The Iroquoians are a group of linguistically related Native American nations that occupied portions of eastern North America for over a century before contact with Europeans. In addition to their language similarities, Iroquoians in the northeast region of the continent utilized similar technologies and followed similar settlement patterns and subsistence strategies, particularly prior to first contact with Europeans circa AD 1600. The Northern Iroquoian peoples include the Huron and Petun, who at the time of first contact with Europeans occupied portions of present-day Ontario; the Erie, Wenro, and Neutral, who occupied the Niagara Frontier; the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk (the members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy), who occupied much of present-day New York State; and the Susquehannock, who occupied areas in what today is Pennsylvania and southern New York State. Other Iroquoian nations, including the Tuscarora, occupied areas in present-day North and South Carolina. The Tuscarora migrated north during the early 18th century and lived among the Oneida until they were adopted by the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.
Differences between Iroquoian artifact assemblages and those of the earlier Owasco cultures of the Northeast led archaeologists to initially hypothesize that Iroquoians migrated into the regions they held at the time of contact. This long-held position was called into question during the mid-20th century after the analysis of multiple archaeological collections. Focusing the attributes of ceramics recovered from Iroquoian sites, archaeologists identified stylistic similarities between Iroquoian and earlier vessels. This led researchers to suggest that the Iroquoian culture developed in the northeast over several centuries.
Prior to and for a time after contact with European missionaries and explorers, Northern Iroquoian peoples lived in villages composed of multiple long-houses, which were often surrounded by palisades. Each longhouse in a village housed a different clan segment. As a matrilineal and matrilocal society, Iroquoians traced their kinship through and lived with their mother’s family. When an Iroquoian woman married, her husband moved into her family’s longhouse. The couple’s children would bear the identity of their mother’s clan and reside in the longhouse for life unless a male child eventually married. In the event a couple divorced, the husband would leave his wife’s familial dwelling and return to his mother’s clan’s longhouse along with his personal belongings, while his children would remain with their mother’s clan.
The division of labor within an Iroquoian village was primarily based on the sex of an individual. Women oversaw the activities within the household, preparing meals and monitoring children. Iroquoian women also managed the fields of a village, from the planting of seeds to the collection of the harvest, made clothing and utilitarian objects such as pots and baskets for their household, and collected wild edible plants in order to supplement the villages’ food stores. Iroquoian men were responsible for hunting for or trapping food, traveling to neighboring villages to trade or to negotiate alliances, defending the village against invaders, and invading neighboring villages themselves. Men were also responsible for clearing fields prior to the planting of crops and for building longhouses.
Iroquoians mastered the art of working with stone, clay, bone, wood, and shell long before European missionaries, traders, and explorers exchanged metal weapons and tools with their Native American allies and contacts. Stone, for instance, provided a strong, durable, and plentiful resource for crafting tools for everyday tasks. Chert and flint variants served as a dependable and durable material from which to make knives, projectile points, hide scrappers, drills, and other general purpose cutting implements. Harder stones were also ground down to make adzes, celts, and axes for woodworking and digging, while softer stone materials such as soapstone were used by Iroquoians to create pipes, containers, and ornamentation such as beads.
Bone was an equally versatile material for Iroquoian craftspeople. From a utilitarian standpoint, bone could be worked into a number of everyday household items that made work easier. Needles for sewing, awls for puncturing hide, and even fishhooks were created from bone material. Additional items created by Iroquoians using bone as the base material included whistles, beads, combs, and soft hammers for creating edges on stone objects such as projectile points or knives.
Ceramic technology, originally developed over a thousand years before the development of Iroquoian cultures, provided Iroquoians with another large resource for tool creation and self-expression. At a basic level, an Iroquoian potter could create a variety of cooking and storage containers that varied in size from vessels only inches high and wide to larger pots that were over a foot in diameter. Other items, including both utilitarian and ceremonial objects, were also crafted from clay, including beads and pipes. Stone beads and pipes, while intricate in design, were difficult to create given the density of the base material. Clay, on the other hand, provided an Iroquoian with a material that was easier to shape and decorate.
