Sunday, 7 August 2016

The Iroquois Confederacy (part 1)

Originally published in Arquebusier, volume XXXII/I - 2010, the journal of the Pike and Shot Society

The Iroquois Confederacy was – and still is – a League of North-American Indians that originally consisted of five nations: the Mohawk, the Oneida, the Onondaga, the Cayuga, and the Seneca.  At the time Europeans first arrived in North America, the Confederacy was based in what is now the north-eastern United States, primarily in upstate New York, but also in New England, Pennsylvania, Ontario, and Quebec.  A sixth tribe, the Tuscarora, joined from North Carolina between 1720 and 1722 and settled between the Oneida and the Onondaga.

Iroquois is not the name these tribes use to refer to themselves. Instead, they use the term Kanonsionni, or nowadays more commonly Haudenosaunee (hoo-dee-noh-SHAW-nee). Haudenosaunee means "People of the Long House", or more accurately, "They are building a Long House”.  The Haudenosaunee tribes 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 term Iroquois has three potential origins: 

  • possibly a French version of irinakhoiw, which the French spelled with the -ois suffix.  This is a Huron/Wyandot name—considered an insult—meaning "black snakes" or "real adders".  The Iroquois were enemies of the Huron and the Algonkin, who allied with the French, because of their rivalry in the fur trade;
  • the Haudenosaunee often ended their oratory with the phrase hiro koué; hiro translates as "I have spoken", and koué is just an exclamation. Hiro koué to the French encountering the Haudenosaunee would sound like "Iroquois", pronounced /irokwe/ in the French language of the time;
  • another version, supported by French linguists such as Henriette Walter and historians such as Dean Snow, claims that "Iroquois" derives from a Basque expression, Hilokoa, meaning the "killer people".  This would have been applied to the Iroquois because they were the enemy of the local Algonquians, with whom the Basque fishermen were trading. However, because there is no "L" in the Algonquian languages of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence region, the name became Hirokoa, which is the name the French understood when Algonquians referred to the same pidgin language as the one they used with the Basques. The French then transliterated the word according to their own phonetic rules, thus providing "Iroquois". 
The Haudenosaunee were probably the greatest indigenous polity north of the Rio Grande in the two centuries before Columbus and definitely the greatest in the two centuries after.  The members of this Confederacy spoke different languages of the same Iroquoian family, suggesting a common historical and cultural origin.  Mohawk was the language that was usually used at the Great Council and at Iroquois religious festivals.  The Algonquian tribes surrounding the Iroquois corridor are of a different cultural and linguistic stock.  Therefore, it appears likely that the Iroquois migrated into this area at some point in time.  When, however, is unclear.

The six Iroquoian languages are similar enough to allow easy conversation.  Mohawk and Oneida are quite similar, as are Cayuga and Seneca; Onondaga and Tuscarora are each rather  different from the five others.  One common characteristic is the lack of labial sounds, such as /p/, /b/ and /m/.  Iroquois 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, p. 243).
Other tribes, such as the Huron, who lived in Ontario and Quebec, and the Cherokee, whose historic homeland was in the south-eastern United States are relatives of the Iroquois Confederacy tribes, speak related languages, but were never part of the Iroquois Confederacy. In fact, they were regularly at war with the Iroquois.
The Iroquois speaking Erie lived in New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana. So did their relatives the Attawandaron (Neutrals), Honniasont (Black Minqua), Mingo, Susquehannock (Susquehanna or Conestoga), Tobacco, Wenro and Wyandot(te). These tribes did not join the Confederacy either. Ironically enough, apart from the Wyandot, all of these latter 
tribes are extinct today.
Message of Peace
Despite their common culture and language, relations among the Five Tribes had deteriorated to a state of near-constant warfare in ancient times. The infighting made them vulnerable to attacks from the surrounding Algonquian tribes. This period, known in the Iroquois oral tradition as the "dark times," reached a nadir during the reign of a psychotic Onondaga chief named Tadadaho (or Tododaho). Legend has it that he was a warrior-leader who regarded peace as a betrayal and who was a cannibal who ate from bowls made from the skulls of his victims.  It should be noted that in earlier times, cannibalism was not an uncommon phenomenon in this part of the world.
The Onondaga/Mohawk Ayonwentah
and (possibly Huron) Deganawidah, the Great Peacemaker, brought a message of peace to the squabbling tribes.  Various traditions provide different accounts of his background, but most say that Deganawidah was not a member of the Five Nations.  He was a shamanic outsider, who had left his home-village in a canoe from white stone and wandered the Adirondack and Allegheny forests, then a place of constant violence and intermittent cannibalism. 
Deganawidah had a message of peace, which he could not easily promulgate, as he had a severe speech impediment, perhaps a stutter. Somehow, he connected with Ayonwentah, who was a famous orator.  Ayonwentah is also known as Ayenwatha, who frequently but incorrectly is thought to be the Hiawatha of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem.  Over the years, Deganawidah and Ayonwentha persuaded the Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida and Mohawk to form an alliance, instead of constantly fighting each other. Tadadaho and his Onondaga, however, continued to refuse.  In a parley, Deganawidah took a single arrow and invited Tadadaho to break it, which he did easily.  Then he bundled together five arrows and asked Tadadaho to break the lot.  He couldn’t.  In the same way, Deganawidah prophesied, the Five Nations, each weak on its own, would fall into darkness unless they all banded together.
  Soon after Deganawidah’s warning a solar eclipse occurred.  The shaken Tadadaho agreed to add the Onondaga to the nascent alliance.  But he demanded that the main Onondaga village, now buried under the present-day city of Syracuse, New York, became the headquarters for the Confederacy.

