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Iroquois

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Iroquois

The original five tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy are some of the more well-known Indigenous Peoples in North America due to their prevalent and consistent contact with European settlers, traders, and fur trappers.

What is Iroquois culture like? How was the Confederacy created? And, what were their relationships with Europeans like? Let's find out!

Iroquois society, Portrait of a Native American tribe, StudySmarter

A photograph of Iroquois in 1914, taken by William Alexander Drennan. Source: Wikimedia Commons (public domain: U.S.)

Iroquois definition

The name Iroquois comes from the French appropriation of the Algonquin word “Ireohkwa,” which means “real adders.” The Algonquin calling them "snakes," which should indicate their relationship with their northeastern indigenous neighbors. The Iroquois call themselves the Haudenosaunee, which means “people of the longhouse.”

The creation of the Iroquois Confederacy

Not much is known or recorded about the Iroquois before their interaction with Europeans in the mid-1500s. It is somewhat of a mystery how such a consolidated and powerful nation came to inhabit a large territory seemingly in the middle of more numerous Algonquin tribes in northeast North America. The most common theory is that the Iroquois descended from the Owasco people who came to the region nearly 25,000 years ago.

One thing is sure about the Iroquois; their Confederacy is the core of their influence and power in the region. Around the year 1570, the Iroquois formed the League of Five Nations. It included the Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, and Seneca tribes. It was brought together by two men: Deganawida and Hiawatha.

Iroquois constitution

Deganawida was a prophet who preached visions of a unified nation under the branches of a “Tree of Great Peace.” Hiawatha, a medicine man, took that message and traveled by canoe through the Iroquois territory with a wampum belt that symbolized the “Great Law of Peace.” Their efforts were successful, and the League of Five Nations banded together to form a confederation of tribes. Deganawida presented the Kainerekowa or “Great Law of Peace” as their constitution.

The Iroquois constitution was not a written document, not until long after the arrival of Europeans, but a long oral narrative of collected policies, many dating back well before the European arrival. Deganawida combined these narratives into an oral constitution to guide the five nations in governance. Woven with visions, prophetic language, and eloquent visual descriptions, the constitution established familiar policies1:

  • Holding more than one leadership position was forbidden.

  • An established process to remove leaders.

  • A bicameral legislature with policies to pass laws.

  • A specified system to control the power to declare war.

  • A method of checks and balances between the power of the Confederacy and the power of individual tribes.

Their constitution still guides the Iroquois nation in its modern culture and society.

Iroquois map

Iroquois society, Map of the Iroquois tribes, StudySmarter

This map shows the historical and original territory of the Iroquois Confederacy up to approximately 1650. Source: Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Iroquois culture

Though there are differences between the various tribes of the Iroquois, they mostly shared very similar societal structures, culture, arts, crafts, economics, and warfare.

The Iroquois village and longhouse

An artist's depiction of an Iroquois longhouse. Source: Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Most Iroquois villages were built in clearings near rivers and streams surrounded by thick wood fencing made from sharpened logs. The Iroquois lived in longhouses made of elm bark. These communal shelters were around 50 to 100 feet long and could have up to twenty families, plus pets, sharing one domicile. The Iroquois use the longhouse as a structure and a symbol. As we know, their self-given name Haudenosaunee means “people of the longhouse.” They also use the longhouse as a metaphor for their Confederacy, with the Mohawk tribe guarding the east entrance and the Seneca tribe guarding the west.

Iroquois language

The Iroquoian Language family is divided into northern and southern dialects. Each of the six Iroquois nations speaks a different but closely related language of the Northern Iroquois language family. Several other tribes in the region also spoke Northern Iroquoian, such as the Huron, Susquehannock, and Erie tribes. The only tribe to speak the Southern Iroquois language is the Cherokee.

The Iroquois diet and economy

Like other Indigenous Peoples of the forested Northeast, the Iroquois are skilled in chasing and trapping animals. Their fur trapping and trade skills made them ideal trading partners for the early European settlers, such as the Dutch in New Netherland and the English in Massachusetts.

In addition to trapping, the Iroquois are skilled farmers, using stone, bone, wood, and antler tools to work the soil. Their three most important crops are corn, beans, and squash - also known as the “Three Sisters.”

Iroquois clothing and craftsmanship

The Iroquois used the furs and skins of the animals they trapped for food and clothing. They crafted deerskin skirts, shirts, breechcloths, leggings, and moccasins. In addition, they made robes and mittens from beaver and bear furs for the colder seasons. They used feathers and quills to decorate their clothing. Like their Algonquin neighbors, the Iroquois created belts of wampum- woven polished seashells- that served as public records and traditions. After the arrival of Europeans, wampum became a form of currency.

The Iroquois traveled around their territory to hunt, trade, and make war. Their main form of transportation was sturdy canoes made of elm or spruce bark. Though not as light or agile as their Algonquin birch bark counterparts, the Iroquois canoe had advantages. Its thickness gave it defensive advantages in warfare as a shield or barrier and could be a ladder to scale walls.

