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Definition: Iroquois from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate(R) Dictionary

(1666) 1 pl : an American Indian confederacy orig. of New York consisting of the Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, and Seneca and later including the Tuscarora 2 : a member of any of the Iroquois peoples

Summary Article: Iroquois
from Ethnic Groups of the Americas: An Encyclopedia

The Iroquois, sometimes known as Haudenosaunee or Hodinoshones, are a North American ethnic group comprising six sovereign nations—Mohawks, Oneidas, Cayugas, Onondagas, Senecas, and Tuscaroras. The estimated 170,000 Iroquois inhabit parts of their historic homeland in upstate New York, with smaller groups in Wisconsin, Oklahoma, and North Carolina in the United States, and southern Quebec and southern Ontario in Canada. The total population, including people of Iroquois descent and people of mixed ancestry who identify with Iroquois culture, may be as high as 500,000. The Iroquois generally speak English or French along with their own six languages. The majority of the Iroquois adhere to their own Longhouse religion, a Quaker-influenced belief system that spread through the region in the 19th century. Smaller numbers belong to Protestant and Roman Catholic churches.

The Iroquois bands are thought to have originated in the central part of present-day New York state. They created a settled culture in the region some 1,000 years ago. Agriculture allowed a culture to adopt a new form of society, with a stratified caste system, sophisticated artisans, a powerful military, and large, fortified towns. The various tribes, often warring among themselves, began to unite sometime between 1350 ce and 1600 ce. Some scholars believe that unification was achieved over a thousand years earlier, though the general consensus places the formation of the confederacy around 1570. The confederacy became the most sophisticated and powerful entity north of central Mexico. The united Iroquois extended their political power over a huge area stretching from eastern Canada south to the Carolinas. The first contacts with Europeans occurred in the region of the Great Lakes when French expeditions entered the region. The French supported the fur trade and became the allies of the Iroquois’ enemies, the Hurons. The arrival of the Dutch in 1610 provided the Iroquois a rival source of firearms with which to counter the French threat. The Iroquois destroyed the Huron confederacy in 1648–1650, and then began a decade of raids on French settlements in New France. The Iroquois’ inland location protected them from the first epidemics of European diseases but by the mid-17th century diseases and war had greatly depleted the Iroquois population. The depletion of the local beaver population resulted in the so-called Beaver Wars that lasted some 70 years as the Iroquois waged war against ever more distant tribes to procure the furs they traded to the Dutch and English for iron goods and guns. The confederacy, strengthened by the addition of the Tuscaroras in 1772, played a vital role in the British victory in the French and Indian War in 1763. The outbreak of the American Revolution nearly destroyed the historic confederacy. Four of the tribes eventually supported their traditional British allies while the Oneidas and Tuscaroras mostly aided the Americans. Oneida chief Shenendoah (Oskanondonha) brought 3,000 bushels of white corn to Valley Forge and even provided an instructor to show the starving American troops how to prepare it. Following the end of the war in 1781, many Iroquois joined the Loyalists moving north into British Canada.

Movements of peoples and cultures in pre-Colonial Canada according to theories put forward by historians and anthropologists.

(Eric Leinberger)

The Iroquois culture is a mixture of traditions and customs contributed by each of the six member tribes. Calling themselves Haudenosaunee, the “People of the Longhouse,” the Iroquois have blended and adopted cultural patterns common to all the Iroquoian peoples and the modern Iroquois are united by historical, clan, and family ties that cut across the tribal divisions. Each of the six tribes traditionally occupied a distinct geographical and political position within the confederacy. The Mohawks (Kahniankehaka) are known as the “keepers of the eastern door,” because their territory occupied the eastern part of the confederacy. The Cayugas (Gweugwehono) are called the “keepers of the Great Pipe,” the symbol of peace. The Oneidas (Onayotekaono) are known as the “stone people.” The Onondagas (Onundagaono) are called the “keepers of the fire.” The Senecas (Nundawaono) are the “keepers of the western door.” The Tuscaroras (Akotaskororen) joined the confederacy as a nonvoting member in 1722. The Iroquois were historically a matrilineal society, with women owning all property and inheritance through the female line. The modern Iroquois have mostly adopted modern culture with most living and working in large cities or in communities near the reservations. Most of the Iroquois are bilingual, speaking English or French along with their own languages that form part of the Hokan-Siouan language group.

The confederacy effectively disintegrated around 1800. The tribes, in spite of numerous treaties insuring their traditional lands, gradually lost territory and were forced into ever-dwindling reservations in the United States and Canada. The Iroquois, desiring peace with their white neighbors, adopted a pacific religion known as the Longhouse religion or creed in the early 19th century. Begun by a Seneca prophet and believed to have roots in Quaker ideals of pacificism, the new religion quickly spread through the scattered remnants of the confederacy. The Iroquois gradually adapted to North American culture and many pursued education as a way for their people to survive. The sizable urban populations in New York City, Buffalo, and Montreal began to form in 1896 when Iroquois workers showed no fear of heights and rapidly became involved in the construction of major bridges and skyscrapers. Increased education renewed an appreciation for their unique history and culture. By the 1960s militants, mostly led by young Iroquois lawyers, put forward land claims and demands for sovereignty. Taking the position that the confederacy predated the United States and Canada the Iroquois filed numerous court cases in an attempt to force the governments to honor the treaties made between sovereign political entities. Iroquois representatives presented a petition to the United Nations in 1977 seeking official recognition of Iroquois sovereignty. Passports issued by the government of Haudenosaunee have been honored by dozens of countries. The confederacy, though physically dispersed, still holds a special place as a concept in Iroquois culture. It has been responsible for the Iroquois being able to retain much of their traditional culture in spite of modernization and acculturation.

Iroquois in traditional dress in Quebec, 1940.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Further Reading
  • Engler, Mary. The Iroquois: The Six Nations Confederacy. Capstone Press Mankato MN, 2006.
  • Graymont, Barbara. The Iroquois. Chelsea House New York, 2005.
  • Snow, Dean. The Iroquois. Wiley-Blackwell Hoboken NJ, 1996.
  • Copyright 2013 by James B. Minahan

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