Sketches of an Iroquois Council, or Condolence

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In giving the description of the condolence, I have chosen the following writings of Mr. G. S. Riley, of Rochester, to-wit:

A grand council of the confederate Iroquois was held October 1, 1845, at the Indian council house, on the Tonawanda reservation, in the county of Genesee. Its proceedings occupied three days. It embraced representatives from all the six nations the Mohawk, the Onondaga, the Seneca, the Oneida, the Cayuga, and the Tuscarora. It is the only one of the kind which has been held for a number of years, and is probably the last which will ever be assembled with a full representation of the confederate nations.

The Indians from abroad arrived at the council-grounds, or the immediate vicinity, two days previous, and one of the most interesting spectacles of the occasion was the entry of the different nations upon the domain and hospitality of the Senecas, on whose grounds the council was to be held. The representation of the Mohawks, coming as they did from Canada, was necessarily small. The Onondagas, with acting Todotahhoh, of the confederacy, and his two counselors, made an exceedingly creditable appearance. Nor was the array of the Tuscaroras, in point of numbers, at least, deficient in attractive and improving features.

We called upon and were presented to Black Smith, the most influential and authoritative of the Seneca sachems. He is about sixty years old, is somewhat portly, is easy enough in his manners, and is well disposed, and even kindly towards all who convinced him that they have no sinister designs in coming among his people.

Jemmy Johnson is the great high priest of the confederacy. Though now sixty-nine years old, he is yet an erect, fine-looking and energetic Indian, and is hospitable and intelligent. He is in possession of the medal presented by Washington to Red Jacket in 1792, which, among other things of interest, he showed us.

It would be incompatible with the present purpose to describe all the interesting men who were assembled, among whom were Captain Frost, Messrs. Le Fort, Hill, John Jacket, Dr. Wilson and others. We spent much of the time during the week in conversation with the chiefs and most intelligent Indians of the different nations, and gleaned from them much information of the highest interest, in relation to the organization, government, laws, religion and customs of the people and characteristics of the great men of the old and once powerful confederacy. It is a singular fact, that the peculiar government and national characteristics of the Iroquois is a most interesting field of research and inquiry, which has never been very thoroughly, if at all, investigated, although the historic events which marked the proud career of the confederacy have been perseveringly sought and treasured up in the writings of Stone, Schoolcraft, Hosmer, Yates and others.

Many of the Indians speak English readily, but with the aid and interpretations of Mr. Ely S. Parker, a young Seneca of no ordinary degree of attainment in both scholarship and general intelligence, and who, with Le Fort, the Onondaga, is well versed in old Iroquois matters, we had no difficulty in conversing with any and all we chose to.

About midday on Wednesday, October 1, the council commenced. The ceremonies with which it was opened and conducted were certainly unique almost indescribable; and as its proceedings were in the Seneca tongue, they were in a great measure unintelligible, and in fact, profoundly mysterious to the pale faces. One of the chief objects for which the council had been convoked, was to fill two vacancies in the Sachems of the Senecas, which had been made by the death of the former incumbents; and preceding the installation of the candidates for the succession there was a general and dolorous lament for the deceased Sachems, the utterance of which, together with the repetition of the laws of the confederacy, the installation of the new Sachems, the impeachment and disposition of three unfaithful Sachems, the elevation of others in their stead, and the performance of the various ceremonies attendant upon these proceedings, consumed the principal part of the afternoon.

At the setting of the sun a bountiful repast, consisting of an innumerable number of rather formidable looking chunks of boiled fresh beef, and abundance of bread and succotash, was brought into the council house. The manner of saying grace on this occasion was indeed peculiar. A kettle being brought, hot and smoking from the fire, and placed in the center of the council house, there proceeded from a single person, in a high shrill key, a prolonged and monotonous sound, resembling that of the syllable wah or yah . This was immediately followed by a responsive but protracted tone, the syllable whe or swe , and this concluded grace. It was impossible not to be somewhat mirthfully affected at the first hearing of grace said in this novel manner. It is, however, pleasurable to reflect that the Indians recognize the duty of rendering thanks to the Divine Being in some formal way for the bounties and enjoyments which He bestows; and, were an Indian to attend a public feast among his pace faced brethren, he would be affected perhaps to a greater degree of marvel at witnessing a total neglect of this ceremony than we were at his singular way of performing it.