Vegetation also provided Iroquoians a vast amount of resources from which to craft tools and personal items. A tree alone provided several materials useful to Iroquoian societies, with saplings providing supports for houses and palisades and bark utilized for creating containers. Other objects created by Iroquoians from wood include baskets, spoons, instruments such as flutes, rattles and drums, large mortars and pestles, clubs, snowshoes, spear and arrow shafts, and last, bows. Other vegetation was utilized as well, including corn husks, which were used to make containers and clothing, and gourds, which served as containers and rattles.
After first contact with European explorers and missionaries, Iroquoians gained access to new technologies and materials that often offered a better resource than their traditional technologies did. Metal objects in particular offered an advantage to Iroquoians in that the blades of axes were sharper than those of stone celts, axes, or adzes. Metal pots, while relatively brittle, were still stronger and lighter than their clay predecessors. Furthermore, when a metal object did break, Iroquoians were provided with metal material from which they could fashion their own metal tools and paraphernalia. Shards of a broken metal pot, for example, could be reshaped into items such as knives, spear or arrow points, beads, or other forms of adornment.
Glass beads, one of the more critical trade goods for Europeans, were highly prized by Iroquoians. Having long utilized beads in the creation of ornamentation, glass beads, created in an array of colors, provided a beautiful and versatile bead that Iroquoians continue to use in the creation of clothing and personal items. However, the wampum that the Haudenosaunee used for ceremonial belts continued to be used even after the introduction of trade beads.
Firearms, one of the most sought-after European objects by Iroquoians and other Native American nations, were also an incredible technology that Iroquoians received from explorers. As with other European goods, the firearms given to the Iroquoians were poorly constructed and constantly needed repair. Initially, Europeans were reluctant to even give Native Americans firearms at all. Inevitably, firearms filtered into Native American societies, replacing the bow in relatively little time.
Trade with Europeans began a decline in the use of traditional Iroquoian technologies, and Iroquoians, like other Native American nations, soon became dependent on European trade goods as fewer Iroquoians were skilled in creating pottery or stone tools. While Iroquoians added their own touches to these newer technologies in time, the traditional technologies that were utilized for centuries were forgotten. Today, Iroquoian men and women have begun relearning traditional technologies and instructing others in ceramic and lithic tool production, providing a reemergence of these long lost skills.
Prior to first contact with Europeans, Northern Iroquoian peoples lived in villages that followed a similar layout. Villages were often located on low lying knolls or hills that provided a measure of protection from invaders. In addition, villages were erected near creeks and rivers so that the populations would have access to fresh water and a supply of fish. Within close range to the village were the fields that the Iroquoians used for growing their crops, the most vital of which were beans, squash, and corn.
The villages themselves were often surrounded by large fences or palisades constructed of saplings gathered from nearby woods, which also provided wood for fires and other structures such as the longhouses that Iroquoians are noted for constructing. As for Iroquoian longhouses, the design and layout of these structures was quite standardized. Constructed by the men of a village, the structures, which were framed with young trees and covered with bark, were built approximately 20- to 25-feet wide and upwards of a hundred feet in length (longhouses measuring several hundred feet in length were discovered during the excavation of Haudenosaunee sites). A significant amount of partitioning was created within each long-house in order to provide room for the storage of food and equipment, for the preparation and cooking of meals, and for families to rest and receive protection from either inclement weather or invaders.
For storage purposes, areas were secured at each end of a longhouse. Specific items secured in these areas included weapons, utilitarian objects, crops, and clothing. Fire pits were placed along the central area of a longhouse. In addition to providing heat for the structure and its inhabitants, the fires and the surrounding area provided a space to prepare and cook meals. For the occupants of the longhouse, benches were erected along each wall that served as sleeping platforms and storage areas. Additional posts were placed along the benches demarcating areas approximately 15 feet in width. Each of these areas served as the living quarters of one nuclear family. A couple and their children wood eat their meals, sleep within this area, and share a centrally placed fire with a nuclear family on the opposite side of the longhouse. While each nuclear family could utilize the storage areas at each end of the longhouse, families would also dig out storage pits within their area of the longhouse or store personal items on or under the benches.
