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The History of Native American Tribes. iroquois flag   The original homeland of the Iroquois was in upstate New York between the Adirondack Mountains and Niagara Falls. Through conquest and migration, they gained control of most of the northeastern United States and eastern Canada. At its maximum in 1680, their empire extended west from the north shore of Chesapeake Bay through Kentucky to the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers; then north following the Illinois River to the south end of Lake Michigan; east across all of lower Michigan, southern Ontario and adjacent parts of southwestern Quebec; and finally south through northern New England west of the Connecticut River through the Hudson and upper Delaware Valleys across Pennsylvania back to the Chesapeake. With two exceptions - the Mingo occupation of the upper Ohio Valley and the Caughnawaga migration to the upper St. Lawrence - the Iroquois did not, for the most part, physically occupy this vast area but remained in their upstate New York villages.

   Their decision to side with the British during the Revolutionary War was a disaster for the Iroquois. The American invasion of their homeland in 1779 drove many of the Iroquois into southern Ontario where they have remained. With large Iroquois communities already located along the upper St. Lawrence in Quebec at the time, roughly half of the Iroquois population has since lived in Canada. This includes most of the Mohawk along with representative groups from the other tribes. Although most Iroquois reserves are in southern Ontario and Quebec, one small group (Michel's band) settled in Alberta during the 1800s as part of the fur trade.

The History of Native American Tribes. Iroquois


   Considering their impact on history, it is amazing how few Iroquois there were in 1600 - probably less than 20,000 for all five tribes. Their inland location protected them somewhat from the initial European epidemics, but these had reached them by 1650 and, combined with warfare, cut their population to about half of its original number. However, unlike other native populations which continued to drop, the Iroquois, through the massive adoption of conquored Iroquian-speaking enemies (at least 7,000 Huron, and similar numbers of Neutrals, Susquehannock, Tionontati, and Erie), actually increased and reached their maximum number in 1660, about 25,000.

   Despite the incorporation of 1,500 Tuscarora in 1722 as a sixth member of the League, the Iroquois numbered only 12,000 in 1768. By the end of the Revolutionary War, they were less than 8,000. From that point there has been a slow recovery followed by a recent surge as renewed native pride has prompted many to reclaim their heritage. The 1940 US Census listed only 17,000 Iroquois in both New York and Canada, but current figures approach 70,000 at about 20 settlements and 8 reservations in New York, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Ontario, and Quebec.

   Approximately 30,000 of these live in the United States. Of 3,500 Cayuga, 3,000 are in Canada as part of the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve near Brantford, Ontario. The 500 in the United States live mostly on the Seneca Reservations in western New York. There are also Cayuga among the 2,500 member Seneca-Cayuga tribe in northeastern Oklahoma - descendents of the Mingo of Ohio. The Oneida were once one of the smaller Iroquois tribes but currently number more than 16,000. The largest group (almost 11,000) lives on or near their 2,200 acre reservation west of Green Bay, Wisconsin. Another 700 still live near Oneida, New York, but since their 32 acre reserve is so small, many are forced to live with the nearby Onondaga. Ontario has 4,600 Oneida split between the 2,800 Oneida of the Thames near London and the Grand River Reserve with the Six Nations.

   1,600 Onondaga still live in New York, mainly on a 7,300 acre reservation just south of Syracuse. Another 600 are at the Grand River Reserve in Ontario which has members from all six Iroquois tribes. This includes 200 Tuscarora, but the majority (1,200) live on the Tuscarora Reservation (5,000 acres) near Niagara Falls, New York. The Seneca were once the largest tribe of the Iroquois League - the number of their warriors equal to the other four tribes combined. Their current enrollment stands at 9,100, 1,100 of whom are in Ontario at Grand River. There are four Seneca Reserves in western New York: Allegheny, Cattaraugus, Oil Springs, and Tonawanda (total 60,000 acres). There was once a fifth Seneca reservation, but only 100 of the original 9,000 acres of the Cornplanter grant in northern Pennsylvania remain after it was flooded by a dam project in the 1960s. The Seneca, however, are the only Native American tribe to own an American city - Salamanca, New York.

