten from the Cayuga, nine from the Oneida, and eight from the Seneca. The Great Law also established rules for settling blood disputes, thus gradually resolving some generations-old cycles of feuding.
c. 1350–c. 1600: The Iroquois Confederacy is formed.
1799: Handsome Lake develops the New Religion.
1831: Some Seneca and Cayuga move to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) as part of the U.S. government’s plan to move Native Americans westward. Other Iroquois groups stand firm until the government’s policy is overturned in 1842.
1924: Congress passes legislation conferring U.S. citizenship on all American Indians. The Iroquois reject citizenship.
1942: As hostilities leading to World War II grow, the Iroquois exercise their powers as an independent nation to declare war on Germany, Italy, and Japan.
1995: The Iroquois request that all sacred masks and remains of their dead be returned to the tribe; The Smithsonian Institution is the first museum to comply with this request.
Europeans affect Iroquois way of life
When the first white explorers arrived in Iroquois territory in the early seventeenth century they found a settled agricultural (farming) society. Members of the Confederacy lived more or less peacefully among themselves, but continued to carry out raids against other tribes. During these raids the Iroquois were first introduced to European goods acquired by the other tribes from French traders who had settled in Canada. European metal axes, knives, hoes, and kettles replaced traditional Iroquois implements of stone, bone, shell, and wood. Soon European woven cloth began to replace the animal skins used for clothing materials.
The tribes raided by the Iroquois formed an alliance with French explorer Samuel de Champlain (1567–1635) and attacked the Iroquois at Ticonderoga in 1609. In this way the Iroquois were introduced to French body armor made of metal. (Iroquois armor was made of slatted wood.) The French fought with firearms. These were far more destructive than the traditional Iroquois weapons—bows and arrows, stone tomahawks, and wooden war clubs.
In response to these European influences, the Iroquois gradually changed their fighting style. Instead of brute power, they used stealth, surprise, and ambush. Their motives for fighting also changed. In the past, they had fought for prestige or revenge, or to obtain goods or captives. Now they fought for economic advantage, seeking control over bountiful beaver-hunting grounds or perhaps a stash of beaver skins to trade for European goods.
The European presence in their territory proved disastrous for the Iroquois tribes. Diseases brought to North America by Europeans—smallpox, measles, influenza (flu), lung infections, and even the common cold—took a heavy toll because the Native people had developed no immunity to these newly introduced diseases.
Sixth tribe joins Confederacy
Early in the eighteenth century the Tuscarora, an Iroquoian-speaking tribe living in North Carolina, moved into the territory occupied by the Confederacy. They were fleeing from European settlers and traders, who cheated them and took their people as slaves. Although they came from far away, the Tuscarora found they spoke the same basic language as the other Iroquois. In 1722 the Tuscarora became the sixth nation of the Iroquois Confederacy.
The eighteenth century saw the Iroquois involved in two devastating wars. The French and Indian War (1754–63) pitted the French and some Native tribes against the British. The American Revolution (1775–83) was the American colonists’ fight for independence from England. Members of the Iroquois Confederacy disagreed on which sides to support in these wars. Most favored the British, seeing them as a lesser threat than the colonists who coveted Native American lands. When the American Revolution ended in 1783 the victorious Americans punished those tribes that had sided with the British. Many Iroquois were driven from their homelands, and this badly disrupted the unity of the Iroquois Confederacy.
Major changes in Iroquois culture took place in the 1800s. Alarmed that traditional Iroquois ways were giving way to European culture, many Iroquois turned to a religious movement called the New Religion (see “The New Religion”). It put new vitality into Iroquois culture, which was severely strained by white settlers pushing westward onto Native American lands.
To make way for settlers, the U.S. government began a program of assimilation, requiring Native Americans to give up their old ways and adopt white American ways, including farming small plots of land rather than working the land in common. To further the goal of assimilation, members of the Quaker religion arrived to teach the Iroquois to read and write and to instruct them in modern farming methods. Men were encouraged to work on farms. Respected Seneca warrior Gaiantwaka (known as Cornplanter; 1750–1836), helped bring about the change to a farming lifestyle, as did his half brother, Ganiodayo (Handsome Lake; 1735–1815).
Throughout the nineteenth century the Iroquois sold large amounts of land in exchange for goods. Shrinking land holdings made hunting increasingly difficult and left the men with little to do. Many men did not want to be seen doing the “women’s work” of farming, but, encouraged by Quakers, more and more Iroquois families left the longhouses and lived separately on small farms where the men could work in their fields unseen by their neighbors.
The Iroquois resist
In 1830 the U.S. Congress passed the Removal Act, which directed that all Native Americans should be moved to “Indian Territory” in present-day Kansas and Oklahoma. In 1831 some Seneca did move to Indian Territory, but a core group of the Iroquois people continued to resist efforts to assimilate them into American culture or remove them from their home. Finally the removal policy was overturned in 1842, and ownership of some Seneca land was restored.
Iroquois Population: 2000 Census
In 2000 U.S. Census takers asked American Indians in the United States to identify the tribes to which they belonged. Those who identified themselves as Iroquois said they belonged to the tribes listed below; these numbers do not reflect Canadian Iroquois.
|Tribe||Population in 2000|
“2000 Census of Population and Housing. Matrix 7: American Indian and Alaskan Native summary file.” Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Data User Services Division, American FactFinder, 2004.
