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Onondaga Council Fire

All business between other nations and the Iroquois was brought to the council fire of Onondaga,(*) and the conclusion there reached carried with it all the weight of a kingly edict. The deliberations of the sachems were conducted with the utmost decorum, and a rigid adherence to their notions of parliamentary usage which challenged the admiration of civilized nations. No speaker interrupted another. Each gave his opinion in turn, but not until he had stated in full the subject of discussion, to prove that he understood it, and had repeated the arguments pro and con of previous speakers. Thus their debates were exceedingly prolix, but resulted in a thorough sifting of the matter in hand. Their sachems received no compensation for their services. Honor and esteem were their chief rewards; shame and being despised, their punishment. Their principal men, both sachems and chiefs, were generally poorer than the common people; for they affected to give away and distribute all the presents or plunder they got by treaty or in war.(+) They held their office by reason of merit and the esteem in which they were held by the people, and forfeited this distinction when that esteem was lost. Thus while the system held out ample incentives to valorous achievement, there was nothing to tempt the covetous and sordid. A respect for native superiority, and a willingness to yield to it were always conspicuous. In his own nation each sachem was a civil magistrate and decided the differences between his people in public audiences of his tribe. In military matters he had no control; these were confided to the chiefs...

The Iroquios Council

The Chippewa, however, furnished an exception to this rule. With them the son of a chief had a legal right to succeed his father. The rule, though binding, was very elastic, and capable of stretching to the farthest limits of the tribe–each tribe being allowed to select its chief from among its own members. Almost invariably the chief was succeeded by a near relative, always on the female side; but if these were manifestly unfit, his successor was chosen at a council of the tribe from among remoter kindred, in which case he was nominated by the matron of the late chief’s household.1 In any event the choice was never adverse to the popular inclination.2 The new chief was inducted into office by a formal council of the sachems of the league; and on assuming its duties he dropped his own name and substituted that which, since the formation of the league, had belonged to his especial chieftainship.3 The chief was required to be a skillful hunter, if not the best in his tribe, and liberal with his game. He must also be a good physician, and able to advise and assist the sick in every circumstance. It was his duty to take care of orphans, to harbor strangers, and to keep order in the town. But he, like the sachem, had no power of compulsion; and like him, also, must keep up his reputation by a prudent, courteous and winning behavior.4 The tribes were by no means equal in numbers, influence and honor, says Parkman. So marked were the distinctions among them that Colden and other early writers...

The Adirondacks

The Iroquois were not always the same fierce, rapacious and blood-thirsty people which they are now familiarly known to have been, but were once engrossed in the peaceful pursuits of the husbandman. Colden graphically relates the circumstances which led them in a measure to forsake that occupation, and involved them in a war with the Adirondacks, in which they were engaged when the French first settled Canada. We quote: “The Adirondacks formerly lived three hundred miles above Trois Rivers, where now the Utawawas are situated; at that time they employed themselves wholly in hunting, and the Five Nations made planting of corn their business. By this means they became useful to each other, by exchanging corn for venison. The Adirondacks, however, valued themselves, as delighting in a more manly employment, and despised the Five Nations, in following business, which they thought only fit for women. But it once happened that the game failed the Adirondacks, which made them desire some of the young men of the Five Nations to assist them in hunting. These young men soon became much more expert in hunting, and able to endure fatigue, than the Adirondacks expected or desired; in short they became jealous of them, and, one night, murdered all the young men they had with them. The Five Nations complained to the chiefs of the Adirondacks of the inhumanity of this action; but they contented themselves with blaming the murderers, and ordered them to make some small presents to the relatives of the murdered persons,1 without being apprehensive of the resentment of the Five Nations; for they looked upon them as men...

