Iroquois Social Interactions

Family discipline was little resorted to. Filling the mouth with water and spurting it over the refractory urchins, or denuding and plunging them into cold water, were the principal means employed. 1 The children were always considered the property of the wife, and in case of divorce followed her; though those who had grown up might stay with the father if they chose. Both parents were very desirous of gaining the affection of their children, and hence never opposed their inclinations, that they might not lose it. Their education therefore was not much attended to. The father generally gave the child a name in his sixth or seventh year, and pretended that it was suggested to him in a dream. This was done at a sacrifice, in a song. The same ceremony was performed when an adult person received a name of honor in addition to the former.

Taciturn, morose and cruel as the Indians were usually in their hunting and warlike expeditions, in their own cabins and communities they were very social, patient and forbearing; in their festal seasons, when all were at leisure, they engaged in a round of continual feasting, gambling, smoking and dancing. In gambling they spent much of their leisure, and staked all they controlled on the chances of the game, their food, ornaments, canoes, clothing, and even their wives. Various devices were employed, plum stones or pieces of wood, painted black on one side and white on the other, these were put into a wooden bowl, which, being struck heavily upon the ground, caused the balls to bound upward, and the betting was upon the white or black faces that were uppermost when they fell. The game had a peculiar fascination, in which two entire villages sometimes contended, and cases are related where some of the contestants lost their leggings and moccasins, and complacently returned home barefooted through the snow. Some of the Iroquois believed that they would play this game in the spirit land. 2

Dancing was both a common amusement and a solemn duty with all Indians, and not a night passed during these periods of leisure without a dance in one family or another to which the youth of both sexes resorted with eagerness. The common dance was held in a large house or in an open field around a fire. A circle was formed and a leader chosen. The women danced with great decorum, even gravity, never speaking a word to the men, much less joking with them, as that would injure their character. They neither jumped nor skipped, but moved one foot lightly backward and forward, till by gradual advances they reached a certain spot, when they retired in the same manner. They kept their bodies straight and their arms hung down close to their sides. The men shouted, leaped and stamped with great violence, their extreme agility and lightness of foot being shown to great advantage. The sole music consisted of a single drum, made by stretching a thin deer skin over an old barrel or kettle, or the lower end of a hollow tree, and beat with one stick. Its sound was disagreeable, and served only to mark the time, which they kept with exactness, even when dancing in great numbers. The intervals between the rounds were enlivened with singing by the drummer. These dances commonly lasted till midnight.

Another kind of dance was attended only by men. Each rose in his turn and danced with great agility and boldness, extolling the great deeds of himself or forefathers in a song, to which the whole company beat time, by a rough, monotonous note, sung with great vehemence at the commencement of each bar.

Other dances were held upon particular occasions, the chief of which was the dance of peace, called also the calumet; or pipe-dance, because the calumet, or pipe of peace, was handed about during the dance. The dancers joined hands and leaped in a ring for some time. Suddenly the leader let go the hand of one of his partners, keeping hold of the other. He then sprang forward, turned round several times, so that he was encircled by the rest of the company. They disengaged themselves as suddenly, keeping hold of each others hands during all the evolutions and changes of the dance, which, as they explained it, represented the chain of friendship. A song, composed especially for this solemnity, was sung by all. 3

The War Dance, held either before or after a campaign, was dreadful to behold. No one took part in it but the warriors themselves. They affected with such marvelous fidelity the fierce passions which actuated them in their bloody deeds of valor, as to give to the shuddering spectator an exact pantomime representation of the scenes in which they had actually engaged–representations as horrible as life-like. It delineated the preparations for the war, and all the common incidents attending it–their arming, departure, arrival in the enemy’s country, the encampment, the attack, the struggle, the victory, and lastly the torture of captives.

Clark’s Onondaga gives a most thrilling and minute description of this dance, of which the following is an epitome:–

A returning war party, fully armed and hideously painted, with the scalps of the slain suspended from their girdles, rush, with a deafening war-whoop, thrice repeated, to the council-house, and are cordially received by the chiefs and aged men of the nation, to whom they recount in detail, with simulated earnestness and reality, how and where they met the foe, how many they had slain, the fortitude of prisoners under torture, the snares and ambuscades they escaped, the daring feats they themselves performed, and their willingness to again take the war-path. Then follows the war-dance, which, for singularity of effect, and the thrilling animation it imparts to the actors, is not surpassed by any rite of modern times. The fantastic figures painted on their almost naked bodies, the rude head dresses and ornaments, consisting of bells, brooches, rings, a profusion of ear and nose jewels, with deers’ hoofs dangling about their ankles, gave the performers a most singular and grotesque appearance. A young brave approaches the securely-bound captive and with great vehemence and earnestness of manner, thus taunts him: “Your glorious deeds are now at an end; you must prepare yourself for torture by fire; no mercy will be shown you; your character for heroism will be established by the fortitude with which you withstand your sufferings.” With a terrific war-whoop, the warriors commenced preparations for the torture of their captive. Their rude music–the monstrous beating of a barrel-head drum–accompanied with singing, now struck up, and the warriors engaged in a dance of the most frantic character; during which the sweat rolled profusely from their bodies, their breasts heaved from excessive exertion, and with dilated nostrils, and eyes flashing the spirit of the intense passion which wrought them to the utmost frenzy, amid the most horrid grimaces and prolonged war-whoops, they continually brandished their gleaming hatchets and flourished their war-clubs about the head and person of their victim, who stood with the utmost composure and apparent unconcern, singing occasionally his own achievements in war and taunting his captors with their ignorance in the art of torture. This scene of almost inconceivable torture, lasted more than two hours, when the cord which bound the prisoner was cut. Having stood, apparently, on the verge of eternity, and awaited the fatal blow which seemed inevitable, the hope of escape which this liberation seemed to give, sent the stagnating life-blood surging through his veins and animated him with a desperate energy. He bounded like a panther for the opening made only to tempt him; but his merciless tormentors pursued him with increased fury, amid the most terrific yells, till he fell dead beneath their hatchets. The slow and melancholy death-song, chanted by the whole party as they moved solemnly in single file around the prostrate body closed the scene.