In 1924 Congress passed legislation granting U.S. citizenship on all American Indians; the Iroquois rejected such status. They see themselves as a sovereign nation with the right to make its own decisions. They do not see themselves as another ethnic group within the United States or Canadian population. (In fact, federal law and more than four hundred treaties grant U.S. Indian tribes the power to act as independent nations.) The Iroquois have asserted their position in interesting ways. For example, when the United States declared war on Germany in World War I (1914–18; a war in which Great Britain, France, the United States and their allies defeated Germany, Austria-Hungary, and their allies), the Iroquois Confederacy issued its own independent declaration of war, claiming status as a separate nation in the war effort. In 1949 a delegation representing the Iroquois as a nation attended ground-breaking ceremonies for the United Nations building in New York City. Iroquois political leaders and athletes use Iroquois passports when they travel around the world.
Canada’s Iroquois today
The Iroquois in Canada published a Declaration of Independence in 1970. They were responding to efforts by the Canadian government to force Native Americans to become Canadian citizens, which would make them subject to Canadian laws and make their lands subject to taxes. The declaration stated in part:
We, the Lords, Warriors, Principle Women and People, do hereby proclaim to the Dominion of Canada and to the Nations of the World, that we, the People of the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy of the Great League of Peace … [are] politically sovereign and independent in our rights to administer over our domestic concerns.… We are obliged by conscience to declare and proclaim the right and responsibility of our authority for our lands, our laws and our people.
Canada’s Minister of Indian Affairs rejected the Iroquois claim of sovereignty. He stated: “It is impossible to have a nation within a nation. Our nation is Canada and the Indian people of Canada are Canadians.” The Iroquois disagree and feel, as the Mohawk Nation News declared when explaining why Canadian laws should not apply to the First Nations, “Canadians don’t let Americans apply their law in Canada. Why should they expect us to apply their laws … in our territory?” These opposing viewpoints continue to cause problems between the Iroquois people and the government of Canada.
From ancient times the Iroquois believed that a powerful spirit some called Orenda created everything that is good and useful, while the Evil Spirit made things that are poisonous.
French Jesuit missionaries converted many Iroquois to Catholicism in the seventeenth century. Quaker, Baptist, Methodist, and other church groups joined the effort to convert the Iroquois. An intense rivalry developed between the new Christian factions and those who clung to the old ways.
The New Religion
In 1799 the Iroquois way of life was eroding. Land had been lost and living conditions on the reservations were poor. Many Iroquois began to experience alcohol abuse, fighting, disintegration of family structure, and other hardships. At this time a revival of the ancient Longhouse religion developed. It was led by a Seneca known as Handsome Lake (c. 1735–1815). He had spent much of his life in loose living and fell gravely ill when he was about 65 years old. He expected to die, but instead he experienced a vision and recovered. Inspired, Handsome Lake began to spread the Good Word among his fellow Iroquois. His New Religion was a combination of ancient Native beliefs and Quakerism.
The New Religion called for abstaining from alcoholic beverages. (Europeans had introduced alcohol, which had become a problem for many Native Americans.) The New Religion also called for abandoning witchcraft. The fact that Handsome Lake’s message had come in a dream made a profound impression on his followers, because the Iroquois believed that important information was revealed to people in dreams. Handsome Lake’s religion showed the Iroquois how to retain their own culture while adapting to a world dominated by non-Native Americans.
The Code of Handsome Lake was published about 1850 and was revered throughout Iroquois nations in Canada and the United States. The Longhouse religion is practiced only by Iroquois nations. Today perhaps half of the Iroquois people are followers of the Code of Handsome Lake. Some practice only the Longhouse religion, while others maintain a simultaneous membership in a Christian church. Every other fall members of the Six Nations come together for a traditional Longhouse religion ceremony.
The six Iroquoian dialects (varieties of a language) are similar enough to allow members of different tribes to talk easily with one another. In the Iroquois language many terms describe characteristics of a single animal, but there is no general word for animal. There are also words for good man, good woman, or good dog, but no word for goodness.
The Iroquois language was written down in the twentieth century. Dictionaries and grammar texts have been developed for teaching the languages on the reservations.
The Iroquois tribes were divided into clans (group of people related by a common anscestor), each with an animal name (Bear, Beaver, Turtle, and so on). In early times the clan mother, who was usually the oldest woman in the group, led each clan. In consultation with the other women, the clan mother chose one or more men to serve as clan chiefs. The word that is actually used for chief in the original language means “caretaker of the peace.” The chief was to serve as the “voice” of the clan. Each chief was appointed for life, but the clan mother and her advisors could remove him from office if he failed to carry out his duties. Handsome Lake and his followers revived this traditional system of chieftainship, and today it is present on the Onondaga, Tuscarora, and Tonawanda Seneca reservations in New York.
Under the Iroquois Confederacy, fifty chiefs from the various tribes were chosen to act as tribal representatives at annual meetings of the Great Council. (This method of governing, as well as Iroquois ideas of political equality and freedom, separation of powers, and checks and balances between different parts of government, was used as a model by the founding fathers of the United States when they were forming a government for the new nation.) All decisions of the Confederacy were to be made by a unanimous vote of the chiefs, meaning they all had to vote the same way. However, if they did not reach unanimous agreement, then they agreed to disagree and the individual nations were free to act on their own.
When the Tuscarora Nation joined the confederacy at the invitation of the Oneida sometime after 1717, they were allowed no chiefs in the council, but the Oneida represented them in council. Thereafter the Five Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy became known as the Six Nations.
In the 1800s both the Mohawk and the Seneca living within the United States abandoned their traditional clan-based structure and established elective tribal governments. Other tribes eventually did the same, either abandoning their ancestral governments or modifying them to add elections. Traditionalists clung to the ancient structure, however, and hereditary chiefs continue to be appointed by clan matrons in some tribes. On some reservations these two differing sets of governments exist simultaneously.