The History of Native American Tribes. Iroquois man

Iroquois man

   The Mohawk are the largest group of Iroquois with more than 35,000 members. Some estimates of pre-contact Mohawk population range as high as 17,000 although half this is probably closer to the truth. War and epidemic took a terrible toll, and by 1691 the Mohawk had less than 800 people. A large group of Caughnawaga live in Brooklyn (ironworkers), but the only American Mohawk reservation is at St. Regis on the New York-Quebec border with 7,700 members. Straddling the border as the Akwesasne reserve, the Canadian part has a population of 5,700. Almost 12,000 Mohawk live in Ontario as Six Nations of the Grand River, Watha Mohawk Nation, and the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte at Tyendenaga (Deseronto) on the north shore of Lake Ontario west of Kingston. The remainder of the Canadian Mohawk live in Quebec near Montreal: 8,200 at Kahnawake (Caughnawaga); and 1,800 at Oka (Kanesatake, Lac des Deaux Montagnes).

   Iroquois is an easily recognized name, but like the names of many tribes, it was given them by their enemies. The Algonquin called them the Iroqu (Irinakhoiw) "rattlesnakes." After the French added the Gallic suffix "-ois" to this insult, the name became Iroquois. The Iroquois call themselves Haudenosaunee meaning "people of the long house."

The History of Native American Tribes. Iroquois longhouse

Iroquois longhouse

   The Iroquois were the most important native group in North American history. Culturally, however, there was little to distinguish them from their Iroquian-speaking neighbors. All had matrilineal social structures - the women owned all property and determined kinship. The individual Iroquois tribes were divided into three clans, turtle, bear, and wolf - each headed by the clan mother. The Seneca were like the Huron tribes and had eight (the five additional being the crane, snipe, hawk, beaver, and deer). After marriage, a man moved into his wife's longhouse, and their children became members of her clan. Iroquois villages were generally fortified and large. The distinctive, communal longhouses of the different clans could be over 200' in length and were built about a framework covered with elm bark, the Iroquois' material of choice for all manner of things. Villages were permanent in the sense they were moved only for defensive purposes or when the soil became exhausted (about every twenty years).

The History of Native American Tribes. An Iroquois funeral as observed by a French Jesuit missionary, early 1700s

An Iroquois funeral as observed by
a French Jesuit missionary, early 1700s

   Agriculture provided most of the Iroquois diet. Corn, beans, and squash were known as "deohako" or "life supporters." Their importance to the Iroquois was clearly demonstrated by the six annual agricultural festivals held with prayers of gratitude for their harvests. The women owned and tended the fields under the supervision of the clan mother. Men usually left the village in the fall for the annual hunt and returned about midwinter. Spring was fishing season. Other than clearing fields and building villages, the primary occupation of the men was warfare. Warriors wore their hair in a distinctive scalplock (Mohawk of course), although other styles became common later. While the men carefully removed all facial and body hair, women wore theirs long. Tattoos were common for both sexes. Torture and ritual cannibalism were some of the ugly traits of the Iroquois, but these were shared with several other tribes east of the Mississippi. The False Face society was an Iroquois healing group which utilized grotesquewooden masks to frighten the evil spirts believed to cause illness.

The History of Native American Tribes. Iroquois Fort, 1720

Iroquois Fort, 1720

   It was the Iroquois political system, however, that made them unique, and because of it, they dominated the first 200-years of colonial history in both Canada and the United States. Strangely enough, there were never that many of them, and the enemies they defeated in war were often twice their size. Although much has been made of their Dutch firearms, the Iroquois prevailed because of their unity, sense of purpose, and superior political organization. Since the Iroquois League was formed prior to any contact, it owed nothing to European influence. Proper credit is seldom given, but the reverse was actually true. Rather than learning political sophistication from Europeans, Europeans learned from the Iroquois, and the League, with its elaborate system of checks, balances,, and supreme law, almost certainly influenced the American Articles of Confederation and Constitution.

The History of Native American Tribes. Iroquois longhouse model

Iroquois longhouse model

   (iroquois-longhouse-model) The Iroquois were farmers whose leaders were chosen by their women - rather unusual for warlike conquerors. Founded to maintain peace and resolve disputes between its members, the League's primary law was the Kainerekowa, the Great Law of Peace which simply stated Iroquois should not kill each other. The League's organization was prescribed by a written constitution based on 114 wampums and reinforced by a funeral rite known as the "Condolence" - shared mourning at the passing of sachems from the member tribes. The council was composed of 50 male sachems known variously as lords, or peace chiefs. Each tribe's representation was set: Onondaga 14; Cayuga 10; Oneida 9; Mohawk 9; and Seneca 8. Nominated by the tribal clan mothers (who had almost complete power in their selection), Iroquois sachemships were usually held for life, although they could be removed for misconduct or incompetence. The emblem of their office was the deer antler head dress, and guided by an all-male council, the sachems ruled in times ofpeace. War chiefs were chosen on the basis of birth, experience, and ability, but exercised power only during war.

