Tuscarora Indian Ethnology

   Ethnology.  The Tuscarora in New York are governed by a council of irresponsible chiefs, for the Indians have forgotten and so neglect the means to be employed in enforcing the will of the clan in case a chief fails in his plain duty; the criminal law of New York at this point nullifies the early sovereignty of the clan over its members. In common with the other tribes of the Iroquoian linguistic stock, the Tuscarora traced the descent of blood through the line of the mother, and made the civil and official military chieftainships hereditary in the ohwatcira of certain clans (see Clans) over which the woman chiefs and the elder women presided. The simplest political unit was the ohwatcira, of which one or more constituted a clan. which was the simplest organized political unit. The Tuscarora were constituted of at least eight clans, which primitively were organized into phratries. There are no data, other than those furnished by tradition and analogy, as to the organization of the Tuscarora confederation. The clans were exogamic as to their own members, as were also the phratries in primitive times. The Tuscarora of New York being completely isolated from any of their own people who still profess their ancient dogmas and beliefs and who still practice their ancient rites and ceremonies, have preserved only a hazy recollection of their early customs, ceremonies, and rites; even less do they comprehend the meaning of the ceremonies still practiced by the so-called pagan members of cognate tribes. They are all professed Christians, and so turn away from the old forms of thought and practice of their ancestors.
     The exact number of clans still existing among the Tuscarora is not definitely known, for the native authorities themselves do not agree on the number and the names of those still recognized-some informants give seven, while others with equal credibility give eight. There is likewise some diversity in regard to the correct names of certain clans. One list has Bear, Wolf, Turtle, Beaver, Deer, Eel, and Snipe; another has Bear, Eel, Large Turtle, Small Turtle, Beaver, Deer, Wolf, and Snipe; still another list has Bear, Eel, Deer, Turtle, Gray Wolf, Yellow Wolf, Beaver, and Snipe; and yet another is like the last, except that the Turtle clan is replaced by the clans Small Turtle and Large Turtle. Like differences appear in the lists of clans of the other Iroquois tribes.
     The names of the civil chiefs still in use among the present two divisions of the Tuscarora (that in Ontario and the other in west New York) are:
(A) Säkwari’’çrä (Sacharissa), ‘The spear trailer’
Ni`hawěñna’’ǎ‘, ‘His voice is small’
Hotio`kwawǎ’kěn‘, ‘He holds or grasps the multitude,’ or possibly, ‘He holds or grasps his own loins’; these three belong to the Turtle clan.
(B) Näkäiěñ”těn’ (signification not clear); Utäkwä‘kwǎ‘těn’ǎ‘, ‘The Bear cub’ Ioněñtchāněñ’’nǎkěn‘, ‘Its fore-paw pressed against its breast’; these three belong to the Bear clan.
(C) Nāio`kāwe’’ǎ‘ (signification not known)
Neiotchǎ’k’doñ‘, ‘It is bent’; these two belong to the Wolf clan.
(D) Karoñdawǎ’’kěn‘, ‘One is holding the tree’
Thanädǎk’hwǎ’ (signification not clear); these two belong to the Snipe clan.
(E) Kari`hěn’tiä’, ‘It goes along teaching’
Ni`hno`ka’wä’, ‘He annoints the hide’
Näkǎ`hěñwǎ‘’ç‘hěñ, `It is twenty canoes’ ; these three belong to the Beaver clan.   
     Among the Canadian Tuscarora on Grand River reservations, Ontario, the first and last names of the Turtle clan, the first title of the Wolf clan, and the first title of the Snipe clan appear to be the only ones now in use, although these four titles are questionably also in use among the New York Tuscarora.
     There is no definite information available as to the former and more complete organization into clan phratries. Some of the translations of the chieftain titles above would seem to indicate that they were originally designations of some habit, attitude, or other characteristic feature of the clan tutelary or patron, questionably called “totem”. The clan name, with one or two exceptions, is not the ordinary name of the clan guardian or patron, but is rather descriptive of some feature or attitude, or is the name of the usual habitat, of the tutelary; for example, the name of the Bear clan signifies literally, ‘Broken-off tail’; that of the Plover or Killdee (Snipe), ‘Clean-sand people’; that of the Beaver, ‘People of the stream’; that of the Turtle clan, ‘Climbing-the-mountain people,’ named from the position of the turtle basking; etc. It is probable that plover or killdee should be substituted in the foregoing lists of clans, for the name clearly refers to the killdee’s habit of running along the clean sand at the water’s edge.
