The Iroquois were made up of several tribes. The Iroquoians thought of their tribes as separate nations. The Iroquois nations formed a League because they wanted peace with their neighbors and allies to fight common enemies. The League of the Iroquois was called the Five Nations because it was made up of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca and Cayuga tribes. The Five Nations of the League of the Iroquois became the Six Nations when the Tuscarora joined in 1722. Though known as the Iroquois by their enemies, the Ojibwa (it means poisonous snakes) they called themselves Haudenosaunee, the People of the Longhouse.
The Iroquois lived in villages. Since the Iroquois were farmers, they did not have to move around from place to place like Native Americans who hunted and followed the animals as they relocated. The Iroquois lived in villages near their fields of crops. Their villages were moved every 10-20 years when their crops no longer grew well because the soil was worn out from farming. In early years they built their villages near streams. Later on they built them on hilltops so that they could protect themselves from attacking tribes. A log palisade, a type of fence made up of three rows of tall pointed poles that were woven together, surrounded the larger villages. This palisade had watch towers at the top for sentries to spot invaders. The palisade had only one opening. When small villages felt threatened by attack they took refuge in the larger better protected villages.
Land for farming was cleared by the men of the tribe. Then the women did the actual planting. They used small wooden spades to make mounds of soil and then poked nine or ten holes in each mound into which they planted seeds. The mounds protected the seeds from cold. To the Iroquois people, corn, beans and squash are the Three Sisters, the physical and spiritual sustainers of life. They made up the main food supply of the Iroquois. At harvest time, the crops were gathered. The women and the girls scraped the kernels off the corn cobs when the corn was dry. The dried corn was stored in containers made of bark. The dried corn was used for soup and was also ground into meal and used to make bread. Beans were dried and kept in bark containers too. Squash and pumpkins were placed in deep pits in the houses and then covered with earth.
The Iroquois also grew sunflowers for the oil in their seeds that was used for cooking, and rubbed on their bodies for protection from the sun or cold and to help cuts. Pumpkin, melon and squash were also grown. Women also gathered wild plums, grapes, cherries, berries and crab apples. They picked nuts including chestnuts, walnuts and hickory. Maple sap was collected in the spring. Tobacco was grown in small gardens. It was the only crop grown by men who used it in their ceremonies.
The Iroquois men hunted bear, beaver, elk, muskrats, rabbits, moose and deer which they shot with bows and arrows or trapped in snares. A snare was made by bending down a small tree, and attaching it to the ground with a loop that would catch an animal by it back leg. When an animal stepped into the loop, the tree was released and sprang up holding its catch in midair.
The Iroquois also ate wild turkeys, geese, ducks, herons, pigeons and partridges. Some Iroquois tribes favored fishing. Netting and spearing were two ways in which they caught fish.
Most families ate only one large meal a day, usually in the late morning, but food was always available. They ate with wooden spoons and bowls and drank from cups made out of wood or shells.
Clothing was used for protection and decoration. The Iroquois made their clothing from deerskin and other animal hides and furs. What they wore depended on the time of year it was. During the summer, men and women wore loincloths of soft deerskin, held in place by a leather string tied around the waist. In the cold weather, the men wore leather leggings and tunics and women wore long skirts and leggings. Both wore robes made from animal fur when it was very cold. On their feet, men and women wore moccasins. They decorated their clothes with porcupine quills, shells, beads and feathers. They also wore necklaces and bracelets made from shell beads. Hair styles were also important. Women wore their hair hanging down the back in a braid while men wore their hair many different ways.
Beliefs and Customs
The Iroquois believed in many spirit forces created by a supreme being. There were Sky Spirits like the wind, sun, moon and stars and the Earth Spirits like animals and plants. They also believed that anything they dreamed had to happen. So if they dreamed about being wounded, they would ask a friend to cut them slightly so that the dream would come true in a harmless way.
Each village had a special longhouse where ceremonies were held. The most sacred traditions to the Iroquois were the rituals involving the false faces or medicine masks. No two masks were ever the same but they all had to have a crooked nose to honor the fabled giant who promised to protect the People. Men who wore these masks were believed to have the power to drive away the evil spirit of illness or injury. The Iroquois held six big festivals each year. Each festival lasted several days and included dance and music. The festivals included the New Year Festival in the winter, the Maple Festival in spring, the Corn Planting Festival, the Strawberry Festival, the Green Corn Festival, and the Harvest Festival of Thanksgiving.
The children had special names that identified them as belonging to a particular clan. As they grew up, they learned to do things by watching the adults. Girls learned how to make pots by making little ones that they used as toys. They were taught how to pound corn into corn meal. Boys practiced archery and learned how to fish and trap animals. At 12 or 13 years old, the boys went on a vision quest. They spent about two weeks in the forest, alone and with food waiting for their guardian spirit. When girls reached that age they cooked and ate their food alone using special pots. All was not work. Children had time to play games too.
Eash tribe or nation was made up of clans (groups). Family members belonged to the same clan. The clans were named for animals such as Bear, Wolf, Turtle, or Deer. The class was headed by a clan matron, the oldest woman. She controlled the food, selected the chiefs, and arranged marriages. All the people of the clan had the same female ancestor. Male and female members of the clan though of themselves as brothers and sisters. You were always considered part of the clan you were born into. Since all clan menbers were related they couldn't marry each other. They had to marry someone from a different clan. After marriage they stayed with the clan of the female. Not all members of a clan were born into it, though. Adoption of both children and adults was common.
The Iroquois saw their six nations, or Iroquois League, as being like their homes. The people were to live together in peace, like one clan. The constitution of the League later became the model for the United States Constitution. All people had freedom of speech, religion and the right to hunt on the lands of member tribes. No Iroquois could shed the blood of any other Iroquois. Those who kept breaking laws were exiled and forced to leave their tribe.
The Iroquois League had a great council. The tribe had a council and each clan village had a council. All representatives were chosen by the clans. On the great council were 50 sachems or peace chiefs. Each nation or tribe had a different number of sachems on the council. Once a year, the great council met in the land of the Onondaga who were the “keepers of the council fire”. The great council made new laws and dealt with problems. It lasted several days. A sachem served on the council for his whole life, unless he was removed by the matron of his clan.
Tribal councils included the sachems, the war chiefs and the clan matrons. Meetings were open to all member of the tribe. Village councils included the village elders, clan chiefs and matrons.
Created for the Nanuet Public School District by Iris Heller, Meg DeMont, and Nancy Bonner.
Some Art work created by students in the 2007 - 2008 4th grade.