Iroquois - Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. The supernatural world of the Iroquois included numerous deities, the most important of which was Great Spirit, who was responsible for the creation of human beings, the plants and animals, and the forces of good in nature. The Iroquois believed that Great Spirit indirectly guided the lives of ordinary people. Other important deities were Thunderer and the Three Sisters, the spirits of Maize, Beans, and Squash. Opposing the Great Spirit and the other forces of good were Evil Spirit and other lesser spirits responsible for disease and other misfortune. In the Iroquois view ordinary humans could not communicate directly with Great Spirit, but could do so indirectly by burning tobacco, which carried their prayers to the lesser spirits of good. The Iroquois regarded dreams as important supernatural signs, and serious attention was given to interpreting dreams. It was believed that dreams expressed the desire of the soul, and as a result the fulfillment of a dream was of paramount importance to the individual.
Around 1800 a Seneca sachem named Handsome Lake received a series of visions which he believed showed the way for the Iroquois to regain their lost cultural integrity and promised supernatural aid to all those who followed him. The Handsome Lake religion emphasized many traditional elements of Iroquoian culture, but also incorporated Quaker beliefs and aspects of White culture. In the 1960s, at least half of the Iroquoian people accepted the Handsome Lake Religion.
Religious Practitioners. Full-time religious specialists were absent; however, there were part-time male and female specialists known as keepers of the faith whose primary responsibilities were to arrange and conduct the main religious ceremonies. Keepers of the faith were appointed by matrisib elders and were accorded considerable prestige.
Ceremonies. Religious ceremonies were tribal affairs Concerned primarily with farming, curing illness, and thanksgiving. In the sequence of occurrence, the six major ceremonies were the Maple, Planting, Strawberry, Green Maize, Harvest, and Mid-Winter or New Year's festivals. The first five in this sequence involved public confessions followed by group Ceremonies which included speeches by the keepers of the faith, tobacco offerings, and prayer. The New Year's festival was usually held in early February and was marked by dream interpretations and the sacrifice of a white dog offered to purge the people of evil.
Arts. One of the most interesting Iroquoian art forms is the False Face Mask. Used in the curing ceremonies of the False Face Societies, the masks are made of maple, white pine, basswood, and poplar. False Face Masks are first carved in a living tree, then cut free and painted and decorated. The masks represent spirits who reveal themselves to the mask maker in a prayer and tobacco-burning ritual performed Before the mask is carved.
Medicine. Illness and disease were attributed to supernatural causes. Curing ceremonies consisted of group shamanistic practices directed toward propitiating the responsible Supernatural agents. One of the curing groups was the False Face Society. These societies were found in each village and, except for a female keeper of the false faces who protected the ritual paraphernalia, consisted only of male members who had dreamed of participation in False Face ceremonies.
Death and Afterlife. When a sachem died and his successor was nominated and confirmed, the other tribes of the League were informed and the League council met to perform a condolence ceremony in which the deceased sachem was mourned and the new sachem was installed. The sachem's condolence ceremony was still held on Iroquois reservations in the 1970s. Condolence ceremonies were also practiced for common people. In early historic times the dead were buried in a sitting position facing east. After the burial, a captured bird was released in the belief that it carried away the spirit of the deceased. In earlier times the dead were left exposed on a wooden scaffolding, and after a time their bones were deposited in a special house of the deceased. The Iroquois believed, as some continue to believe today, that after death the soul embarked on a journey and series of ordeals that ended in the land of the dead in the sky world. Mourning for the dead lasted a year, at the end of which time the soul's journey was believed to be complete and a feast was held to signify the soul's arrival in the land of the dead.