Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Iroquois Nation

The Iroquois Nation

            The Iroquois Nation is a nation of Native Americans that is situated in the North Eastern part of the United States that is made up of 5 tribes: Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, and the Seneca.  Originally they were located in what is now New York between the Adirondack Mountains and Niagra Falls but managed to expand through conquest and migration.  At their peak the nation expanded from the north shore of the Chesapeake Bay through Kentucky to where the Ohio and Mississippi rivers meet, then northward to the south end of Lake Michigan, going east through Ontario and Quebec, and then south through Northern New England through Hudson and Delaware Valleys across Pennsylvania back to Chesapeake.  Despite controlling this enormous area they mainly stayed in present day upstate New York.  (Sultzmen)    In general the area they occupied is humid continental, but is still very diverse.  The temperature varies throughout the area.  In the winter the average temperature could vary from 16 degrees near the mountains to 26 degrees in the lower Hudson Valley.  In the summer the temperature averages about 90 degrees.  Generally there's no dry or wet seasons but there is a monthly average of about 2.7 inches of rainfall throughout the states, with more precipitation towards Long Island and less in the Lake Champlain regions.  There is a lot of snowfall in the area, ranging from 100 to 175 inches a year dependent upon the area. 
    There were very few Iroquois to 20,000 between the 5 tribes.  Once the European epidemics hit the number dwindled to about half of its original number, however conquest increased their population to it's maximum in 1660, about 25,000 people.  They live in relatively rural and unpopulated areas making competition for resources minimal.  Today there are about 70,000 Iroquois in approximately 20 settlements in the United States and Canada.  About 3/5 of the area is made up of forested woodland that includes about 150 different kinds of trees.  There are many animals that live in the area including deer, moose, beavers, bats, whales, wood rats, woodpeckers, whip-poor-wills, herons, cormorants, geese, salamanders, frogs, turtles, salmon, catfish, pike, bass, and herring, as well as many more.

      The Iroquois have two particular physical adaptations that stand out over any others.  The first is a higher baseline production of melanin.  Because they spent a great deal of time outdoors, hunting, gathering, farming, and fishing they needed more protection from the sun.  Their skin compensated for the higher exposure by producing more melanin and eventually it became coded in their genes so that naturally Iroquois have much darker skin than even Europeans located the same distance from the equator.  They have also developed something commonly referred to as the "thrifty gene."  This genetic hardwiring is described as "being a model of optimal genetic selection in which the survivors are those who are able to store enough energy in times of plenty to sustain themselves during famines.  Consistent with notion that addictions can be rational because they are driven by acquired human capital, genetic traits are also independent of consumer preferences because they impact the expected budget set.  Thus, the thrift gene hypothesis implies that, although famines may no occur in modern times, those with the thrifty gene are more likely to behave as if there is a positive probability of scarcity" (Richards).
    The largest cultural adaptation that the Iroquois developed was the use of firearms in warfare.  Traditionally they both hunted and fought with bowes and arrows and spears, but once the Europeans came over they had to adapt fast in order to survive.  Not only did the colonizers have superior fire power but they also had superior numbers.  The Iroquois quickly learned how to get a hold of them and use them, and once combined with their unity they were able to hold out for over 100 years.  Another cultural adaptation would be their longhouses.  

They needed shelter from the storms that were common in the area but still needed a living area large enough for all of the family to live together, and all of the clans in the same house.  The third cultural adaptation would be their farming techniques.  Overtime, they realized that farming would add a lot of food to their stores, and that the slash and burn follows the natural cycle of the earth, but that eventually the fields have to be moved because all of the nutrients are sucked out of the soil and that's exactly what they did.
    Since the Iroquois nation is made up of many different tribes, and since the tribes develop relatively independently there is a multitude of languages that make up this nation.  These include Tuscarora, Nottoway, Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga, Onondaga, Seneca, Huron/Wyandot, Laurentian, Susquehannock, and Cherokee.  Today there are only 7 of these spoken: Cayuga, Cherokee, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca, and Tuscarora.  The only two languages that are not in danger of extinction at the moment are Cherokee and Mohawk.  
 Linguistically, 6 of the 7 languages (all except Cherokee) are grouped together as the Six Nation languages. "They all use Roman orthography, with certain diacritics and symbols added to reprint sounds not available in the 26 letter Latin alphabet.  Cherokee is unique among North American Native languages because of its orthography, a syllabary invented int he historical era by [Sequoyah]" (  Verbally, it is still an open question as to whether or not the origins of the language are related to any other languages.  Most likely, they seem to be distantly related to the Siouan and Caddoan family of languages.  We can tell by the fact that verbally this language is not closely related to any other, yet uses the Roman alphabet as a basis for its written language, that the alphabet was something that was brought into the culture from outside.

