Iroquois Family Life

The Iroquois are thought to be one of the most intellectually advanced native peoples, using horticulture, granting equality to women, and possessing a knowledge of a type of architecture.

Iroquois - Longhouse

In North America two groups of longhouses emerged: the Native American longhouse of the tribes usually connected with the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) in the northeast. The longhouses inhabited by the Iroquois were wood boards/bark-covered structures providing shelter for several related families. Each longhouse had a clan symbol placed over the doorway.

Iroquois - Food

The Iroquois are a mix of horticulturalists, farmers, fishers, gatherers and hunters, though their main diet traditionally has come from farming. The main crops they cultivated are corn, beans and squash, which were called the three sisters and are considered special gifts from the Creator. These crops are grown strategically. The cornstalks grow, the bean plants climb the stalks, and the squash grow beneath, inhibiting weeds and keeping the soil moist under the shade of their broad leaves. In this combination, the soil remained fertile for several decades. The food was stored during the winter, and it lasted for two to three years. When the soil eventually lost its fertility, the Haudenosaunee migrated.

Gathering is the traditional job of the women and children. Wild roots, greens, berries and nuts were gathered in the summer. During spring, sap is tapped from the maple trees and boiled into maple syrup, and herbs are gathered for medicine.

The Iroquois hunt mostly deer but also other game such as wild turkey and migratory birds. Muskrat and beaver are hunted during the winter. Fishing has also been a significant source of food because the Iroquois are located near the St. Lawrence River. They fished salmon, trout, bass, perch and whitefish until the St. Lawrence became too polluted by industry. In the spring the Iroquois netted, and in the winter fishing holes were made in the ice.

Iroquois - Medicine

Plants traditionally used by the Iroquois include Agrimonia gryposepala, which was to treat diarrhea, and interrupted fern, used for blood and venereal diseases and conditions. Cone flower (Echinacea), an immune system booster and treatment for respiratory disease was also known and used.

The Iroquois also used quinine, chamomile, ipecac, and a form of penicillin.

Iroquois - Women's Role

The Iroquois are a Mother Clan system, which is gender equal. No person is entitled to ‘own’ land, but it is believed that the Creator appointed women as stewards of the land. Traditionally, the Clan Mothers appoint leaders, as they have raised children and are therefore held to a higher regard. By the same token, if a leader does not prove sound, becomes corrupt or does not listen to the people, the Clan Mothers have the power to strip him of his leadership.

When Americans and Canadians of European descent began to study Iroquois customs in the 18th and 19th centuries, they learned that the people had a matrilineal system: women held property and hereditary leadership passed through their lines. They held dwellings, horses and farmed land, and a woman’s property before marriage stayed in her possession without being mixed with that of her husband. They had separate roles but real power in the nations. The work of a woman’s hands was hers to do with as she saw fit. At marriage, a young couple lived in the longhouse of the wife’s family. A woman choosing to divorce a shiftless or otherwise unsatisfactory husband was able to ask him to leave the dwelling and take his possessions with him.

The children of the marriage belong to their mother’s clan and gain their social status through hers. Her brothers are important teachers and mentors to the children, especially introducing boys to men’s roles and societies. The clans are matrilineal, that is, clan ties are traced through the mother’s line. If a couple separated, the woman traditionally kept the children. The chief of a clan can be removed at any time by a council of the women elders of that clan. The chief’s sister was responsible for nominating his successor.