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IroquoisInformation about the Iroquois
Prehistoric and Protohistoric period
This union of nations began before European contact, replete with a constitution recorded with special beads called wampum that served the same purpose as money in other cultures. Most Western anthropologists speculate that this Constitution was created sometime between the middle 1400s and early 1600s, but other scholars who account for Iroquois oral tradition argue that the event took place as early as 1100, with many arguing for August 31, 1142 based on a coinciding solar eclipse (see Fields and Mann, American Indian Culture and Research Journal, vol. 21, #2). Some Westerners have also suggested that this Constitution was written with European help, although most dismiss this notion as blatant racism. Some historians state the opposite, that the federation of states that became the United States was modelled on the League.
The two prophets, Hiawatha and "The Great Peacemaker", brought a message of peace to related squabbling tribes. Those who joined in the League were the Seneca, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga and Mohawks. Once they ceased (most) infighting, they rapidly became one of the strongest forces in 17th and 18th century northeastern North America.
The League engaged in a series of wars against the French and their Iroquoian-speaking Wyandot ("Huron") allies. They also put great pressure on the Algonquian peoples of the Atlantic coast and what is now subarctic Canada and not infrequently fought the English colonies as well. During the 17th Century they are also credited with having destroyed the Neutral Indians and Erie tribe as a way of controlling the fur trade, even though other reasons are often given for these wars. Some survivors of these tribes were absorbed into the Iroquois tribes.
According to Francis Parkman, the Iroquois at the 17th century height of their power had a population of around 12,000 people. League traditions allowed for the dead to be symbolically replaced through the "Mourning War", raids intended to seize captives and take vengeance on non-members. This tradition was common to native people of the northeast and was quite different from European settlers' notions of combat.
The 18th Century
In 1720 the Tuscarora fled north from the European colonization of North Carolina and petitioned to become the Sixth Nation. This is a non-voting position but places them under the protection of the Confederacy.
During the American Revolution the Oneida and many Tuscarora and Onondaga sided with the Americans while the Mohawk, Seneca, and Cayuga remained loyal to Great Britain. This marked the first split among the Six Nations. After a series of successful operations against frontier settlements led by the Mohawk leader Joseph Brant and his British allies, the Americans reacted with vengeance. In 1779, George Washington ordered Col. Daniel Brodhead and General John Sullivan to lead expeditions against the Iroquois nations to "not merely overun, but destroy," the British-Indian alliance. The campaign successfully ended the ability of the British and Iroquois to mount any further significant attacks on American settlements.
In 1794, the Confederacy entered into the Treaty of Canandaigua with the United States.
These tribes, mostly members of the Iroquois nation, lived in the Northeastern territories of the U.S. and Canada, from the St. Lawrence River down to the Delaware Bay and inland to the Great Lakes, Their close contact with Europeans makes investigation of their original mythology and religion extremely difficult, but core beliefs included a conception of life as a struggle between the forces of good and evil. The "All-Father," and all embracing deity, had no form and little contact of the humans. Spirits animated all of nature and controlled the changing of the season. Key festivals coincided with the major events of the agricultural calendar.
The combined leadership of the Nations is known as the Haudenosaunee. It should be noted that "Haudenosaunee" is the term that the people use to refer to themselves. The word "Iroquois" is reputed to come from a French version of a Huron (Wendat) nameóconsidered an insultómeaning "Black Snakes." The Iroquois were enemies of the Huron and the Algonquin, who were allied with the French, due to their rivalry in the fur trade. Haudenosaunee means "People Building a Long House." The term is said to have been introduced by The Great Peacemaker at the time of the formation of the Confederacy. It implies that the Nations of the confederacy should live together as families in the same longhouse. Symbolically, the Seneca were the guardians of the western door of the "tribal long house," and the Mohawk were the guardians of the eastern door.
There exists another, perhaps more compelling, version explaining the origin of the word "Iroquois"; as the French combination of two distinct terms used in the language of the Haudenosaunee. Here is a link to published text discussing this point:
The participants and writers developing the nascent US government addressed and compared the Haudenosaunee and their ways to a state of achievement in administrative self-governance which Rome itself never reached and which they hoped the US would aspire to and achieve.
Another useful reference in learning about the Haudenosaunee exists here:
The Iroquois nations' political union and democratic government has been credited by some as one of the influences on the United States Constitution. Please see Figure 31 at this link:
However, that theory has fallen into disfavor among many historians, and is regarded by some as mythology. Historian Jack Rakove writes: "The voluminous records we have for the constitutional debates of the late 1780s contain no significant references to the Iroquois." .
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