Iroquois Confederacy

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  • Topic: Iroquois, Economy of the Iroquois, Seneca nation
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  • Published : March 12, 2008
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by Loretta Hall

The Iroquois Confederacy, an association of six linguistically related tribes in the northeastern woodlands, was a sophisticated society of some 5,500 people when the first white explorers encountered it at the beginning of the seventeenth century. The 1990 Census counted 49,038 Iroquois living in the United States, making them the country's eighth most populous Native American group. Although Iroquoian tribes own seven reservations in New York state and one in Wisconsin, the majority of the people live off the reservations. An additional 5,000 Iroquois reside in Canada, where there are two Iroquoian reservations. The people are not averse to adopting new technology when it is beneficial, but they want to maintain their own traditional identity. HISTORY

The "Five Tribes" that first joined to form the Iroquois Confederacy, or League, were the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca (listed in order from east to west according to where they lived in an area that roughly corresponds to central New York state). They called themselves Haudenosaunee (pronounced "hoo-dee-noh-SHAW-nee"), or people of the longhouse, referring to the construction of their homes, in which extended families of up to 50 people lived together in bark-covered, wooden-framed houses that were 50 to 150 feet long. They also envisioned their extended community as occupying a symbolic longhouse some 300 miles long, with the Mohawk guarding the eastern door and the Seneca the western.

The origin of the name Iroquois is uncertain, although it seems to have involved French adaptations of Indian words. Among the possibilities that have been suggested are a blending of hiro (an Iroquois word used to conclude a speech) and koué (an exclamation); ierokwa ("they who smoke"); iakwai ("bear"); or the Algonquian words irin ("real") and ako ("snake") with the French -ois termination. One likely interpretation of the origin of the name is the theory that it comes from the Algonquian word "Irinakhoiw," which the French spelled with the -ois suffix. The French spelling roughly translates into "real adders" and would be consistent with the tendency of European cultures to take and use derogatory terms from enemy nations to identify various Native groups.

The Mohawk called themselves Ganiengehaka, or "people of the flint country." Their warriors, armed with flint arrows, were known to be overpowering; their enemies called them Mowak, meaning "man eaters." The name Oneida means "people of the standing stone," referring to a large rock that, according to legend, appeared wherever the people moved, to give them directions. The Onondaga ("people of the hills"), the Cayuga ("where they land the boats"), and the Seneca ("the people of the big hill") named themselves by describing their homelands.

Because the Algonquian people living on both sides of the Iroquois corridor are of a different culture and linguistic stock, it appears likely that the Iroquois migrated into this area at some time. No evidence has been found to indicate where they came from, however. The Cherokee people, whose historic homeland was in the southeastern United States, belong to the same linguistic group and share some other links with the Iroquois. Where and when they may have lived near each other is unknown.

Despite their common culture and language, relations among the Five Tribes deteriorated to a state of near-constant warfare in ancient times. The infighting, in turn, made them vulnerable to attacks from the surrounding Algonquian tribes. This period, known in the Iroquois oral tradition as the "darktimes," reached a nadir during the reign of a psychotic Onondaga chief named Todadaho. Legend has it that he was a cannibal who ate from bowls made from the skulls of his victims, that he knew and saw everything, that his hair contained a tangle of snakes, and that he could kill with only a Medusa-like look.

Into this terrible era,...
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