Native American tribes, familiarly called Indians, have lived in New York State since the beginning of the 15th century, almost 100 years before Columbus arrived in the New World. Some sources date the tribes from as far back as the 12th or 13th century. They are referred to as the Iroquois Confederacy. The 1990 U.S. Census counted 49,038 Iroquois living in the United States.
The Confederacy initially consisted of Five Nations: Mohawks, Oneidas, Onandagas, Cayugas, and Senecas. They were joined in 1722 by the Tuscarora nation which came up from North Carolina. They then became known as the Six Nations. Their Indian name is Haudenosaunee or People of the Longhouse.
Indian Totem Pole
There were six different languages spoken by the six nations. Important men in the tribe usually learned Mohawk because this was the language that was usually used at the Great Council and at Iroquois religious festivals.
The Confederacy is one of the world's oldest democracies. In many ways, it was far superior to the white man's culture of that day. Their democratic form of government was used as a model by America's founding fathers, such as George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. In fact, the tribe's constitution begins with the words: We the People, to form a union.
The Iroquois Confederacy, or League, extended across present New York State from the Hudson River to Lake Erie, south of the Adirondack mountains and north of the Catskills. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Five Nations were located thus: Mohawks at the Mohawk River, Oneidas at Oneida Lake, Onandagas at Onandaga Lake, Cayugas at Cayuga Lake, and the Senecas at Seneca Lake and the Genesee River. When the Tuscarora nation came north, they settled in Lewiston, New York.
Indian society was matrilineal; that is, women owned the land and the children gained their social status through hers. They also owned all of their husband's possessions after their marriage, except horses and rifles. They took charge of the money and were the tribe's educators and the communicators of tradition. If the man and wife separated, the children belonged to the woman.
American Indians earned their living from the land. They were farmers, fishermen, hunters and gatherers. Gathering was the job of the women and children who picked berries, nuts and root vegetables. Their main crops were corn, beans and squash, which they called the three sisters.
Indian culture in America provided the English settlers with knowledge about domesticated food crops, herbal medicines, clothing, transportation paths, crafts, artifacts, and methods of hygiene. The white man owed much to the influence of the Native Americans.
Indian Pow Wow
Contrary to popular belief that the Indians were savages, the values of the Iroquois consisted of honesty, good character, honor, the power of the spoken word and public opinion (democracy), and the high status of women. We owe the game of Lacrosse to them. It is the National Game of the Iroquois.
Many place names in New York State have their origin in the American Indian language. Here are a few:
Manhattan – where one gathers bows
Canandaigua – chosen spot
Chautauqua – sack tied in the middle
Niagara Falls – thunder of waters
Oneida – people of the standing stone
Onondaga – on the hill
Poughkeepsie - reed-covered lodge by the little water place
Skaneateles – long lake
There is today a unique legal relationship between the U.S. government and the Indian nations which was not always so in the past. Since 1968, every presidential administration has espoused the principles of self-determination and self-government for Indian tribes. President Obama recently encouraged regular and meaningful consultation with Indian leaders when developing policies with tribal implications.
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