Gender Roles
    The Iroquois have 2 genders in the population, male and female.  Traditionally there are very defined roles for each of the genders, though today the roles are starting to blend together slightly more.  The Iroquois are a matriarchal society, making the women the dominant gender in the culture.  Traditionally the men would go and hunt, they were the warriors and did most of the outdoor activities, while the women stayed in the longhouse, raising kids, cooking, sewing, and essentially running the politics and the culture of the society.  They were the keepers of the culture,and all of the male delegates of the ruling councils were appointed by senior women of the tribe.  There were clan mother's to each of the clans, though the chief was still a male.  The clan mother made sure that everything at home was running smoothly, that everyone was safe and fed.  While the women stayed at home the men were the ones to travel and work out political issues with the other tribes, as well as the ones to fight for the welfare of the community.  Since it was a matriarchal society the family name was passed down through the women, and when a couple was married they lived in the longhouse of the wife's family and became part of her clan.
Iroquois Clan Mother

Iroquois Chief

    Today the men overpower the women in decision making, but women can be chiefs.  The chiefs are voted in by a community vote of the clan or tribe.  Clans are still passed down through the women, though the family name is now passed down through the father.  Children are still taught about the traditional gender roles and all of the responsibilities and traditions that went along with them. Responsibilities are spread more equally between the genders, which is a great deal of change from the 1600s, or even the 1800s, when the roles were clearly defined.


    Traditionally the Iroquois were both hunters and farmers.  The men would be responsible for the hunting and farming while the women would gather what produce they couldn't farm.   The foods that were gathered were berries and roots, as well as other plants that they would use in their cooking.  The men hunted in cycles, fished year round, and cleared the fields so that the women could farm.  In the early spring they would fish and hunt passenger pigeons, in the late spring and summer they would clear the fields and plant their crops which they would harvest in the late summer.  The harvest season was followed by a hunting season that would last until the winter solstice.  They used the slash and burn method to farm maize, beans, and squash, and in the good years they would dry and store the excess crops for future years.  Today the hunting has greatly diminished because most of the men are working off-reservation.
    The farming means that the beans and squash that are main staples in their diet are only available fresh during the late summer.  Since they were dried and stored they were still used year round.  The animals that were hunted were only available after the hunt, but year round fishing means that fish was consistently available, as were any plants that were foraged, though specific plants went in and out of season.

    The division of labor was relatively simple.  The men would hunt, clear the fields, and fish, while the women foraged, foraged, and prepared any food that was to be consumed that day.  Children would learn to do these tasks as well as the became of age, but social class did not take any role in who did what, with the exception of the medicine-men.
    The multitude of ways to gather food makes it so that they were very rarely lacking anything nutritionally.  They had some form of meat and vegetables or fruits year-round thanks to fishing and gathering.  Because they dried and stored their food they also had grains all year, rounding out their diet.
Economic System
    The Iroquois would produce as much food through farming as they could.  They did this because they would dry it and store it for use through the rest of the year, and future years, that way there would rarely be a shortage.  When gathering, hunting, and fishing, they would use what they brought home when they brought it home.  There is a specialization of labor in the sense that the men and women did separate things, but that was as far as the specialization went.  They didn't have special groups just for hunting, just for fishing, and so on, but rather all of the men hunted and fished, while all of the women farmed and gathered.  There was a sense of redistribution of goods or wealth in the sense that all food and goods were shared by the whole tribe.  They didn't have any real form of currency since they produced everything they needed.  If they did need to trade it would simply be goods for goods, no currency was involved.

    The social structure of the Iroquois is completely dependent upon the women of the family.  They were a monogamous culture, with no real practice of any form of cousin marriage.  The women of the family would choose the marriage partner for the young women as they came of age.  The mother had the final say but all of the elder women took part in the decision.  There was no real economic exchange for the marriage since males and females were valued as equals.  Once a couple was married the husband would move in with the wife's family and take her name.  All of their children would belong to the woman's family as well, even in the case of divorce.

   The Iroquois follow a descent pattern through the women.  Being a matrilineal society means that tye family name as well as positions are passed down through the mother.  A husband still belongs to his mother's family in a way, but all of his contributions will go towards his wife's family. 
 In each particular family the matron has the final say with any issues, thought the chief is still in charge of any decisions for the tribe including whether or not to go to war.  The inheritance patterns do indeed match the descent patterns, as all land is passed down through the mother's family.

Social Organization
    For the most part the Iroquois are generally an egalitarian society.  There are leaders in society such as the chief, the clan mother, and the matron of each family, but all members are cared for and treated equally.  There are no separate classes.  Because of this there is no mobility across status levels since there are no status levels.  A chief is selected, matrons and clan mother's gain their spot with age and experience.

Political Structure
    The Iroquois had an unusual and original political structure that greatly influenced the Europeans who came to America.  They had a system of checks and balances, with supreme law, and this system united them in a way that allowed them to come together with a sense of purpose and prevail over their enemies, including the Europeans.  Their leaders were all chosen by the women of the tribes, and these leaders made up the League.  They had a Great Law of Peace called the Kainerekowa, and this simply stated that the Iroquois should not kill each other.  The council had 50 male sachems, the Onondaga had 14, the Cayuga 10, the Oneida 9, the Mohawk 9, and the Seneca 8.  These leaders were nominated by the tribal clan mothers and the positions were held for life.  
These sachems ruled in time of peace, but during war the War Chiefs ruled and they were chosen on the basis of birth, experience, and ability.  They had little central authority until 1660 when they needed a united front against the Europeans.  All decisions of the council had to be made unanimously, which at times was a serious weakness.  The principal sachem was always from the Onondaga tribe.  This political system held them together until the American Revolution whereas many other Native American Nations succumbed to European power.