      De Graffenried gives (N. C. Col. Rec., i, 905 et seq.) an interesting account of the preparations made for the execution of Lawson and himself by the hostile Tuscarora. In the open space or public square mentioned there was a large fire, near which was the shaman or high priest, a grizzled sorcerer, who made two white rings on the ground, whether of flour or white sand was not stated. In front of the two victims was placed a wolf skin, and a short distance farther there stood an Indian in a terrifying posture, holding in one hand a knife and in the other a tomahawk; he was apparently the executioner. He did not move from the spot. On the farther side of the fire were assembled young men, women, and children, who danced with weird and frightful contortions and attitudes. In the center of the circle of dancers were seated two singers who intoned a dismal song, “rather fit to provoke tears and anger than joy.” Within the circle of dancers the shaman stood unterrified, uttering his threatenings and adjurations and performing his exorcisms, against the foes of his people and their orenda or “medicine,” when there would come a pause in the dancing. Finally, with shouts and howls the dancers ran into the neighboring forest. In a short time they returned with their faces painted black, white, and red, in bands, and with their hair loose and flying, oiled and sprinkled with fine down or cotton from the cattail flag and with small white feathers, and some returned arrayed in all kinds of furs. After their return, the dance was renewed. Back of the two victims stood a double line of armed warriors who kept their posts until everything was over; back of this guard was the council of war, whose members were seated on the ground in a circle, gravely deliberating on the fate of the two noted prisoners. Finally, they acted on the advice of “King” Tom Blunt, the head chief of their neighbors, “the villages of the Tuscaroros,” properly so called, that King Hencock should liberate De Graffenried, and could deal with Lawson as he and his council pleased. The manner of Lawson’s death, as learned from Indian information, is found in a letter of Maj. Christopher Gale to his brother, Nov. 2, 1711, wherein it is said that the Indians stuck the unfortunate prisoner “full of fine small splinters of torchwood, like hogs’ bristles, and so set them gradually on fire.” De Graffenried was not permitted to know how Lawson was executed.
     To this account of the Tuscarora method of preparing for the execution of captives may be added their triumphal ceremonies which De Graffenried says they performed after their defeat of a relief party of Swiss and Palatines. He reports that they built bonfires at night, and especially a large one in the place of executions, where they raised “three wolf’s hides, figuring as many protectors or gods,” to which offerings, consisting of their jewels, were made by the women. In the middle of the circle, the chief shaman performed all manner of contortions, conjurations, and imprecations against the enemies of his country, while the populace danced in a circle around the wolf-hides.
     The council of “King” Hencock, which consisted of 40 elders, was called by the Tuscarora, according to De Graffenried, the “Assembly of the Great,” a translation of the Tuscarora terms for the council of chiefs, the general word for chief signifying ‘one is great, either in size or position. At the council before which Lawson and De Graffenried were tried the “forty elders” were seated around a great fire kindled in a large open space devoted to important festivals and public executions. On this occasion these chiefs and the accused were seated on rush mats, which were customarily provided for the comfort of guests as a mark of deference and honor. Although the two captives were acquitted by the first council, they were again tried before a second council, after Lawson incautiously had had a bitter quarrel with Cor Tom, the chief of Cor town, who was not at the first council. The two captives were not given mats upon which to sit, and Lawson was condemned to death and De Graffenried was acquitted.
     Lawson asserts that the most powerful tribe “scorns to treat or trade with any others, of fewer numbers and less power in any other tongue but their own, which serves for the lingua of the country; with which we travel and deal.” As an example of this, the Tuscarora are cited. Being the most numerous tribe in North Carolina, their language was necessarily understood by some persons in every town of all the neighboring tribes.
     The Tuscarora carried on a pernicious trade in rum with the Indians dwelling
to their westward. In 1708 rum had been but recently introduced. among the latter, chiefly by the Tuscarora, who transported it in rundlets several hundred miles, amongst other Indians. They sold it at “so many mouthfuls for a buckskin, they never using any other measure,” the buyer always choosing a man having the largest mouth possible to accompany him to the market, and the mouthful was scrupulously emptied into a bowl brought for the purpose. The Tuscarora also traded with the Shakori and Occaneechi, selling them wooden bowls and ladles for rawhides.