Despite all the convulsions of history, the Onondaga have kept the Council fire burning for the Haudenosaunee to this day. Tadadaho has remained the title for the alliance’s main speaker, the fiftieth chief, who sits with the Onondaga in council, but is the only one of the fifty chosen by the entire Haudenosaunee people.  The Great Peace forged by Deganawidah and Ayonwentah produced an unwritten but clearly defined framework for the Iroquois Confederacy.  A written constitution was developed only as late as 1850. 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, a cue that cannibalism was still regularly practised.

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 Tadadaho 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.  This principle would eventually lead to the decline and fall of the Confederacy during the American Revolution.
The Tadadaho is only a symbolic leader and no chief executive magistrate, or official head. Experiencing also the necessity for a General Military Commander, the Haudenosaunee created this office in a dual form, that one might neutralize the other. Therefore, the two principal war-chiefs were made equal in powers.  Although the Great Council negotiated peace treaties, it could not declare war.  This was left to the initiative of the sachems of each of the Haudenosaunee’s constituent nations.
In creating such checks on authority, the League was just the most formal expression of a region-wide tradition.  The sachems of the eastern seaboard were absolute monarchs in theory only. In practice, wrote the colonial leader Roger Williams “they will not conclude of ought….unto which the people are averse”.  The league was predicated, in short, on the consent of the governed, without which the entire enterprise would collapse.  Compared to the despotic societies that were the norm in Europe and Asia in those days, the Haudenosaunee had created a libertarian dream (see 1491, p. 312).

The Great Law of Peace
These were the free people encountered by France and Britain – personifications of democratic self-government so vivid, that some historians and activists have argued that the Great Law of Peace directly inspired the US Constitution.  However, with its denial of suffrage to women, slaves and the unpropertied, the Constitution as originally enacted was sharply different from the Great Law.  In addition, the Constitution’s emphasis on protecting private property runs contrary to the Haudenosaunee traditions of communal ownership.
According to Francis Parkman, an American historian who lived from 1823 to 1893, the Iroquois were at the height of their power in the seventeenth century, with a population of about twelve thousand people.  Later historians, such as Johanson, however, estimate that during the 17thcentury Beaver Wars the Iroquois Confederacy had as many as 25,000 to 30,000 members.

WARLORD metal 28mm Iroquois warriors - see my Wargame Figures (part 10) for a painted version

The League functioned well for generations, fostering peace among the member 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.

Origins and Homelands of the Confederacy
Charles C. Mann states in his 1491 (p.330) that, “though the evidence is unclear, the ancestors of the Five Nations, neighbouring bands of gatherers and hunters may have lived in their homeland since the glaciers retreated from the Finger Lakes /around 10,000 years ago/, the eleven deep lakes that lie like cat scratches across central New York State.  Some time around 1000 A.D., the Indian agricultural trinity, maize, beans and squash appeared in the area.  Taking up agriculture, the Finger Lakes people, by now consolidated into five main groups, lined the region’s hills with farms. Populations rose, as happens time and again when human societies make the transition from foraging to farming.

