Monday, August 1, 2011

The Six Nations of Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayuga and Seneca

The Six Nations of Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayuga and Seneca
The Six Nations.

When white men began to settle what is now the state of New York, that part of it extending from about the Hudson River west along the []Mohawk and on beyond it to the Niagara, was occupied by the Iroquois or Five Nations. The separate tribes, naming them from the east, were the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas. These were flourishing tribes; they had important villages and towns and large cornfields; they were, however, also hunting tribes and powerful in war. In fact, they were the terror of their milder Algonkin neighbors. Personally, Iroquois Indians were finely built, strong, energetic, and active.
Iroquois Photo Gallery

They spoke languages much alike and probably derived from one ancient language. This was believed by them to prove that the five tribes were related. Still they were at one time frequently at war with each other. This was before the white men came. Finally, a man named Hayenwatha was a chief among the Onondagas. He was wise, kind, and peaceable. There was at this same time another Onondaga chief named Atotarho, who was in character the opposite of Hayenwatha. He was a bold warrior and the dreaded foe of the Cayugas and Senecas, against whom he led war-parties; he was feared and disliked by his own people. When these two men were chiefs among the Onondagas, the Mohawks and the Oneidas were much harassed by their Algonkin neighbors, the Mohicans. Hayenwatha thought much over the sad condition of the Iroquois tribes. Constantly warring with their kindred in the west and troubled by outside foes [pg 117]in the east, their future looked dark. He thought of a plan of union which he believed would bring peace and prosperity.

Most Indian tribes consisted of a few great groups of persons, the members of which were related to each other and lived together. Such groups of related persons are calledgentes; the singular of the word is gens. There were three gentes among the Mohawks, three among the Oneidas, and eight in each of the other three tribes. These gentes usually bore the name of some animal; thus the Oneida gentes were the wolf, bear, and turtle. The people belonging to a gens were called by the gens name. Thus an Oneida was either a wolf, bear, or turtle. Every wolf was related to every other wolf in his tribe; every turtle to every other turtle; every bear to every other bear.

Each tribe was ruled by a council which contained members elected from each gens. Each gens had one or more councillors, according to its size and importance. Each member of the council watched with care to see that his gens got all its rights and was not imposed upon by others. Every tribe was independent of every other tribe.

Hayenwatha's idea was to unite the tribes into a strong confederacy. Separately the tribes were weak, and a foe could do them much harm; united they would be so strong that no one could trouble them. He did not wish to destroy the tribes; [pg 118]he wished each to remain independent in managing its own affairs; but he desired that together they should be one great power which would help all. Three times he called a council of his people, the Onondagas, to lay his plan before them; three times he failed because the dreaded Atotarho, who did not desire peace, opposed his scheme.

When he found he could not move his own people, Hayenwatha went to the Mohawks, where he found help; they agreed that such a union was needed. Next the Oneidas were interested. Two great chiefs, one Mohawk and one Oneida, then went to the Onondagas to urge these to join with them; again the plan failed because Atotarho opposed it. The two chiefs went further westward and had a council with the Cayugas, who were pleased with their plan. With a Cayuga chief to help them, they returned to the Onondagas. Another council was held, and finally the Onondagas were gained over by promising the chieftaincy of the confederacy to Atotarho. There was then no trouble in getting the consent of the Senecas. Two chiefs were appointed by them to talk over the plan with the others. Hayenwatha met the six chiefs at Onondaga Lake, where the whole plan was discussed and the new union was made.

It was at first The Five Nations.” At that time the Tuscaroras lived in the south. Later on, perhaps more than two hundred years later, they moved northward, and joined the confederacy, [pg 119]making it “The Six Nations.” The Five Nations formed one government under a great council. This council consisted of fifty members—nine Mohawks, nine Oneidas, fourteen Onondagas, ten Cayugas, eight Senecas. The names of the first councillors were kept alive by their successors always assuming them when they entered the council. The government did not interfere with the rights of the different tribes. It was always ready to receive new tribes into itself. Its purpose was said to be to abolish war and bring general peace. It did this by destroying tribes that did not wish to unite with it. At times the Iroquois Confederacy really did receive other tribes, such, for example, as the Tuteloes, Saponies, Tuscaroras, and fragments of the Eries and Hurons. They themselves always called the confederacy by a name meaning the “long house” or the extended or drawn-out house. The confederacy was thus likened “to a dwelling, which was extended by additions made to the end, in the manner in which their bark-built houses were lengthened. When the number of families inhabiting these long dwellings was increased by marriage or adoption, and a new hearth was required, the end wall was removed, an addition of the required size was made to the edifice, and the closing wall was restored.”

The confederacy became a great power, and is often mentioned in history. When the French or English went to war, it was important for either []side to get the help of the Iroquois. In the council meetings of the tribes, and in the meetings of the great council of the confederacy, there were often important discussions. We have spoken of the warlike spirit of the Iroquois. A man who was a great warrior had great influence. So, however, had the man who was a great speaker. Oratory was much cultivated, and the man who, at a council, could move and sway his fellows, influencing them to war or peace, was an important person.

There were a number of the Iroquois orators whose names are remembered, but none is more famous than Red Jacket. We will give a passage from one of his speeches as an example of Indian oratory. The speech was made in 1805, at a council held at Buffalo. A missionary, named Cram, had come to preach to them, and invited a number of chiefs and important men to attend, that he might explain his business to them. After he had spoken, the old Seneca orator rose, and in his speech said the following words:

“Brother, listen to what we say. There was a time when our forefathers owned this great island. Their seats extended from the rising to the setting sun. The Great Spirit had made it for the use of Indians. He had created the buffalo, the deer, and other animals, for food. He made the bear and the beaver, and their skins served us for clothing. He had scattered them over the country, and taught us how to take them. He had [pg 121]caused the earth to produce corn for bread. All this he had done for his red children because he loved them. If we had any disputes about hunting grounds, they were generally settled without the shedding of much blood, but an evil day came upon us; your forefathers crossed the great water, and landed on this island. Their numbers were small; they found friends and not enemies; they told us they had fled from their country for fear of wicked men, and came here to enjoy their religion. They asked for a small seat; we took pity on them, granted their request, and they sat down among us; we gave them corn and meal; they gave us poison [whisky] in return. The white people had now found our country; tidings were carried back, and more came amongst us, yet we did not fear them; we took them to be friends; they called us brothers; we believed them, and gave them a larger seat. At length their numbers had greatly increased; they wanted more land; they wanted our country. Our eyes were opened, and our minds became uneasy. Wars took place; Indians were hired to fight against Indians, and many of our people were destroyed. They also brought strong liquors among us; it was strong and powerful, and has slain thousands.

Brother, our seats were once large, and yours were very small; you have now become a great people, and we have scarcely a place left to spread our blankets; you have got our country, but are] not satisfied; you want to force your religion upon us.”

Horatio Hale.—Explorer, linguist, ethnologist. One of the earliest prominent American ethnologists. Among his important works is The Iroquois Book of Rites.