Natives by Any Other Name: The Iroquois of New York State

The weirdest thing about Native North American culture is that there’s no such thing as Native North American culture. Nowhere on the continent will you get tipis next to totem poles, igloos next to peace pipes next to tomahawks. It make sense to have so much variety (North America alone is – hold on, time to subtly Google this – North America is two and a half times bigger than Europe, and look how much we differ between Portugal and, say, Russia), and it sucks that all we get is the clumped-together version of 15,000 years of history. Hold on, you say, isn’t that exactly what you did last post? Shut up, I say, hurriedly, cross-referencing is definitely not allowed. My point is that if you have to condense it down, there are more like – at the very absolute least -five, each corresponding to a point on the compass – in the South, the pottery-making, Aztec-bothering Pueblo Indians, in the West, the arty but unoriginally-named West Coast Indians, in the North, the thick-coated whale-hunting Inuit and in the East, the more-about-them-later Eastern Nations. The Middle, as you history-loving lot probably know, goes to the badass survivalists that are the Plains Indians. I’ll probably mention the others someday because, well, they all do pretty well up until 1776, but for now we’re sticking with the coolest, largest and probably most surprising of the lot – the Eastern Nations, and in particular, the infamous Great Lake dwellers, the Iroquois.

Note the conspicuous lack of totem poles, war bonnets and walrus-hunting equipment. They’re equally far off.

The Iroquois (actually called the Haudenosaunee, but French nicknames stick) are not the kind of natives you’d expect from America. They didn’t live in tipis and move around constantly – they lived in Longhouses and turned their tribes into stationary nations. Remember the agricultural revolution? That farming was invented not once, put several times around the world? The Iroquois are one of that crowd – after all, they were the ones who provided the first ever Thanksgiving Feast to those grateful pilgrims. They invented goddamn maple syrup, so Canada at the very least is eternally indebted to them.  And you thought the USA was the first federal (read: state-based) democracy in North America? Try the Iroquois, who were formed from an alliance of the Mohawks and their equally awesomely named neighbours, and who worked on a basis of “If we all agree, we do. If we don’t, we don’t”. Sexism, however, was rife in Iroquois society, as men held all the real power…

Ha, just kidding. Iroquois society was way cooler than that.

Women were property owners and the official head of the family, keeping all their property when they married and holding real political power. The men were chieftains, but the women had the executive power in the form of the “Tribe Mother” who could veto anything the men put forward, even demote a bad chieftain. This system clearly worked, as the Iroquois grew fast from what is now New York State to most of the Northeast US, and, when the Europeans started settling en masse, they became valuable ally, rather than enemy, to the British. (The French, who sided with their Canadian rivals the Huron, were less friendly – explains why Iroquois translates from Huron as “real snakes” or – you’ll love this – “Black Adders”) But it turns out that British Alliance was to be the death of the Iroquois, because when the third regional power appeared about, I don’t know, 1776, it adopted a much more aggressive approach to Native America.

An Iroqouis village in Canada, newly “civilised” but at least in one piece. 

I’m not dissing the American Revolution here. George Washington himself was described as “an Indian sympathiser” and he’s a pretty cool character anyway, what with all the pot-smoking and liberty-giving. But it was his country and his actions that brought about the end of the Iroquois. For a start, the Revolution split the federation – some nations sided with the Americans, but most with the Brits. And second, they got in the way of the G-dawg, President Washington himself, who ordered the revolutionaries to go to whatever means necessary to break the Brit-Indian alliance.  It was not pretty. It rarely is. In the end, what had been one of the largest Native American nations was left without a home, forced to move out of the US and into British Canada. From there, forced “education” programmes split up Iroqouis families – an attempt to destroy the old ways through enlightenment. This won’t be the last time a European power tries this to a native culture. But at least the Iroquois had a home, and through that, a continued, shared culture. The empire was dead, but at the very least this time the people and the culture got to live on.

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One thought on “Natives by Any Other Name: The Iroquois of New York State

  1. Everything is very open with a really clear description
    of the issues. It was truly informative. Your website is very useful.
    Many thanks for sharing!

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