After supper commenced the dances. All day Tuesday and on Wednesday, up to the time that the places of the deceased Sachems had been filled, everything like undue joyfulness had been restrained. This was required by the respect customarily due to the distinguished dead. But now the bereaved Sachems being again filled, all were to give utterance of gladness and joy. A short speech by Capt. Frost, introductory to the enjoyments of the evening, was received with acclamatory approbation, and soon eighty or ninety of these sons and daughters of the forest the old men and the young, the maidens and the matrons were engaged in the dance. It was indeed a rare sight.

Only two varieties of dancing were introduced the first evening, the trotting dance and the fish dance. The figures of either are exceedingly simple, and but slightly different from each other. In the first named, the dancers all move round a circle in a single file, keeping time in a sort of trotting step to an Indian song of yo-ho-ha, or yo-ho-ha-ha-ho, as sung by the leader, or occasionally by all conjoined. In the other, there is the same movement in single file round a circle, but every two persons, a man and a woman, or two men, face each other, the one moving forward, the other backward, and all keeping step to the music of the singers, who are now, however, aided by a couple of tortoise or turtle shell rattlers, or an aboriginal drum. At regular intervals there is a sort of cadence in the music, during which a change of position by all the couples takes place, the one who had been moving backward taking the place of the one moving forward, when all again move onward, one-half of the whole, of course, being obliged to follow on by dancing backwards.

One peculiarity in Indian dancing would probably strongly commend itself to that class among pale faced beau and belles denominated bashful; though, perhaps, it would not suit others as well. The men, or a number of them, usually begin the dance alone, and the women, or each of them, selecting the one with whom she would like to dance, presents herself at his side as he approaches and is immediately received into the circle. Consequently, the young Indian beau knows nothing of the tact required to handsomely invite and gallantly lead a lady to the dance; and the young Indian maiden, unannoyed by obnoxious offers, at her own convenience, gracefully presents her personage to the one she designs to favor, and thus quietly engages herself in the dance. And moreover, while an Indian beau is not necessarily obliged to exhibit any gallantry as towards a belle till she has herself manifested her own good pleasure in the matter; so, therefore, the belle cannot indulge herself in vascilant flirtations with any considerable number of beaux without being at once detected.

On Thursday the religious ceremonies commenced, and the council from the time it assembled, which was about 11 o’clock A. M., till 3 or 4 o’clock P. M., gave the most serious attention to the preaching of Jimmy Johnson, the great high priest, and the second in the succession under the new revelation. Though there are some evangelical believers among the Indians, the greater portion of them cherish the religion of their fathers. This, as they say, has been somewhat changed by the new revelation, which the Great Spirit made to one of their prophets about forty-seven years ago, and which, as they also believe, was approved by Washington.

The profound regard and eneration which the Indians have ever retained towards the name and memory of Washington is most interesting evidence of his universally appreciated worth, and the fact that the red men regard him not merely as one of the best, but as the very best man that ever has existed, or that will ever exist, is beautifully illustrated in a singular credence which they maintain even to this day, namely, that Washington, is the only white man who has ever entered heaven and is the only one who will enter there till the end of the world.

