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Who are the Iroquois Indians?

By Heather Phillips
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Iroquois Indians, also known as the Haudenosaunee — which means 'people of the longhouse' — are a group of Native Americans that originally lived in what is now the state of New York. Today, with a population of about 70,000, Iroquois Indians live in various places in the U.S. and Canada, including New York, Wisconsin, Ontario, and Quebec. Actually comprised of six different Native American tribes, the Iroquois nation includes the Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca, and Tuscarora peoples.

The Iroquois Indians traditionally had, and still have, a basically democratic system of governing. Individual Native American tribes in the Iroquois Confederacy lead their own groups. Clan mothers, the matriarchs of the different tribes, however, choose male Iroquois leaders to represent their people at Great Council meetings. These were typically meetings of representatives from the five original tribes. At them, all but the Tuscarora, who were relative latecomers to the Iroquois, meet to discuss issues related to the governing of all Iroquois Indians, and make decisions by consensus.

Some of the United States' founding fathers were familiar with the Iroquois' system of government. They incorporated some of its features into the budding American democracy. For instance, the relationship between the Great Council and the individual tribes is similar to the relationship between the United States' federal government and the individual state governments.

Iroquois Indians generally lived an agrarian existence, using hunting, fishing, and farming to provide sustenance for their people. They relied on what they called the Three Sisters farming method. In this, the people planted corn, and, as it sprouted, they would mound dirt around the young plants. Within these mounds, they would also plant beans, which would provide nitrogen for the corn, just as the corn stalks gave support to the growing bean vines. Between the mounded rows of corn and beans, the Iroquois planted squash or pumpkin, which would shade the soil, keeping moisture in and minimizing weed growth.

Iroquois men and women held different roles within the tribe. Men typically hunted, fished, traded, and made decisions regarding war. Women farmed, owned the longhouses, and took care of matters relating to families. Both men and women told tribal stories, created art and music, and practiced medicinal healing.

The Iroquois Indians were skilled in making implements of bent wood. They made wooden hoes for use in gardening. They also made lacrosse sticks. Some Iroquois Indians still make the sticks, in the traditional way, to this day.

Traditional Iroquois dress for men consisted of a breechcloth and leggings. Men generally did not wear shirts, but, in winter, would wear heavy robes and moccasins. Also, male warriors would often shave the sides of their heads leaving a crest of hair, often referred today as a mohawk. Women would typically wear shorter leggings than the men, along with a wrap skirt and an overdress or tunic shirt. Women usually also wore heavy robes and moccasins in colder weather.

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