Role of Violence
    Violence is presented as both a positive and a negative in the Iroquoian culture.  In one sense they were not only a farming nation but also a warrior nation, intent on expanding their boundaries and completely overcoming their enemies.  Because of this, they went to war, and war means massive amounts of violence, and killing anyone that is necessary to conquer a tribe.  
They were not afraid of violence in any way, however, when it came to the Iroquoian people, which includes those that have already been conquered, that was a completely different story.  They had the Kainerekowa which stated that no Iroquois should kill another Iroquois, or cause any harm to them.  Essentially, violence towards outsiders was acceptable when necessary, but towards those who were members of the nation it was never acceptable. 

    The Iroquois have a religion of their own, not one that is commonly recognized in today's world.  It is not in any way related to a larger branch of religion since it originated on its own.  The religion is a polytheistic one, though they do have one main god.  The most important deity was the Great Spirit and she was responsible for the creation of human beings, the plants and animals, and the forces of good in nature.  
The Great Sprit creating the 5 Great Lakes
There were other important deities such as the Thunderer, the Three Sisters, the spirits of the crops they farmed.  There were deities on the opposite end, the Evil Spirit and lesser spirits that were responsible for disease and misfortune.  They could not communicate directly with Great Spirit, but they burned tobacco as a way to communicate with lesser spirits of good, and those spirits would carry on their message.  Dreams were supernatural signs that expressed the desire of the soul, and they were encouraged to fulfill their dreams.
    They had religious ceremonies that involved the whole drive and were for farming, health, and thanksgiving.  There were 6 major ceremonies each year, that of the Maple, Planting, Strawberry, Green Maize, Harvest, and New Year's festivals.  "The first five in this sequence involved public confessions followed by group Ceremonies which included speeches by the keepers of the faith, tobacco offerings, and prayer.  The New Year's festival was usually held in early February and was marked by dream interpretations and the sacrifice of a white dog offered to purge the people of evil" (Iroquois-Religion and Expressive Culture).  

    This culture was completely based off the beliefs.  The women held higher power because of the Great Spirit being female.  It was believed that crops and hunts were successful because the gods were happy with the festivals.  It was so entwined with the culture that should this religion never had been a part of it the Iroquois nation never would have been what it was.  However, it is possible to function without it, as it is now, but many of the traditions have been lost.

    All Iroquoian art was tied in with its religion, especially the creation of false face masks.  These masks were carved into the tree by someone who had seen the vision of a deity and then cut out of the tree, decorated, and worn in celebrations.  
cowhorn rattles

water drums
They also had music and dance in their celebrations to give thanks to the creator, and used a water drum and cow horn rattle.  There was dancing for social reasons that would occur either at the festivals or just in the LongHouse.

    The Iroquois Culture has greatly been influenced by outside influences, especially those of European descent, and today's American culture.  Because of this many of them have adopted Christianity and they have started working in the cities at steel mills.  They have lost touch with the religious origins as well as with the hunting portion of their culture.  Personally, I don't see any good coming out of this change, it just means that a culture is slowly disappearing because it is easier to live as most Americans do, many of the languages are already dead.  It is very quickly losing its cultural identity, it's mainly the older generations that know the religion and the language right now, and the number of people in each generation is diminishing.  While we tried to preserve their culture by establishing reservations as sovereign land, the colonization of America essentially killed the culture of not only the Iroquois, but of all of the Native Americans.  They now have very little influence, if any at all.  We'll be lucky if any of the cultures that are left last another 200 years, and while that seems like a long time to most of us, this is a whole culture going extinct, a whole religon, language, and way of life, dying.


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  1. Good historical opening section. Good discussion on adaptations and great catch on the role of women in society, at least traditionally.

    Great section on the economy! Very clear and good distinctions on the wealth distribution systems.

    Nice job pulling in the system of check-and-balances in their political system and I liked how you clarified the role of violence in the culture.

    Wonderful post. Very well done.

  2. I found it interesting that you mentioned that the women would take care of the children, even in the case of a divorice. I did not realize that divorce was something that happend in tribes although Im sure it was more complicated. Also, you said that Iroquois were warriors and that they would fight other tribes; was there a tribe that they fought with most?

  3. Hey Zach!

    Really liked reading you post on the Iroquois just because there was so much difference between your culture of choice and mine (Amish). I was amazed and impressed about the fact that they have such a diverse language system. In addition I always love reading about religions that involve more than one deity, they always seem to have some sort of magic involved in them. Anyway, great job on you post, it was great!