The Iroquois and their culture

The Iroquois and their culture have long been recognized as one of the most significant,

celebrated, and well known amongst all Native Americans. The Iroquois consist of five

neighboring tribes in lands of upper New York, and Southeastern Canada (Wallenfeldt, n.d). The

location of the tribes was often referred to as a “Longhouse”, which stems from the structures of

their homes, and their horizontal proximity to one and other. The alternate name for their tribes

was Haudenosaunee, or People of the Longhouse (Iroquois, 2008).From East to West, the tribes

are listed as the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca. Yes, there were different

tribes within one large Native group, but their togetherness is what makes them so unique. As a

matter of fact, they’re referred to as one of the world’s oldest participatory democracies, and their

constitution, the Great Law of Peace, is believed to have been a model for the United State’s

constitution (Wallenfeldt, n.d). Prior to their first exposure to smallpox, it is estimated that the

population of the Iroquois was around 22,00 (Iroquois, 2008). Unfortunately, diseases desecrated

their strength and population which weakened their hold on their land when battling white

westward expansion. Regardless of how unjust and cruel their demise was, the time they spend

thriving and existing is something we can still appreciate and admire. For instance, their vast

culture. Their culture was similar throughout all tribes in the Iroquois Confederacy.

The structures of their villages were similar in terms of buildings. Each village is

surrounded by wooden walls with spikes on to prevent invasion of any potential threat. On the

outskirts of the village walls were the fields in which they grew all of their crops. One of, if not

the most, significant aspect of Iroquoian village society was the Longhouse. Being that the

formation of their tribes took the shape of a Longhouse, one could easily tell how important it

actually was. According to (Rose, n.d), longhouses by definition are a long, narrow single room


Gabriel Donnelly
Gabriel Donnelly
Gabriel Donnelly
Gabriel Donnelly
Gabriel Donnelly


that are around 100 meters in length generally never wide as 5 to 7 meters. The Iroquois

longhouses had doors on both ends, and each was designed so as many as twenty families or

more could live in it. A family would occupy a booth on either side of the hallway and the he

booth had a wooden platform for sleeping. (Rose, n.d) Inside the living quarters is where crops

were stored, either in barrels or underground. One of the crops, for example, was corn. The corn

was charred, and then proceeded to be dried out in the sun, making it practically immune to

infection that causes rotting (Johansen, 2017).

Furthermore, the Iroquois were primarily an agricultural based society. Day to day operations in

this sense was overseen by the women of the tribe rather than the stereotypical man who spent

the majority of his time hunting. This was implemented to balance the workload between each

respective gender (Johansen, 2017). Furthermore, the implication of a sustainable agricultural

system was essential to the Iroquois’ society. The primary crops that were grown were referred

to as “the three sisters”, and consisted of corn, squash, and beans (Block, 2011). All three of

these crops, especially corn, became an essential food source for years to come. “The three

sister” were produced in massive quantities and outmatched even ones of European Americans.

According to (Johansen, 2017),

“The Frenchman Marquis de Denonville, who attempted a military conquest of the

Haudenosaunee in 1687 (and failed), reported that his forces destroyed more than 400,000

minots of corn. A French minot, according to Lewis Henry Morgan, equals roughly three

bushels, so the 400,000 minots of corn that Denonville’s forces destroyed was roughly 1.2

million bushels.” (Johansen, 2017)

These crops were sacred in Iroquoian society and were involved in ceremonies and rituals.


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Gabriel Donnelly
Gabriel Donnelly
Gabriel Donnelly


Rituals and ceremonies were common practice during the time of the Iroquois. These

rituals and ceremonies were a way of life for the Iroquois, and helped them achieve harmony

with the natural world. (Johansen, 2017) For instance, according to (Block, 2011) they

performed rituals such as the Harvest Festival and the ​ Green Corn Ceremony ​ developed around

the planting cycle to bless their crops. During the growing seasons, rituals focused on rain, while

during harvest season they focused on thanksgiving for successful crops. (Block, 2011). Of all

harvest based ceremonies, the most important came about Midwinter, and lasted about 6 days. It

was then where the Iroquoian people converted from eating fresh foods, to eating stored foods

(Block, 2011). Each day of the Midwinter festival was filed with an abundance of celebrations,

dances, and sports. All of this was to honor nature, but was only just a part of a yearlong cycle

following the previous growing season.

