Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Traditionally, the Iroquois were farmers and hunters who practiced a slash-and-burn form of horticulture. In addition, they fished and gathered berries, plants, and roots. Before the arrival of Europeans the primary weapons were bows and arrows, stone axes, knives, and blowguns; however, by the late seventeenth Century European trade goods had almost completely replaced the traditional weapons and tools. The principal crops were maize, beans, and squash which, in addition, were prominent in ceremonial activities. In good years surplus crops were dried and stored for future use. After the harvest of crops in the late summer, the seasonal round included fall hunting that lasted until the winter solstice, early spring fishing and hunting of passenger pigeons, and then spring and summer clearing and planting of fields. Farming has now been largely abandoned by the Iroquois, although the annual cycle of festivals and ceremonies associated with planting, harvesting, and other traditional economic activities persist. In the 1980s most Iroquois who are employed work off the reservations Because economic opportunities are so limited on them. Some men, for example, work in high steel construction, which has been an important source of employment for the Iroquois since the late nineteenth century.
Industrial Arts. The Iroquois knew how to bend and shape wood when green or after steaming. House frames, pack frames, snowshoes, toboggans, basket rims, lacrosse sticks, and other wood products were made using these techniques. Rope was made from the inner bark of hickory, basswood, and slippery elm, and burden straps and prisoner ties were made from the braided fibers of nettle, milkweed, and hemp. Pipes of fired clay were among the many types of items manufactured by the Iroquois. They are known for making ash and maple splint baskets, although this craft may be of European origin.
Trade. Long before European contact the Iroquois, as mentioned above, were involved in an intricate trade network with other native groups. Clay pipes were an important trade item that reached other native groups all along the east coast of North America. The aggressive behavior the Iroquois exhibited toward their neighbors during the fur trade period has been interpreted by some as the result of their aim to protect and expand their middleman role. Others have suggested that the behavior was related to the scarcity of furs in their own territory and the resulting difficulty in obtaining European trade goods. According to this theory, the Iroquois warred primarily to obtain the trade goods of their neighbors who were in closer contact with Europeans. After the center of fur trading activities had moved farther west, the Iroquois continued to play an important role as voyageurs and trappers.
Division of Labor. Traditionally, men hunted and fished, built houses, cleared fields for planting, and were responsible for trade and warfare. In addition, men had the more visible roles in tribal and confederacy politics. Farming was the responsibility of women, whose work also included gathering wild foods, rearing children, preparing food, and making clothing and baskets and other utensils.
Land Tenure. Matrilineages were the property-holding unit in traditional Iroquoian society.