The Five Nations were the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, and Seneca tribes. When the Tuscarora joined, they became known as the Six Iroquois Nations, the Six Allied Nations, or the League of Six Nations. They shared the common Iroquois language.

The Iroquois still exist, primarily in upstate New York and Quebec, though their large-scale political alliance is a thing of the past. Contrary to popular belief, they are considered independent nations and their territory is not a government-controlled "reservation."

The Iroquois were probably the most democratic society in the world during the 1700's. In fact, their Confederation became the model for the United States Constitution. The five (later six) nations functioned as independent entities but shared a common language and culture. Women were treated equally to men; while the tribal council members, or "sachems", were men, they were chosen for this position by women, who were considered the heads of families and inherited property. Though the Iroquois were fierce warriors, they never went to war with fellow Iroquois nations and maintaned a strong domestic peace.

Incidentally, they also invented lacrosse.

The Iroquois Native American group is known for the adoption and revenge tactics that it employed as late as the 1900s. Even today, scholars debate the rights of the Iroquois versus the rights of neighboring settlers. To understand the circumstances surrounding the adoption and revenge issue, a brief history of the Iroquois is necessary. The Iroquois “homeland,” where the tribe started, is located in upstate New York. At the height of their power, they had gained control of most of the southeastern United States and eastern Canada. Prior to the American Revolution, the Iroquois had many conflicts with the Algonquin Indians and the British settlers. The Iroquois were governed by the League of the Iroquois and Kainerekowa-the Great Law of Peace. Women elected the leaders and owned all Iroquois property.

When Iroquois family members were captured and killed by settlers, the Iroquois would go out on special “mourning raids” for the sole purpose of avenging the deaths of their loved ones. In these raids, settlers and their children were taken captive to replace the lost Iroquois loved ones. Sometimes the settler captives were tortured by being burned alive, held in icy water, scalped, beaten, or having their fingernails ripped out. When a courageous settler stood up or attempted to survive the harsh treatment, the Iroquois respected that and, instead of torture, they would adopt the person into their tribe. Even though the "White Man" often considered the Native Americans "barbaric," it is necessary to note that the Iroquois showed mercy even in avenging deaths; subsequently, children were usually adopted into the tribe without being tortured.

To replace the murdered loved ones, the Iroquois would adopt a settler in their loved one’s place. Murdered Iroquois spouses were even replaced by captured settlers; these settlers would become the Iroquois’ new spouse. In the same manner adopted children would take the place of a lost child. Many of the captured settlers were eventually returned to their settler families, but some stayed with the Iroquois their entire lives. They learned the Iroquois language and even married into Iroquois families.

In the late 1700s, the time of many of the Iroquois mourning raids, the American settlers were expanding westward. In the westward push, the settlers had taken over the lands that had always belonged to the Iroquois Indians. As they began settling in the Iroquois lands, the settlers would massacre the peaceful Indians, which launched the tribes into a cry for revenge. Many Iroquois were killed in the massacres, which led to the increasing numbers of mourning raids.

Both the Iroquois and settlers were doing something that many people consider to be morally wrong: slaughtering innocent people. In the chaos of their attacks, many innocents were killed. The settlers were, at the time of these raids, governed by the Articles of Confederation, which state: “No State shall engage in any war without the consent of the United States in Congress assembled,” (Article VI). The Iroquois adoption laws did not forbid adopting those of different races. The settlers considered the Iroquois adoption to be kidnapping and illegal. The Iroquois, although they lived in American lands, governed themselves by the Great Law of Peace, which dictated that no Iroquois shall kill another Iroquois. This law, though, only applied to the killing of an Iroquois; settlers were not included in this. Despite attempts by both sides to resolve conflicts peacefully, bloodshed ensued.

No matter what the circumstances, the killing of innocent people is always violating the rights of a person as a human being, so both the Iroquois and the settlers violated human rights by their actions. Both groups were guilty of infringing on the other’s rights. Both groups had the right to defend themselves, but they did not have the right to kill and kidnap innocent people. The significance of this event in the history of the United States is large. These events were the culmination of many years of conflict between the Indians and settlers. The innocent lives of men, women, and children killed in these conflicts were of great significance not only because of the emotional impact on their families, but also because these deaths kept the battle between the settlers and Indians going, leading to even more deaths.

Ir`o*quois" (?), n. sing. & pl. [F.] Ethnol.

A powerful and warlike confederacy of Indian tribes, formerly inhabiting Central New York and constituting most of the Five Nations. Also, any Indian of the Iroquois tribes.


© Webster 1913.

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