Iroquois Tribe’s Cultural Differences and Similarities with Present Day American Culture

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Iroquois Tribe’s Cultural Differences and Similarities with Present Day American Culture


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            The Iroquois tribe is said to be one of the most influential tribes in the American culture. Their impact on present day America has been widely regarded and has been the subject of various studies and researches. In this regard, it is important to analyze the tribe’s various aspects of living that have a significantly impact on the American culture today.

Brief background

            The Iroquois League is considered as a historic confederacy of Native American tribes, speaking the Iroquoian language that is situated in the Northeast culture area now known as the New York State. Argued to have been established in the later part of the 16th century known as the “League of Five Nations” among the Europeans, the Iroquois confederacy was originally made up of the five native tribes: “Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca and Oneida” (Waldman, 2008). However, during early 18th century, a tribe known as the Tuscarora migrated to New York. It was in 1722 that the said tribe was formally admitted to the alliance, making the confederacy known as the “League of Six Nations” (Waldman, 2008).

            According to studies, the word Iroquois is a recognizable name given by the tribe’s enemy, the Algonquin. The name Iroquois was coined when the Algonquin’s called them the “Iroqu” (Irinakhoiw), which means “rattlesnakes” and the French added the suffix “ois.” Hence, Iroquois was derived. Collectively, the Iroquois call themselves “Haudenosaunee,” meaning “people of the longhouse,” derived after their dwelling place. However, since the confederacy was made up of six native tribes, each of them used one or more figurative terms during the confederate council (Mooney, 1910).


            Second to the Native Americans of Mexico, the Iroquois confederacy is considered as probably the most complex and detailed form of governance that adapted to permit the use of full measures of freedom for each tribe while securing unifying actions to protect the concerns of each individual. Based on a matrilineal or matrilocal society like that of the east, such structure is said to have stemmed from the significant roles of women in each group to take control of the lands through the use of clans. The number of clans vary from each other, the dominant being the Bear, Wolf and the Turtle. Each of the tribe has their own women council, chosen from the clan mothers, and they have the influence to take initiative in all matters that are of public importance such as the nomination of chief’s council, selected from each tribe, hereditary chiefs those of whom who came from the clans, alternates, and additional people for special fitness. Those that were selected to become the hereditary chiefs make up the league of council. Other than these, the women also have the power to held jurisdiction on territories, and the deliberation over war and peace. In this regard, the mothers can be assumed as the legislative body of the confederate while the warriors are the executive body of the said league (Mooney, 1910).

Bruce E. Johnson (1982), in his book “Forgotten Dounders,” relied on various historians in order to draw the comparisons between present day American governance and the ideals of the Iroquois. From there, he managed to derive the theory that the Iroquoian confederation has greatly influenced both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson during the drafting of Declaration of Independence and Confederation articles. Therefore, it can be assumed that the Iroquois confederation and the samples that they have set are the primary basis of the federal democracy system in the American governance of today. Although such perspective has been argued, there are still many values inculcated within the Iroquois confederation that are evident and similar to present day American governance such as woman suffrage, servant leadership, church and state separation, checks and balances as well as federalism (Cohen, n.d.; Bruce, 1982 cited in Stotler, 2009).

Communication: Body Language, Gesture, Emblems, and Symbols

            Just like present day Americans, the means of communication for the Iroquoian people were done through the use of language. However, unlike Americans who are inclined to use a single language which is English (as it is not necessarily a requirement to learn another language considering that English is the universal language), the Iroquois nations used six different languages, as represented by the six tribes that constitute the confederations. The said languages were all related to each other; hence, there were some Iroquois people that could speak more than one of the languages. However, the most important language used by the Iroquois men was the Mohawk because it was the one used during the Great Council as well as during religious festivals(Lewis, 2007).

            Similar to the American culture, the Iroquois also used gestural communication, and body language which include the sign language as an alternative for the spoken language by the Iroquoian nations. However, several evidences from past visits reveal that the families who were met by their first visitors did not impress the tribe with their usage of gestural languages in order to communicate. An explanation to such event may be based on the fact that because most of tribes were dwelling together in communities where speaking the same language was practiced, their intercourse with other tribes who were less conversational were limited. As such, most of the tribes in the Iroquois proper were in an advanced social condition compared to other Native American tribe, thereby limiting the usage of gestures, signals, and body language (“Once Probably Universal in North America,” 2009). However, gestures and body languages are an important part of the communication process because they serve as replacement for the things that cannot be verbally communicated; most of the notable application of such actuations can be seen in the Iroquoian way of dressing and the incorporation within their dance and music.

            In terms of dressing, Iroquois men wore “gustoweh,” a feathered cap with different insignia. For each tribe, different insignia was used. For example, gustoweh with three eagle feathers communicates that the man is a Mohawk. Iroquois warriors can be easily recognized because of their shaved heads with only a “scalplock” at the center of the head, which is now recognized as the “Mohawk,” a hairstyle recognized and used by current Americans. As for the Iroquoian women, they wore their hair long and loose or braided during ordinary days. Once an Iroquoian woman cuts her hair, such gesture is an indication of mourning (Lewis, 2007).