Among the Seneca public religious exercises takes place but once a year. At these times Jimmy Johnson preaches hour after hour for three days, and then rests from any public charge of ecclesiastical offices the remaining three hundred and sixty-two days of the year. On this, an unusual occasion, he restricted himself to a few hours in each of the last two days of the council. We were told by young Parker, who took notes of his preaching, that his subject matter on Thursday abounded in good teachings, enforced by appropriate and happy illustrations and striking imagery. After he had finished the council took a short respite. Soon, however, a company of warriors, ready and eager to engage in the celebrated corn dance, made their appearance. They were differently attired. While some were completely enveloped in a closely-fitting and gaudy-colored garb, others, though perhaps without intending it, had made wonderfully close approaches to an imitation of the costume said to have been so fashionable in many parts of the State of Georgia during the last hot summer, and which is also said to have consisted simply of a shirt collar and a pair of spurs. But, in truth, these warriors, with shoulders and limbs in a state of nudity, with faces be streaked with paints, with jingling trinkets dangling to their knees, and with feathered war caps waving above them, presented a truly picturesque and romantic appearance. When the center of the council house had been cleared and the musicians with the shell rattlers had taken their places, the dance commenced, and for an hour and a half perhaps two hours it proceeded with surprising spirit and energy. Almost every posture of which the human frame is susceptible, without absolutely making the feet uppermost and the head for once to assume the place of the feet, was exhibited. Some of the attitudes of the dancers were really imposing, and the dance as a whole, could be got up and conducted only by Indians. The women, in the performance of the corn dance are quite by themselves, keeping time to the beat of the shells and gliding along sideways, without scarcely lifting their feet from the floor.

It would probably be well if the Indian everywhere could be inclined to refrain at least from the more grotesque and boisterous peculiarities of the dance. The influence of these cannot be productive of any good, and it is questionable whether it will be possible, so long as they are retained, to assimilate them to any greater degree of civilization, or to more refined methods of living and enjoyment than they now possess. The same may be said of certain characteristics of the still more Vandalic war dance. This, however, was not introduced at the council.

A part of the proceedings of Friday, the last day of the council, bore resemblance to those of the preceding day. Jimmy Johnson resumed his preaching, at the close of which the corn dance was again performed, though with far more spirit and enthusiasm than at the first. Double the numbers that then appeared, all hardy and sinewy men, attired in original and fantastic style, among whom was one of the chiefs of the confederacy, together with forty or fifty women of the different nations, now engaged, and for more than two hours persevered in the performance of the various complicated and fatiguing movement of this dance. The appearance of the dusty throng, with its increased numbers, and of course proportionally increased resources for the production of shrill whoops and noisy stamping, and for the exhibition of striking attitudes and rampant motions, was altogether strange, wonderful and seemingly superhuman.

After the dance had ceased, another kind of sport a well contested foot race claimed attention. In the evening, after another supper in the council house, the more social dances the trotting, the fish, and one in which the women alone participated were resumed. The fish dance seemed to be the favorite, and being invited to join in by one of the

chiefs, we at once accepted the invitation, and followed in mirthful chase of pleasure with a hundred forest children. Occasionally the dances are characterized with ebullitions of merriment and flashes of real fun, but generally a singular sobriety and decorum are observed. Frequently, when gazing at a throng of sixty or perhaps one hundred dancers, we have been scarcely able to decide which was the most remarkable, the staid and imperturbable gravity of the old men and women, or the complete absence of levity and frolicsomeness in the young.

The social dances of the evening, with occasional speeches from the sachems and chiefs, were the final and concluding ceremonies of this singular but interesting affair. Saturday morning witnessed the separation of the various nations and the departure of each to their respective homes.

The writer would liked to have said a word or two or relation to the present condition and prospects of the Indians, but the original design in regard to both the topics and brevity of this writing having been already greatly transcended, it must be deferred. The once powerful confederacy of the Six Nations, occupying in its palmy days the greater portion of New York State, now number only a little over 3,000. Even this remnant will soon be gone. In view of this, as well as of the known fact that the Indian race is everywhere gradually diminishing in numbers, the writer cannot close without invoking for this unfortunate people renewed kindliness, sympathy and benevolent attention. It is true, that with some few exceptions, they possess habits and characteristics which render them difficult to approach; but still, they are only what the creator of us all has made them. And let it be remembered, it must be a large measure of kindliness and benevolence that will repay the injustice and wrongs that have been inflicted upon them.



MLA Source Citation:

Johnson, Elias. Legends, Traditions, and Laws of the Iroquois, or Six Nations and History of the Tuscarora Indians. Lockport, New York: Union Printing and Publishing Co. 1881. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 24 November 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/sketches-of-an-iroquois-council-or-condolence.htm - Last updated on Jun 4th, 2013


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