Iroquois religion

The Iroquois considered animals to be their kindred spirits and protectors, often using animal names to identify clans such as; the Beaver Clan, the Deer Clan, the Wolf Clan, etc. The Iroquois believe that the most powerful spirit was Orenda, the Great Spirit and Creator of the earth. All other spirits come from Orenda.

To worship Orenda and the other spirits, the Iroquois hold festivals to celebrate the food and sustenance provided by the spirits. The “Three Sister” crops are the basis of many festivals, and there are three important festivals based on corn alone: the Corn-Planting Festival, the Green Corn Festival, and the Corn-gathering Festival. Their most important festival is the New Year Festival which coincides with the first new moon of the new year.

Shamans would lead these festivals and other healing ceremonies. Iroquois shamans wear masks, known as “False Faces,” carved from the wood of a living tree. They would dance, shaking rattles made from turtle shells to drive away evil spirits and bring in good spirits.

Iroquois social structure

Iroquois society is matrilineal, meaning that descent and property pass through the female lineage. In Iroquois society, it is common for women to own crops and choose leaders. Men would hunt, trap, trade, and conduct warfare. Women would craft clothing, tend to crops, and see other domestic duties.

Iroquois boys develop military skills at a young age, practicing with knives, clubs, bows, and arrows. They would prepare for their first military raids by the time they were teenagers. Men would earn respect in society through their martial exploits.

Iroquois’ relationship with Europeans

By the mid-1600s, the Iroquois began to expand their territory rapidly. Their trade with the Dutch and English for furs, especially beaver pelts, created a need to control more land. The Iroquois had two advantages over their Algonquin and other Indigenous neighbors: their Confederacy and trade history.

Their confederation allowed them to unify forces to fight common enemies and support each other. Their long trade history gave the Iroquois access to firearms and hatchets with metal cutting heads, a military advantage over most other tribes on the east coast. By the end of the 1600s, the Iroquois controlled all territory east to west from the Hudson River to the Illinois River and north to south, from the Ottawa River to the Tennessee River.

The Iroquois were so powerful they stopped the French from expanding out of Canada towards the Atlantic ocean. Because of this strategic advantage, the Iroquois often allied with the British in most conflicts with the French in North America. Only for a brief period in the mid-1700s, during the Pontiac Rebellion in 1763 and Lord Dunmore’s War of 1774, did the Iroquois fight against the British due to the English appropriation of their lands.

During the period of expansion for more territory for beaver furs, the Iroquois controlled all the areas in red on the map above and their original territorial land. Source: Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

The Iroquois relationship with the United States

Most Iroquois allied themselves with the British in the American Revolution, seeing the Americans as a more significant threat to their ancestral lands. Some tribes, such as the Oneida and Tuscarora, sided with the Americans, marking the first split in the Iroquois League in nearly two hundred years.

Because of the threat to the northeastern frontier, General George Washington sent armies into the Iroquois nation in 1779 under the leadership of Generals John Sullivan and James Clinton. What would be known as the Sullivan-Clinton campaign destroyed the Iroquois, and not necessarily through direct warfare, but from brutal tactics such as burning down houses and villages and destroying crops. The Iroquois nickname for George Washington is “town destroyer.”

In the years following the Revolutionary War and the birth of the United States, the Iroquois found themselves forced to relinquish much of their territorial land. Some tribes granted reservation land, while others moved north into Canada.

Iroquois Persecution: land issues and resident schools

In the late 1800s, both the U.S. and Canadian governments made concerted efforts to suppress the indigenous culture of the Iroquois. The federal government created Resident schools operated by Christian missionaries under federal contracts. Thousands of Indigenous children aged seven to fifteen attended these schools by force. Children routinely had their heads shaved on admission, issued uniforms, and were closely monitored and forbidden to use their Indigenous language. Runaways were treated as criminals. The purpose of these schools was to reduce a child's participation in their Indigenous culture.

These boarding schools were critical to the systematic destruction of Indigenous culture in North America. Their military model, with its repressive environment, was horrific. Children could be confined to a school for years, and they could not learn the subsistence skills, social conventions, or religious traditions of their tribe or family. It was not until the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978 that the education of Indigenous children reverted to tribal control.

Additionally, due to the structure of the Iroquois League as a government, the tribes attempted many different negotiations with the United States in order to retain their tribal lands, beginning after the end of the American Revolution. Nevertheless, as the population of white Americans grew, so did the pressure to relinquish the lands granted to the Iroquois. The table below shows several of the treaties and land disputes the Iroquois have had with the United States:

Iroquois Land Disputes with the United States

Treaty of Fort Stanwix (1784)

A peace treaty with the Iroquois following the American Revolution and the cession of Iroquois lands in the Ohio River Valley

Phelps and Gorham Purchase (1788)

A negotiation for nearly two million acres of Seneca and Iroquois land in what would become parts of New York State.

