What Is the Iroquois Tribe?

Rebecca Mecomber

The Iroquois tribe was a league of American Indian tribes living in the woodlands of what is now central upstate New York. The tribes organized themselves into a loosely regulated confederacy and vowed to defend each other from their enemies, most notably the Algonquin tribe to the south, and assist each other in times of need, such as during famine or plague. The Iroquois tribe consisted of five nations — Cayuga, Seneca, Oneida, Onondaga and Mohawk — and was later joined by the Tuscarora. Various counties in upstate New York retain the names and boundaries of the ancient tribes' settlements.

The tribes of the Iroquois Confederation used canoes to trade, fish, and conduct warfare across the waterways of the American Northeast and Great Lakes regions.
The tribes of the Iroquois Confederation used canoes to trade, fish, and conduct warfare across the waterways of the American Northeast and Great Lakes regions.

The name Iroquois is a French word meaning "fierce" or "snake-like." This was the name given to the confederacy by early French explorers and fur traders in the 17th century. France had aligned with the Canadian Indian tribes of the north, the Hurons and Algonquins of Canada, who were the enemies of the Iroquois.

The Iroquois Indians called themselves the Haudenosaunee or Ongwanonsionni, or "people of the longhouse." A longhouse was a lengthy structure built from cut tree limbs and covered with bark. The Iroquois tribe was a farming community. The main staples were beans, corn and squash — or the "three sisters," as the Iroquois called them. Deer, elk, bear and small game such as rabbit and fowls provided meat, household tools and clothing.

The Iroquois Confederacy is hailed as a marvel in organized government. Families were organized into clans named after native animals, such as wolf, beaver or turtle. Leadership in each tribe was hereditary, but new leaders were selected by women. Women were not permitted representation in the council, but Iroquois women held more rights than most women at the time, and a clan traced its genealogy through the matriarch. Treaties were documented with belts crafted of beads from seashells, called wampum belts.

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The American Revolutionary War was the final blow to the Iroquois Confederation. The six Indian nations divided loyalties with that "shot heard 'round the world" in 1775 in Lexington, Massachusetts. Most Iroquois tribes sided with England; only the Oneida nation joined the side of the Americans. After the war, the Oneidas were granted land and a sovereign status within the wilderness that is now Oneida County, New York. All of the other Iroquois tribes either assimilated into the new United States or fled north into Canada.

The Iroquois tribe has been dismantled, although various independent nations have retained their identity on Indian reservations. The Onondaga and Oneida Indian nations still cling to their lands in upstate New York, preserving a small semblance of their ancient culture. As of 2011, there were believed to be about 16,000 descendants of the Iroquois tribe living mainly throughout the United States and Canada.

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