The Iroquois, or Houdounausee (People of the Longhouse), are an important nation of Native Americans who made significant contributions in molding North America. Their social and political systems as well as their way of life strongly influenced the way North Americans live today. They have been characterized as relentless warriors in addition to possibly being the true founders of North American democracy. They developed a code of honor and established a social and political system, which proved to strengthen their forces and connect their nations. Iroquois women elected chiefs, who played key roles in war, economy, and culture.
The Iroquois inhabited the areas now known as New York State, southern Ontario, and the St. Lawrence region. They were first comprised of five nations that came together to form a union. These nations include the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas. Between the 14th and 16th centuries, these tribes formed the Iroquois League of Five Nations, founded by Tadodaho and Hiawatha, although Iroquois themselves say the league is 1,000 years old. The purpose of the league was to establish peace among the tribes and to provide protection and a strong defense from attack by others. Around 1815, the Five Nations later adopted another nation, the Tuscarora, forming the complete Iroquois Six Nations Confederacy.
The Mohawk Nations found in New York are located on the Akwesasne Reservation, Ganiengeh, and Kanatsiohareke. In Canada, Mohawk Nations are found in Kahnawake, Kanesatake (Oka), Akwesasne, Tyendinaga, and Gibson. Oneidas Nations are found in Oneida, New York, and Oneida, Ontario. Onondagas Nations are found in Onondagas, New York. The Seneca-Cayuga Nation is found in Oklahoma. Seneca Nations in New York are located in Tonawanda, Allegany, and Cattaraugus. All six nations are found on the Six Nation Reserve in Ontario.
The Creator is known as the Great Spirit who created the physical world and rules celestial and human beings. Traditional teachings of how the world was created center around the Skywoman, named Aientsik, a descendent from the heavens, who was the first to walk on the earth. Aientsik gave birth to a daughter named Tekawerahkwa. Tekawerahkwa gave birth to twins, Tawiskaron and Okwiraseh. Tawiskaron was a jealous sibling who could not live up to the magnificence of his brother. He created elements within the natural world, including raging rivers, rapids, and vicious animals. His brother Okwiraseh created all that is pure and beautiful. The legend continues to explain that when the two met in battle, Okwiraseh defeated his brother Tawiskaron. As a result of his defeat, Tawiskaron was confined to the dark areas of the world and governs the night, including all of the destructive creatures.
Messengers from the spirit world explained and demonstrated techniques in which the Iroquois people were able to properly honor and give thanks to the Creator. They shared moral teachings and specific rituals that formed the basis of religious practices and beliefs. Music and dance were included in ceremonies and were believed to be a means of preserving the human–earth relationship. As time went by, the teachings faded, and the Iroquois became a fearful and violent people. When suffering and hopelessness were felt by most Iroquois people, a prophet was sent from the Creator. His name was Skennenrahawi, also known as “the Peacemaker.” The purpose of the Peacemaker was to restore hope, heart, and happiness among the Iroquois. He was to create peace among the Iroquois tribes and reform their way of life by creating a League of Iroquois nations, which would be strengthened by their unity. As the Peacemaker traveled from village to village, he brought with him a set of rules known as the “Great Laws of Peace,” which were meant to be guidelines for all Iroquois. Skennenrahawi met a woman named Jikonsasay, who helped spread his teachings. Because Jikonsasay played a vital role in reaching a number of Iroquois, Skennenrahawi decided that women should be involved in the social and political decisions within the clans. Therefore, it was decided that not only would women openly participate socially and politically within their communities, but they would also choose which male leaders would be appropriate as clan leaders. Another individual often referred to as one of the Peacemaker’s second disciples was a man named Aiionwatha, also known as Hiawatha. Aiionwatha was skilled in articulating the Peacemaker’s messages by creating powerful prayers. He also found productive ways in which to physically express the messages to the Iroquois nations. The Peacemaker, along with his two main disciples, Jikonasasay and Aiionwatha, created peace among five Iroquois Nations, known today as the Grand Council and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.
