Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
September 2004

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Iroquois Family of Indians



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico . It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]


[Further information on the Iroquois may be found in the Canadian Encyclopedia, the Encyclopedia of North American Indians and at the Native American Languages' site]



Iroquoian Family . A linguistic stock consisting of the following tribes and tribal groups: the Hurons composed of the Attignaouantan (Bear people), the Attigneenongnahac (Cord people), the Arendahronon (Rock people), the Tohontaenrat (Atahontaenrat or Tohontaenrat, (White-eared or Deer people), the Wenrohronon, the Ataronchronon, and the Atonthrataronon (Otter people, an Algonquian tribe); the Tionontati or Tobacco people or nation; the confederation of the Attiwendaronk or Neutrals, composed of the Neutrals proper, the Aondironon, the Ongniarahronon, and the Atiragenratka (Atiraguenrek); the Conkhandeenhronon; the Iroquois confederation composed of the Mohawk, the Oneida, the Onondaga, the Cayuga, and the Seneca, with the Tuscarora after 1726; and, in later times, the incorporated remnants of a number of alien tribes, such as the Tutelo, the Saponi, the Nanticoke, the Conoy, and the Muskwaki or Foxes; the Conestoga or Susquehanna of at least three tribes, of which one was the Akhrakouaehronon or Atrakouaehronon; the Erie or Cat nation of at least two allied peoples; the Tuscarora confederation composed of several leagued tribes, the names of which are now unknown; the Nottaway; the Meherrin; and the Cherokee composed of at least three divisions, the Elati, the Middle Cherokee, and the Atali; and the Onnontioga consisting of the Iroquois-Catholic seceders on the St. Lawrence.


Each tribe was an independent political unit, except those which formed leagues in which the constituent tribes, while enjoying local self-government, acted jointly in common affairs. For this reason there was no general name for themselves common to all the tribes.


Jacques Cartier, in 1534, met on the shore of Gaspe basin people of the Iroquoian stock, whom, in the following year, he again encountered in their home on the site of the city of Quebec. He found both banks of the St. Lawrence above Quebec, as far as the site of Montreal, occupied by people of this family. He visited the villages Hagonchenda, Hochelaga, Hochelayi, Stadacona, and Tutonaguy. This was the first known habitat of an Iroquoian people. Champlain found these territories entirely deserted 70 years later, and Lescarbot found people roving over this area speaking an entirely different language from that recorded by Cartier. He believed that this change of languages was due to "a destruction of people," because, he writes, "some years ago the Iroquois assembled themselves to the number of 8,000 men and destroyed all their enemies, whom they surprised in their enclosures." The new language which he recorded was Algonquian, spoken by bands that passed over this region on warlike forays.


The early occupants of the St. Lawrence were probably the Arendahronon and Tohontaenrat, tribes of the Hurons. Their lands bordered on those of the Iroquois, whose territory extended westward to that of the Neutrals, neighbours of the Tionontati and western Huron tribes to the N. and the Erie to the S. and W. The Conestoga occupied the middle and lower basin of the Susquehanna S. of the Iroquois. The N. Iroquoian area, which Algonquian tribes surrounded on nearly every side, therefore embraced nearly the entire valley of the St. Lawrence, the basins of lake Ontario and lake Erie, the S. E. shores of lake Huron and Georgian bay, all of the present New York state except the lower Hudson valley, all of central Pennsylvania, and the shores of Chesapeake bay in Maryland as far as Choptank and Patuxent rs. In the S. the Cherokee area, surrounded by Algonquian tribes on the N., Siouan on the E., and Muakhogean and Uchean tribes on the S. and W., embraced the valleys of the Tennessee and upper Savannah rs. and the mountainous part of Virginia, the Carolinas, and Alabama . Separated from the Cherokee by the territory of the eastern Siouan tribes was the area occupied by the Tuscarora in E. North Carolina and by the Meherrin and Nottaway N. of them in S. E. Virginia.


