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Iroquois Culture, Traditions & Facts

Instructor: Margaret MoranShow bio

Margaret is a writer and academic tutor with a passion for history. She holds bachelor's degrees in both history and biology as well as an M.A. in European history. She has worked with college students as a tutor and advisor for over a decade.

One of the prominent native peoples of North America, the Iroquois, were known as a historically powerful people. How so, you ask? Well, this lesson will explain some of the traditions, facts and a little about their culture that makes them one of the most well-known Native American tribes.

Culture

People of the Longhouse, or Kanonsionni in the Iroquois tongue, is the name these people lived by and called themselves. The Iroquois were originally comprised of five major tribes, prior to European settlement, but by 1722, a sixth nation joined this group, making it known to settlers as the Six Nations.

The Six Nations were the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, and the Tuscarora, and they spoke the same common tongue, Iroquois. These six great tribes worked together and were found mainly in the area of ​​New York and surrounding territories, all the way up into Canada.

The basic foundation of Iroquois trade was fur. They were known as hunters of animals and gatherers of the earth's bounty. They were also farmers and fishermen, utilizing many sources to sustain themselves. Corn, beans, and squash were important crops and would come to be known as the Three Sisters. They also used the tobacco leaf for smoking during spiritual ceremonies.

A unique trait of these people was their village migration period. Every 10 to 30 years, the settlements would move and set roots down at a new location, usually located near water. They did this in order to allow the soil to recover its nutrients, the animals to repopulate and for the fish to strengthen in numbers. This allowed resources to recover until the tribe returned.

One of the culturally distinctive traits of the Iroquois people is that their family structure was matrilineal, which means it's based on the mother's family line. A longhouse was often the housing of the extended family, and the families occupied different sections of the longhouse but would end up sharing a common hearth. These longhouses were ruled by the elder female of the extended family housed within.

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Traditions

The traditions of the Iroquois people were unique, given that they were six different tribes. One was the replacement of the lost and dead, with captives taken from blood feuds and vendetta enemies, in something called Mourning Wars. These raids on enemies would be waged to capture usually children or young men of the enemy tribe to replace those who had died in battle. The captives were adopted by the tribe and placed directly with the grieving family.

This tradition offered two distinct advantages for the Iroquois. The first was the ability to maintain and rebuild their own numbers through adoption. The second was that, by assimilating the young from the enemy tribe, it weakened it. They would educate these captives as they would their own children, and in short, they would make the culture and ways of the Iroquois their own.

Like many societies, religion and belief in a higher power influence the course of a people's traditions. For the tribes making up the Iroquois, a belief in a number of deities was common. These included the Great spirit, who was the originator of plants, animals, and the placement of humans to control these forces of good in nature, the Thunderer, and the Three Sisters.

Tobacco was used by the Iroquois to help humans send prayers to the spirits. Also, the importance of dreams was a dominant source of Iroquois spirituality. Dreams were used to gain information about the desires of a person or to prompt others to fulfill a dream of their own.

The Iroquois ceremonies mainly focused on farming, healing, and thanksgiving, which is where the American people get their traditional holiday of Thanksgiving, held in November.

Facts

An interesting fact about the Iroquois is their well-known use of masks. In other Native American tribes, masks are used for dance, celebration, and trade. But the Iroquois' only purpose for masks was that of religious ceremonies. These masks were held sacred, and only tribal members can see them.

When it comes to ceremonies, there are six major festivals, including:

  1. The Corn Planting Festival, which celebrated the planting of crops.
  2. The Green Corn Festival, which celebrated the collection of the harvest.
  3. The Harvest Festival of Thanksgiving, which was held to thank the Great Spirit for a bountiful harvest.
  4. The New Year Festival, which was held at the beginning of a new year.
  5. The Maple Festival, which was a festival to thank the maple trees for producing the wonderful sap in the spring.
  6. The Strawberry Festival, which was held when the wild strawberries were ripe for the picking in June.

Lesson summary

The Iroquois were a diverse group of six individual tribes that were held together by a common culture and set of shared traditions in the Northeast regions of North America. thesis Six Nations included the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, and the Tuscarora, all of whom spoke the same tongue. They specialized in fur trading and crop growing, especially those known as the Three Sisters; corn, beans, and squash. The also practiced Mourning Wards, raids on enemies meant to replace lost warriors with captives; believed in the power of the Great spirit, the originator of plants, animals, and the placement of humans; and participated in many different festivals, such as the Green Corn Festival, which celebrated the annual harvest, and the Maple Festival, which thanked the maple trees for producing sap.