A second influential Iroquoian spiritual guide and prophet was identified as a Seneca sachem (chief) named Handsome Lake, also known as Ganeodiyo. He was born approximately in 1735, during the most tumultuous days of the Iroquois. The Iroquois were located on small reservations, and their culture was under tremendous stress. Handsome Lake instructed his people on many teachings given to him by the Creator. He expressed his appreciation of children and their needs as growing individuals. He taught parents that listening was one of the most important skills in child rearing. His purpose was to reform his people into sober, life-appreciating, peaceful, and moral people. He traveled village to village preaching a new way of life, a new doctrine. He had a life-altering near death experience that would continue to shape his existence. Celestial and physical beings were frequently sent by the Great Spirit to give Handsome Lake messages, which he would continue to share with the League. They warned of the evils of temptations to be aware of, which were present in the world and lingering among their communities. He also explained how the world operated in terms of equilibrium. Each member in society possessed a specific talent or characteristic which, when all put together, would create a unified and functioning unit. Many communities embraced the teachings that Handsome Lake spread. He was successful in teaching the means of achieving peaceful and moral communities. Handsome Lake’s teachings across the League’s communities have often been referred to as the movement to a “Temperance Society”or the “New Religion.” He is claimed to have created the Handsome Lake Code, which contains a set of ethics describing the ways in which to live life to the fullest, while respecting family, members of the community, strangers, and the environment. He wished for the survival and harmony for his people and their culture.
There are many forms of healing among Iroquois nations, one of which includes the False Face Society. The False Face Society use a variety of wooden masks, carved from live trees, which have the power to frighten evil spirits that cause illness. With crooked facial features, the masks are often painted red, black, white, or a combination of these colors. The faces represent grandfathers of the Iroquois. The masks aid in reconnecting humans and nature, creating an equilibrium that cures illness.
Other forms of healing involve the use of natural remedies. Some native medicines include quinine, chamomile, and ipecac, in addition to a variety of energy-rich foods. The Iroquois were taught that the Creator gave the inhabitants of the earth all elements needed within the natural world to cure illnesses. They had developed a form of penicillin used to cure inflections, which was administered through a syringe. Many medicines and remedies used today originated from techniques and remedies used by the Iroquois as well as other Native Americans. Dream interpretation was used to as a means of treatment therapy. Finding hidden clues within dreams was a technique used in unraveling causes of illness. Similar to a modern-day psychologist, the dream interpreter would analyze the dreams and determine the appropriate methods to cure the illness. Cleansing the body was a principal component in maintaining good health. Purges, fasts, and specific baths were employed. Cleansing the body was seen as a process in which to detoxify not only the physical body but also the mental and spiritual aspects of the being.
The Iroquois believed that all human beings were created equal and each individual possessed a special gift, talent, or ability. Children were regarded as ultimate blessings and gifts from the Creator. Therefore, children were treated with much respect and taught by all members of the family. Infants were seen as being part of the spirit and the physical world. Children spent a great amount of time with grandparents and elders, learning about the culture, customs, beliefs, and history. The importance of this reflected in a strong sense of attachment to the family and community. Learning through experience was strongly recommended. Many outside observers confused this idea of growth through personal experience and freedom of decision making with a lack of discipline.
Women played an important role within the family and nations. Traditional teachings say women were given the ability to create. Every female birth was a blessing the Creator had given the nation. The lineage would be able to continue to grow and multiply through the birth of each female. From birth, female members were encouraged to take on leadership roles within their families and to freely express themselves. Young girls were trained in planting techniques, food preparation, and preserving. Women’s occupations consisted of tilling the fields, dressing the meats and skins obtained by the males within the community, and gathering the fuel needed for the winter’s fire.
Male children were taught at a young age the techniques used to protect and provide for the family and clan. Boys were taught specific characteristics and uses of a variety of foods. They were also taught which herbs and plants were used in tradition medicines and cures to illnesses. Survival skills were taught, including how to use the natural environment to shelter and create warmth and how to read weather patterns to determine what to expect. Hunting, fishing, trapping, and tracking skills were learned. During puberty, a young boy would participate in a vision quest, which would require the boy to survive on his own in Mother Earth, fasting and praying without distraction. He could be visited by an animal, which would represent his spiritual guide. When the boy returned, he would be seen as a young adult.