The length of time a village would have been occupied for was dependent upon a number of factors, most of which were connected to the resources surrounding the village. Often utilizing slash-and-burn agricultural techniques, Iroquoians endeavored to increase the productivity of the soil, but eventually the nutrients would be depleted from the soil, decreasing the yield to the extent that the village could not be sufficiently provided for. This fact alone could force a village to move on. In addition, villages utilized a significant amount of wood for the erection of longhouses, the building of palisades, and the fueling of fires for cooking meals and heating longhouses. Once an Iroquoian village had used up a majority of the trees from nearby forests, they would have been better served by relocating to a new area.
While fish and game meat provided an important source of sustenance for Iroquoian peoples, it was their crops that formed the basis of their diet. In particular, beans, squash, and corn, referred to as the “Three Sisters” by the Haudenosaunee peoples, provided a major supply of food that allowed Iroquoian societies to live in a village year round. Corn, the most critical of these crops, was used to make soups, stews, and bread, a considerable portion of an Iroquoian’s yearly diet, to which was often added meat and other vegetables. As for the planting and harvesting of crops, Iroquoians worked through a rigorous process to obtain their food staples. Men worked to clear fields for their respective families. After following slash-and-burn techniques, women planted seeds and monitored the fields daily. As the respective plants ripened, women gathered the crops and stored them in areas set aside for food in their longhouse. Meals were then prepared by women for their families and clans.
Northern Iroquoian nations were politically structured around chiefs, each of whom represented a different clan within a village. When chiefs came together to discuss issues such as land use, resource allocation, and conflict, they would all participate in deciding what course a village (or entire confederacy) should take. However, each of the chiefs was present to voice the views of their entire clan, not solely their own individual beliefs. Given the matrilineal structure of Iroquoian societies, chiefs were often installed by the elder mothers of each clan. Failure to follow the directives of the clan, or particularly the clan mother, could result in the removal of the chief, whose title was not hereditary.
The presence of palisades and the location of prehistoric villages on elevated parcels of land suggest that Iroquoians lived in a conflict-rich environment, a point reiterated by the history of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy’s creation. According to that history, the Iroquoian nations throughout the Northeast were continually fighting one another. Hiawatha, an Iroquoian man who had lost his family to the long-running hostilities, helped convince the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk nations to stop all fighting and become part of a confederacy that would protect and serve them all. Other Iroquoian groups were offered a chance to join, but they refused that offer. While conflicts did continue to arise among the members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the confederacy did help its member nations to avoid any large-scale outbreaks of war. However, confederacies of Iroquoians existed outside the Haudenosaunee, and there appeared to be a constant amount of discord between these different Iroquoian groups. With the arrival of Europeans during the 17th century, this discord was exacerbated as many Native American nations vied for access to European goods and for control of the resources Europeans wanted.
At the time, beaver felt clothing was extremely popular in Europe, and European explorers were intent upon obtaining as many beaver pelts as possible. To enlist the aid of Native Americans in this endeavor, Europeans provided villages with firearms, glass beads, and metal tools. Iroquoians and other Native American peoples attempted to obtain as much of the European trade goods as possible. Realizing that Europeans could go to any of a number of nearby villages, Iroquoians became embroiled in a large-scale war as the Haudenosaunee peoples in particular began infiltrating the territories of their neighbors to obtain beaver pelts and secure trade relations with the Europeans.
By the mid-17th century, many Iroquoian nations had been eradicated or dispersed by the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, which outlasted its neighbors. Throughout the course of this warfare, many members of the other Iroquoian nations were actually assimilated into different Haudenosaunee nations and adopted by different clans. Other members of the Northern Iroquoian nations fled to non-Iroquoian territories and began residing with native peoples there, where they retained a varying degree of their long-held traditions.
