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Iroquois Literature


The Iroquois also known as the Haudenosaunee, the Five Nations and Five Nations of the Iroquois (Six Nations after 1722), and (to themselves) the Goano'ganoch'sa'jeh'seroni or Ganonsyoni, are a historically powerful important Native American people who formed the Iroquois Confederacy, a league of five (later six) distinct nations. French, Dutch and British colonists in both Canada and the Thirteen Colonies wanted to curry favor with the Iroquois; for nearly 200 years considerations of the Iroquois were a powerful factor in North American colonial policy-making decisions. All sides wooed them, each settlement feared them, politically they were unique, a large Native American polity which, until during the American Revolution, could not be divided.

When Europeans first arrived in North America, the Haudenosaunee were based in what is now the northeastern United States, primarily in what is referred to today as upstate New York west of the Hudson River and through the Finger Lakes region. In 1995, more than 50,000 enrolled Six Nations people lived in Canada, and about 30,000 in the United States. After the defeat of the British and their Iroquois allies in the American Revolutionary War, most migrated to Canada and their descendants live there.

The Iroquois are a mix of horticulturalists, farmers, fishers, gatherers and hunters, though their main diet traditionally has come from farming. The main crops they cultivated are corn, beans and squash, which were called the three sisters and are considered special gifts from the Creator. These crops are grown strategically. The cornstalks grow, the bean plants climb the stalks, and the squash grow beneath, inhibiting weeds and keeping the soil moist under the shade of their broad leaves. In this combination, the soil remained fertile for several decades. The food was stored during the winter, and it lasted for two to three years. When the soil eventually lost its fertility, the Haudenosaunee migrated.

The Iroquois believe that the spirits change the seasons. Key festivals coincided with the major events of the agricultural calendar, including a harvest festival of thanksgiving. The Great Peacemaker (Deganawida) was their prophet. After the arrival of the Europeans, many Iroquois became Christians, among them Kateri Tekakwitha, a young woman of Mohawk-Algonquin parents. Traditional spirituality was revived to some extent in the second half of the 18th century by the teachings of the Haudenosaunee prophet Handsome Lake.

(Joseph Brant)

"Those who have one foot in the canoe and
one foot in the boat are going to fall in the river."

Tuscarora Saying

The Iroquois call themselves the Haudenosaunee, which means "People of the Longhouse," or more accurately, "They Are Building a Long House." According to their tradition, The Great Peacemaker introduced the name at the time of the formation of the League. It implies that the nations of the League should live together as families in the same longhouse.

Traditionally, Kanien'kehá:ka (Mohawk) are the guardians of the eastern door, as they are located in the east closest to the Hudson, and the Seneca are the guardians of the western door of the "tribal longhouse", the territory they controlled in present-day New York. Onöñda’gega’ (Onondaga), whose homeland is in the center of Haudenosaunee territory, are keepers of the League's (both literal and figurative) central flame.

The Grand Council of the Iroquois League is an assembly of 56 Hoyenah (chiefs) or Sachems, a number that has never changed. Today, the seats on the Council are distributed among the Six Nations as follows:

Iroquois Confederacy

    14 Onondaga
    10 Cayuga
      9 Oneida
      9 Mohawk
      8 Seneca
      6 Tuscarora

The original homeland of the Iroquois was in upstate New York between the Adirondack Mountains and Niagara Falls. Through conquest and migration, they gained control of most of the northeastern United States and eastern Canada. At its maximum in 1680, their empire extended west from the north shore of Chesapeake Bay through Kentucky to the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers; then north following the Illinois River to the south end of Lake Michigan; east across all of lower Michigan, southern Ontario and adjacent parts of southwestern Quebec; and finally south through northern New England west of the Connecticut River through the Hudson and upper Delaware Valleys across Pennsylvania back to the Chesapeake. With two exceptions - the Mingo occupation of the upper Ohio Valley and the Caughnawaga migration to the upper St. Lawrence - the Iroquois did not, for the most part, physically occupy this vast area but remained in their upstate New York villages.

During the hundred years preceding the American Revolution, wars with French-allied Algonquin and British colonial settlement forced them back within their original boundaries once again. Their decision to side with the British during the Revolutionary War was a disaster for the Iroquois. The American invasion of their homeland in 1779 drove many of the Iroquois into southern Ontario where they have remained. With large Iroquois communities already located along the upper St. Lawrence in Quebec at the time, roughly half of the Iroquois population has since lived in Canada. This includes most of the Mohawk along with representative groups from the other tribes. Although most Iroquois reserves are in southern Ontario and Quebec, one small group (Michel's band) settled in Alberta during the 1800s as part of the fur trade.

