Iroquois

Find out about many different Native American artifacts and tools used long ago.

The Iroquois is a confederation of American Indians, who formed an alliance after years of infighting. When the Europeans arrived in America, the confederacy consisted the people inhabiting what is now upstate New York, parts of Pennsylvania, Ontario, and Quebec.

History says the alliance originally included five Indian tribes: Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga and Seneca. Once these groups made peace, they emerged as one of the strongest forces in 17th and 18th century northeastern North America with a population of around 12,000 people. The Tuscarora opposed the European colonization of North Carolina in 1720 and became the sixth confederation of the league.

The two prophets, Hiawatha and “The Great Peacemaker”, who spearheaded the process, became the spiritual leaders (Tadadaho) of the confederacy.

The Europeans called them the League of Peace and Power or Haudenosaunee, which means “People Building a Long House.” This came from a tradition that the members of the confederacy should live together as families in same longhouses. The village of the American Indians consisted two or more such communal houses, which were long enough to hold a family of 30 to 60 people.

These American Indians formed their own constitution, the Gayanashagowa or Great Law of Peace. However, it is not a written document rather a convention, which was chronicled in a memory artifact in the form of sacred beads called wampum.

Western anthropologists believe that this constitution came up sometime between the middle of the 1400s and early 1600s. However, more recent archeological theories, based on studies of Iroquoian oral traditions, debates that it was formed around August 31, 1142, coinciding with a solar eclipse.
 
However, history is certain that during the colonial times (around 1677), the confederacy had entered into an agreement called the Covenant Chain, with the English. Together they fought against the French, who allied with the Huron, a primeval enemy of the Iroquoian confederacy.

During the American Revolution, many Tuscarora and the Oneida supported the Americans, while the Mohawk, Seneca, Onondaga and Cayuga remained loyal to the British. This led to the first major split in the confederacy.

After the initial triumph of the British-Indian alliance, in 1799 George Washington came down heavily on them. After their fall to the US forces in 1794, the confederacy signed the Treaty of Canandaigua with the United States.

Apart from their warring exploits, the Iroquoian tribe indulged in hunting and farming for food.  They held six big festivals each year, replete with rituals and music.

One of the daily sacred customs of these American Indians involves their unique art of making medicine masks. This is closely allied to their core religious conviction of life being a conflict between the forces of good and evil. These masks were made of cornhusks or wood and were so called since they were said to frighten away the evil spirits. Since they were avid hunters, their tools and weapons were also a part of their art.

The language they spoke was an amalgamation of the 11 dialects that each tribe spoke, including the extinct Huron language and the Cherokee. The common factor of these dialects was at least one nasal vowel phoneme.

Their way of life is still seen in parts of America, though the current Iroquoian population is not certain. In 1995, tribal registrations in the United States gave an approximate figure of 30,000. Whatever their number, the Iroquois are regarded as a significant aspect of American history.

Joseph Paige 2006

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