The end of this war opened up vast territories for the Haudenosaunee confederacy and gave them a prominent role in trade with Europeans. However, the Haudenosaunee members soon became entrenched in other large-scale conflicts that threatened the existence of the confederacy itself as its individual members took different sides in the American Revolution.
The Iroquoians had previously become involved in a struggle between European powers during the French and Indian War. During that event, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, allied with the British, fought against other native peoples and allowed that conflict to decimate entire villages and nations. The Haudenosaunee peoples appeared steadfast in not letting that happen once again. When the British and United States of America began fighting, the Haudenosaunee nations held a council and decided that the confederacy’s members would not become involved in the revolution. However, individuals from each nation of the Haudenosaunee decided to take action, leading many other Haudenosaunee to takes sides. Inevitably, all the nations became involved. The Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, and Mohawk nations allied themselves once more with the British, whom they felt had been very supportive of the Haudenosaunee in the past. The Oneida nation and the relative newcomer to the confederacy, the Tuscarora nation, sided with the United States, with whom the Oneida and Tuscarora had established a cooperative coexistence.
Throughout the war, the Haudenosaunee often proved to be a considerable force to be reckoned with, regardless of which Haudenosaunee nation it was. Whenever an engagement occurred with Haudenosaunee fighters on both sides, however, the Haudenosaunee fighters would not participate. During the course of the revolution, retaliatory strikes from both the United States and Britain destroyed many of the Haudenosaunee villages scattered throughout the Northeast, leaving hundreds of Native Americans without food or shelter. At the end of the revolution, the nations that sided with Britain were forced to reside on land set aside by the United States in the present-day region of Buffalo, New York, and other western and northern New York localities. The Oneida and Tuscarora peoples, however, were allowed to retain their long-held territories. Eventually, even they were forced west as more Euro-Americans began to settle in central New York state.
The Haudenosaunee peoples, being the only substantial Northern Iroquoian confederacy remaining by the end of the American Revolution, became entangled in other conflicts as time wore on. Much of the conflict entailed military action as members of the Haudenosaunee supported the United States in the War of 1812, the American Civil War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. In each instance, Iroquoians served with distinction and reflected a tradition of bravery and self-sacrifice. However, other conflicts, void of intense military action, confronted the Iroquoians who remained.
After the American Revolution, the Iroquoian peoples still in the New York region were forced onto small tracts of land that became increasingly smaller as American citizens and local governments purchased acres of reservation territory through questionable land sales that left the Iroquoians little land on which to survive as they had prior to contact with Europeans. Their struggle to survive was arduous as Iroquoian women and men found new areas of employment that would enable them to provide food, clothing, and shelter for their families. Many Iroquoians eventually left the shrinking reservations to pursue opportunities in cities and towns across the United States. For those who remained in western New York, opportunities opened as a tourist environment developed around Niagara Falls, where Iroquoian women created and sold bead-decorated moccasins, purses, wallets, and hats. Other Iroquoians looked for work as servants or general laborers. By the early 20th century, Iroquoians, particularly Mohawk Iroquoians living in Canada and the United States, worked as construction workers and were critical to the erection of early skyscrapers that still dominate the skyline of major urban centers throughout northeastern North America. All the while, many of the surviving Iroquoians continued to maintain traditional beliefs when possible. The efforts of Iroquoians to combat time and outside influence on traditional beliefs have been successful in that many Iroquoians today remain aware of their heritage and actively reach out to teach other Iroquoians and non-Iroquoians. Members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy in particular continue to fight for their lands and rights, only they do so in courts and capitol chambers throughout the world as opposed to battlefields. Speaking out for human and the rights of indigenous peoples on a world stage, they continue to prove their resolve and determination.