In the mid-2000s the Grand Council still met regularly at Onondaga to resolve disputes and make decisions concerning the Confederacy. In Canada a Grand Council met at the Grand River Reserve, but both councils agreed that the central fire rested within the Onondaga Nation near Syracuse, New York. Both Grand Councils viewed themselves as independent of United States and Canadian control.
Even before the Europeans came to America, the Iroquois were an agricultural society. They regarded the primary crops as sacred gifts from the Creator. Corn, beans, and squash were called the Three Sisters: corn provided stalks for climbing bean vines, while squash plants controlled weeds by covering the soil. In addition to providing food, the corn plants were used to make a variety of other goods, for personal use, or for trade with other tribes. After the Europeans came, the Iroquois traded furs, especially beaver, for European goods.
Today more than two-thirds of the Iroquois live in cities. Some work in construction, factory work, and in health care, education, and retail professions. In a modern version of their ancient travels away from the village to hunt, Iroquois men today may support their families on the reservation by living and working in a city, but they return home regularly. For example, many Mohawk live in Brooklyn, New York, during the week, but return to their families on weekends.
Iroquois men, especially Mohawk, are famous as ironworkers in construction. They walk steel girders high in the air and are known for showing little fear of heights. Consequently, they participated in the construction of many of the country’s skyscraper and bridge building projects, including such landmarks as the World Trade Center in New York City and the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California. Traditionally, fathers pass their ironworking tools on to their sons (or sometimes daughters) in a ceremony.
About half of those living outside cities actually live on reservations. There, unemployment and underemployment (lack of high-paying jobs) are constant problems. A large number of people on the reservations work for the tribal governments. About one-fifth of the Iroquois people on reservations who want to work are not able to find work.
The routines of Iroquois family life depended on the seasons. When the weather was right, for example, Iroquois men set out on hunting expeditions in bark canoes to provide meat and hides, while the women tended to the farming and other tasks associated with providing food. They also had primary responsibility for child rearing. Young girls were responsible for caring for younger brothers and sisters or for their cousins if they had no siblings.
In Iroquois society women owned the property and determined the kinship. For this reason daughters were often considered more valuable than sons. After marriage a man moved into his wife’s longhouse, and the children became her children.
Extended families (grandparents, their sons or daughters, and their children) of up to fifty people lived together in bark-covered, wood-framed longhouses that were 50 to 150 feet (15 to 46 meters) long. Longhouses were constructed with a small entrance hall at each end that could be used by all residents. Within the body of the house, a central corridor 8 feet (2.4 meters) wide separated two banks of compartments. A nuclear family (father, mother, and children) occupied each compartment.
Within the longhouse compartment, a raised wooden platform served as a bed by night and chair by day; some compartments included small bunks for children. An overhead shelf held personal belongings. Every 20 feet (6 meters) along the central corridor, a fire pit served the two families living on its opposite sides. Bark or hide doors at the ends of the buildings were attached at the top; these openings and the smoke holes in the roof 15 to 20 feet (4 to 6 meters) above each hearth provided the only ventilation.
Villages of three hundred to six hundred people were protected by a triple-walled stockade, consisting of wooden stakes 15 to 20 feet (4 to 6 meters) tall that were buried in the ground. About every 15 years the nearby supplies of wild game and firewood would become depleted, and the farmed soil would become exhausted. During a period of two years or so, the men would find and clear another site for the village, which would then be completely rebuilt. While traditional longhouses are no longer built, buildings on Iroquois reservations set aside for religious activity are referred to as longhouses.
Clothing and adornment
The major item of traditional men’s clothing was a breechcloth made of a strip of deerskin or fabric. It passed between the legs and was secured at the waist by a belt or sash. Decorated flaps hung in the front and back. The belt was a favorite article. Sometimes worn only around the waist, and sometimes also over the left shoulder, it was woven on a loom or by hand, and might be decorated with beadwork.
Both sexes wore fringed, sleeveless tunics, separate sleeves (connected to each other by thongs, but not connected to the tunic), leggings, moccasins, and a robe or blanket. Women adorned clothing with moose-hair embroidery featuring curved-line figures with coiled ends. Decorated pouches for carrying personal items completed the outfits.
By the end of the eighteenth century cloth obtained from European traders replaced deerskin as the primary clothing material. Imported glass beads replaced porcupine quills as decorative elements. In the mid-1800s a sudden change occurred in the style of artwork used to decorate clothing with beads, quills, and embroidery. Rather than the traditional patterns of curving lines and scrolls, designs became images of plants and flowers, influenced by the floral style prominent among the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French.
Corn was the traditional staple of the Iroquois diet. It was baked or boiled and eaten on or off the cob; the kernels were mashed and either fried, baked in a kettle, or spread on corn leaves that were folded and boiled to form a dish called tamales (pronounced tuh-MA-lees). They processed some varieties of corn into a mixture called hominy by boiling the kernels in a weak lye solution of hardwood ashes and water. Bread, pudding, dumplings, and cooked cereal were made from cornmeal. Parched corn coffee was brewed by mixing roasted corn with boiling water.
Besides corn, and the beans and squash they grew with it, the Iroquois people ate a wide variety of other plant foods. They gathered wild fruits, nuts, and roots to supplement the crops they grew and dried berries for year-round use. Maple sap was used for sweetening, but salt was not commonly used.
The traditional diet featured more than thirty types of meat, including deer, bear, beaver, rabbit, and squirrel. Iroquois enjoyed fresh meat during the hunting season, and smoked or dried some to use in corn dishes during the rest of the year. Although the Iroquois used the region’s waterways to travel, fish was relatively unimportant as food.
