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Iroquois, important confederacy of Native Americans of the
Iroquoian language family and of the Eastern Woodlands culture
area. It was founded in the 16th century in what is now central
New York State. The original confederacy consisted of five
tribes—the Mohawk, Onondaga, Cayuga, Oneida, and
Seneca—and was known as the Five Nations, or the League of
Five Nations. Sometime between 1715 and 1722, however, the
Tuscaroras, an Iroquoian tribe originally of North Carolina, which
had migrated to New York, was formally admitted to the
confederacy, and the name of the league was changed to the
Six Nations, or the League of Six Nations. As representative
members of the Iroquoian family, and the ones first encountered
and later most intensively studied by white people, the Iroquois
gave their name to the family of which they are a part.

The Iroquois had an agricultural economy, based mainly on corn,
with supplementary crops of pumpkins, beans, and tobacco and
later of orchard fruits such as apples and peaches. They made
fine pottery, splint baskets, and mats of corn husk and used
wampum as a medium of exchange. Public records were woven
into the designs of large wampum belts. Each town contained
several long, bark-covered communal houses, which had both
tribal and political significance; along their inner sides the
families of a clan lived in semiprivate compartments, and the
central areas were used as social and political meeting places.
The common council of the entire confederacy met in such
meeting places. These councils were fairly democratic in
composition; delegates were elected by members of various
lineages, and each delegate represented both a tribe and one of
the matrilineal clans within a tribe. The office of delegate was
restricted to chiefs, and every delegate had to meet the
approval of both tribal and league councils. If the conduct of
any delegate was perceived as improper, or if he lost the
people's confidence, the women of his clan officially expelled him
and chose another delegate to serve in his place. The league as
a whole had no single head, and deliberative decisions were
usually made by a unanimous vote of the league council.

The complexity and stability of this political organization,
together with a carefully nurtured skill in warfare and the early
acquisition of firearms, enabled the Iroquois to achieve and
maintain a position of great power during the colonial period of
American history. During their formative period in the 17th
century they broke up the tribal confederacies to their west,
notably that of the Hurons. They continued to expand the
territory under their dominion until by 1720 they had subdued
almost all the tribes in a vast region extending from the Atlantic
Ocean to the Mississippi River and from the Saint Lawrence
River to the Tennessee River.

In their relations with white settlers, the Iroquois from the start
played the role of an independent power. During the colonial
period they held the balance of power between the French and
English, particularly in the area around the Canadian border.
With few exceptions, chiefly factions of the Mohawk and
Cayuga, who came under the influence of French Jesuit
missionaries, the Iroquois allied themselves with English
interests. They bitterly opposed the extension of French
settlement southward from Canada, and they were responsible
for preventing the English colonies from being flanked on the
west by the French.

Language Word Samples


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