Hiawatha Speaks to the Tribes

At length he regained his composure and took his seat in the council, whose deliberations were participated in by the ablest counselors of the assembled nations. At the conclusion of the debate, Hiawatha, desiring that nothing should be done hastily and inconsiderately, proposed that the council be postponed one day, so that they might weigh well the words which had been spoken, when he promised to communicate his plan for consideration, assuring them of his confidence in its success. The following day the council again assembled and amid breathless silence the sage counselor thus addressed them: “Friends and Brothers: You are members of many tribes and nations. You have come here, many of you, a great distance from your homes. We have convened for one common purpose, to promote one common interest, and that is to provide for our mutual safety, and how it shall best be accomplished. To oppose these hordes of northern foes by tribes, singly and alone, would prove our certain destruction; we can make no progress in that way; we must unite ourselves into one common band of brothers. Our warriors united, would surely repel these rude invaders and drive them from our borders. This must be done and we shall be safe. “You, the Mohawk, sitting under the shadow of the ‘great tree,’ whose roots sink deep into the earth, and whose branches spread over a vast country, shall be the first nation, because you are warlike and mighty. “And you, Oneidas, a people who recline your bodies against the ‘everlasting stone’ that cannot be moved, shall be the second nation, because you give...

Iroquois Ceremonies

Among the Iroquois, and, indeed, all the stationary tribes, there was an incredible number of mystic ceremonies, extravagant, puerile, and often disgusting, designed for the cure of the sick or for the general weal of the community. Most of their observances seem originally to have been dictated by dreams, and transmitted as a sacred heritage from generation to generation. They consisted in an endless variety of dances, masquerading, and nondescript orgies; and a scrupulous adherence to all the traditional forms was held to be of the last moment, as the slightest failure in this respect might entail serious calamities. Dreams were the great Indian oracles, and were implicitly obeyed. They believed them to be direct emanations from the Great Spirit, and as such were immutable laws to them. From this source arose many of their evils and miseries. In them were revealed their destiny and duty; war and peace, health and sickness, rain and drouth, were all revealed by a a class of professional dreamers and dream interpreters. Wizards and witches were the great bane of the Iroquois, and objects of utter detestation. Murder might be condoned, but witchcraft was punishable with death in all cases. Any one might kill a witch on sight with impunity. They believed that witches could transform themselves at will into any one of the wild animals or birds, or even assume the shape of logs, trees, rocks, &c., and, in forms invisible, visit public assemblies or private houses, and inflict all manner of evils. The delusion was at one time so prevalent and their destruction so great as to seriously lessen the population.1...

Iroquois Feasts

Prodigality was as much a characteristic of their feasts as their dances and other amusements, with which they were often associated, and like them are supposed to have had their origin in religion. They were often participated in by whole villages, sometimes even by neighboring villages, and in this way a vain or ambitious host applied all his substance to one entertainment. Br‚beuf relates an instance of this kind which occurred in the winter of 1635, at the village of Contarrea, where thirty kettles were over the fires, and twenty deer and four bears were served up.1 The invitation was simple and consisted in the concise summons, “Come and eat.” To refuse was a grave offense. Each guest took his dish and spoon and as he entered, greeted his host with the ejaculation, Ho! He then ranged himself with the rest, squatted on the earthen floor or on the platform along the sides of the house, around the steaming kettles. A long prelude of lugubrious singing preceded the feast. The host, who took no share in the feast, then proclaimed in a loud voice the contents of each kettle and at each announcement the company responded in unison, Ho! The attendant squaws then filled the bowls of the guests, who interspersed their feasting with talking, laughing, jesting, singing and smoking, at times protracting the entertainment throughout the day. When the feast partook of a medical character it was indispensable that each guest should eat all that was served to him, however enormous the quantity, even if he should die. Should he fail, the host would be outraged, the community...

Iroquois Towns

The Indian towns were generally but an irregular and confused aggregation of Indian houses, clustered together with little regard to order, and covering from one to ten acres. They were often fortified, and a situation favorable to defense was always chosen–the bank of a lake, the crown of a difficult hill, or a high point of land in the fork of confluent rivers. These defenses were not often constructed with any mathematical regularity, but made to conform to the nature of the ground.1 Frequently a precipice or river sufficed for a partial defense–and the line or embankment occurred only on one or two sides. An embankment was constructed of the earth thrown up from a deep ditch encircling the town, and palisades, of twenty to thirty feet in height, planted thereon, in one to four concentric rows, those of each row inclining toward those of the others till they intersected. These palisades were cut by the alternate process of burning and hacking the burnt part with stone hatchets,2 from trees felled in the same manner, and were often interlaced with flexible branches, to prevent their destruction by fire, a common effort of the enemy. They were lined to the height of a man with heavy sheets of bark; and on the top, where they crossed, was a gallery of timber for the defenders, together with wooden gutters, by which streams of water could be poured on fires kindled by the enemy. Magazines of stones, and rude ladders for mounting the rampart, completed the provision for defense. The forts of the Iroquois were stronger and more elaborate than those of...

