The most basic unit of Iroquois society is the clan, a group of relatives that traces its ancestry to a single woman. Each clan governs itself and also joins with the other clans in governing the village and the tribe.
We are a matrilineal society. I trace my lineage as a Seneca through my mother…. And my mother’s a Heron [clan]. Therefore, I’m a Heron. We go on our mother’s side…. At the head of every clan is a woman. She’s a clan mother…. It’s the clan mother who is the chief counselor to the chief. She’s the one who informs him and tries to keep him working in the best interests of the people.
- Peter Jemison, Seneca, 1998
The Iroquois people organize themselves according to the model of the animal world. Everyone belongs to the clan of his or her mother, and every group has its own clan animal. Although members take their clan animal as their emblem, they do not believe that clans are descended from that animal.
Three basic clans – bear, turtle, and wolf – exist at each of the Iroquois nations. The number of additional clans varies depending upon the nation. The Mohawks have only three original clans; the Onondaga have nine.
One of the main functions of the clan is to provide kinship with clan members in other villages. For Iroquois men, who historically traveled away from home, food and lodging always awaited them in the home of another clan member regardless of how far away it was.
Animals and Men
Most of the Iroquois men’s work took place beyond the cleared home area. They spent much of their time and energy hunting, fishing, protecting their village and territory, and trading for goods. Their most important quarry was the deer, and they needed to shoot one a week to provide sufficient meat for their families.
The European desire for furs, especially beaver, began to dominate Iroquois affairs in the 17th and 18th centuries. In exchange for furs, Iroquois men brought home a wealth of useful trade goods, especially metal items such as guns, axes, knives, hoes, cooking pots, needles, scissors and nails. By 1800, the Iroquois had exhausted their own supply of beaver. Through alliances, first with the Dutch and then with the English, Iroquois men established themselves as the middlemen in the fur trade. They regulated the flow of furs coming from the western tribes to the traders in the east.
Clan Animals on the Turtle’s Back
Wayne Skye (1949- ), Wolf clan, Cayuga, Six Nations Reserve, Ontario, Canada, 1996
Moose antler (Alces alces), steel, adhesive, L 31.0 x W 24.0 x H 14.5 cm; 36182-1
The nine clan animals of the Cayuga nation stand on the great turtle's back. Clockwise from the turtle's head, they are hawk, snipe, wolf, beaver, turtle, eel, deer, heron and bear (center). The turtle plays a large part in the Iroquois story of the Earth's origin. Long ago, according to the story, Sky Woman fell through a hole in the sky, down toward the vast waters below. The birds flew and caught her on their wings, but there was no place below for her to land. The turtle offered to support a world on his back, and the muskrat succeeded in bringing from the bottom of the sea some mud that he placed on the turtle's back. When Sky Woman landed, the Earth was ready for her on the back of the great turtle.
Hunting and Fishing
Hunting was the major contribution Iroquois men made to their families' subsistence. In addition to deer, hunters also stalked the black bear, and, in spring, the passenger pigeon.
The Iroquois people tell a story about a family of brothers who chased a great bear into the sky during a hunt. There the bear became the pan of the Big Dipper, and the hunters and their trained dog the handle. Each autumn since that time, the constellation turns upside down, signaling that one of the hunters has killed the bear. The bear’s blood and fat fall from the sky, turning the leaves of the trees to red, orange, and yellow.
Fish served as an integral part of the Iroquois diet. The abundant waterways provided white and yellow bass, walleye, shovelnose sturgeon, and brook trout, among other species.
The Cornplanter band of Seneca held great annual fish drives. First, men built a V-shaped fence, or weir, across the river. They forced the fish into the weir with a giant rake, which was pulled toward the weir by horses on opposite shores. Waiting fishermen speared the trapped fish.
Until the late 19th century, passenger pigeons (Ectopistes migratorius) returned to their annual nesting grounds by the millions each spring. Early in March or April, passenger pigeons flew north in flocks so large that their numbers darkened the sky and their flapping sounded like thunder.
When the birds arrived in the Eastern Woodlands, they selected breeding sites. They depleted the supply of available nesting material filling the trees with nests. Thousands of passenger pigeons hatched each spring.
The Iroquois only hunted the young pigeons, or squabs, leaving the adult pigeons to breed again. They offered sacred tobacco and gave thanks for the privilege of hunting the pigeons. However, such practices were not followed by non-Native hunters, and the passenger pigeon population steadily declined. The last attempted nesting in northwestern Pennsylvania was in 1886. Passenger pigeons then disappeared into extinction.
Powder Flask, Powder Horn and Shot Bag
Flask: Anishinabe (Chippewa), early 1800s; Horn and bag: Northeastern United States, ca 1820s
Flask: Dog hide (Canis familiaris), unidentified wood, sinew, commercial cotton; L 19.5 x W 10.0 x H 5.0 cm; 23102-16942, gift of John A. Beck
Horn and bag: Commercial leather, cattle horn (Bos taurus), unidentified wood, commercial cotton and linen, steel, horn; L 26.0 x D 5.5 cm; bag: L 18.5 x W 30.5 x H 6.0; 6569-5 a & b, gift of Herman B. Hogg
Few wild animals influenced world exploration, history, and economics as much as the North American beaver (Castor canadensis). The European demand for fur—primarily beaver hats—fueled most New World exploration, and the fur trade dominated Iroquois affairs throughout the 17th and 18th centuries.
The beaver's torpedo-shaped body and large webbed hind feet are adapted for a semi-aquatic life. Their flattened, scaly tails provide steering and power, and a means of communication. They slap their tails against the water when they detect something unusual.
Found across most of the continent, the beaver is the lumberjack of the rodent world. Armed with an incredible set of teeth, the beaver can topple trees for both food and building supplies. Its large, chisel-like teeth regrow as fast as they are worn down.
Beavers construct their conical lodges across streams using mud, stones, sticks, and branches. They continue adding mud and sticks to make the dam higher and longer; some reach over 330 feet long and 10 feet high. All family members, except newborn kits, help build and maintain the lodges.
As a result of the demand for fur, the beaver nearly met extinction in the late 19th century. However, populations were re-established by state and federal wildlife agencies, and the beaver made a comeback.
Beaver Top Hat
Smedley Brothers, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1820-1839
Beaver (Castor canadensis) fur felt, commercial leather, paper, commercial silk, ink; L 37.5 x W 34.0 x H 17.5); 7677, gift of Sam Hugh Brockmier
In 1624, during the very first season of settlement in New York, the Dutch shipped 1,500 beaver and 500 otter skins to Europe. They were joining the fur trade that had begun 100 years earlier to satisfy fashion-conscious Europeans. This high demand for furs was fast leading to the depletion of these animals.
Beaver felt hats were the rage in Europe and America for two centuries. The top hat was introduced in the 1780s and ultimately became part of the daily attire for men on both sides of the Atlantic.