On the other hand, given the fact that the Iroquois language group is rather small and geographically concentrated, the Iroquois may have moved north from what is now North Carolina and West Virginia at a certain point in time.  Not only the Iroquois-speaking Tuscarora, who moved north in 1722 to escape the British, had their earlier roots in North Carolina, also their linguistic relatives the Cherokee as well as the now extinct Corree, Meherrin, Nottaway and Honniasont (Black Minqua) used to be based in Virginia and North Carolina.  The Cherokee inhabited an even larger area: they could also be found in South Carolina, Arkansas, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas and Kansas.  As there is a clear and rather large central gap between the habitats of the latter Iroquois tribes, which was occupied by tribes with different linguistic roots, it is tempting to assume that the Iroquois groups originally occupying this central area moved north in earlier days to settle the current states of New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio.  Either way, the reason for these geographic distances between the Iroquois nations is unclear.
Another argument for the migration to the north could be that practically all tribes originally based in the Southwest of the USA, just like the Iroquois in the north, formed a matrilineal society.  No other matrilineal societies are to be found as far north as the area occupied by the later Confederacy and the other Iroquois.
Traditional Western estimates of the total native population of North America never exceeded a total of 3 million Indians.  Based on more recent findings, however, and as pointed out by Charles C. Mann in 1491, the total population of native North Americans at the time of first European contacts is more likely to have numbered between 30 and 60 million.

more WARLORD 28 mm Iroquois

Dense population
Corroborations for a much higher number than the traditional estimates are, for instance, that in the beginning of the 17th century travellers from Spain, France, Italy and Portugal reported with striking regularity that New England was thickly settled and well-defended. Sixteenth-century New England alone housed 100,000 people or more. Most of these peoples lived in shoreline communities. In 1605 and 1606 Samuel de Champlain, the governor of Québec and New France, visited Cape Cod, hoping to establish a French base. He abandoned the idea, as too many people already lived there.
About two hundred years after the Europeans had set foot on the American Continent, the total native population of the Americas (North, Middle and South) had been extremely reduced to a mere 5 to 20 per cent, depending on the area concerned, of the original number of inhabitants. This was not so much the result of warfare and other acts of violence, but rather due to the epidemics that were introduced by the Europeans (smallpox, chickenpox, cholera, measles, scarlet fever, typhoid, typhus, tuberculosis, influenza, syphilis) and which wiped out total villages, emptied complete regions and almost exterminated entire tribes.
Smallpox was the principal destroyer of native peoples; it was especially deadly because it would return to the same populations in epidemic proportions time and again. The debilitating effects of these diseases also helped the whites win many of the Indian wars. Moreover, in some instances disease was even used as a weapon by whites, who purposely passed out smallpox infested blankets to the Indians.

Location of the Iroquois Tribes Then and Now
The Confederacy
The Seneca were inhabitants of the current states of New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Wisconsin and Oklahoma, as well as the Province of Ontario. Currently they are only to be found in New York, Oklahoma and Ontario.
The Cayuga were based in the state of New York. These days they live New York, Oklahoma and Ontario.
The Onondaga were from New York and are now based both in New York and Ontario.
The Oneida were based in New York and are now to be found in New York, Wisconsin and Ontario.
The Mohawk have very much stayed in their original territories during the last centuries: New York, Ontario and Quebec.
The Tuscarora could be found in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and New York. Currently they are based in New York and Ontario.

English name
17th/18th century location
"People of the Great Hill"
Seneca Lake and Genesee River
"People of the Great Swamp"
Cayuga Lake
"People of the Hills"
Onondaga Lake
"People of Standing Stone"
Oneida Lake
Mohawk (1)
"People of the Great Flint"
Mohawk River
Tuscarora (2)
“Shirt-wearing People”
From North Carolina (3)
(1) Their enemies called them Mowak, man-eaters, which probably refers to their former cannibalistic habits  (2) Not one of the original Five Nations  (3) Settled between the Oneida and the Onondaga

