Canadian History/The People of the Lands/Haudenosaunee


The Haudenosaunee were located primarily in present-day New York, between Lake Erie and the Hudson River. They inhabited a forested area below the St. Lawrence.

The Six Nations

Iroquois isn't to be confused with the Ontario Iroquoian, which was made up of the Huron, Petun, and Neutral, along with other Iroquoian groups that lived along the St. Lawrence River, who were in fact, enemies of the Iroquois Confederation.

The confederation is made up of the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk, otherwise known as the Five Nations of the Haudenosaunee. In the early 1700s, one more Iroquoian group, the Tuscarora, joined the league so they changed the name to the Six Nations. Within the confederation, each tribe had a role to play. For example, the Mohawks were charged with defending the Eastern territory of the Iroquois Confederation. As well, the tribes weren't allowed to start a conflict unless the entire confederation was in favor of war.


The Iroquois were very democratic. In fact, when Europeans settled in Canada, they started to emulate the model that the Iroquois followed. The governing system became a large influence on democracy as we know it today.

Iroquois people were also matrilineal and matrilocal. Women were generally responsible for crops and their harvest. Other duties included curing hide to make clothes, taking care of the children, cooking, and weaving baskets. Men, on the other hand, did more of the heavy work. They were in charge of clearing the land. They were also to build the longhouses, as well as hunt and carve things like snowshoes, mortars and pestles, war clubs, bowls, bows and arrows, and ladles. After marriage, Iroquois couples went to live with the bride's family. The women of each clan selected a clanmother, who in turn selected the chiefs. Even though men were hunters, statesmen, protectors, and warriors, the women were responsible for almost everything else, and tended to be the heads of their families.

The Iroquois were led by two very different types of people: the chiefs and the sachems. The Chiefs were chosen for their great skill and courage as a warrior but the sachems had to be both wise and knowledgeable about their tribe. Their strong government was carefully organized, and council meetings and gatherings were often held to discuss issues. This united system gave the Iroquois nation their power.


Certain things were taken into account when the Iroquois build their villages. A village should be built on hilltops so they could see enemies approach and utilize the height to defend themselves, in a clearing in a forest so the surrounding trees could be used to build longhouses and serve as firewood, near a supply of fresh water and near a river so that transportation would be easier.

The early Iroquois built villages of anywhere from 20 - 100 longhouses. The longhouses were built in random patterns so that if one of them caught on fire, the entire village wouldn't be burnt to the ground. Each longhouse was home to an extended family. Each nuclear family (family of mother, father, and children) occupied their own hearth within the longhouse. The villages were walled in by log palisades and surrounded by their fields, which were essential to their lives. The palisades had shelves built in, to hold rocks which would be used as a defense against enemies, and buckets of water to put out fires with.


Longhouses, typically 30 to 200 feet long, 15 to 25 feet wide, 10 to 20 feet high were the primary shelter of the Haudenosaunee. They were made of elm bark, tree trunks, and deer tendon. They start out as a rectangular frame of wooden poles that the Iroquois worked and bend to fit in the right places. Then the frame is covered with sections of bark. Holes in the roof let smoke from cooking fires escape but they could be covered with animals skins whenever it rained or snowed. Animal skins also covered the doors at the ends of the longhouse. Finally, directly above the door opening, the Iroquois would make a mark to show which clan they belonged to.

It was dark inside the longhouses due to the lack of windows. Bunk beds lined the walls; they doubled as benches during the day. Above the beds were shelves that held things like animal skins, clothes, pots, baskets (made of wood splints), food, bowls, corn husks, and tools. Sometimes there were woven screens that would divide the longhouse into sections to give families their privacy. Those families shared a cooking fire down the center path, which would also provide them with warmth and light.


The Iroquois life was very much centered around agriculture. As well as supply food, crops such as the Three Sisters (corn, beans, and squash) were valuable exports. Nuts and wild berries were collected and their diet was augmented by meat. The Iroquois even had maple sugar to sweeten their bread with. Only the men hunted deer, bear, rabbit, squirrel, raccoons, and fowl. After a boy killed his first deer, he was allowed to join in. Many of the plants in the forest provided them with medicine to cure deadly diseases.


Deer supplied most of the material for their clothing. Shirts, vests, wrap-around skirts, and moccasins (which could also be made of corn husks) that women wore were made of deerskin. In the colder areas up north, they were replaced with leggings and breechclothes. Women sometimes wore necklaces of shell beads and animal teeth. During the winter, rabbit fur capes and shawls kept them warm. The men wore breechclothes during the hot summers and changed to leather leggings and tunics when cold weather came. Clothing was a large part of the Iroquois culture. They were decorated with porcupine quills, shell beads, and dyed hair, and often showed symbols representing the owner's clan.


The Iroquois made many tools to help them with their daily lives. Items such as woven baskets were used as storage or a carrying case. The mortar and pestle crushed corn to make cornmeal. Wooden cradle boards could be strapped onto a mother's back so she can tend to her infant while working. Hollowed-out log canoes made transportation a lot easier. A sharpened piece of rock tied to a minute carved piece of wood served as a knife, which had many uses, like cutting bark and scalping enemies. Spears, and bows and arrows, were used in hunting and fishing, but they were also useful in battles. Another important tool was the snowshoe. They were basically wooden frames onto which moccasins could be strapped. Snowshoes helped the Iroquois travel in winter by spreading out body weight thus keeping them from sinking into the snow. Life was hard for the Iroquois, but these tools and many others made things easier.


