American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
Teaser Image


"Onondaga" means "People of the Hill." The Onondagas were one of the five original tribes of the Iroquois League. As Keepers of the Council Fire, they hosted the annual great council. The name Iroquois ("real adders") comes from the French adaptation of the Algonquin name for these people. Their self-designation was Kanonsionni, "League of the United (Extended) Households." Iroquois today refer to themselves as Haudenosaunee, "People of the Longhouse."

The Onondagas were the geographically central tribe of the Iroquois confederacy, located near Onondaga Lake and the Oswego River, near present-day Syracuse. There were perhaps 15,000 to 20,000 members of the Iroquois League around 1500, and approximately 1,000 Onondagas in the midseventeenth century. Onondagas spoke a northern Iroquois dialect.

The Onondagas recognized Ha-wah-ne-u as the supreme creator. Other animate and inanimate objects and natural forces were also considered of a spiritual nature. They held important festivals to celebrate maple sap and strawberries as well as corn planting, ripening (Green Corn ceremony), and harvest.

The eight-day new year's festival may have been the most important of all. Held in the midwinter, it was a time to give thanks, to forget past wrongs, and to kindle new fires, with much attention paid to new and old dreams. Medicine groups such as the False Face Society and the Medicine, Dark Dance, and Death Feast Societies (the last two controlled by women) also conducted ceremonies, since most illness was thought to be of supernatural origin. In the early nineteenth century, many Iroquois embraced the teachings of Handsome Lake.

The Iroquois League comprised fifty hereditary chiefs, or sachems, from the constituent tribes. Each position was named for the original holder and had specific responsibilities. Sachems were men, except when a woman acted as regent, but they were appointed by women. The head of the council was always an Onondaga. This person was assisted by a council of two other Onondagas, and a third Onondaga kept the council wampum. The Onondagas sent fourteen sachems to the meetings of the Iroquois Great Council, which met in the fall and for emergencies.

Locally, the village structure was governed by a headman and a council of elders. Matters before the local councils were handled according to a definite protocol based on the clan and division memberships of the chiefs. Village chiefs were chosen from groups as small as a single household. Women nominated and recalled clan chiefs. Tribal chiefs represented the village and the nation at the general council of the league. The entire system was hierarchical and intertwined, from the family up to the great council. Decisions at all levels were reached by consensus.

The Onondagas probably recognized a dual division, each composed of eight matrilineal, animal-named clans. The clans in turn were composed of matrilineal lineages. Each owned a set number of personal names, some of which were linked with particular activities and responsibilities.

Women enjoyed a high degree of prestige, being largely equated with the "three sisters" (corn, beans, and squash), and they were in charge of most village activities, including marriage. Personal health and luck were maintained by performing various individual rituals, including singing and dancing, learned in dreams. Members of the False Face medicine society wore wooden masks carved from trees and used rattles and tobacco. Shamans also used up to 200 or more plant medicines to cure illness.

Dancing was popular; the Onondagas had up to thirty or more different types of dances. Young men's mothers arranged marriages with a prospective bride's mother. Divorce was possible but not readily obtained because it was considered a discredit. The dead were buried in a sitting position, with food and tools for use on the way to the land of the dead. A ceremony was held after ten days. The condolence ceremony mourned dead league chiefs and installed successors. A modified version also applied to common people.

In the seventeenth century, Onondagas probably lived in two villages, a large one (roughly 140 longhouses) and a small one (roughly twenty-four longhouses). The people built their villages near water and often on a hill after about 1300. Some villages were palisaded. Other Iroquois villages had up to 150 longhouses and 1,000 or more people. Villages were moved about twice in a generation, when fire-wood and soil were exhausted.

Women grew corn, beans, squash, and gourds. Corn was the staple and used in soups, stews, breads, and puddings. It was stored in bark-lined cellars. Women also gathered a variety of greens, nuts, seeds, roots, berries, fruits, and mushrooms. Tobacco was grown for ceremonial and social smoking.

After the harvest, men and some women took to the woods for several months to hunt and dry meat. Men hunted large game and trapped smaller game, mostly for the fur. Hunting was a source of potential prestige. They also caught waterfowl and other birds, and they fished. The people grew peaches, pears, and apples in orchards from the eighteenth century on.

Onondagas obtained birchbark products from the Huron. They imported copper and shells and exported carved wooden and stone pipes. Women made most clothing from deerskins. Men wore shirts and short breechclouts and tunics in cool weather; women wore skirts. Both wore leggings, moccasins, and corn-husk slippers in the summer. Robes were made of light or heavy skins or pelts, depending on the season. Clothing was decorated with feathers and porcupine quills. Both men and women tattooed their bodies extensively. Men often wore their hair in a roach; women wore theirs in a single braid doubled up and fastened with a thong.

Boys began developing war skills at a young age. Prestige and leadership were often gained through war, which was in many ways the most important activity. The title of Pine Tree Chief was a historical invention to honor especially brave warriors. All aspects of warfare, from the initiation to the conclusion, were highly ritualized. War could be decided as a matter of policy or undertaken as a vendetta. Women had a large, sometimes decisive, say in the question of whether to fight. Male prisoners were often forced to run the gauntlet: Those who made it through were adopted, but those who did not might be tortured by widows. Women and children prisoners were regularly adopted. Some captives were eaten.

There were Indians in upper New York at least 10,000 years ago. The Iroquois began cultivating crops shortly after the first phase of their culture in New York was established around 800. Deganawida, a Huron prophet, and Hiawatha, a Mohawk shaman living among the Onondagas, founded the Iroquois League or Confederacy some time between 1000 and 11500.