Non-Confederacy Iroquois
Northern group
The Attawandaron (Attiwendaronk or Neutrals) lived in Ontario, Michigan, Ohio, New York and Indiana. Called Attawandaron by the Huron, meaning “people of a slightly different language” and Neutrals by the French, as they tried to stay neutral between the warring Huron and Iroquois, their own name has been lost. They formed a confederation with their Iroquois relatives the Aondironon, Ongniarahronon, Atiragenratka (Atiraguenrek) and Conkhandeenrhonon.  These tribes are all extinct today.
The Erie (Cat People) lived in New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana. Extinct today.
The Honniasont (Black Minqua) inhabited Pennsylvania, West-Virginia and Ohio. Extinct today.
The Huron, who are extinct today, were based in the Canadian Provinces of Ontario and Quebec. The Huron were composed of the Attiguaouantan (Bear people), the Attigneenongnahac (Cord people), the Arendahronon (Rock people), the Tohontaenrat (Atahontaenrat or Tohontaenrat, White-eared or Deer people), the Wenrohronon (Wenro), the Ataronchronon, and the Atonthrataronon.
The Mingo were based south of Lake Erie on the Allegheny River, between Fort Venango and Fort Pitt and lived west of the Delaware (or Lenni Lenapi).  Extinct today.
The Tobacco (also Petun and Tionontati) lived in Ontario and Wisconson. Descendants can be found among the Wyandot.
Susquehannock (Susquehanna or Conestoga) lived further west south of Lake Erie and were originally based in Pennsylvania, New York and Maryland, east of their Mingo relations and south of the Seneca.  Extinct today.
Wyandot(te) (Wendat): before the Europeans arrived, the Confederacy drove the Wyandot (descendants from the Huron) from their homelands in Ontario and Quebec. They moved to Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconson.  Nowadays they can only be found in Oklahama and Kansas.

Ho Nee Yeath Taw No Row, Mohawk king
Southern group
The Cherokee were composed of at least three divisions, the Elati, the Middle Cherokee, and the Atali, formerly holding the whole mountain region of the south Alleghenies, in southwest Virginia, western North Carolina and South Carolina, north Georgia, east Tennessee, northeast Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas and Oklahoma.  Currently the Cherokee are only based in Oklahama and North Carolina.
The Corree, inhabitants of North Carolina, are also thought to have belonged to the Iroquoian family. They are extinct today.
The Meherrin occupied Virginia and North Carolina.  Extinct today.
The Nottaway used to live in Virginia.  Extinct today.
Today, the total number of Iroquois is difficult to establish.  About 45,000 Iroquois were officially recorded in Canada in 1995. In the 2000 census, 80,822 people in the United States claimed Iroquois ethnicity, with 45,217 of them claiming only Iroquois background. However, tribal registrations in the United States in 1995 numbered about 30,000 in total.

Features of the Confederacy
Most anthropologists have traditionally speculated that the Confederacy was created between the middle 1400s and early 1600s.  However, recent archaeological studies have suggested the accuracy of the account found in oral tradition, which argues that the federation was formed either in 1090 or, more precisely, on August 31, 1142, based on a coinciding solar eclipse.  The Haudenosaunee thus would have the second oldest known continuously existing representative parliament on earth.  Only Iceland’s Althing, founded in 930 A.D. is older.

The union of nations created a constitution known as the Gayanashagowa (or "Great Law of Peace"), laid out by Deganawidah.  Since they had no writing system, the Iroquois depended upon the spoken word to pass down their history, traditions, and rituals.  As an aid to memory, they used shells and shell beads.  The Europeans called the beads wampum from wampumpeag, a word used by Indians in the area who spoke Algonquian languages. Wampum is fashioned from the North Atlantic channelled whelk (busycotypus canaliculatus)  or from purple and white beads, made from the shell of the quahog clam (mercenaria mercenaria), obtained through trading or as tribute payments from coastal tribes. These beads were arranged on belts in designs representing events of significance.  Certain elders were designated to memorize the various events and treaty articles represented on the belts. These men could "read" the belts and reproduce their contents with great accuracy. The belts were stored at Onondaga, the capital of the Confederacy, in the care of a designated wampum keeper.
Wampum belts also served as symbols of authority or as a 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.
The 117 codicils of the Great Law were concerned as much with establishing the limits on the Great Council’s powers as on granting them. Its jurisdiction was strictly limited to relations among the nations and outside groups. Internal affairs were the province of the individual nations.  According to the Great Law of Peace, when the council of sachems was deciding upon “an especially important matter or a great emergency”, its members had to “submit the matter to the decision of their people” in a kind of referendum.