Traditionally mothers had primary responsibility for raising children and teaching them good behavior. Children learned informally by watching their family and clan elders. Girls learned practical skills by watching the women in the longhouse. Boys learned to hunt with miniature bows and arrows and blowguns when they were about six years old.
Children were not spanked, but they might be punished by splashing water in their faces. Difficult children might be frightened into better behavior by a visit from someone wearing the frightening mask of Longnose, a cannibal clown. Elders incorporated lessons about life and Iroquois history in the stories told around the fire.
Today most children attend American or Canadian public and private schools. Some reservations operate their own Indian schools, where children (usually in the lower grades) can learn about the old ways as well as modern ways.
Traditional Iroquois rituals dealt with both physical and mental health issues. Medicine men or women were called shamans (pronounced SHAH-munz or SHAY-munz). They treated disorders caused by evil spirits, and they used herbs and natural ointments to cure physical ailments including fevers, coughs, and snakebites. They also cleaned wounds and set broken bones.
Another type of healer, known as a conjurer, used chants to fight ailments caused by witchcraft. The conjurer might remove an affliction from the patient’s body by blowing or sucking. Twice a year groups of masked people called False Faces visited each house in the village, waving pine boughs and casting out sickness.
In Iroquois healing practices the soul was the source of a person’s physical and mental health, and dreams were considered the language of the soul. Everyone in the community felt a responsibility to help solve others’ problems by reading their dreams, a process called dream guessing.
The Iroquois have a rich ceremonial tradition involving music and dancing. From the time of the first contact with Europeans until 1945, many Native American dances were discouraged by missionaries and by government officials, who wanted the Natives to adopt the ways of white society. Nevertheless, the Iroquois preserved some of their traditional dances, both social and sacred. Sacred dances celebrate the creation of the world, while social dances are for amusement. The dancers are accompanied by the music of drums and turtle shell rattles, which are still made by Iroquois artisans. Flutes are used in sacred dances, but not for social dancing.
The Iroquois are especially skilled at carving masks. Usually made of basswood, the masks are carved into the tree, then removed. They have bent or crooked noses and long, black or white horsehair. Before the Europeans introduced horses, the hair was made of buffalo hair or cornhusks. The use of masks, or “false faces,” remains a part of Iroquois rituals. The masks, worn during festivals or healing ceremonies, symbolize spirit forces, and they are considered “living.”
Because these masks are sacred, the Iroquois do not want anyone outside their culture to view them. Selling, purchasing, exhibiting, or even mimicking the masks is expressly forbidden. Since 1995 the tribes have been requesting that museums and collectors return any masks in their possession. They have also asked that all photos and drawings of the masks be destroyed.
Storytelling was another prized ritual, a way of teaching moral values and tribal history. In the winter, Iroquois families would gather around the fire to hear stories told by people who had perfected the art.
Birth and naming
A hut located outside the village served as the birthing site. As her time drew near the expectant mother and a few other women withdrew to the hut and remained there until a few days after the birth. Until the child could walk it spent its days attached to a wooden board called a cradleboard, which the mother hung from a tree branch while she worked in the fields.
The Iroquois tribes are organized into eight clans (groups of related families), and at birth each person becomes a member of the clan of his or her mother. Members of a clan are considered blood relatives, regardless of whether they are members of the Mohawk, Seneca, or other Iroquois tribes.
Traditionally babies were named at birth, but when the child reached puberty an adult name was given. Names referred to natural phenomena (such as the moon or thunder), landscape features, occupations, and social or ceremonial roles. Some examples of Iroquois names are: In the Center of the Sky, Hanging Flower, He Carries News, and Mighty Speaker. The Iroquois never addressed a person by name during conversation. When speaking about a person, especially to a relative, they only used a name when that person could not otherwise be clearly identified using other words.
Puberty marked the time of acceptance into adult membership in the society. When her first menstrual period began, a girl would retire to an isolated hut and stay there for as long as her period lasted. She was required to perform difficult tasks, such as chopping hardwood with a dull axe, and was prohibited from eating certain foods.
A young man had a longer trial. When his voice began to change he went to live in a secluded cabin in the forest for up to a year. An old man or woman took responsibility for overseeing his well-being. He ate sparingly, and spent his time in physically demanding activities such as running, swimming, bathing in icy water, and scraping his shins with a stone. His quest was complete when he was visited by his spirit, which would remain with him during his adult life.
In the Iroquois tradition a man and woman wishing to marry would tell their parents, who then arranged a joint meeting of relatives to discuss the suitability of the two people for marriage to each other. If there were no objections, a day was chosen for the marriage feast. On the appointed day, the woman’s relatives would bring her to the groom’s home for the festivities. Following the meal, elders from the groom’s family spoke to the bride about wifely duties, and elders from the bride’s family told the groom about husbandly responsibilities. Then the two began their new life together.
In old times when a woman was unfaithful to her husband she was punished by whipping, but the man who was her partner in the unfaithful act was not punished. If a married couple decided to separate, both of their families would be called to a council. The parties would state their reasons for wanting a divorce, and the elders would try to convince the couple to stay together. If those efforts failed, the marriage ended. In ancient times fathers kept their sons and mothers kept their daughters when a divorce occurred. By the early eighteenth century, however, mothers usually kept all of the children.
Along with founding the Longhouse Religion, Handsome Lake revived the traditional Midwinter Ceremony, still considered by the Iroquois to be the most important of their ceremonies. Handsome Lake added four sacred rituals: The Feather Dance, Thanksgiving Dance, Rite of Personal Chant, and Bowl Game (also known as the Peach Stone Game).