The northern Iroquoian tribes, especially the Five Nations so called, were second to no other Indian people N. of Mexico in political organization, statecraft, and military prowess. Their leaders were astute diplomats, as the wily French and English statesmen with whom they treated soon discovered. In war they practised ferocious cruelty toward their prisoners, burning even their unadopted women and infant prisoners; but, far from being a race of rude and savage warriors, they were a kindly and affectionate people, full of keen sympathy for kin and friends in distress, kind and deferential to their women, exceedingly fond of their children, anxiously striving for peace and good will among men, and profoundly imbued with a just reverence for the constitution of their commonwealth and for its founders. Their wars were waged primarily to secure and perpetuate their political life and independence. The fundamental principles of their confederation, persistently maintained for centuries by force of arms and by compacts with other peoples, were based primarily on blood relationship, and they shaped and directed their foreign and internal polity in consonance with these principles. The underlying motive for the institution of the Iroquois league was to secure universal peace and welfare (ne '' skeñ'no n ) among men by the recognition and enforcement of the forms of civil government (ne" ga'i'hwiio) through the direction and regulation of personal and public conduct and thought in accordance with beneficent customs and council degrees; by the stopping of bloodshed in the blood-feud through the tender of the prescribed price for the killing of a co-tribesman; by abstaining from eating human flesh; and, lastly, through the maintenance and necessary exercise of power (no" ga' shasdo n "sä' ), not only military but also magic power believed to be embodied in the forms of their ceremonial activities. The tender by the homicide and his family for the murder or killing by accident of a co-tribesman was twenty strings of wampum - ten for the dead person, and ten for the forfeited life of the homicide.


The religious activities of these tribes expressed themselves in the worship of all environing elements and bodies and many creatures of a teeming fancy, which, directly, or remotely affecting their welfare, were regarded as man-beings or anthropic personages endowed with life, volition, and peculiar individual orenda, or magic power. In the practice of this religion, ethics or morals, as such, far from having a primary had only a secondary, if any, consideration. The status and personal relations of the personages of their pantheon were fixed and regulated by rules and customs similar to those in vogue in the social and political organization of the people, and there was, therefore, among at least the principal gods, a kinship system patterned on that of the people themselves.


The mental superiority of the Hurons over their Algonquian neighbours is frequently mentioned by the early French missionaries. A remainder of the Tionontati, with a few refugee Hurons among them, having fled to the region of the upper lakes, along with certain Ottawa tribes, to escape the Iroquois invasion in 1649, maintained among their fellow refugees, a predominating influence. This was largely because, like other Iroquoian tribes, they had been highly organized socially and politically, and were therefore trained in definite parliamentary customs and procedure. The fact that, although but a small tribe, the Hurons claimed and exercised the right of lighting the council fire at all general gatherings, shows the esteem in which they were held by their neighbours. The Cherokee were the first tribe to adopt a constitutional form of government, embodied in a code of haws written in their own language in an alphabet based on the Roman characters adapted by one of them, though, in weighing these facts, their large infusion of white blood must be considered.


The social organization of the Iroquoian tribes was in some respects similar to that of some other Indians, but it was much more complex and cohesive, and there was a notable difference in regard to the important position accorded the women. Among the Cherokee, the Iroquois, the Hurons, and probably among the other tribes, the women performed important and essential functions in their government. Every chief was chosen and retained his position, and every important measure was enacted by the consent and co-operation of the child-bearing women, and the candidate for a chiefship was nominated by the suffrages of the matrons of this group. His selection by them from among their sons had to be confirmed by the tribal and the federal councils respectively, and finally he was installed into office by federal officers. Lands and houses belonged solely to the women.


All the Iroquoian tribes were sedentary and agricultural, depending on the chase for only a small part of their subsistence. The northern tribes were especially noted for their skill in fortification and house-building. Their so-called castles were solid log structures, with platforms running around the top on the inside, from which stones and other missiles could be hurled down upon besiegers.


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada, Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada, Ottawa, 1913, 632p., pp. 224-226.


© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College