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What is the Cayuga Nation?

By Brenda Scott
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Cayuga Nation is a Native American tribe originally located in the Finger Lakes area of New York. The Cayuga, whose name means "people of the great swamp," were the smallest of the six tribes which formed the Iroquois Confederacy and were known as the Younger Brothers. Like other Confederacy members, they lived in villages made up of wooden longhouses which sheltered multiple families.

The Cayuga Nation was divided into five clans; the Turtle, Wolf, Bear, Snipe and Heron. The clans were matrilineal, which means that a child was a member of his mother’s clan, and each clan had a Clan Mother who was responsible for the welfare of its members. Clan membership was for life, and a married man retained his birth clan membership. The women in the clan chose the clan chief and the Clan Mothers had the power to remove a chief if he was not performing his duties. Women also made decisions regarding use of the land and tribal resources and chose the Cayuga representatives to the Iroquois Council.

While women picked the Cayuga Nation leadership, only men served as chiefs and tribal representatives. Men elected the war chiefs and were the ones to make military and trade decisions. The Cayuga were farmers and hunters, and were famous for their decorated masks, beadwork and quillwork. Members of the tribe entertained themselves by playing lacrosse, throwing darts through a rolling hoop, wrestling and gambling. The tribe celebrated the same four lunar festivals shared by other Iroquois members; the strawberry ceremony, the green corn ceremony, the harvest ceremony and the mid-winter ceremony.

Cayuga men wore breechcloths, leggings and a feathered hat called a gustoweh which bore the tribal insignia. They would occasionally tattoo themselves with tribal emblems. During wartime, the men would cut off all their hair except a center lock, in the style still known as a Mohawk. The women did not use tattoos, and only cut their hair as a sign of mourning.

When the Revolutionary War occurred, the Cayuga Nation was one of the four tribes from the Iroquois Confederacy which supported the British. Once the war was over, American troops were sent into New York to drive the Iroquois nations who had opposed them out of the New York area. The majority of the Cayuga moved into Canada with other Confederacy members, while some joined tribes such as the Seneca in Ohio. A few stayed in New York to negotiate with President Washington and were part of the Treaty of Canandaigua signed by the United States and Six Nations.

The Treaty gave the member nations a right to a large reservation in the state of New York. The state, however, did not wish to honor the treaty with tribes that had been adversaries. The Cayuga Nation has been involved in legal action against the United States and the State of New York for over 200 years to establish a reservation in New York. Instead of simply waiting for a victory, the Cayuga Nation has begun purchasing land to be held for the tribe.

The majority of the Cayuga Nation lives on reservations shared with other tribes. The largest segment is located in Ontario, Canada on the Six Nations Reserve and the Grand River Reservation. Those Cayuga who stayed in the United States are primarily located on reservations in New York, Wisconsin and Oklahoma.

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