The Iroquois - Native Cultures of North America

Traditional longhouses, such as this one preserved in the Canadian province of Ontario, were important centers of governance and community life for the Iroquois.

The Iroquois people are a group of Native American tribes who spoke one of the Iroquoian languages. Colonial British and French American testimonies generally referred to them as the Iroquoian Confederacy, comprised by the nations of Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora, and considered this grouping as the whole of Iroquoian culture. However, the nations of Erie, Susquehannock, Wyandot, and Huron should also be considered as part of the Iroquoian culture, though they were not part of the confederation, and even fought bitter wars against it.


The Iroquoian nations were formidable Native American powers who owned a lot of fertile lands in and around what is today central New York state in the US and up north toward present-day Montreal, Canada. European powers had extensive trade dealings with the Iroquois throughout the Colonial Era in North America, and they had established territorial truces with the British. However, when the British were defeated in The American Revolutionary War, the US gave away much of the territories of the Iroquoian Confederacy without consulting them, opening them up for colonial settlement. It was during this time in the late 18th Century that the Iroquoian Confederacy as a political consolidation started to disintegrate. Throughout the 19th Century, they had to face increased pressure in keeping their land from white interests in both the United States and Canada. Since during the American Revolutionary War the Iroquoians had remained in league with the British, they had to face hostility from the newly formed United States, and many Iroquoians moved north from New York to British Canada. Ultimately, the remaining Iroquoians were left with only the reservations the US proffered unto them, though in Canada they received a large land grant in Quebec. Many Iroquoians worked in the fur trade, and travelled on fur ships and cross country expeditions into the wild interior of western Canada. There, they founded many First Nations and Metis communities, such as the Michel band and the Kelly Lake community.

Kinship and Community Governance

The Iroquians were noted for their matrilineal kinship system, with inheritance being passed on through the mother's "bloodline". Women elders of each clan demanded a good deal of ritual respect, and it was they who nominated clan chiefs. European observers had noted that Iroquoian women were able to hold property and call for divorces from their husbands. In instances of divorce, the children would stay with their mothers. Women had been observed to wield real political powers as well, including vetoing treaties of war and peace. Chiefs who were perceived to be performing unsatisfactorily could be demoted by women, a process known as 'knocking of the horns', referring to knocking of the antler horns from chief's head, which Iroquoians bestowed upon people of leadership.

Traditional Ways of Life

Throughout their history, the Iroquoian Nations had taken part in a large number of wars, both between other Native Americans and with Europeans. Captives in tribal wars were often adopted and assimilated, and in this way the Iroquoians steadied the depletion of their own numbers from wars, and caused decreases in the ranks of their rivals. Iroquoians had historically been migratory cultivators, and supplemented their diet with additional hunting and gathering activities. When soil fertility in a certain area declined, the Iroquoians would often simply pack up the belongings from their villages and move elsewhere.

State of the Culture

Today, there are altogether around 80,000 people in the US and 45,000 people in Canada who are considered to be true Iroquoian peoples. Throughout the 18th Century, there had been a continuous decrease in the number of Iroquoian people, with an estimated 4,000 Iroquoians living in the US at the end of 18th Century. By 1910, an increase to 7,000 Iroquoians in the country was experienced, a trend of growth that has continued in the century since.


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