Iroquois first met non-Natives in the sixteenth century. During those and subsequent years, the people became heavily involved in the fur trade. Trading, fighting, and political intrigue characterized the period. Although they were good at playing the European powers against each other, the Iroquois increasingly became British allies in trade and in the colonial wars and were instrumental in the ultimate British victory over the French.

Still, as a result of trade-motivated efforts to make peace with the French, a pro-French faction existed among the Onondagas from the midseventeenth century on. The French also established a Catholic mission in their territory about that time. By the midseventeenth century, war with the Susquehannocks was taking a heavy toll on the Onondagas and other Iroquois tribes. In fact, captive foreigners outnumbered Onondagas in the tribe by the time the war ended in 1675.

Fighting with the French at the end of the seventeenth century led to the torching and temporary abandonment of the main Onondaga village. In the mideighteenth century, a number of Onondagas and other Iroquois went to live at Oswegatchie, a mission on the upper Saint Lawrence River. These people became French allies in the French and Indian War, although they sided with the British in the American Revolutionary War.

The British victory in 1763 meant that the Iroquois no longer controlled the balance of power in the region. Despite the long-standing British alliance, some Indians joined anti-British rebellions as a defensive gesture. The Onondagas and the confederacy as a whole split their allegiance in the Revolutionary War. This split resulted in the council fire's being extinguished for the first time in roughly 200 years.

The Iroquois suffered a defeat in 1779 that broke the power of the confederacy. By war's end most of their villages had been destroyed. When the 1783 Treaty of Paris divided Indian land between Britain and the United States, British Canadian officials established the Six Nations Reserve for their loyal allies, to which over 200 Onondagas repaired. Several hundred others moved to Buffalo Creek, New York, where groups of Senecas and Cayugas were living. A 100-square-mile Onondaga Reservation was established in 1788, although most of it had been lost by the early nineteenth century. In 1806, the Oswegatchies were removed. They scattered to St. Regis, Onondaga, and elsewhere in New York.

The Iroquois council officially split into two parts during that time. One branch was located at the Six Nations Reserve and the other at Buffalo Creek. Gradually, the reservations as well as relations with the United States and Canada assumed more significance than intraconfederacy matters. In the 1840s, when the Buffalo Creek Reservation was sold, the fire there was rekindled at Onondaga.

In Canada, the Onondagas, referred to along with the Cayugas and Senecas as the lower tribes, tended to retain more of their traditional beliefs than did the upper Iroquois tribes. Many subsequently adopted the Handsome Lake religion. Slowly, the general influence of non-Natives increased, as tribal councils, consensus decision making, and other aspects of traditional culture fell by the wayside. Traditional structures were further weakened by the allotment of reservation lands in the 1840s. The council eventually came to resemble a municipal government. In 1924, the Canadian government terminated confederacy rule entirely, mandating an all-male elected system of government on the reserve.

In the midnineteenth century there were significant Onondaga communities at Onondaga (Onondaga Reservation), on the Six Nations Reserve, and on Seneca and Tuscarora land, especially the Allegany Reservation. The Native economy gradually shifted from primarily hunting to farming, dependence on annuities received for the sale of land, and some wage labor. There was also increasing pressure for Indians to sell more land and adopt Christianity, although the Onondagas remained fairly resistant to both. The old religion declined in importance during that time, though among some Iroquois, including many Onondaga, the Handsome Lake religion grew in importance.

In 1898, the wampum belts remaining among the Onondaga were placed in the keeping of the New York State Museum. With other members of the Confederacy, the Onondagas resisted the 1924 citizenship act, selective service, the Indian Reorganization Act, and all federal and state intrusions on their sovereignty.

Onondagas today are considered to be the most conservative of the Six Nations. The Onondaga Reservation is again the capital of the Iroquois Confederacy. The leader of the Iroquois League, who alone can summon meetings of the Great Council, is always an Onondaga. Recent political activism has resulted in the return of wampum belts, education reforms, and the prevention of the acquisition of reservation land for road widening by New York State. In 1994 the tribe ceased seeking or accepting federal grants.

Although most Onondagas are Christian, all chiefs must adhere to the Longhouse religion. This requirement ties them to other Iroquois Longhouse communities throughout the United States and Canada. A hereditary council heads both political and religious life. Many people speak Onondaga, although English is the official tribal language. The community is known for its artists and athletes, especially its lacrosse players. Mutual aid remains strong.

In general, traditional political and social (clan) structures remain intact. One major exception is caused by Canada's requirement that band membership be reckoned patrilineally. The political structure of the Iroquois League continues to be a source of controversy for many Iroquois (Haudenosaunees). Some recognize two seats—at Onondaga and Six Nations—whereas others consider the government at Six Nations a reflection of or corollary to the traditional seat at Onondaga. Important issues concerning the confederacy in the later twentieth century include Indian burial sites, sovereignty, gambling casinos, and land claims.

The Six Nations Reserve is still marked by the existence of progressive and traditional factions, with the former generally supporting the elected band council and following the Christian faith and the latter supporting the confederacy and the Long-house religion. Traditional Iroquois Indians celebrate at least ten traditional or quasi traditional events, including the Midwinter, Green Corn, and Strawberry ceremonies. Iroquois still observe condolence ceremonies as one way to hold the league together after roughly 500 years of existence.

Many Iroquois continue to see their relationship with the Canadian and U.S. governments as one between independent nations and allies, as opposed to one marked by paternalism and dependence. Occasionally, the frustrations inherent in this type of situation boil over into serious confrontations.


©2011 ABC-CLIO. All rights reserved.

  Chronological Essays
  People and Groups
  Southwest Nations
  California Nations
  Northwest Coast Nations
  Great Basin Nations
  Plateau Nations
  Great Plains Nations
  Northeast Woodlands Nations
  Subarctic Nations
  Arctic Nations
ABC-cLIO Footer