Sports were another aspect in Iroquoian society that was of high prestige and importance.

The most commonly practiced sport was lacrosse. Lacrosse is a game originally invented by

Native Americans where the players would work as a team to throw a ball placed inside a netted

stick into the opposing teams net. In today’s game, there are professional leagues with rules and

regulations and forms of payment. The people of the Iroquois played the same game, but much

differently. Often called by the Iroquois, “the Creators Game”, their version of lacrosse would

often include hundreds of participants and last for days at a time with goals being scored in other

villages. (Johansen, 2017) Lacrosse wasn’t just a sport to the Iroquois as they implemented the

importance of the game spiritually at a very young age. Children were taught that the ball

represent the moon which is believed to have formed when a lacrosse ball was hurled into the

sky. (Johansen, 2017) Lacrosse was also used to promote religious meanings, purpose and even



ceremony. As cited in (Johansen, 2017), “The playing of lacrosse is said to promote life. A sick

person may have a game organized in his or her honor, in the belief that the person’s health may

improve” The ball was often laced with medical herbs in these situations to promote health to the

sick person. (Johansen, 2017). The significance of sport rang throughout the tribes, and we can

see its long lasting influence in today’s age.

Art of the Iroquois is another beautiful aspect of their culture. Art is freedom of

expression in the form of creation, and how the user and creator interpret it is up to them. In

terms of the Iroquois, they used art to express beliefs, their ancestors, and their heritage. They

typically had their art depicted on their clothing, and used as accessories. Their most well-known

form of art is bead working. Beads were small and round shaped objects connected on a single

piece of thread. The Iroquois made their beads out of wood, bones, rocks, and jewels, while the

thread was made out of animal tendons. (Art of the Iroquois, n.d) Another form of art that was

commonly practiced was the art of mask making. This specific form of art was extremely sacred

to the Iroquois. In some instances, outsiders are forbidden to even look at certain masks. (Art of

the Iroquois, n.d) Masks are considered to be representations of living spirits, and the wearer is

supposed to act as if they’re the spirit on the mask. The images on the masks were meant to help

people when used. (Hirschfelder & Molin, 1999) These masks were called False Face Masks and

were worn by the False Face Society in private or public rituals. (Hirschfelder & Molin, 1999)

Overall, art was a vital, important, and symbolic aspect of Iroquoian culture.

The people of the Iroquois were a robust bunch whose culture can still be seen today in

vast areas. At the time, they were one of the first forms of democracy, setting a precedent for

how civilization should be. As Americans, we view civilization much differently than the



Iroquois, but that does not mean one is more civilized than the other. Their agricultural system

was vital for their survival and they were able to produce so many crops that it stunned

neighboring white settlers. Ceremonies and rituals were a way of life and were conducted almost

daily as a way to connect with nature and its power. Sports such as lacrosse were more than just

a game, and were symbolic to the people. Art took form in masks and bead making which

became sacred to the Iroquois. All in all, the culture of the Iroquoian people was beautiful, and

one to admire. Fortunately we can still view the aspects of it today for they are now miniscule in

numbers due to white expansion westward.




Art of the Iroquois. (n.d.). Retrieved December 10, 2018, from

Block, M. D. (2011). Iroquois/iroquois confederacy. In ​Encyclopedia of Native American

History, Volume 1 ​. New York: Facts On File. Retrieved December 9, 2018, from,


Hirschfelder, A., & Molin, P. (1999). Mask. In ​Encyclopedia of Native American Religions,

Updated Edition ​. New York: Facts On File. Retrieved December 10, 2018, from

Iroquois. (2008). In W. A. Darity, Jr. (Ed.), ​International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences

(2nd ed., Vol. 4, pp. 151-152). Detroit, MI: Macmillan Reference USA. Retrieved from


Johansen, B. E. (2017). Iroquois origins and ceremonial culture. In ​The Iroquois, Second Edition ​.

New York: Facts On File. Retrieved December 9, 2018, from

Rose, M. (n.d.). Iroquois Longhouse. Retrieved December 10, 2018, from

Wallenfeldt, J. (n.d.). The 6 Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. Retrieved December 10, 2018,

from ​

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