A clan is defined as a group of families who share a common female ancestry. They are named after animals that have a special significance and importance to the tribe. These include the turtle, bear, and wolf among all Iroquois tribes, while the Seneca, Cayuga, and Onondaga have an additional six, which include the crane (heron), snipe, hawk, beaver, eel, and deer. Marriage within the same clan is forbidden. Clan members are referred to as “sisters” and “brothers,” and blood relations are not accepted within a marriage. Marriage between a man and a woman represents not only the union of a couple but also a merger between families and clans. The mothers of the couple are asked for permission to marry. Once the marriage is complete, the woman has control over the property. If for some reason, the couple were to separate, the woman would have custody over children and the man would have to leave with only his bare possessions. Iroquois are matrilineal, and children inherit the clan of the mother.
Most Iroquois lived in longhouses, which were constructed by poles and elm bark. Measuring approximately 15 to 30 meters long, the longhouse was divided into separate sections, which would house the extended family. These houses were large enough to accommodate up to 120 people. This family residence was an important element in the survival and strength of the family and culture. All members living in the longhouse contributed to child rearing. Villages were generally permanent, but they moved once the soil had become exhausted, which would take approximately 20 years. Today, most Iroquois live on reservations and no longer reside in the traditional longhouses. Reservations commonly include elements seen in small towns and villages, but Iroquois communities are rich in Iroquois symbols, traditional cornfields, arts-and-crafts stores, and cultural centers.
It was believed that since women were more sensitive to the rhythms of the Mother Earth, they controlled the land in which they lived. Women were in control of all aspects and issues involved within a community. Iroquois social and political systems were controlled and monitored by women. Women were in charge of maintaining and taking care of the crops and seeds of the “three sisters” crop—corn, beans, and squash—well as other crops and medicines.
Males within the community were in charge of clearing the fields, building homes, and providing security and safety. They left in the fall to hunt and spent the spring fishing. Men spent a considerable time preparing and engaging in battle. Most conflicts arose from property and territory disputes. Males, more specifically, fathers and husbands were responsible for maintaining the well-being of their families. They were the protectors within the village and used whatever means possible to uphold their defense.
The League of the Five Iroquois Nations—the Mohawk, Oneida Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca—is believed by some to have been formed around the 15th to 16th century, but Iroquois believe it is older, formed around 1,000 years ago. A sixth member, the Tuscarora, joined at the beginning of the 18th century. The political system within the League included 50 sachems from a variety of clans. There was a set representation of sachems among the different Iroquois tribes. These included 9 from the Mohawk, 9 from the Oneida, 14 from the Onondaga, 10 from the Cayuga, and 8 from the Seneca. Although women were not able to become a sachem, they had the power to choose which male would represent their clan as a sachem. Women also had the right to remove any sachem they felt was not fulfilling his role. Sachems would meet and discuss issues pertaining to the maintenance and development of the Iroquois people. They would debate in a systematic manner, where every sachem would have the opportunity to express their opinion. A consensus between all sachem would render the decision to the issue at hand. During debates, the order in which a sachem voiced his opinion resulted from the tribe he was from. Earlier members of the League, such as the Mohawk, Onondaga, and Seneca, were referred to as “elder brothers” or “uncles” and therefore spoke first during meetings and discussions. The Oneida, Cayuga, and Tuscarora were referred to as “younger brothers” or “nephews.” The League is described as one of the most effective political and social systems known to North America. Although the Iroquois have been described as a “primitive” group of nations, the organization of the League proves this wrong. The League devised a valuable and systematic set of values and laws that maintained a great amount of order and regulation among the nations. The League was quite successful up until the American Revolution, when a collapse occurred, which devastated the League. The organization of the League and its confederacy is a reflection of current North American democracy and government.
Today, traditional governments continue as they did in the past in Tonawanda, Tuscarora, and Onondaga. Akwesasne and Oneida function with a traditional council of chiefs as well as an elected tribal council. Although each community now has its own separate government, chiefs carry on the tradition of the confederacy, meeting independently from American and Canadian control.
Over the centuries, the Iroquois adapted and changed, through the adoption of agricultural practices, receiving the message of the Peacemaker, and the Handsome Lake cultural revitalization. The Iroquois today believe they are undergoing another cultural revitalization, caused by pressures of globalization and changes in their economy. Iroquois are revitalizing their language and culture through art, dance, literature, and education. They are actively discussing new forms of government, to find balance between elected councils and traditional governments. Iroquois have been international leaders and outspoken activists to protect Mother Earth and promote sustainability through traditional teachings “making decisions for the Seventh Generation.”
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