Sunday, January 10, 2010

People of the Long House

New York State history would not be complete without discussing the five tribes of the Iroquois. In my particular area of New York, which is the Southern Tier—direct center along the PA border —lived the Seneca, Cayuga and Onondaga. Further east lays the land of the Oneida and the Mohawk. The Tuscarora joined the Iroquois League after 1580, when the original Haudenosaunee, or “people of the long house” joined forces and created their Great Council, bonding the people in peace and trade. Hiawatha and Deganawidah are credited for this vision of “Great Peace” between the tribes, calling for burial of their weapons beneath the Tree of Peace.

Artifact-collecting with friend and archeologist, Mary Gledhill, has unearthed some exciting finds. She has taught me how to spot a metadi, or grind stone, with its bowl-shaped indentation into the surface. Sometimes you can still see the score marks or striations where the rock was chipped and shaped. Also uncovered in our searches have been some nice little paint pots, where the colors are sometimes still visible in the stone. Mary’s personal collection boasts some beautiful fossils in addition to her metadis, paint pots, and clay pottery shards. A visit to SRAC, or Susquehanna River Archeological Center in Waverly, New York was one highlight of 2009 for me. The kids and I viewed rooms full of locally gathered points, axes, grind stones, pestles, clay pots, corn grinders, stone sinkers used to weigh down fishing nets, plus a visit from authentic Native American dancers. Native clothing, stone animal carvings, and non-New York arrowheads and points also can be viewed here.

Mary lives near the site of an ancient trading post, where the Chemung River meets the Susquehanna. She has shared with me her years of study, including native flora and fauna and what they meant to the indigenous people. The Iroquois lived on the land, hunting and gathering as well as farming. Deer, bear, elk (now unknown in these parts), rabbit, and beaver provided food and clothing. Fishing abounded among the abundant lakes, rivers and streams, and settlements of longhouses typically gathered beside these sources of water, transportation and food. Birch-bark canoes were a chief form of travel, and birch-bark containers gathered tree sap for syrup and tree gum to resin the canoes. The Iroquois held great reverence to the Great Spirit, and offered thanks to the animals used for food and clothing. At harvest time, the Great Spirit was thanked in much the same way we observe Thanksgiving. The Rabbit Dance is an example of the Iroquois tradition of reverencing nature.

Wampum—colorful beads made from shells—were woven into belts and hung on strings. These served many purposes: as currency, peace offerings, wedding gifts, and in ceremonies. Turtle shell rattles, skin drums, and corn husk dolls are among the crafts made by the Haudenosaunee. Tanned deer hides were sewn with sinew thread and bone needles into leggings and shirts by Iroquois women. Bone awls poked fine holes between pieces of birch bark and these pieces were then sewn together for the hull of their canoes. The women farmed crops such as squash, maize and beans, “the three sisters”. They utilized their cleared land in ingeniously conservative ways: The tall maize provided the bean stalk support, while the squash vines trailed over the ground between the climbing vines.

Women enjoyed a position of power among the council. Although the members of the Great Council were warrior men, it was the older women of the tribes who appointed them and removed them from their positions.

In the Revolutionary War, Continental Army General Sullivan staged his campaign against the Iroquois in a bloody annihilation. Sullivan made encampments in Elmira, along the northeast bank of the Chemung River. Further to the east, in Lowman, NY, a federal park memorializes the slaughter at Newtown Battlefield. The park stands on a deceptively peaceful bluff overlooking the beautiful blue-green hills framing Chemung Valley. Living history events take place at Sullivan’s Monument annually.


  1. How neat to collect such historical artifacts. Facinating history!

  2. Reading your post brought back memories from the movie Last of the Mohicans. Beautiful counrty with a rich history. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Thanks, Patricia! I am ashamed to say I have never watched or read that. I started to read it once, but the prose was so flowery, I couldn't get through it. LOL
    Definitely written old-style.

    thanks, Sharon. I am so blessed to see you here.
    : )