Taounyawatha – Deity of the Forest

This was a part of the broad domain of the Iroquois1 Confederacy,   which extended, in general terms, from the Hudson to the Genesee, and from the north to the south boundary of this State. This confederacy was composed of the following nations, located in the following order from east to west, the Mohawk, (Ganeagaonos,)2 Its origin is buried in the obscurity of vague tradition and was unknown to civilized nations in 1750.3 on the river which bears their name, the Oneida, (Onayotekaonos) Onondaga, (Onundagaonos) Cayugas, (Gwengwehonos) and Seneca, (Nundawaonos) mostly adjacent to the lakes which bear their names. The traditions of the Iroquois ascribe it, as well as the origin of the individual nations, to a supernatural source. They, like the Athenians, sprung from the earth itself. “In remote ages they had been confined under a mountain near the falls of the Oshwah-kee, or Oswego river, whence they were released by Tharonhyjagon, the Holder of the Heavens,”4 Schoolcraft inclines to the opinion that the Confederation is to be referred to a comparatively recent date, early in the fifteenth century; Mr. Webster, the Indian interpreter, a good authority, about two generations before the white people came to trade with the Indians; Pyrlaus, a missionary among the Mohawks, “one age, or the length of a man’s life, before the white people came into the country;” while Clark, ‘from the permanency of their institutions, the peculiar structure of their government, the intricacy of their civil affairs, the stability of their religious beliefs and the uniformity of their pagan ceremonies, differing from other Indian nations in important particulars,” thinks it must have had...

History of the Iroquois Indians

We have no authentic history of a people inhabiting this country anterior to those who occupied it on the advent of the Europeans, and who are classed under the generic term Indians. Even their history prior to their intimate association with civilized people is shrouded in obscurity and is transmitted to us in the form of vague and fragmentary legends. The aborigines were a barbaric race and have left no written history, except that we occasionally discover traces of their rude paintings and still ruder engravings. But this is in a measure compensated by the more enduring relics, consisting of the implements of husbandry, the chase and war, which the plow and other means of excavation have numerously disclosed. Their fortified villages and places of burial are rich also in suggestive incidents.1 Taounyawatha – Deity of the Forest Hiawatha Speaks to the Tribes Oneida and Cayuga Join the Confederacy Onondaga Council Fire The Iroquios Council The Adirondacks Tuscarora Incorporated into the Confederacy Downfall of the Iroquois Confederacy Iroquois Domestic and Social Life Iroquois Social Interactions Iroquois Feasts Iroquois Towns Iroquios Personal Ornamentation Iroquois Religion Iroquois Ceremonies FootnotesThe Indians were accustomed to bury with their dead various articles of ornament and use, which, it was supposed, would be serviceable in their passage to a future abode, of which the most barbaric had some...

Iroquois Domestic and Social Life

We purpose giving in this chapter some of the more prominent features of Indian domestic and social life, which furnish the best index to their true character. The Indian, viewed as a distinct branch of the human family, has some peculiar traits and institutions which may be advantageously studied. They furnish the key to those startling impulses which have so long made him an object of wonder to civilized communities, and reveal him as the legitimate product of the conditions attending his birth, his forest education, and the wants, temptations and dangers which surround him. They show him also to be as patient and politic as he is ferocious. “America, when it became known to Europeans, was, as it had long been, a scene of wide-spread revolution. North and South, tribe was giving place to tribe, language to language; for the Indian, hopelessly unchanging in respect to individual and social development, was as regarded tribal relations and social haunts, mutable as the wind. In Canada and the northern section of the United States, the elements of change were especially active. The Indian population which, in 1535, Cartier found at Montreal and Quebec, had disappeared at the opening of the next century, and another race had succeeded, in language and customs widely different; while in the region now forming the State of New York, a power was rising to a ferocious vitality, which, but for the presence of Europeans, would probably have subjected, absorbed or exterminated every other Indian community east of the Mississippi and north of the Ohio.”1 Hence we shall see that their habitations were not characterized by...
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