The week-long Midwinter Ceremony, a time of renewal and thanksgiving, is held in late January or early February during the new midwinter moon. To announce the beginning of the ceremony, medicine mask messengers appear at every house to stir the ashes of cold fires. At this time names are announced for newborns or children adopting adult names. In former times, public confessions were part of the ceremony; those who admitted to failures pledged to reform.
In the spring, when the sap rose, it was time for the Thanks-to-the-Maple Festival. This one-day celebration included social dances and the ceremonial burning of tobacco at the base of a maple tree. In May or June corn seeds saved from the previous year were blessed at the Corn Planting Ceremony. At this half-day observance, the Iroquois thanked the Creator and begged spirit forces for sufficient rain and moderate sun. Ripening strawberries in June signaled time for the Strawberry Festival. Dancers mimicked the motions of berry pickers. This one-day celebration was a time for giving thanks.
In August or early September, the corn was ready to eat. The Green Corn Festival, which involved ceremonies over four mornings, marked this event. When all the crops had been harvested and stored and before the men left for the fall hunt, the tribe held the Harvest Festival. This one-day celebration took place in October.
A strict code of honor governed warfare among the tribes. When a tribe was attacked, it was bound by the code to attack in return. If the tribe did not do so, its members were labeled cowards. Deaths had to be avenged. Before departing for battle the Iroquois held a war dance, a costumed event in which chiefs gave speeches about their past victories; the speeches excited a passion for revenge among the listeners. Then the warriors broke into a vigorous dance, featuring war cries by the chiefs and responses from the others. According to Lewis Morgan, who studied the Iroquois around 1850, “A well-conducted War dance is the highest entertainment known among the Iroquois.”
When a person died everyone who had names similar to the deceased gave them up until the period of mourning ended. Later new people adopted into the clan were often given the name of the deceased person whose place they took. The tribe held a wake the night following a death. (A wake is a watch over the body of a dead person before burial.) After a midnight meal the best speakers of the village spoke about the deceased and about life and death in general.
The tribe then placed the body on a scaffold (a raised platform) for several days in case the person only appeared dead and might revive (which sometimes happened). Eventually they buried the remains or housed the bones in or near the family lodge after they had been picked clean by animals. When the village relocated, the tribe placed all of the unburied skeletons in a common grave. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Iroquois conducted burials according to European customs.
Current tribal issues
Preservation of traditional values and artifacts
Much of the longstanding friction between the Iroquois and non-Native Americans has involved different attitudes toward land. During one land dispute the grave of Seneca Chief Cornplanter had to be moved to make way for a dam. His descendant, Harriett Pierce, commented: “The White man views land for its money value. We Indians have a spiritual tie with the earth, a reverence for it that Whites don’t share and can hardly understand.”
For decades the Iroquois have worked to reclaim articles they consider sacred and the remains of dead ancestors held by museums. In 1972 archaeologists were ordered to stop digging up Native burial sites in New York State. Tribal members were notified to arrange proper reburials for any remains unearthed accidentally. Wampum belts (embroidered belts made from strings of beads) held by the New York State Museum in Albany were removed from public display after Native Americans complained that they were being treated as curiosities, without proper respect being paid. The belts were finally returned to the Onondaga in 1989. Years of effort were rewarded in the early 1990s when the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., pledged to return human remains, objects buried with them, sacred objects, and other articles of importance to Native American tribes. With the passage of the American Indian Museum Act (1989) and an amendment (1996), other museums have since followed the Smithsonian’s lead and are now returning these items to the tribes.
Traditional values are sustained on the various Iroquois reservations. The ancient languages are spoken and taught, traditional ceremonies are observed, and baskets are woven. Material wealth is not characteristic of reservation Native Americans, but Tonawanda Seneca Chief Corbett Sundown, keeper of the Iroquois “spiritual fire,” denies that the people are poor. He told National Geographic writer Arden Harvey: “We’re rich people without any money, that’s all. You say we ought to set up industries and factories. Well, we just don’t want them. How’re you going to grow potatoes and sweet corn on concrete? You call that progress? To me ‘progress’ is a dirty word.”
Oren Lyons (c. 1930–) is an Onondaga chief who achieved recognition for his excellence in the traditional Iroquois sport of lacrosse as well as at boxing. (Lacrosse is a game of Native American origin played on a field by two teams of ten players each. Participants use a long-handled stick with a webbed pouch to get a ball into the opposing team’s goal.) An artist, author, publisher, illustrator, and tribal faithkeeper, Lyons works on behalf of indigenous (native) people around the world. In 1992 he became the first indigenous leader to address the United Nations General Assembly.
Ely Samuel Parker (1828–1895) (also known by the Seneca name Ha-sa-no-an-da) was a tribal leader descended from such major Seneca figures as Handsome Lake, Cornplanter, and Red Jacket. A man of many and varied talents, he served as a valued military assistant to General Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885) during the American Civil War (1861-65; a war between the Union [the North], who were opposed to slavery, and the Confederacy [the South], who were in favor of slavery) and helped prepare the terms of surrender that ended the war. He collaborated with anthropologist and author Lewis Henry Morgan on the first extensive study of Iroquois culture. After Grant was elected president of the United States in 1869, Parker was appointed Commissioner of Indian Affairs. He thus became the first Native American to head the office that controlled federal Native American policies.
John Napoleon Brinton Hewitt (1859–1937) was an influential Tuscaroran authority on American Indians. He brought it to the world’s attention that the Iroquois Confederacy inspired the framers of the U.S. Constitution. He wrote many articles and preserved dozens of Native American legends that might otherwise have been lost.
