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Iroquois Nation

Iroquois Nation Flag


The word Iroquois is thought to be a French derivation of the Algonkian word ireohkwa meaning “real adders,” or real snakes. The word Iroquois today refers to the Six Nations: Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca, and Tuscarora. Today, the Iroquois usually call themselves Haudenosaunee, meaning “People of the Longhouse.”


The Iroquois were skilled hunters and caught a variety of woodland animals found in northern latitudes such as bear, deer, beaver, rabbits, turtles, and game birds such as turkeys, ducks, and grouse. They farmed for the Three Sisters: corn, beans, and squash and harvested significant amounts of fish from the nearby rivers and lakes. The Three Sisters were often mixed together to make a meal called succotash. The Iroquois also collected berries and other fruits and learned how to make syrup from the abundance of maple trees.


The Iroquois lived in longhouses, large houses up to 100 feet in length usually made of elm bark. As many as 20 families shared the longhouse, with dozens of individuals and their dogs occupying the space. Longhouses were notoriously smoky as the fumes from cooking and fires could only escape through small holes in the ceiling. Villages of longhouses were built in the forest, usually near water. They were surrounded by tall palisades or sharpened logs stuck vertically in the earth.


The Iroquois were the dominant tribe in the northeastern United States. The Iroquois Confederacy (the Six Nations) was formed in 1570 when the five tribes (Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga and Seneca) were brought together by Deganawida (a Huron prophet) and Hiawatha (a Mohawk medicine man). The Tuscarora were the last to join in the early 1700’s, after they migrated from the Carolinas to New York.

The Iroquois had a strong connection with nature and believed the woodland animals to be their kindred spirits. Their clans were named after animals and included the Beaver Clan, Deer Clan, Wolf Clan, Bear Clan, Turtle Clan, Hawk Clan, Heron Clan, Snipe Clan, and Eel Clan. Two people from the same clan were forbidden to marry. The resident Clan Mother headed each clan. The Iroquois made use out of many animals, especially the deer. Deerskins were used to fashion shirts, skirts, leggings, breechcloths, and moccasins. Beaver fur was used to make robes and mittens and porcupine quills (a form of wampum) were used as decorations, money,
and to record treaties with the American government. The Iroquois also used shells, beads, and rocks as wampum. To the Iroquois, wampum was used to record events and to make records. Colonists used wampum as money.

Many Iroquois festivals revolved around the planting and harvesting of corn. The Corn-Planting Festival, the Green Corn Festival, and the Corn-Gathering Festival were among the most important of Iroquois celebrations. They also held a Maple-Sugar Festival and a Strawberry Festival.

The Iroquois were a very spiritual people who believed in the Great Spirit, the creator of all living things. They also believed in a Good Spirit and an Evil Spirit, who were in charge of good things and bad things that happened on the Earth. The Iroquois believed their souls would join the Good Spirit in the afterlife provided they had done a good enough job of honoring it. A minion of the Evil Spirit was known as the Flying Head, who lived in the forest and spread disease. The Iroquois formed the False Face Society, a healing group that helped scare the Flying Head and other evil
spirits with carved masks, feasts, rattles, and chants. The masks were thought to become the homes of good spirits who would replace the evil spirits after the ceremony. Iroquois society was matrilineal, meaning that property and descent passed through the female line. Women had a lot of power in Iroquois society and owned the property and chose the sachems.

The Iroquois, like other tribes of the Eastern Woodlands, practiced a game somewhat like modern-day lacrosse. The Iroquois version, however, was much more violent, and participants often suffered serious injuries and broken bones. Often times, rival tribes bet on which team would win. The Iroquois also played a game called Snowsnake in which players would see how far they could slide a javelin along a trench dug in the snow.


The Iroquois were an aggressive tribe that frequently raided rival tribes and expanded their territories by invading the lands of other tribes. The Huron, Erie, and Susquehannock tribes were among those nearly wiped out by Iroquois raids. Iroquois boys developed their military skills at an early age by practicing with bows, arrows, spears, and clubs. As teenagers, they participated in raids against hostile Indians, or, against White settlers. Military bravery often resulted in great prestige and made men eligible to become war chiefs. Iroquois prisoners were often made to “run the gauntlet,” in which they had to run between two rows of Iroquois warriors lashing
them with thorny sticks and branches. Those who made it through were often incorporated into the village; those that did not were sometimes tortured to death.

In some cases, the powerful Iroquois were called upon by the British, French, or Americans to help them in war. Iroquois forces joined the British in the defeat of the French in the French and Indian War (1755-1763). During the American Revolution, most of the Iroquois sided with the British, but the Oneida and Tuscarora sided with the Americans, causing the first major rift in the Iroquois Confederacy. Later in the Revolution, American forces sent by George Washington invaded Iroquois territory in upstate New York and torched their crops and villages. After the revolution, the U.S. government forcefully took much of the Iroquois land.

Today, many in the Iroquois community live on reservations in upstate New York, Canada, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin.


The center of Iroquois territory extended throughout Western, Central, and Northern New York State, northern Pennsylvania, northern Ohio, eastern Michigan, and southern Ontario and Quebec. The map shows the individual territories in New York State of the five Iroquois nations.

Quiz Code: New York

Image: Wikipedia Commons

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