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Iroquois Confederacy

Traditional Culture and Political Organization

Their material culture was the most advanced of the Eastern Woodlands area, but they exhibited many traits peculiar to other areas, and this leads many authorities to believe that the Iroquois at some time in the distant past migrated from the lower Mississippi valley. They lived in palisaded villages; the men hunted deer and small game, and the women raised corn, squash, tobacco, and beans. Women held a high status in the society, and descent was matrilineal. Even before the formation of the confederation, the Iroquois families lived in the distinctive bark-covered rectangular structure known as the long house.

When the prophet Deganawidah and his disciple Hiawatha founded (c.1570) the confederacy (to eliminate incessant intertribal warfare and to end cannibalism), this dwelling became the symbol of the Five Nations. They thought of themselves metaphorically as dwelling in a large long house, which had a door on the eastern end, guarded by the Mohawk (in the extreme geographical east), and a door on the western end, guarded by the Seneca (in the extreme west). The Onondaga, keepers of the council fires and the wampum records, were between the Cayuga on the west and the Oneida on the east. The main Onondaga village served as the capital, or meeting place, of the federated council. Voting in the council was conducted by tribe, and a unanimous decision was necessary to wage war. Nevertheless, intertribal war was not unknown.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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