Gary Dale Farmer (1953–) is a Cayuga actor, producer, and activist who has spoken out against negative portrayals of Native Americans in the media. He has lodged protests against the casting of non-Natives to play Natives in movies. Farmer has appeared in such films as Friday the Thirteenth (1980), Police Academy (1984), The Dark Wind (1992), Dead Man (1995), Smoke Signals (1998), and A Thief of Time (2004).
Roberta Hill Whiteman (1947–) is an Oneida poet and teacher, best known for her 1984 book Star Quilt. The book contains her poem titled “In the Longhouse: Oneida Museum,” which describes Oneida history and traditions. In 1996 she published the book Philadelphia Flowers.
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George Cornell, Ph.D.; Associate Professor, History and American Studies, Michigan State University; Director, Native American Institute
In the 1750s the Iroquois Confederacy (or League) comprised 8,500 individuals spread across some forty-five villages and hamlets west of Albany in New York and in northern Pennsylvania. Despite their modest numbers, the Iroquois were powerful players in the struggles for control of the Great Lakes region and enjoyed more success in preserving their cultural viability and territory than most aboriginal societies did south and east of the lower Great Lakes before the War of Independence. Yet, in its wake, Americans forced them onto reservations in an effort to assimilate the tribespeople and open their lands for Euro-American settlement.
six nations society
The confederacy began to form around 1450, primarily to end intertribal strife among five member nations, and secondarily to engage in common foreign policies. However, achieving league-wide agreements in external affairs was difficult. Decisions arose out of a consensual political process that incorporated the opinions of most adults, with the result that agreements regularly could not be achieved above the village level, where regional relationships with the outside world dominated people's views.
In the mid-1700s the league embraced the five original confederates—Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas—plus the Tuscaroras, an Iroquoian people who fled settler persecution in North Carolina in the 1710s to settle among the Five Nations and become the confederacy's sixth nation in 1722 or 1723. Other aboriginal refugees, such as the non-Iroquoian Tutelos and Delawares, settled among or near the Iroquois and fell under league suzerainty. Beyond tribal divisions, confederacy communities were multicultural: as a result of intermarriage, in-migration, and the adoption of prisoners. various red, white, and black people entered Six Nations society, typically as full members, although some were treated as inferiors. In addition to immigration into Iroquois territory, people emigrated to New France, beginning in the mid-1600s, to live in mission communities along the Saint Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers. Along with other natives, they formed the Seven Nations of Canada, of whom fifteen hundred were Iroquois in the 1750s. Beginning in the 1720s other Iroquois moved west to the Ohio country to form the Mingo nation, which had five hundred to six hundred people by 1750.
Iroquois people primarily were horticulturists who also fished, hunted, gathered, and traded. Through contact with Euro-Americans, they grew foreign crops in addition to such indigenous plants as corn, beans, and squash. Some individuals in the 1700s adopted animal husbandry or worked for wages in the fur trade and in other realms of whitenative interaction. The importance of these new activities increased after the American Revolution, and people in the late eighteenth century also turned to lumbering and milling.
By 1750 most Iroquois no longer lived in the stockaded villages of earlier times. Instead they occupied less dense settlements, typically spread out along waterways. Many individuals, especially toward the east, had begun a process, which would encompass almost all Iroquois by 1800, of abandoning longhouses for smaller, often single-family dwellings that outwardly (and sometimes inwardly) resembled the homes of white settlers. Although the externals of material culture changed dramatically during the colonial and early national periods, core interior beliefs and customs remained strong, with the majority of Iroquois embracing traditional faith and social practices. Nevertheless, Christianity made inroads, particularly among Mohawks, Oneidas, and the Seven Nations of Canada.
colonial struggles, 1754–1774
In their relations with other natives and with Euro-Americans, the Iroquois wanted to preserve their land, independence, and culture, prevent outsiders from monopolizing their trade (and acquire large quantities of gifts from colonial powers), and exercise some control over other indigenous peoples to prevent them from becoming threatening rivals. They pursued these goals during the first half of the eighteenth century mainly through diplomacy rather than war. For instance, while serving as intermediaries between the crown and the natives of the Ohio country, they gained privileges from the British and inhibited the power of other tribes to compete against the league.
In the Seven Years' War (1754–1763 in America; 1756–1763 in Europe), the Iroquois adopted a military approach to defending their security, especially the Mohawks and Senecas who sided early in the conflict with the British and French respectively because of trade and other associations that they had built up with them over previous decades. However, the British succeeded in improving their standing with the Iroquois during the conflict, largely through the efforts of the crown's superintendent to the Six Nations, Sir William Johnson (c.1715–1774), who worked from his Mohawk Valley estate to cultivate Anglo-aboriginal alliances. Then in 1758 the confederacy as a whole allied with Great Britain, primarily to harness ascending British power to exercise suzerainty over native people in the Ohio country who resented Six Nations interference in their lives and whose emerging regional alliance posed a challenge to Iroquois ambitions. Thus Six Nations forces, including Senecas, participated in the British capture of Fort Niagara in 1759 and in the subsequent move against Montreal that led to the capitulation of Canada in 1760. (As New France foundered, the formerly French-allied Iroquois of the Seven Nations negotiated
treaties with the British to defend their rights and independence.)