   The central authority of the Iroquois League was limited leaving each tribe free to pursue its own interests. By 1660, however, the Iroquois found it necessary to present a united front to Europeans, and the original freedom of its members had to be curtailed somewhat. In practice, the Mohawk and Oneida formed one faction in the council and the Seneca and Cayuga the other. The League's principal sachem (Tadodaho) was always an Onondaga, and as "keepers of the council fire" with 14 sachems (well out of proportion to their population), they represented compromise. This role was crucial since all decisions of the council had to be unanimous, one of the League's weaknesses. There was also a "pecking order" among members reflected by the eloquent ritual language of League debate. Mohawk, Onondaga, and Seneca were addressed as "elder brothers" or "uncles," while Oneida, Cayuga, and Tuscarora were "younger brothers" or "nephews."

   In this form, the Iroquois used a combination of military prowess and skilled diplomacy to conquer an empire. Until their internal unity finally failed them during the American Revolution, the Iroquois dealt with European powers as an equal. The League was a remarkable achievement, but it also had flaws, the most apparent was its inability to find a satisfactory means to share political power with its new members. As mentioned, the Iroquois incorporated thousands of non-league Iroquian peoples during the 1650s. Political power was retained by the original Iroquois to such an extent that the adoptees remained second-class citizens. The resulting dissatisfaction eventually led to the Mingo separating and moving to Ohio to free themselves from League control. Others found refuge with the French at Caughnawaga and other Jesuit missions along the St. Lawrence.

   The League's massive adoptions also explains why it was so relentless in its pursuit of the remnants of defeated enemies. So long as one small band remained free, the Iroquois were in danger of an insurrection from within. Perhaps because they considered themselves "Ongwi Honwi" (superior people), the Iroquois never offered wholesale adoption to the non-Iroquian speaking peoples who came under their control. Instead they offered membership in the "Covenant Chain," a terminology first suggested by the Dutch at a treaty signed with the Mohawk in 1618. By 1677 the Iroquois had extended this form of limited membership to the Mahican and Delaware and later would offer it to other Algonquin and Siouan tribes. Essentially, the Covenant Chain was a trade and military alliance which gave the Iroquois the authority to represent its members with Europeans, but there was no vote or direct representation in the League council, Worse yet, the Iroquois were often arrogant and placed their own interests first. A system of "half-kings" created to represent the Ohio tribes in the 1740s never really corrected this problem.

   The ten-year period between 1784-1795 was probably the lowest point for the Iroquois people. From there, however, they began a slow recovery which has continued to the present. In 1799 the Seneca Handsome Lake (Ganiodayo) had a spiritual vision which not only changed his life but the Iroquois history. Afterwards, he preached the "Kaiwicyoch" (Good Message) and founded the Longhouse religion - a blend of the traditional Iroquois values and Christianity. The religious values he espoused were so universal and commendable that Handsome Lake even received a letter of appreciation from President Thomas Jefferson. Because there was also an element of accommodation in his message, many Americans interpreted the Longhouse religion as the Iroquois coming around to their way of thinking. However, this was definitely not the case, since Handsome Lake strongly opposed Christian missionaries among his people. The Longhouse Religion carries a strong message of tolerance, but it is first and foremost a traditional native religion.

   As such it has been responsible for the Iroquois being able to retain much of the their culture and tradition despite adversity and defeat. There is still division as to whether the council fire belongs with the Six Nations in Canada or the Onondaga in New York (New York finally returned the wampum belts of the Confederacy to the Onondaga in 1989). Many Iroquois, however, still consider themselves a distinct nation from either Canada or the United States. Canada imposed an election system on the Six Nations in 1924, but many Iroquois tribes have retained their traditional system of hereditary leadership. The Iroquois opposed American citizenship when it was finally extended by the Congress in 1924 to all Native Americans in the United States. They also fought the Wheeler-Howard Indian Reorganization Act (1934) which would have required federal approval of their tribal governments.


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