- Historic Sites
People Of The Long House
February 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 2
Just what the legal status was of this or that nation which had come to sit with them under the Tree of Peace, mattered little to the Iroquois. Allies, adoptees (“on the cradle board”), dependencies (“nephews”), protectorates-in one way or another they were all “props to the Long House.” The status, in fact, was constantly changing. Some outside tribes, like the Tuscaroras and Nanticokes, came in and were adopted into the League. Others broke away. The Ohio Delawares were perpetually asserting their independence. To the Iroquois, the dependence or independence of Delawares who dwelt in territories where the Tree of Peace cast its shade, was a mere quibble. Diplomatic control of the region by the Iroquois was a fact which no change of Delaware title could alter.
By and large the people who came under the Iroquois aegis were pleased with their position and proud of it. The Shawnees—a fiercely independent people—when they came up from the Southwest into Pennsylvania, first asked the Six Nations for permission. When Count Zinzendorf tried to convert Kakawatcheky, the Shawnee Chief, the old man said he would take his cue from the Six Nations and become a Christian when they did.
Deganawidah had instructed his people to welcome aliens who sought shelter under the Tree of Peace. The Iroquois had a proud record of help given to displaced persons. During the Eighteenth Century, the Tuscaroras, Conors, Nanticokes, and Tuteloes, driven out of their homes, were made welcome and assigned territories in the Six Nations country.
It may seem strange to learn that they conducted a well-oiganized refugee service. Letters and reports of October, 1766, from Friedenshutten (a Moravian Indian mission established near Wyalusing on the North Branch of the Susquehanna) say that two chiefs had arrived with messages from the Six Nations, confirmed by strings of wampum. Having been informed, as they said, by messenger that a number of destitute Tuscaroras were coming up from North Carolina, the Six Nations now requested the Indians at Wyalusing to prepare food for them and send ten canoes down to the next town below them on the river to bring up their sick and aged. Fifty were to be brought up by water; the remaining fifty would go overland by the Lackawanna Path to the Big Bend. Some Nanticokes from below Philadelphia and some Delawares from New Jersey were also to be expected a little later. The Friedensh“fctten Indians cooked, built cabins, dispatched canoes, and looked after their visitors royally when they arrived. It was not by terror that the Six Nations kept the peace throughout their territories, but by a genuine concern for the people under their care.
But what about the Delawares as “women”? Did not the Iroquois humiliate them with this title? It is true that the Delawares were technically called “women” in the Iroquois system, but it is not true that the term was originally intended as an insult. The Iroquois word used for “woman,” as applied to the Delawares, was a ceremonial term, gantowisas , denoting, as it appears, a certain stage of adoption in the Confederacy. When the late Chief Joseph Montour of the Delawares accepted a seat in the Onondaga Council (behind the Cayugas, who sponsored him), he acknowledged, as representative of his people, that he was a “woman.” But he recognized the term as one of honor, “like queen,” as he wrote to me. The Great Law of the Iroquois spread what was on the whole a good influence through the woods, and was well received by most of the Indians who were its beneficiaries.
This is not to deny that the Iroquois were terrible in war. We are told by William N. Fenton that the Naskapi of distant Labrador still use the word “Iroquois” to frighten children. It was not, however, their cruelty—they were less cruel than some other nations, the Ottawa and Huron, for instance—that made them so formidable, but their organization, their team play, their warriors’ tactical training.
Their warriors were trained to move fast on main trails until near their objective, and then to fan out through the woods to win the advantage of surprise. An observer has said that an Iroquois war party could move for hours through the forest, each man on his own, a hundred yards from, and out of sight of, his nearest support, and yet that at the appointed time every unit and every man would be in place and ready for the final assault. In 1679 a force of 1,500 warriors, in retaliation for Denonville’s invasion of their country and his destruction of 1,200,000 bushels of their corn, moved with such circumspection and perfect timing into the heart of the Montreal district that they caught the French completely off guard, immobilizing their garrisons and demoralizing the settlements for days.
In explaining the causes of Iroquois strength, while their founding legend, economic need, geographical position and the training they gave their youth, are all important, deeper sources are to be found in their government and social pattern.
One of these was the importance of women in the Iroquois political system. Women appointed the civil chiefs, women governed the family. Descent was reckoned in the female line, not in the male line. Woman’s position in society was central.