Great Council
Equality between the sexes had a strong adherence in the Confederacy, and the women, who held title to the land and all its produce, also held real power and could vote down decisions by the male leaders of the League and demand that an issue be reconsidered, particularly to approve or veto declarations of war. The Great Council of Chiefs was chosen by the Clan Mothers and if any leader failed to comply with the Great Law of Peace, he could be removed by the Clan Mothers.
Originally, the principal object of the Council was to raise sachems to fill vacancies in the ranks of the ruling body occasioned by death or deposition; but it transacted all other business which concerned the common welfare. Eventually the Council fell into three kinds, which may be distinguished as Civil, Mourning, and Religious. The first declared war and made peace, sent and received embassies, entered into treaties with foreign tribes, regulated the affairs of subjugated tribes, as well as other general welfare issues. The second raised sachems and invested them with office, termed the Mourning Council (Henundonuhseh) because the first of its ceremonies was the lament for the deceased ruler whose vacant place was to be filled. The third was held for the observance of a general religious festival, as an occasion for the confederated tribes to unite under the auspices of a general council in the observance of common religious rites.
The Great Council is the oldest governmental institution still maintaining its original form in North America. Each tribe sends sachems to act as representatives and make decisions for the whole nation. Different nations had different numbers of sachems, but the inequality meant little, as all decisions had to be unanimous. The number of sachems has never changed.
  • 14 Onondaga
  • 10 Cayuga
  •   9 Oneida
  •   9 Mohawk
  •   8 Seneca
  •   0 Tuscarora
The Tuscarora never had any seats on the Council. Having sought the protection of the Confederacy when leaving North Carolina to escape the British in 1720-22, their status is different from the one of the original 5 tribes.
As a rule, sachems were succeeded by their nephews, but the system was not entirely hereditary. Sachems could be impeached if they displeased their clan, and if their nephews were not deemed fit for office, someone outside the family could take over (1491, p. 331)

Clans, Marriage and Childhood
The number of clans varies by nation, currently from three to eight, with a total of nine different clan names. Originally, the Iroquois tribes were organized into eight clans, which were grouped in two halves: Wolf, Bear, Beaver, and Turtle; and Deer, Snipe, Heron, and Hawk. In ancient times, intermarriage was not allowed within each four-clan group, but as a result of the strong reduction in population 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.
Current clans


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 behaviour or dereliction of duty.
The women arranged the marriages, generally choosing a young man for an older, often widowed woman and conversely an older man for a younger girl. The system had the great advantage of assuring the young people an experienced marriage partner and obviated the risk of two young things wallowing in the mysteries of sex and marriage only to jeopardize the relationship. Furthermore, the young bride was assured security of an experienced hunter and successful warrior with status and position.  The young groom, on the other hand, had the advantage of a partner who was wealthy in property, who owned the fields of maize, beans and squash and who was knowledgeable in the ways of parenthood and housekeeping.
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.
Mothers had primary responsibility for raising their children and teaching them good behaviour. In keeping with the easy-going nature of Haudenosaunee society, children learned informally from their family and clan elders.  Children were not spanked, but might be punished by splashing water in their faces.  Difficult children might be frightened into better behaviour by a visit from someone wearing the mask of Longnose, the cannibal clown.
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.
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.

Housing and Settlements
Villages of 300 to 600 people were protected by a triple-walled stockade of wooden stakes 15 to 20 feet tall.  These stockades were often fitted with shelves to hold rocks to throw at the enemy and pails of water to extinguish fires.  The Iroquois preferred to build their villages on a hill for protection purposes.  Locations near fresh water springs or a river for easier transportation were favoured.  A village would comprise 20 to 100 longhouses.  The longhouses were built in random patterns to prevent the easy spread of fire.  Crops were planted in large fields outside the palisade.
About every 20 to 30 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.
Iroquois Longhouse, New York State Museum
Traditional longhouses housed around 60 people and sometimes were over a 100 feet long, 15 to 20 feet in width, either gabled or vaulted, with a door and a vestibule at each end. They consisted of a log frame with a variety of coverings, often elm bark. Each longhouse housed an entire clan, or as many as 60 people. Later day Iroquois longhouses could house several hundred people and were up to 300 feet long.
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.
The neighbouring Algonquians generally lived in wigwams (huts with an arched frame of poles overlaid with bark, animal skin, or woven mats).

