The Iroquois were an alliance of five tribes in the northeastern United States. Those tribes were the Onandaga, the Oneida, the Mohawk, the Cayuga, and the Seneca. They were a powerful confederacy for many years, and exercised a great deal of influence on early American history. The origin for the word Iroquois is unknown, although it is believed to be a combination of an Indian and a French word.
The Iroquois were known for their longhouses, which were occupied by several families. A common room was built at the end of each house, which could be used by all residents. The longhouses were divided by a central corridor. Along each side of the corridor were compartments, which were residences for individual families.
Wampum was a very important part of Iroquois culture. Wampum was cylindrical beads which were made of clam shells. They were used as decoration on clothing, but they also served more important uses. Strings of wampum were used in mourning rituals. A person of authority might wear a belt made of wampum beads. They could also be used to record the terms of treaties between tribes. They were even sometimes used as money!
The Iroquois had an interesting—you might say strange!—practice. They would often “adopt” people into their tribes. This was done to replace someone they’d lost, whether through death or kidnapping. If an Iroquoian had been mistreated, a female elder had the right to vote that the “adopted” person be mistreated as well. Sometimes, however, the adopted tribal members were treated the same as the lost family member, even if they were a different age or gender!
Like many Native American tribes, life for the Iroquois was greatly disrupted by the arrival of Europeans.
They generally had peaceful relations with the French, who did not try to convert them to Christianity as the English did. When possible, the Iroquois tried to remain neutral in conflicts between the English and the French. They trusted neither group. This worked until the French and Indian War (1754-1763). The Mohawk sided with the English and the Seneca with the French. When the war ended, and the French ceded a very large portion of land to the English, much of it was Iroquois land.
The American Revolution also tested the Iroquois Confederacy. Each of the five nations was free to choose its course during the war. Some fought with the English, and some fought with the Americans. When the war ended, however, many Americans set their sights on moving west. Unfortunately for the Iroquois, this often put them in conflict with white settlers.
The Iroquois maintained their tradition of independence and acting on their own. When the United States went to war with Germany in 1917, the Iroquois Confederacy declared itself an allied nation in the war effort!
Interesting Facts About the Iroquois:
- When an Iroquois died, every person with that name gave it up until a period of mourning was complete
- There are almost 50,000 Iroquois currently living in the United States
- The primary Iroquois foods were known as the “Three Sisters:” corn, beans, and squash