Treaty of Canandaigua (1794)

A treaty with the Iroquois seceding rights to the lands east of the Genesee River

Treaty of Big Tree (1797)

A treaty with the Iroquois seceding rights to the lands west of the Genesee River

The Six Nations still fight legal disputes over territorial claims to this day, with major court cases involving their original land grants and treaties taking place in 2000, 2005, 2010, and 2015. Though not intended to reclaim their territories but to use their legal precedence to negotiate environmental policy and taxation policies on their reservation lands. 2

The present-day Iroquois Confederacy

Today, the Iroquois live on New York, Ontario, Quebec, Wisconsin, and Oklahoma reservations. Representatives of the Six Nations (the original five and the addition of Tuscarora) still meet as a council and recite the Great Law. The representatives are divided into two. One Council negotiates treaties and policies with the U.S. government and the Canadian government.

Iroquois society - Key takeaways

  • Not much is known or recorded about the Iroquois before their interaction with Europeans in the mid-1500s. Around the year 1570, the Iroquois formed the League of Five Nations. It included the Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, and Seneca tribes. Brought together by two men: Deganawida and Hiawatha.
  • The Iroquois constitution was not a written document, not until far after the arrival of Europeans, but a long oral narrative of collected policies, many dating back well before the European arrival.
  • The Iroquois lived in longhouses made of elm bark. These communal shelters were 50 to 100 feet long and could have up to twenty families, plus pets, sharing one domicile.
  • Iroquois society is matrilineal, meaning that descent and property pass through the female lineage. In Iroquois society, it is common for women to own crops and choose leaders. Men would hunt, trap, trade, and conduct warfare. Women would craft clothing, tend to crops, and see other domestic duties.
  • By the mid-1600s, the Iroquois began to expand their territory rapidly. Their trade with the Dutch and English for furs, especially beaver pelts, created a need to control more land.
  • In the years following the Revolutionary War and the birth of the United States, the Iroquois found themselves forced to relinquish much of their territorial land. Some tribes granted reservation land, while others moved north into Canada.
  • The Iroquois live on New York, Ontario, Quebec, Wisconsin, and Oklahoma reservations. Representatives of the Six Nations (the original five and the addition of Tuscarora) still meet as a council and recite the Great Law.

1. Democracy and the Iroquois Constitution. (2021, April 26). Field Museum. https://www.fieldmuseum.org/blog/democracy-and-iroquois-constitution

2. Taub, J. (2015, July 30). The Iroquois Are Not Giving Up. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/08/the-iroquois-are-not-giving-up/278787/

Frequently Asked Questions about Iroquois

North Eastern United States and Canada, mainly in what is present-day New York State. 

The Iroquois Confederacy was the alliance of the Five Nations, then six with the addition of the Tuscarora, which was originally known as the Iroquois League. 

Around the year 1570, the Iroquois formed the League of Five Nations. It included the Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, and Seneca tribes. Brought together by two men: Deganawida and Hiawatha. Deganawida was a prophet who preached visions of a unified nation under the branches of a “Tree of Great Peace.” Hiawatha, a medicine man, took that message and traveled by canoe through the Iroquois territory with a wampum belt that symbolized the “Great Law of Peace.” Their efforts were successful, and the League of Five Nations banded together to form a confederation of tribes. Deganawida presented the “Great Law of Peace” as their constitution. 

The original five tribes of the Iroquois confederacy are some of the more famous indigenous peoples in North America due to their prevalent and consistent contact with European settlers, traders, and fur trappers. The Mohawk, the Oneida, and the Seneca, to name a few. The name Iroquois comes from the French appropriation of the Algonquin word “Ireohkwa,” which means “real adders”- the Algonquin calls them snakes should indicate their relationship with their northeastern indigenous neighbors. The Iroquois call themselves “Haudenosaunee” or “people of the longhouse.” 

Many of the Iroquois tribes allied themselves with the British during the American Revolution, hoping to control their lands when victorious. After the Revolution, Britain granted the Iroquois land in Canada and the Iroquois had to negotiate treaties with the United States in 1784, seceding much land to the U.S. 

Final Iroquois Quiz

Question

What name do the Iroquois call themselves? 

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Answer

Haudenosaunee

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Question

What two Iroquois leaders created the Iroquois League in the early 1500s? 

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Answer

Deganawida 

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Question

True or False: The Iroquois constitution was originally a written document binding the five tribes into one confederacy.

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Answer

False

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Question

Which of the following tribes was not part of the original five nations of the Iroquois League? 

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Answer

Seneca

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Question

What unique structure did the Iroquois use as shelter and meeting houses? 

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Answer

The Longhouse 

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Question

Which of the following crops is not considered one of the "Three Sisters" crops venerated by the Iroquois? 

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Answer

Rice 

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Question

Which of the following festivals is the most important to the Iroquois? 

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Answer

New Year Festival 

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Question

True or False: Iroquois society is patriarchal, and follows the male lineage for descendants and inheritance. 

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Answer

False 

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Question

What important advantage did the Iroquois gain by trading with the English and Dutch in the early 1600s? 

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Answer

The use of firearms 

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Question

During the French and Indian War, the Iroquois had an alliance and fought along side which European nation? 

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Answer

Britain 

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Question

Which American leader do the Iroquois refer to as "town destroyer"? 

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Answer

George Washington

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