The Iroquois word for themselves is “Haudenosaunee,” which means “The People of the Longhouse.”
In 1600, the Iroquois were the main group of people living in what is now New York, and they did live in longhouses, but that’s not all that is meant by Haudenosaunee.
To understand our history, it’s important to understand the People of the Longhouse.
There were several tribes who shared the language and culture of the Iroquois, but the people particularly known as the Iroquois were the Five Nations: The Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida and Mohawk.
Longhouses were just what the word sounds like: Long houses made of wood and bark, with rounded roofs and a door at each end, in which several families would live.
Each longhouse had a walkway down the middle, with spaces on each side divided by low walls and open to the middle. One family would live in each of those spaces, and share a cooking fire with the family on the opposite side of the walkway.
Then there was a larger fire area in the middle of the longhouse where the group might gather.
Iroquois villages were often large, with many longhouses surrounded by a stockade, a tall fence of logs placed upright in the ground to act as protection against attack. The first Europeans to see these towns sometimes called them “castles” because of those stockades.
The families in each longhouse were related through the women who lived there. The Iroquois were matrilinear, which means that their families were related by the mothers rather than the fathers the way European families are. When an Iroquois couple married, they would go to live with the wife’s family and their children would grow up surrounded by aunts and uncles from that longhouse.
The Iroquois are also divided into five clans, larger groups in which people are still related by who their mothers and grandmothers were. The number of clans varies from one nation to another: The Oneida have eight clans, while the Mohawk have only three.
Everyone in the wolf clan, for instance, is considered a relative, even if one is Cayuga and the other is Mohawk, and, just as children would grow up with their mother’s families in the longhouse, they are also members of her clan. Though the longhouses are gone today, the clans are still part of Iroquois culture.
The Iroquois were also matriarchal, which means that the women were the ones who were in charge of making the most important decisions, particularly the “clan mothers” or eldest and most influential women in each clan.
Men were the ones who went to meetings with other communities, both Iroquois and non-Iroquois, but the clan mothers chose the wisest and best speakers among the men to be the sachems, important men who met to discuss important issues.
The clan mothers also approved any important agreements that were made. Clan mothers are still looked to for advice and guidance in traditional Iroquois communities today.
Several hundred years before the Europeans arrived, the Iroquois had made war on each other, until a great man named Deganawidah came from the Huron people and met a violent Iroquois named Hiawatha.
Hiawatha had lost his family in war. Now he lived alone in the wilderness, furiously attacking anyone who came near him.
But Deganawidah, “the Peacemaker,” came to where Hiawatha lived and sat with him and spoke with him, and gently helped him to mourn and to weep rather than to be angry and to seek revenge.
Persuaded by the Peacemaker to do good in the world, Hiawatha then gathered the Five Nations and persuaded them to join together and promise to keep peace among themselves.
This is how the Five Nations became the People of the Longhouse. They called themselves that because they were one people whose towns and villages were in a line that stretched like a great longhouse from near the Hudson River in the East almost to the Niagara River in the West.
The Mohawk, who lived furthest East, were called the Keepers of the Eastern Door, while the Seneca, whose towns were at the other end of the Longhouse were the Keepers of the Western Door. In the middle lived the Onondaga, and so they were the Keepers of the Council Fire, because the center of the Longhouse was where important meetings took place.
The Oneida and Cayuga were called the “little brothers,” because they were not as numerous or powerful as the other tribes. The Oneida lived between the Mohawk and the Onondaga; the Cayuga lived on the other side of the Council Fire, between the Onondaga and the Seneca.
Keeping the Great Peace made it important that decisions be made that everyone could accept, and so the Iroquois often had many meetings to discuss each problem, and took their time to find solutions everyone could agree upon.
But, while the Iroquois kept the peace among themselves, they often made war on other people.
Some of these battles were small and some were large, and, if you read about them, they sound very violent and unpleasant. But if you read about the wars being fought in Europe at about the same time, they were also very violent and unpleasant.
The Iroquois had neighbors from different nations. With some of them, they kept the peace, and, with some of them, they made war.
Now, as the 17th Century began, the People of the Longhouse were about to get new neighbors from very different nations indeed.