Published on August 4, 2011 by Amy
Simply put, the Iroquois were the most important native group in North American history. Culturally, however, there was little to distinguish them from their Iroquian-speaking neighbors. All had matrilineal social structures – the women owned all property and determined kinship. The individual Iroquois tribes were divided into three clans, turtle, bear, and wolf – each headed by the clan mother. The Seneca were like the Huron tribes and had eight (the five additional being the crane, snipe, hawk, beaver, and deer). After marriage, a man moved into his wife’s longhouse, and their children became members of her clan. Iroquois villages were generally fortified and large. The distinctive, communal longhouses of the different clans could be over 200′ in length and were built about a framework covered with elm bark, the Iroquois’ material of choice for all manner of things. Villages were permanent in the sense they were moved only for defensive purposes or when the soil became exhausted (about every twenty years).
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Agriculture provided most of the Iroquois diet. Corn, beans, and squash were known as “deohako” or “life supporters.” Their importance to the Iroquois was clearly demonstrated by the six annual agricultural festivals held with prayers of gratitude for their harvests. The women owned and tended the fields under the supervision of the clan mother. Men usually left the village in the fall for the annual hunt and returned about midwinter. Spring was fishing season. Other than clearing fields and building villages, the primary occupation of the men was warfare. Warriors wore their hair in a distinctive scalplock (Mohawk of course), although other styles became common later. While the men carefully removed all facial and body hair, women wore theirs long. Tattoos were common for both sexes. Torture and ritual cannibalism were some of the ugly traits of the Iroquois, but these were shared with several other tribes east of the Mississippi. The False Face society was an Iroquois healing group which utilized grotesque wooden masks to frighten the evil spirts believed to cause illness.
It was the Iroquois political system, however, that made them unique, and because of it, they dominated the first 200-years of colonial history in both Canada and the United States. Strangely enough, there were never that many of them, and the enemies they defeated in war were often twice their size. Although much has been made of their Dutch firearms, the Iroquois prevailed because of their unity, sense of purpose, and superior political organization. Since the Iroquois League was formed prior to any contact, it owed nothing to European influence. Proper credit is seldom given, but the reverse was actually true. Rather than learning political sophistication from Europeans, Europeans learned from the Iroquois, and the League, with its elaborate system of checks, balances,, and supreme law, almost certainly influenced the American Articles of Confederation and Constitution.
The Iroquois were farmers whose leaders were chosen by their women – rather unusual for warlike conquerors. Founded to maintain peace and resolve disputes between its members, the League’s primary law was the Kainerekowa, the Great Law of Peace which simply stated Iroquois should not kill each other. The League’s organization was prescribed by a written constitution based on 114 wampums and reinforced by a funeral rite known as the “Condolence” – shared mourning at the passing of sachems from the member tribes. The council was composed of 50 male sachems known variously as lords, or peace chiefs. Each tribe’s representation was set: Onondaga 14; Cayuga 10; Oneida 9; Mohawk 9; and Seneca 8. Nominated by the tribal clan mothers (who had almost complete power in their selection), Iroquois sachemships were usually held for life, although they could be removed for misconduct or incompetence. The emblem of their office was the deer antler head dress, and guided by an all-male council, the sachems ruled in times of peace. War chiefs were chosen on the basis of birth, experience, and ability, but exercised power only during war.
The central authority of the Iroquois League was limited leaving each tribe free to pursue its own interests. By 1660, however, the Iroquois found it necessary to present a united front to Europeans, and the original freedom of its members had to be curtailed somewhat. In practice, the Mohawk and Oneida formed one faction in the council and the Seneca and Cayuga the other. The League’s principal sachem (Tadodaho) was always an Onondaga, and as “keepers of the council fire” with 14 sachems (well out of proportion to their population), they represented compromise. This role was crucial since all decisions of the council had to be unanimous, one of the League’s weaknesses. There was also a “pecking order” among members reflected by the eloquent ritual language of League debate. Mohawk, Onondaga, and Seneca were addressed as “elder brothers” or “uncles,” while Oneida, Cayuga, and Tuscarora were “younger brothers” or “nephews.”
In this form, the Iroquois used a combination of military prowess and skilled diplomacy to conquer an empire. Until their internal unity finally failed them during the American Revolution, the Iroquois dealt with European powers as an equal. The League was a remarkable achievement, but it also had flaws, the most apparent was its inability to find a satisfactory means to share political power with its new members. As mentioned, the Iroquois incorporated thousands of non-league Iroquian peoples during the 1650s. Political power was retained by the original Iroquois to such an extent that the adoptees remained second-class citizens. The resulting dissatisfaction eventually led to the Mingo separating and moving to Ohio to free themselves from League control. Others found refuge with the French at Caughnawaga and other Jesuit missions along the St. Lawrence.
The League’s massive adoptions also explains why it was so relentless in its pursuit of the remnants of defeated enemies. So long as one small band remained free, the Iroquois were in danger of an insurrection from within. Perhaps because they considered themselves “Ongwi Honwi” (superior people), the Iroquois never offered wholesale adoption to the non-Iroquian speaking peoples who came under their control. Instead they offered membership in the “Covenant Chain,” a terminology first suggested by the Dutch at a treaty signed with the Mohawk in 1618. By 1677 the Iroquois had extended this form of limited membership to the Mahican and Delaware and later would offer it to other Algonquin and Siouan tribes. Essentially, the Covenant Chain was a trade and military alliance which gave the Iroquois the authority to represent its members with Europeans, but there was no vote or direct representation in the League council, Worse yet, the Iroquois were often arrogant and placed their own interests first. A system of “half-kings” created to represent the Ohio tribes in the 1740s never really corrected this problem.
A list of all noteworthy Iroquois would be too long to be included here. The Seneca chief, Eli Parker (Donehogawa) was the Commissioner of Indian Affairs during the Grant Administration. Educated as a lawyer, he was admitted to the bar but not allowed to practice in New York. He served on Grant’s staff during the Civil War and is believed to have written the terms of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Catherine Tekawitha, the Lily of the Mohawk (1656-80) has reached the final stage before recognition as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church. The Mohawk have gained fame as structural ironworkers. Hired as laborers in 1896 during the construction of the Dominion Bridge at Montreal, they showed no fear of height and have since been involved in the construction of every major bridge and skyscraper. 35 Mohawk were among the 96 killed in 1907 when a bridge being built across the St. Lawrence at Quebec collapsed.