Games were a very important part of the Iroquois's culture, not only as entertainment, but also to practice skills that helped them in their adult lives. One example is the game of darts. It was played during the summer between two teams. Each player would have 6 darts or spears and the point of the game was to get it through a rolling hoop. The team with the best accuracy won. A favourite among the Iroquois was lacrosse. It was played with a stick with a net at one end, a ball (usually made of wood or animal skin), and a goal post at each end on the field. The players pass the ball around and try to score points. Sometimes these games go on for 2-3 days straight. Lacrosse improved the players' aim, strength, and speed. That game is still played today even by non First Natives.

Most of the children's games involved doing things the adults did. The boys role-played as hunters and warriors, using miniature bows and arrows to shoot targets. The girls played with faceless dolls. These dolls were made of cornhusks and lacked features because the Iroquois believed that if they did, a spirit would be harmed. Playing house prepared the young girls as future nurturers. Skills gained from playing the many games and sports help the Iroquois children throughout life.


The Iroquois celebrate 6 big festivals every year. They were the New Year Festival, the Maple Festival, the Corn Planting Festival, the Strawberry Festival, the Green Corn Festival, and the Harvest Festival (Thanksgiving). Most were held in accordance with when they harvest corn, crops, strawberries, sap, and maple syrup, or during the planting season, except for the New Year Festival, which was the biggest and last 4 days. During the festivals, the Iroquois thanked the good spirits for health, clothes, food and happiness. They sang, danced, prayed and played games to the drumbeat and the shaking of rattles made from gourds and turtle shells.

A large part of native religion was curing. The Iroquois believe curing restored an individuals or a community's well-being by driving off the evil spirits that caused sickness and death. The False Face Society was perhaps one of the best known curing societies in the lower Great Lakes region. They wore masks of mythological beings carved from specially selected living trees, then painted and decorated with fibers of hair. The False Faces were believed to have powers and held ceremonies at certain times of the year to ward off disease. They danced and chanted and rubbed ashes on the heads of the sick to cure them. In return, they were paid tobacco and hot corn mush. The members were always men, however their leader and keeper of the False Faces was always a woman. The performers had to be initiated into the originally secret society either by seeing them in a dream or being cured by them.


The Iroquois were mighty warriors. Other tribes looked to them for protection or as a deadly menace. During the French and Indian War (1754-1763) between the French and the English, they sided with the British and many historians promote the idea that if not for their involvement, North America would have been divided between the both French and the English. As it turns out, Britain conquered what is now America (later, America gained her freedom during the American Revolution) and Canada (who created its own constitution without warfare).


The Mohawks and the Mohicans hated each other so they were constantly at each others' throats. The perpetual warfare made them fierce, aggressive tribes. When they both sided with the British (against the French), the Mohicans and the Mohawks entered a state of strained peace.

In 1609, the arrival of the Dutch brought an abundance of valuable European goods. The location of the Mohican land in the Hudson River Valley made them appealing partners for trade. The Dutch/Mohican economic alliance brought prosperity to both nations. The Dutch got rich off the beautiful beaver pelts which were very popular in Europe. Likewise, the Mohicans got firearms which made them both powerful and wealthy, as they now controlled the trade monopoly in the area between the Hudson River Valley and Lake Champlain which was controlled by the French.

These factors combined stirred the Mohawks into retaliation because they were jealous of the Mohican's success, hated the pro-French Indians, were frustrated with their exclusion from the trading with the Dutch and the wampum produced in Delaware. (Wampum is a string of creamy white shells from channeled whelk; they were highly valued by the First Natives and later, the Europeans used them as a medium of exchange).

The constant Mohican/Mohawk wars were bad for business so the Dutch negotiated an agreement where the Mohawks paid the Mohicans a toll to travel through their lands so they could trade with the Dutch. The Mohawks were resentful about paying the Mohicans but this arrangement managed to last for six years, until 1624, when the Dutch trading company traded hands. They began to seek out other tribes to trade with because the beavers in the valley were disappearing from over-trapping, so the Mohicans contacted the Algonkin and Montagnais (in the northern St. Lawrence region), who were allies of the French, thus enemies of the Mohawks. When the Mohawks found out, they attacked.

In the past, the Mohicans were victorious against the Mohawks but now the Mohawks were stronger and armed with guns. The next two years were a downward spiral as the Mohican population declined to approximately 1000 and were forced to pay a toll to the Mohawks until the weakened nation surrendered its sovereignty in 1672 and become the first of the Mohawk's Covenant Chain. In the end, the Mohawks took over the control of trade in the Hudson River Valley and the Dutch were defeated by the British, who took Fort Amsterdam in 1664.


"Canada's Aboriginal Peoples: The Iroquois." UXL Multicultural. Online ed. Detroit: UXL, 2003. Student Resource Center - Gold. Gale. Gleneagle Secondary School. 11 Mar. 2009

"Iroquois." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. Ed. Thomas Carson and Mary Bonk. Detroit: Gale Group, 1999. Student Resource Center - Gold. Gale. Gleneagle Secondary School. 11 Mar. 2009

Crossroads: A Meeting of Nation by Michael Cranny with contributions by Graham Jarvis