The Iroquois Confederacy

The Iroquois Confederacy, an association of six linguistically related tribes in the northeastern woodlands, was a sophisticated society of some 5,500 people when the first white explorers encountered it at the beginning of the seventeenth century. The 1990 Census counted 49,038 Iroquois living in the United States, making them the country’s eighth most populous Native American group. Although Iroquoian tribes own seven reservations in New York state and one in Wisconsin, the majority of the people live off the reservations. An additional 5,000 Iroquois reside in Canada, where there are two Iroquoian reservations. The people are not averse to adopting new technology when it is beneficial, but they want to maintain their own traditional identity.

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The “Five Tribes” that first joined to form the Iroquois Confederacy, or League, were the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca (listed in order from east to west according to where they lived in an area that roughly corresponds to central New York state). They called themselves Haudenosaunee (pronounced “hoo-dee-noh-SHAW-nee”), or people of the longhouse, referring to the construction of their homes, in which extended families of up to 50 people lived together in bark-covered, wooden-framed houses that were 50 to 150 feet long. They also envisioned their extended community as occupying a symbolic longhouse some 300 miles long, with the Mohawk guarding the eastern door and the Seneca the western. Despite their common culture and language, relations among the Five Tribes deteriorated to a state of near-constant warfare in ancient times. The infighting, in turn, made them vulnerable to attacks from the surrounding Algonquian tribes. This period, known in the Iroquois oral tradition as the “darktimes,” reached a nadir during the reign of a psychotic Onondaga chief named Todadaho. Legend has it that he was a cannibal who ate from bowls made from the skulls of his victims, that he knew and saw everything, that…