It may be of service in this connection to cite a few of the almost innumerable instances of the most revolting and exquisite torture practiced by the Indians on their prisoners; premising that these tortures were often protracted and perhaps rendered more agonizing by the effort to extort from the sufferers a cry of pain, for to fail in this was thought to augur disaster to the victors, and was a sweet revenge to their savage victims, whose fortitude was thereby strengthened.

In 1638, a party of 100 Iroquois was met in the forest by 300 Hurons, and defeated. Among the prisoners taken by the Hurons was an Oneida chief named Ononkwaya, who was put to the torture.

“On the scaffold where he was burned, he wrought himself into a fury which seemed to render him insensible to pain. Thinking him nearly spent his tormentors scalped him, when, to their amazement, he leaped up, snatched the brands that had been the instruments of his torture, drove the screeching crowd from the scaffold, and held them all at bay, while they pelted him from below with sticks, stones and showers of live coals. At length he made a false step and fell to the ground, when they seized him and threw him into the fire. He instantly leaped out, covered with blood, cinders and ashes, and rushed upon them, with a blazing brand in each hand. The crowd gave way before him, and he ran towards the town as if to set it on fire. They threw a pole across his way, which tripped him and flung him headlong to the earth, on which they all fell upon him, cut off his hands and feet, and again threw him into the fire. He rolled himself out, and crawled forward on his elbows and knees, glaring upon them with such unutterable ferocity that they recoiled once more, till, seeing that he was helpless, they threw themselves upon him, and cut off his head.” 4

In 1649, the Jesuit Jean de Brbeuf, the founder of the Huron mission, was captured with others, by the Iroquois in one of their eruptions into the Huron country, and subjected to the most excruciating torture.

“Brbeuf was led apart and bound to a stake. He seemed more concerned for his captive converts than for himself, and addressed them in a loud voice, exhorting them to suffer patiently, and promising Heaven as their reward. The Iroquois, incensed, scorched him from head to foot, to silence him; whereupon, in the tone of a master, he threatened them with everlasting flames, for persecuting the worshipers of God. As he continued to speak, with voice and countenance unchanged, they cut away his lower lip and thrust a red hot iron down his throat. He still held his tall form erect and defiant, with no sign or sound of pain; and they tried another means to overcome him. They led out Lalemant, [an associate missionary, captured at the same time,] that Brbeuf might see him tortured. They had tied strips of bark, smeared with pitch, about his naked body. * * * [They] made him fast to a stake, and set fire to the bark that enveloped him. As the flame rose, he threw his arms upward, with a shriek of supplication to Heaven. Next they hung around Brebuf’s neck a collar made of hatchets heated red hot; but the indomitable priest stood like a rock. A Huron in the crowd, who had been a convert of the mission, but was now an Iroquois by adoption, called out with the malice of a renegade, to pour hot water on their heads, since they had poured so much cold water on those of others. The kettle was accordingly slung, and the water boiled and poured slowly on the heads of the two missionaries. ‘We baptize you,’ they cried, ‘that you may be happy in Heaven; for nobody can be saved without a good baptism.’ Br‚beuf would not flinch; and, in a rage, they cut strips of flesh from his limbs, and devoured them before his eyes. Other renegade Hurons called out to him, ‘You told us that the more one suffers on earth, the happier he is in Heaven. We wish to make you happy; we torment you because we love you; and you ought to thank us for it.’ After a succession of other revolting tortures, they scalped him; when, seeing him nearly dead, they laid open his breast, and came in a crowd to drink the blood of so valiant an enemy, thinking to imbibe with it some portion of his courage. A chief then tore out his heart and devoured it. * * * Lalemant, physically weak from childhood, and slender almost to emaciation was constitutionally unequal to a display of fortitude like that of his colleague. When Br‚beuf died, he was led back to the house whence he had been taken, and tortured there all night, until, in the morning, one of the Iroquois, growing tired of the protracted entertainment, killed him with a hatchet.” 2

Says the Jesuit Ragueneau:–

“We saw no part of his body, from head to foot, which was not burned, even to his eyes, in the sockets of which these wretches had placed live coals.” 5

“Last summer,” writes Lalemant in 1643, “two thousand warriors of the Neutral Nation attacked a town of the Nation of Fire, well fortified with a palisade, and defended by nine hundred warriors. They took it after a siege of ten days; killed many on the spot; and made eight hundred prisoners, men, women, and children. After burning seventy of the best warriors, they put out the eyes of the old men, and cut away their lips, and then left them to drag out a miserable existence. Behold the scourge that is depopulating all this country!” 6

Smith, James H. History of Chenango and Madison Counties, New York. Syracuse, NY: D. Mason & Co. 1880.

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  1. Ibid.[]
  2. Parkman’s Jesuits.[][]
  3. Loskiel.[]
  4. Lalemant, Relation des Hurons, 1639, 68.[]
  5. Relation des Hurons, 1694, 15.[]
  6. Relation des Hurons, 1644, 98.[]

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