Iroquois Leaders

(John Brant)

Cornplanter Kiontwogky
(Corn Plant)

Red Jacket

Iroquois Constitution

Iroquois Oral Traditions

Cayuga Nation
[Guyohkohnyo - People of the
Seneca Nation]

Tuscaroras Nation
[Skaroreh Katenuaka Nation]

Mohawk Nation

Onandaga Nation

Oneida Nation/Onyota'a:ka:
(People of the Satnding Stone)

Oren Lyons

Iroquois Links

Haudenosaunee Dances and Songs

Haudenosaunee Iroquois Confederacy

The Natural World teaming, with life allows each species to live & to be different. Differences do not cause conflict as much as disrespect. The following are Cultural differences that Hodenoshaunee have and they are offered for your consideration and understanding.

1) Our cultural knowledge explains that our two people were created separately on two different continents. We did not come across the Bering Strait. To be placed on a progressive continuum is in itself the purest form of racism.

2) We begin to travel in two paths with understanding, respect and cooperation,the bench mark of separation.

3) We have two distinct legacies of life. We each have an entirely different way of viewing the world. These differences have led us to deal with each other in a sometimes bizarre mannar.

4) Aboriginal world view contains a greater sense of the current completeness of existence.

5) Aboriginal people have a different way of seeing reality. Any discussion of land becomes a discussion of religion, kinship and is our view of land. We view everything as possessing a life and we look to the unity of whole as the completeness of existence. All life comes from Mother Earth.

6) Belief is more important than what they can prove.

7) Land does not belong to us. It belongs to the coming faces (generations to come). In this sense, we cannot own,sell buy and give land away. It belongs to all.

8) Everything is related and survival depends on how one exercises the use of resources. We only take what we can use.

9) Our view of time and space is different. The spirts allow us to return to the orgins of ceremonies and as long as we do them in completeness we can draw on that original power and strength. It seeks harmony in a cyclical contact over time. We are concerned with being and maintaining rather than becoming developing, changing, making and storing.

10) Every Hodenoshaunee person has a personal relation with nature and does not strive to control it. There is no connection of land, labor and wealth.

11) The future does not contain the stimulating prospect of progress.

12) To meet the Non-Native halfway is to self destruct.

13) Why is the option of leading a separate cultural domain into the future so shocking? Reaction would be pure racism. Any one wants to be different. Work on understanding the difference. Form a partnership not a marriage.

by Chief Harvey Longboat
Six nations

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).

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.

Canadian Genealogy (The Iroquois)

Iroquois Indian Museum

The Great Peace CD-ROM

Aboriginal CD-ROM dedicated to the history, culture, and spirituality of the Iroquois Confederacy and The Great Law, which formed the basis of the U.S. Constitution. This CD is of high interest to schools, libraries, museums and other individuals. The website is created and maintained by natives from the Six Nations of the Grand River Reservation.

Great Peace CD-ROM Webmaster

The Iroquois were originally natives of the plain, connected very probably with the Dakotas of the west. But they moved eastwards from the Mississippi valley towards Niagara, conquering as they went. No other tribe could compare with them in either bravery or ferocity. They possessed in a high degree both the virtues and the vices of Indian character--the unflinching courage and the diabolical cruelty which have made the Indian an object of mingled admiration and contempt. In bodily strength and physical endurance they were unsurpassed. Even in modern days the enervating influence of civilization has not entirely removed the original vigor of the strain. During the American Civil War of fifty years ago the five companies of Iroquois Indians recruited in Canada and in the state of New York were superior in height and measurement to any other body of five hundred men in the northern armies.

When the Iroquoian Family migrated, the Hurons settled in the western peninsula of Ontario. The name of Lake Huron still recalls their abode. But a part of the race kept moving eastward. Before the coming of the whites, they had fought their way almost to the sea. But they were able to hold their new settlements only by hard fighting. The great stockade which Cartier saw at Hochelaga, with its palisades and fighting platforms, bore witness to the ferocity of the struggle. At that place Cartier and his companions were entertained with gruesome tales of Indian fighting and of wholesale massacres. Seventy years later, in Champlain's time, the Hochelaga stockade had vanished, and the Hurons had been driven back into the interior. But for nearly two centuries after Champlain the Iroquois retained their hold on the territory from Lake Ontario to the Hudson. The conquests and wars of extermination of these savages, and the terror which they inspired, have been summed up by General Francis Walker in the saying: 'They were the scourge of God upon the aborigines of the continent.'

The Iroquois were in some respects superior to most of the Indians of the continent. Though they had a limited agriculture, and though they made hardly any use of metals, they had advanced further in other directions than most savages. They built of logs, houses long enough to be divided into several compartments, with a family in each compartment. By setting a group of houses together, and surrounding them with a palisade of stakes and trees set on end, the settlement was turned into a kind of fort, and could bid defiance to the limited means of attack possessed by their enemies. Inside their houses they kept a good store of corn, pumpkins and dried meat, which belonged not to each man singly but to the whole group in common. This was the type of settlement seen at Quebec and at Hochelaga, and, later on, among the Five Nations. Indeed, the Five Nations gave to themselves the picturesque name of the Long House, for their confederation resembled, as it were, the long wooden houses that held the families together.


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Compiled by: Glenn Welker

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