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.
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
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.
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.
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).
"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.
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Online: http://www.sni.org/ .
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.
Online: http://www.sni.org/ .
Tonawanda Band of Senecas.
Contact: Chief Emerson Webster.
Address: 7027 Meadville Road, Basom, New York 14013.
Telephone: (716) 542-4244.
Fax: (716) 542-4244.
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.
Online: http://www.iroquoismuseum.org/ .
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.
Online: http://www.rmsc.org/ .
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.
Arden, Harvey. "The Fire That Never Dies," National Geographic, September 1987.
Axtell, James. The European and the Indian: Essays in the Ethnohistory of Colonial North America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.
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.