The land of the Iroqouis was one of great fertility and beauty and formed a large rectangle which was divided into five north-south strips, one to each tribe. Each area had its own lake or river system and was governed by it’s own council. Each council had a ceremonial fire, the smoke of which together was seen as a giant longhouse, more than 200 miles from end to end. The eastern door of this symbolic longhouse was guarded by the Mohawk tribe. The western door was protected by the Seneca’s. In between were the Oneidas and Cayugas and between them were the Onondagas. By the late 1600’s, as other tribes were defeated, the influence of the Longhouse spread from New England to the Mississippi and from Ontario to Tennessee
The Seneca in 1680, numbered near 5,000 and that population contained 1,000 of the fiercest warriors in America. The settlement contained four main villages with 150 longhouses. The longhouse was a rectangular structure made from poles and sheets of bark. It could measure up to 150 feet long and 25 feet wide. At each end would be painted the symbol of that particular clan. Inside, every 12 feet, a small fire burned, the smoke rising up through vents in the roof. Along the walls, were platforms, one upper for storage and one lower for sleeping, each partitioned off to accomodate a whole family. From the rafters hung braids of corn, strings of dried apples and squash, hanks of tobacco and bundles of roots. Each family occupied a position in the whole, part of a family descended down from the mother’s line for the Iroqouis were a matrilineal society. The women owned all material goods except for the men’s personal belongings. When a boy married, he moved into his brides house and when a girl married, her husband joined her family.
The lineage ran from family to clan to half-tribe and then whole tribe. Children had to marry outside of their own clan and preferably not to a blood relation. It was in the power of a woman, if her husband was killed to demand compensation in the form of an enemy captive. When the captive was brought, she could adopt him or have him tortured or even killed.
A matriarchal society was the natural outcome of the life of the men in the tribe who spent vast amounts of time away, at war, hunting or searching for beaver to trade. They could be away as long as three months. This left most of the camp maintenance up to the women who worked tirelessly, harvesting up to a million bushels of corn a year as well as squash, beans and sunflower seeds. Corn, squash and beans were known as “the three sisters” and were planted with each other. Corn would provide the stalk for beans to grow up and squash would shelter the earth from the heat. Surplus food was stored in underground granaries. When their husbands came home loaded with meat from deer, elk or beaver carcasses, a feast would be held with stews made with meat and vegetables, corn dumplings, mushrooms, baked apples, nuts and berries. (It is interesting to note that these people were among the first Amerindians to have tooth decay as corn turned to sugar in their mouths. The northern peoples had strong cavity free teeth, though their gums may have suffered.)
Of course, the most important role of an Iroqouis woman was to bear children. When her time came, she would quietly slip off and the baby would be born in the privacy of trees and shadow. The child was washed, wrapped and carried back to the waiting village. The mother would nurse him until three or four years of age. When the mother must travel or was otherwise busy, she would place the baby in a “tikinaagan” or cradleboard which could be attached to a horse or stood on the ground while she worked. If she carried a pack, the strap would be across her forehead, otherwise on her chest or arms. Below an older child who probably did not enjoy being constrained. Being confined in these cradleboards often resulted in hip displacement as it forced the femur into an unnatural position.
As the Iroqouis child grew, often with his father absent, his mother would be sure that he was loved but not spoiled. Children were taught from an early age their gender role, boys fighting each other with pretend clubs and girls learning their role by following their mothers to the fields. They were taught to eat sparingly and were bathed in cold water to toughen them. Corn played a large part in the care of children, being used to bandage fingers, deworm with a brew from corn ashes and scrub with the cob when they were dirty.
From the age of eight years, each child began to practice the role they would play. At puberty, a boy would make a trip into the forest with an elder to find his guardian spirit, a vision quest. He might throw himself against rocks repeatedly to prove his manhood and recount his dreams in detail to determine with the elder, what his guardian spirit would be. There was no greater day for a young man, than when he rode off to his first battle at around age eighteen.
The Seneca, “keepers of the western door” were rivaled in their ferocity only by their eastern brothers, the Mohawk. The name “Iroqouis” was given to them by the Algonquian, meaning “Nation of Snakes”. Their style of fighting was ambush, their weapons as silent as the mocassined runners themselves; tomahawk, bow, arrow and knife often made of flint sharpened to a razors edge. The sound of the hatchet in a tree meant it was time to go on the warpath, generally to avenge the death of one of the tribe. After a raid, a tree would be emblazoned with the clan symbol and a count of victims and captives.
The fate of a captive was not a happy one. At first, his wrists would be tied in a symbolic slave band, then he might be beaten, bitten or burned. When they arrived at the village he would have to “run the guantlet”. If he survived this, he might be adopted by the tribe as the women and children were. If the tribe’s women were still bitter about the loss of their loved ones, the prisoner was doomed. They might poke him with red hot embers, tear his hair out and set fire to the cords he was bound with. They might pull out his nails and take slices of flesh, perhaps eating some of them to symbolically ingest his wisdom and strength.
Something would have to happen to stop the inter-tribal warfare that could decimate the whole Iroqouis population.