The Iroquois were a mix of farmers, fishers, gatherers, and hunters, though their staple diet came from farming. The main crops they farmed were maize, beans and squash, called "the three sisters" and which were considered special gifts from the Creator.  These crops were grown strategically.  The cornstalks grew, the bean plants climbed the stalks, and the squash grew beneath, warding off the weeds. In this combination, the soil remained fertile for several decades.  The food was stored during the winter, and lasted for two to three years.
A traveller in 1669 reported that six square miles of maize typically encircled Haudenosaunee villages.  This estimate was roughly corroborated two decades later by the Marquis de Denonville, governor of New France, who destroyed the harvest of four adjacent Haudenosaunee villages to deter future attacks.  Denonville reported that he destroyed 1.2 million bushels of maize – 42,000 tons.  Today, Oaxacan farmers in Mexico typically plant roughly 1.25-2.5 acres to harvest a ton of landrace maize. If that relation held true for upstate New York – a big but not ridiculous assumption - four villages, closely packed together, would be surrounded by between 8 and 16 square miles of maize fields.  Also John Sullivan, the American general who ravaged the Iroquois towns which were allied with the British during the American Revolution in 1779, was amazed to observe the largest cornfields in North America
In addition to providing food, the maize plants were used to make a variety of other goods. From the stalks were made medicine-storing tubes, maize syrup, toy warclubs and spears, and straws for teaching children to count. Maize husks were fashioned into lamps, kindling, mattresses, clotheslines, baskets, shoes, and dolls.  Animal skins were smoked over maize cob fires.  Besides maize, 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 maize dishes during the rest of the year. The Iroquois used the region's waterways extensively for transportation, but fish was relatively unimportant as food.

Dress and Equipment
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 favourite 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.
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.  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.
Before the Europeans colonized North America, Indian natives were not acquainted with metal weapons or tools. Iroquois hunters used bows and arrows tipped with flint or bone as primary hunting weapons.  Blow guns were used for smaller prey.  Made from the hollowed stem of swamp alder, these were about six feet long and one inch thick, with a half-inch bore; the arrows were two and a half feet long. Iroquois fishermen generally used spears and fishing poles.
Important tools included stone adzes, flint knives for skinning animals, and wooden hoes for farming.  The Iroquois were skilled woodworkers, steaming wood that could be bent into curved tools. Some Iroquois still make lacrosse sticks this way today.  Sometimes the Iroquois used elm-bark or dugout canoes for fishing trips, but usually preferred to travel by land. Originally the Iroquois tribes used dogs as pack animals.  There were no horses in North America until colonists brought them over from Europe.  In wintertime, the Iroquois used laced snowshoes and sleds to travel through the snow.

Sources and additional information
  • 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.
  • Barr, Daniel P., Unconquered: The Iroquois League at War in Colonial America, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006
  • Barreiro, Jose, "Indian Roots of American Democracy," Northeast Indian Quarterly, Winter/Spring, 1987/1988.
  • Bial, Raymond Lifeways: The Iroquois, New York: Benchmark Books, 1999
  • 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
  • Hine, Robert V. & Faragher, John Mack, The American West: A New Interpretive History, Yale University Press, 2000
  • Hassrick, Royal B., North American Indians, Octopus Books, London, 1974
  • Jennings, Francis, The Ambiguous Iroquois Empire. W. W. Norton & Company, 1984 
  • Johansen, Bruce , Dating the Iroquois Confederacy, Akwesasne Notes New Series 1, 1995 
  • Johansen, Bruce, The Native Peoples of North America, Rutgers University Press, 2006
  • 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.
  • Mann, Charles C., 1491, The Americas before Columbus, Granta Books, London, 2005
  • Michelson, G. A Thousand Words of Mohawk Ottawa: National Museums of Canada 1973
  • Morgan, Lewis H. Ancient Society, Charles H. Kerr & Company, Chicago, 1907
  • Morgan, Lewis H., League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee or Iroquois , New Haven: Human Relations Area Files, 1954
  • Rudes, B. Tuscarora English Dictionary, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1999
  • Sloan, De Villo. The Crimsoned Hills of Onondaga: Romantic Antiquarians and the Euro-American Invention of Native American Prehistory. Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2008.
  • Snow, Dean R. The Iroquois. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1996.
  • Spittal, W.G., Iroquois Women: An Anthology, Ohsweken, Ontario: Iroqrafts Ltd, 1990.
  • Tooker, Elisabeth, An Iroquois Source Book, Volumes 1 and 2. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1985.
  • Tooker, Elisabeth. Lewis H. Morgan on Iroquois Material Culture. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1994
  • Waldman, Carl, Atlas of the North American Indian, Facts on File Publications, New York, NY and Oxford, England, 1985
  • Williams, Glenn F., Iroquois actions during the American Revolution, and Year of the Hangman: George Washington's Campaign Against the Iroquois. Yardley: Westholme Publishing, 2005.
  • Wright, Ronald. (2005) "Stolen Continents: 500 Years of Conquest and Resistance in the Americas." Mariner Books. ISBN-10: 0618492402; ISBN-13: 978-0618492404
  • Zinn, Howard, A People's History of the United States: 1492-present, 2005, Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005
  • Mohawk:
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  • Cayuga:
  • Tuscarora:
  • Onondaga:
  • Seneca:

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