In Pontiac's War (1763–1764) many Senecas, and closely allied Delawares, participated in the wider rising against the growing British colonial menace to aboriginal aspirations in the wake of France's expulsion from North America. In contrast, the Mohawks helped white forces suppress the native alliance while the other confederates generally stayed neutral. For their hostility, the Senecas lost land along the Niagara River to enable the crown to secure communications between Lakes Ontario and Erie. Then in the 1768 Treaty of Fort Stanwix, the confederacy united with the British to sell the territory of tribes south of the Ohio River, especially the Shawnee, which had risen in the late war and which had resisted Iroquois efforts to manage its foreign affairs. To make this transaction possible, the Six Nations claimed the region through a tenuous ancient conquest, which white officials agreed to acknowledge. Aside from giving the Iroquois the proceeds of the sale, the treaty opened the region south of the confederacy's heartland for white settlement and thereby reduced the pressure to alienate league homelands, although some losses did occur at the eastern end of the Six Nations territory in New York.
american revolution, 1775–1783
At the outbreak of the Revolution, many Mohawks sided with the crown because of their connections to loyalists through such individuals as the Mohawk matron, Molly Brant (c.1736–1796) and her half-brother, the war and diplomatic chief, Joseph (1743–1807). However, the rest of the confederacy adopted a neutralist stance. Then, in January 1777, an epidemic killed three important league chiefs, which brought confederacy business to a halt until new leaders could be "raised up" to replace them. This problem, combined with the degenerating wartime situation and pressure from the white combatants to join their respective causes, led the confederacy to "cover" its great league council fire and free the member nations to choose their own course of action. The Onondagas opted for neutrality, the majority of Tuscaroras and Oneidas sided with the revolutionaries, and the Cayugas and Senecas joined the Mohawks in a Loyalist alliance. Logic suggested that, as most of the threats to Iroquois liberties came from people associated with the rebellion, the crown offered a better future. London promised to protect aboriginal property and freedom in return for help in suppressing the revolt. Nevertheless, the Tuscaroras and Oneidas, influenced by their pro-rebel missionary, Samuel Kirkland (1741–1808), chose to support the revolutionaries.
Divisions among the Iroquois had a brutal impact when proand anti-Loyalist warriors fought each other at the battle of Oriskany in August 1777. In subsequent campaigning—raiding rebel districts in New York, Pennsylvania, and the Ohio country alongside Loyalist forces to destroy crops and settlements—the crown-allied Six Nations had the greater influence on the course of events. In response, revolutionary armies invaded Iroquois territory in 1779 to knock the confederacy out of the war by burning most of its villages (including those of the neutral Onondagas). Yet even as the rebels forced people to flee from their homes, warriors continued to fight effectively until 1782, when hostilities wound down. During the latter part of the conflict, most Iroquois ended up in squalid refugee camps, with the prorevolutionaries concentrated at the eastern end of their traditional homelands, and the pro-Loyalists sheltered around Fort Niagara in the west. (Most Seven Nations Iroquois had negotiated peace with the rebels when they controlled Montreal in 1775; but when crown forces reasserted their dominance along the Saint Lawrence River in 1776, most then entered the war on the Loyalist side. The Mingos helped the Loyalists, although they had fought against the British during Pontiac's War.)
The Treaty of Paris of 1783, which ended the Revolutionary War and created the current Canadian-American border, put Six Nations land inside the United States. One-third of the Iroquois in New York chose not to live in the new Republic but moved to Canada, beginning in 1784, to settle at Tyendinaga on Lake Ontario and along the Grand River north of Lake Erie. Modest numbers of others moved to Ohio, either to join the Mingos or to form a separate "Sandusky Seneca" community. (The Iroquois in Ohio later participated in the frontier war of 1790–1795 against the Americans; the rest of the Iroquois fundamentally stayed aloof, believing they would only suffer if they fought the United States.)
the new reservation society, 1784–1829
Within a year of the Treaty of Paris, Americans began to force the Iroquois in the United States to give up land and move onto reservations. Tragically, it was the pro-Revolutionary Tuscaroras and Oneidas who first were dragooned into signing away substantial territories. By 1797 all of the Iroquois in New York and Pennsylvania had been restricted to reservations that encompassed only a tiny fraction of their former homelands.
Aside from acquiring territory for settlement, Americans hoped that confining the Iroquois to reservations would lead to assimilation: surrounded by newcomers, the natives would be forced to adopt Euro-American ways of life in a rapidly changing environment. The result was the opposite: reservations, with their small but concentrated populations, became heartlands of aboriginal identity and resistance. Yet they also became economically desolate places where intense levels of alcohol abuse and family violence erupted, symptoms of the oppression and poverty their residents suffered in the 1780s and 1790s.
Toward the end of the eighteenth century, reformers within Six Nations society—and missionaries from without—offered ways for the Iroquois to overcome their problems and make their way in the shifting environment. The most famous reformer was the Seneca prophet Handsome Lake (1735–1815). Beginning in 1799 he demanded that people renounce alcohol, witchcraft, and other vices and exercise moral restraint within a rekindled but reformed indigenous faith. He also promoted Euro-American farming and craft production, not so his people could assimilate (as the missionaries wanted), but so they could achieve economic independence and thereby reject unwanted white influences on their lives. He also preached that Six Nations interests lay in standing aloof from any future hostilities that might occur between Britain and America. Through his and other people's work, the Iroquois rebuilt their society after 1800 to regain some of the prosperity and self-esteem that they had lost since 1775.
In the War of 1812, the Six Nations again pursued actions that they thought best protected their interests. Except for the Mingos, who joined the British, most Iroquois in the United States allied cautiously with the Americans, although many of Handsome Lake's followers remained neutral. In Canada both Six and Seven Nations warriors fought, mainly on the British side, and made an important contribution to defending Canada from U.S. annexation.