While multiple Iroquoian nations existed at the time of contact with Europeans, few survived as distinct nations after the warfare that ensued as Native American peoples throughout the continent competed for access to European trade goods, the most sought after being firearms, metal tools, trade beads, and alcohol. European diseases introduced through missionaries and explorers had an equally devastating effect on the indigenous populations of North America, including the Iroquoians. Consequently, few records of some Northern Iroquoian peoples exist to inform us about their unique histories, even as other Iroquoian peoples left an extensive impression in the annals of history.
The Haudenosaunee Confederacy has long held a prominent position among Native American entities. The Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk, and Tuscarora long occupied many regions of present-day New York state. Before the arrival of Europeans, the people of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, commonly referred to as the “Iroquois,” maintained a strong regional presence that protected its members from both internal and external interference. As Europeans began entering North America and introducing their wares to various trade routes, the Haudenosaunee maneuvered to control access to the European goods and the beaver pelts and other resources that Europeans were most interested in. Inevitably, the Haudenosaunee were successful in defeating and dispersing neighboring Northern Iroquoian peoples. As mentioned earlier, the Haudenosaunee maintained a strong presence in the Northeast and a strong relationship with the British. After the American Revolution, the Haudenosaunee were forced from their traditional homeland to the western portions of New York state as well as a few areas in central and northern New York state. British officers, in recognition of the service the Senecas, Cayugas, Onondagas, and Mohawks had given, secured lands along the Grand River for the Haudenosaunee, which became the Six Nations Reservation.
Over the next 50 years, the Haudenosaunee lost hundreds of acres of land to questionable land deals. Faced with little land to farm and a loss of important hunting grounds, the members of the Haudenosaunee were forced to search for alternative ways of securing food and supplies. This need led many to work off of reservations in jobs that included service in the United States military, as maids or housekeepers, or as general laborers.
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the Haudenosaunee were confronted with obstacles that tore away at the fabric of their traditions. Haudenosaunee children were placed in schools that strove to purge students of their native language and traditions, the United States seized thousands of acres of Seneca and Tuscarora land in order to build the Kinzua Dam in Pennsylvania and a reservoir in Niagara Falls, and more and more of the Haudenosaunee left the reservations in search of employment and opportunity. Through it all, individuals among the Haudenosaunee nations have endeavored to reinforce the traditional teachings and beliefs of the confederacy. Members of the Haudenosaunee also started to seek protection for indigenous peoples through the establishment of organizations such as the Indian Defense League of America. During the latter half of the 20th century and into the 21st, the Haudenosaunee revisited treaties their ancestors made with the United States, and they are reclaiming some of the land and resources they lost long ago.
The Huron, a confederacy of Iroquoian nations that occupied regions of present-day Ontario, were an adversary of the Haudenosaunee. The Huron allied themselves with the French after contact and had established a significant trade network. Positioned near multiple sources of trade and fur, the Huron became a target of increasing Haudenosaunee attacks during the mid-17th century. The nations of the Huron confederacy, crippled by European diseases and constant conflict with the Hodenosaunee nations, were dispersed, with many individuals being adopted into other Iroquoian nations, including those of the Haudenosaunee confederacy. Huron peoples continue to live in Canada today on land set aside by the Canadian government.
Erie, Wenro, and Neutral Confederacies
The Erie-, Wenro-, and Neutral-occupied areas of the Niagara frontier, including much of the present-day Buffalo metropolitan region. Each was a confederacy of nations that spoke an Iroquoian language and were either dispersed, adopted, or destroyed by Haudenosaunee during campaigns during the mid-17th century. The Wenro, closest in location to the Seneca nation, were the first of the three to react to growing hostilities. After moving north to Huron territories, the Wenro were dispersed when the Huron villages were attacked. The Neutral, who were named so for long maintaining good relations with both the Huron and Haudenosaunee, eventually became the target of the Haudenosaunee and were dispersed. The Erie likewise found themselves the enemy of the Haudenosaunee and were dispersed during the 1650s. While many of each group perished during their respective conflicts, more were assimilated into Haudenosaunee nations or into other native nations as well.
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