The Cayuga recognized Orenda, a 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. These festivals often included singing, male dancing, game playing, gambling, feasting, and food distribution.
The eight-day new year's festival may have been most important of all. Held in 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. A condolence ceremony had quasi religious components. Curing societies also conducted ceremonies, since illness was thought to be of supernatural origin. In the early 19th century, many Iroquois embraced the teachings of Handsome Lake.
The Iroquois League comprised 50 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 Cayuga sent 10 sachems to meetings of the Iroquois Great Council, which met in the fall and for emergencies. Their symbol at this gathering was the great pipe.
Tribes were divided into two divisions within the league, the Cayuga belonging to the "younger brothers." Debates within the great council were a matter of strict clan, division, and tribal protocols, in a complex system of checks and balances. Politically, individual league members often pursued their own best interests while maintaining an essential solidarity with the other members. The creators of the U.S. government used the Iroquois League as a model of democracy.
Locally, the village structure was governed by a headman and a council of elders (clan chiefs, elders, wise men). 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. There were also a number of nonhereditary chiefs ("pine tree" or "merit" chiefs), some of whom had no voting power. Their existence may have been a postcontact phenomenon.
The Cayuga recognized a dual division, each composed of two matrilineal, animal-named clans. The Cayuga probably had nine clans. 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. Great intravillage lacrosse games included heavy gambling. Other games included snowsnake, or sliding a spear along a trench in the snow for distance. Food was shared so that everyone had roughly the same to eat.
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. The condolence ceremony mourned dead league chiefs and installed successors. A modified version also applied to common people.
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. All aspects of warfare, from the initiation to the conclusion, were highly ritualized. Women had a large, sometimes decisive, say in the question of whether or not 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. Some captives were eaten.
In the early 18th century, Cayuga lived in at least three villages of 30 or more longhouses, each village with 500 or more people. 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 firewood and soil were exhausted.
Iroquois Indians built elm-bark longhouses, 50 to 100 feet long, depending on how many people lived there, from about the 12th century on. The longhouses held two or three or as many as 20 families, as well as their dogs. The people also built some single-family houses.
Women grew corn, beans, squash, and gourds. Corn was the staple and was 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. They also caught water-fowl and other birds, and they fished.
Iroquois used porcupine quills and wampum belts as a record of events. Wampum was also used as a gift connoting sincerity and, later, as trade money. Other important material items included elm-bark containers, cordage from inner tree bark and fibers, and levers to move timbers. Men steamed wood or bent green wood to make many items, including lacrosse sticks. Elm-bark canoes were roughly 25 feet long. The people were also great runners and preferred to travel on land. They used snowshoes in the winter.
Women made most clothing from deerskins. Men wore breechclouts and shirts; women wore skirts. Both wore leggings, moccasins, and corn-husk slippers in the summer. Clothing was decorated with feathers and porcupine quills. Both men and women tattooed their bodies extensively.
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 Onondaga, founded the Iroquois League or Confederacy some time between 1000 and 1150. It originally consisted of five tribes: Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, and Seneca; the Tuscarora joined in the early 18th century.
Iroquois first met non-Natives in the 16th century. There were sporadic Jesuit missions in Cayuga country throughout the mid-17th century. During those years, the Cayuga were more friendly toward the French than were some other Iroquois tribes. The people became heavily involved in the fur trade during the 17th and 18th centuries. Trading, fighting, and political intrigue characterized those years. 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.
Diplomatic success allowed the Iroquois to concentrate on expanding their trapping territory and increasing their trade advantages, mainly by fighting many tribes to their west and south. The Cayuga warpath led as far south as Virginia. Iroquois power blocked European westward expansion. Two Siouan tribes, the Tutelo and the Saponi, joined the Cayuga in 1753.
The British victory in 1763 meant that the Iroquois no longer controlled the regional balance of power. Despite their long-standing allegiance, some Native Americans joined anti-British rebellions in an effort to protect their land. One such rebellion took place in 1774 and was led by Logan, a Cayuga chief of the Iroquoian Mingo of Pennsylvania.
The confederacy split its allegiance in the Revolutionary War, with most Cayuga siding with the British. This split resulted in the council fire's being extinguished for the first time in some 200 years. The Iroquois suffered a major defeat in 1779. After the final U.S. victory, many Cayuga migrated to Ontario, Canada, where they established two villages on the Six Nations Reserve. Others settled with the Seneca in western New York. Still others remained for several more years in their homelands. However, by 1807 the Cayuga had sold all their land to the United States. After the Buffalo Creek and Tonawanda Reservations were sold in 1842, Indians who had been living there, including many Cayuga, relocated to the Cattaraugus and Allegany Reservations. Most Cayuga went to Cattaraugus.
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, internal reservation affairs, 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 Cayuga, known with the Onondaga and Seneca as the lower tribes, tended to retain more of their traditional beliefs than did the upper Iroquois. Many subsequently adopted the Handsome Lake religion. Traditional structures were further weakened by the allotment of reservation lands in the 1840s; the requirement under Canadian law, from 1869 on, of patrilineal descent; and the transition of league councils and other political structures to a municipal government. In 1924, the Canadian government terminated confederacy rule entirely, mandating an all-male elected system of government on the reserve.
The Native economy gradually shifted from primarily hunting to farming, dependence on annuities received for the sale of land, and some wage labor. The people faced increasing pressure from non-Natives to adopt Christianity and sell more land. The old religion declined during that time, although on some reservations the Handsome Lake religion grew in importance.
In 1817, some of the New York Cayuga, along with other Iroquois and Delaware, moved west to near the Sandusky River in Ohio. They were removed to Indian Territory (Oklahoma) in 1831. Some other Cayuga moved to Wisconsin in 1832 with a group of Oneida. The Cayuga in Oklahoma maintained a separate tribal government until 1937. Mainly because of fraud and outright theft, their 65,000-acre reservation had been reduced to 140 acres of tribal land by 1936. In 1937, the Seneca-Cayuga incorporated under Oklahoma law, adopting a constitution and bylaws and electing a business committee. Although their land base quickly grew, almost 300 acres were later taken away as a result of reservoir construction. The tribe successfully resisted termination in the 1950s. With other members of the confederacy, the Cayuga resisted the 1924 citizenship act, selective service, and all federal and state intrusions on their sovereignty.
Barry M. Pritzker
Hicks, John D. The Federal Union: A History of the United States to 1865. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1937; Moquin, Wayne. Great Documents in American Indian History. New York: Praeger, 1973; Pritzker, Barry M. Native America Today: A Guide to Community Politics and Culture. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1999.