After 1815 the Iroquois in both the United States and Canada continued to be pressured to give up land and assimilate. The problem was worse in the United States, where powerful land interests, a flood of newcomers, and the construction of New York's Erie Canal (opened 1825) combined to force the loss of more territory as well as the removal of many Iroquois to British territory or to the West between the 1820s and the 1850s. Yet others hung on, physically and culturally. As a result, Iroquois communities survive not only in Quebec, Ontario, Wisconsin, and Oklahoma, but also in New York, thus making the Iroquois one of the few aboriginal peoples to occupy land in their traditional territory in what is now the eastern United States.
Abler, Thomas S., ed. Chainbreaker: The Revolutionary War Memoirs of Governor Blacksnake, as told to Benjamin Williams. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.
Benn, Carl. The Iroquois in the War of 1812. Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y.: University of Toronto Press, 1998.
Fenton, William N. The Great Law and the Longhouse: A Political History of the Iroquois Confederacy. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.
Graymont, Barbara. The Iroquois in the American Revolution. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1972.
Hauptman, Lawrence M. Conspiracy of Interests: Iroquois Dispossession and the Rise of New York State. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1999.
Kelsay, Isabel Thompson. Joseph Brant, 1743-1807: Man of Two Worlds. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1984.
Seaver, James E., comp. and ed. A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1990. (Seneca adoptee's memoir, first published 1824.)
Wallace, Anthony F. C. The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca. New York: Knopf, 1970.
The Iroquois Confederacy was a political and social alliance of five Indian tribes (later six) who lived in the northeastern part of North America. The Iroquois are also known as Haudenosaunee, meaning “people of the longhouse.” The nations that were members of the confederacy were the Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, and Seneca, and later the Tuscarora. Long before Europeans arrived on the continent, the Iroquois had formed a complex, democratic society. In fact, some historians consider the Iroquois Confederacy one of the world's oldest democracies.
The dark times
The story of the founding of the Iroquois Confederacy is known today through oral, or spoken, history, handed down from generation to generation of the Iroquois people. The story probably blends people and events from the Iroquois past and it does not provide dates, but most historians accept it as a very useful outline of Iroquois history.
Some time before European contact, the Mohawk, Onondaga, Seneca, Cayuga, and Oneida nations engaged in near-constant warfare. The darkest times were during the reign of a warlike Onondaga chief named Todadaho, who was feared far and wide. Many accounts describe him as a cannibal, and in fact, in some native northeastern cultures people believed that eating their victims in battle gave warriors better fighting skills.
Into this violent era entered the prophet Deganawida, a member of either the Huron or the Mohawk tribe. Deganawida grieved to see so much war and conflict in the world around him, and he traveled far from home seeking solutions. In his travels, he met Hiawatha, who was a Mohawk or Onondaga and told him of his hopes for peace and good government. Deganawida believed that the creator of all things had given humans the power to reason, and that by using clear thinking they could find the path to a balanced, peaceful society. Hiawatha was captivated by Deganawida's words and offered to serve as his orator (someone who makes public speeches). Together they traveled to a Mohawk village to begin teaching people the rules for a peaceful society.
Deganawida eventually won the Mohawks over and went on to convince the Oneida, Seneca, and Cayuga nations to join the Mohawks in a
union of tribes. Using nonviolent and respectful persuasion, Deganawida was finally able to convince even Todadaho to give up his constant fighting and join the union. Deganawida then planted the Tree of Peace as a symbol of the confederacy at the Onondaga Nation near present-day Syracuse, New York . The confederacy called itself the Haudenosaunee, or people of the longhouse, because they pledged to live peacefully under one government, in the same way several families might live together as distinct units under the protection of one roof. Some historians date the union around 1100 bce, though others believe it happened later in history, sometime between 1350 and 1550 ce.
The rules of the confederacy
The Iroquois nations created an oral constitution called the Great Law. Under its rules of government, the Grand Council of Chiefs, made up of forty-nine chiefs from the five tribes, led the confederacy. The Grand Council gathered at Onondaga to establish laws and customs and to guide the interaction of the members of the confederacy. Each tribe had an equal voice in the council, and the system was mostly democratic. Iroquois women played a major role in decision making. Deganawida, who came to be known as the Great Peacemaker, is credited with creating the advanced political system. As the council developed over the years, it tried to negotiate among peoples, whether in relations between tribes or in treaties with European settlers arriving on its lands.
When the American colonies were established in the Northeast, the united Iroquois nations presented a strong front to avoid invasion of their lands. One of the Iroquois’ strengths was their willingness to include new members within the confederacy, such as the Tuscarora nation of North Carolina and members of the Huron tribe. By 1677, the confederacy was one of the most powerful groups of North American Indians, consisting of approximately sixteen thousand people. It stretched over a large area of what is now New York State and beyond.
Influencing the founding fathers
In the eighteenth century, the American colonists were eager to form their own democracy. Impressed by the democratic Iroquois Confederacy, they sought the advice of the Iroquois when preparing the Albany Plan of Union of 1755, an attempt to unite the original American thirteen colonies under one federal government as the Iroquois had united its nations. In 1787, founders of the new nation, Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), John Adams (1735–1826), and John Hancock (1737–1793) were all inspired by the Great Law of the Iroquois Confederacy as they debated the writing of the U.S. Constitution .
The Iroquois became divided during the American Revolution , the colonists’ war of independence from England (1775–83). Some Iroquois groups fought on the side of the colonists and others fought with England. Before the war was even over, the new U.S. government allowed land companies to buy up most of the Iroquois lands. The internal division weakened the once-strong Iroquois union, and the confederacy began to fall apart. Many Iroquois groups, particularly those who had fought with the British, left for Canada, never to return. The Iroquois who remained held onto as much land as they could. Today, their descendants own eight reservations in New York and Wisconsin . The Iroquois Confederacy was the country's eleventh-largest Native American group in the year 2000, according to the U.S. census.