The most significant gesture that has been well established among the Iroquoian people associated with their clothing is that of handling or wearing the “wampum.” Wampum is a collection of small beads in white or dark colors that are meticulously fashioned from shells. White ones are regarded as light and brightness, while dark wampum is a connotation of solemnity, grieving, death and war. The exchange of wampum among the tribes’ men is said to be an embodiment of gift-giving. Hence, as present day male Americans propose with the gift of an engagement ring to the woman, Iroquois men presented their intended gifts to the women they wished to marry with crafted wampum. Other than this, unlike today’s Americans that use dollar bills and coins as a medium of exchange, the wampum served as the monetary unit for the Iroquoian people. As such, it was used for fines, crime compensations, and a representation of an individual’s status within the community. While today’s citizens used paper in documenting important events and public accounts, wampum woven into belts with contrasting colors of beads was said to be the record of agreements, treaties, and other important events through geometric patterns (‘The Significance and Origin of Wampum,” 2009).

Body languages and gestures among Iroquoian people were mostly seen in their music and dance, and such perspective is pretty much the same with today’s culture. While music genres such as hip-hop, rock, jazz, and the likes permeate today as a definition or expression of thoughts and emotions, Iroquoians used rhythmic music that mostly consist of drumming and singing. While serenading in order to woo a woman is not widely recognized in the society today, Iroquoian men used flute to play a beautiful music outside a woman’s home during night in order to show his feelings towards her (Lewis, 2007).

Symbols also played an important part in the communication process of the Iroquois, as symbols represented their way of life. Today, some of the symbols used by the Americans were actually first used by the tribe. The white pine symbol was used by the Iroquois confederacy as the representation of peace because the needles of the white pine are in clusters of five, a symbol of unity for the five original regions (Fadden, 2001). According to an author named Manitonquat (1960), the famous peace symbol using the two fingers spread to form a “V” originated from the Iroquois tribe’s white pine tree which is the “Tree of Peace” (Pritchard, 2002). Iroquois’ use of eagle, a powerful bird with good eyesight, is another symbol taken from nature that represents the confederacy’s protectiveness of its people and a symbolism that its government should be watchful of things that might harm the tribe. The cluster of arrow was also used by the Iroquois to represent strength as a result of joining together of the five original nations. Such symbols were adopted in various seals that represent the American government such as the Great Seal and the dollar bill that incorporates the eagle as a sign of liberty and freedom yet a strong entity that looks upon the country’s protection, while the eagle holds in its talons the cluster of arrows that represent the 13 original colonies of the country (Pritchard, 2002). Other notable symbols that rooted from the Iroquois that were adapted into the present day American culture are the war club, which means arguments should be stopped, paving way for the saying “burying the hatchet” and the circle which represents the cycle of life, the four seasons, as well as the four directions (Pritchard, 2002)

Religious Beliefs, Customs, and Traditions

            The Iroquois relied on the supernatural world for their deities, the most important of which was the Great Spirit, who, just like God in present day American religion, was responsible for the creation of all the forces in nature. They also believed in the forces of the evil spirits that are said to be responsible for disease and misfortunes. Just like the current view that humans could not directly talk to God, the Iroquois believed in the same thing as well. However, unlike the use of prayers and attending church services, Iroquoians believed that by burning tobacco they are already sending their prayers to the Great Spirit. While there are priests, rabbis and ministers attending to the spiritual needs of today’s people, full-time religious practitioners were absent in the Iroquois tribe. Instead, there were male and female part-time specialists who were called as the keepers of faith, who were responsible for conducting religious ceremonies (“Iroquois Religion and Expressive Culture,” 2008).

            Dreams are one of the most important aspects of the Iroquois culture. Just like modern psychology, Iroquoians held that dreams are important aspects of an individual’s life. Hence, dream interpretations are still acknowledged to date. However, while present day psychology views dreams as messages that come from the deeper reaches of an individual’s mind, Iroquois believed that dreams are the expressions of the soul’s desire. Hence, if a person had a bad dream, they called on the “False Face Society,” a group of shamans that are said to be responsible for aiding unwanted supernatural agents (“Iroquois Religion and Expressive Culture,” 2008).

            Most of the religious ceremonies or tribal affairs of the Iroquois are concerned primarily with the curing of illness and thanksgiving. Six major ceremonies were done by the tribe. These include the Maple, Planting, Strawberry, Green, Maize, Harvest, and Mid-winter festivals. All of the said events can be culminated in what is now called Thanksgiving in the American culture (“Iroquois Religion and Expressive Culture,” 2008).

            Another important feature in the Iroquoian tradition is the game “Lacrosse.” The game was played in order to please the creator and was considered as a ceremonial play that was carried out in order to train young men for an upcoming war or to settle arguments between tribes. Today, Lacrosse is the national sport of Canada and is also enjoyed by many Americans (J.K., 2009).

            Based on the above discussion, the Iroquois tribe indeed played a major role in shaping some of America’s traditions and cultural practices. In this regard, it is safe to conclude that some of parts of the culture of the Iroquois tribe resonate in the American culture of today and would probably be carried on to the following generations.


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