Their lodges, usually round in form, were constructed of poles, covered with the bark of cypress, red or white cedar, or sometimes pine. Atone place Lawson met more than 500 Tuscarora in one body in a hunting camp. They had constructed their lodges with bark, “not with round tops, as they commonly use, but ridge fashion, after the manner of most Indians.” Among them he found much corn, while meat and venison were scarce, because of the great number of people, for although they were expert hunters, they were too populous for one range.
     According to Lawson, the native Tuscarora of North Carolina had rather flat bodies, due probably to the fact that in early infancy the children were swathed to cradle-boards. He adds: “They are not of so robust and strong bodies as to lift great burdens, and endure labor and slavish work, as Europeans are; yet some that are slaves prove very good and laborious.” They were dextrous and steady, and collected in the use of their hands and feet; their bearing was sedate and majestic; their eyes were commonly full and manly, being black or dark hazel in color, and the white of the eye was usually marbled with red lines; their skin was tawny, and somewhat darkened by the habit of anointing it with bear’s oil and a pigment resembling burnt cork. When they wished to be very fine they mixed with the oil a certain red powder made from a scarlet root growing in the hilly country. This ,root was held in great esteem among them, selling it one to another at a very high price, on account of the distance from which it came and the danger to which they were exposed in obtaining it. The Tuscarora and other Indians attempted to cultivate this plant, but it would not grow in their land. As a substitute they sometimes used puccoon root, which also has a crimson color, but this dyed the hair an ugly hue. The heads even of the aged were scarcely ever bald; their teeth were tinged Yellow from smoking tobacco, to which habit both men and women were much addicted; they however did not snuff or chew tobacco. They plucked the hair from their faces and bodies. There were but few deformed or crippled persons among them.
     The Tuscarora had many dances suitable to various occasions; these as a rule were accompanied with public feasts prepared under the direction of the women chiefs. Every dance had its peculiar song, but probably was not changed for every occasion on which the dance was performed, although Lawson states that “all these songs are made new for every feast; nor is one and the same song sung at two several festivals. Some one of the nation, which has the best gift of expressing their designs, is appointed by their king and war captains to make these songs.” To these festivals the people came from all the towns within 50 or 60 miles, “where they buy and sell several commodities.”
     The Tuscarora, in like measure with the northern Iroquois, were passionately given to gaining, frequently stripping one another of every piece of property available. Sometimes they went even so far as to bet themselves away to the winner, readily becoming his slave until he or his relatives could pay the redemption price; nevertheless they bore their losses with great equanimity, no matter how ruinous they were. Among their games was that of a bundle of 51 split reeds about 7 in. in length and neatly made. The game consisted in throwing a part of the bundle before an opponent, who must on sight guess the number thrown. It is said that experts were able to tell the number correctly ten times in ten throws. A set of these reeds was valued at a dressed doe skin. The Tuscarora also had the well known bowl and plum-seed game, which is such an important adjunct to the thanksgiving festivals of the northern Iroquois. They also had a number of other games, but some of their neighbors had games which they did not have.
     There were feasts among the Tuscarora when several villages united to celebrate some event or when two or more tribes assembled to negotiate peace. There were feasts and dances of thanksgiving, and invocations to the gods that watched over their harvests, when their crops were garnered and when the first fruits of the year were gathered.

The books presented are for their historical value only and are not the opinions of the Webmasters of the site.   Handbook of American Indians, 1906

Index of Tribes or Nations


Hodge, Frederick Webb, Compiler. The Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. Bureau of American Ethnology, Government Printing Office. 1906.

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