Hodenosaunee (People of the Longhouse)



The Five Nations (Iroquois) that straddled what eventually became the border between Canada and United States liked to call themselves the Hodenosaunee or People of the Longhouse. Iroquois is the name the French gave to them. Their territory was much larger than that of the Huron, but their population was much smaller. They made up for their smaller numbers with political savvy and a reputation for fierceness. That and their location gave them a critical advantage that came strongly into play when the Indigenous Nations started to form alliances with European powers, for that location gave them control of the major trading routes from the east coast to the interior of North America.

As a result of their larger territory the Iroquois villages were much more spread out than those of their rivals, the Huron. As a result their languages became more distinct as well. Interestingly, while the men cleared the fields for agriculture the women did the farming. Each village had its own cornfield surrounding it. The Hodenosaunee and the tribes of the west coast had the most substantial agricultural systems. Some had some farming however. For example, the Ojibwa or Anishinabe relied on an uncultivated crop—wild rice. They were not as dependent on farming however as ordinary crop farmers. According to Dickason and Newbigging, in their book A Concise History of Canada’s First Nations, “Iroquoians grew 80% of their food requirements.”

Each village had its own fledgling democracy as a result of establishing their own councils. These democracies were very influential later on the Founding Fathers of the United States who borrowed from ideas of the Hodenosaunee.  Each nation also had its won council and nation’s council would meet in one of the villages.

I was startled to learn that the leaders were chosen by women! Isn’t that heresy? It was heresy to the Europeans, but not to the Hodenosaunee. Women chose and disbarred the leaders.

Hodenosaunee (Iroquois) society was divided into clans or families similar to nations n the west coast. I wonder how that happened.

The Iroquois formed a Confederacy known as “The Great League of Peace.” A Council of 50 chiefs representing participating tribes governed the League. The League also managed the problem of giving authority to the various tribes. As a result centralization was not perfect. Member tribes often had a significant amount of autonomy. Their aim was to maintain peace and one of the main ways of doing this was through the exchange of condolences and gifts. I am constantly amazed at how often in Indigenous cultures gift giving was important.  The one who gave the most often had the most prestige. Very different from European culture where prestige went to the person who acquired the most. Again this was similar to civilization on the west coast of Canada. I use that word “civilization” advisedly.

Once more this leads me to ask who was more civilized The European invaders or Indigenous People? My point is not that Indigenous people were always better. It simply that it is far from obvious as Europeans believed, that Indigenous People were always inferior.

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