Iroquois Religion

Each Indian had his guardian manitou, to whom he looked for counsel, guidance and protection. These spiritual allies, says Parkman, were gained as follows:–

“At the age of fourteen or fifteen, the Indian boy blackens his face, retires to some solitary place, and remains for days without food. Superstitious expectancy and the exhaustion of abstinence rarely fail of their results. His sleep is haunted by visions, and the form which first or most often appears, is that of his guardian manitou, * * *. An eagle or a bear is the vision of a destined warrior; a wolf, of a successful hunter; while a serpent foreshadows the future medicine-man, or, according to others, portends disaster. The young Indian thenceforth wears about his person the object of his dreams, or some portion of it, as a bone, a feather, a snake-skin, or a tuft of hair. This in the modern language of the forest and prairie, is known as his medicine. The Indian yields to it a sort of worship, propitiates it with offerings of tobacco, thanks it in prosperity, and upbraids it in disaster. If his medicine fails to bring the desired success, he will sometimes discard it and adopt another. The superstition now becomes mere fetich-worship, since the Indian regards the mysterious object which he carries about him rather as an embodiment than as a representative of a supernatural power.”

The points of the compass and the winds were also personified as manitous. There was a Summer-Maker and a Winter-Maker, and the latter was kept at bay by throwing fire brands into the air. The hunter sought to propitiate the game he desired to kill, and was often known to address a wounded bear in a long apologetic harangue. This is also true of the fish, which, says Parkman, “were addressed every evening from the fishing-camp, by one of the party chosen for that function, who exhorted them to take courage and be caught, assuring them that the utmost respect should be shown to their bones. The harangue, which took place after the evening meal, was made in solemn form; and while it lasted, the whole party, except the speaker, were required to lie on their backs, silent and motionless, around the fire.” The fish-nets were no less objects of solicitude, and to induce them to do their work effectually, were married every year to two young girls, with a ceremony far more formal than that observed in human wedlock. As it was indispensable that the brides should be virgins, mere children were chosen. 1

Though believing in the immortality of the soul, the Indian did not always accompany it with a belief in a state of future reward and punishment; and when such belief did exist, the reward and punishment were sensuous rather than moral. Some, though but few, believed in the transmigration of the soul. They had religious teachers, whose code of morals, says Loskiel, was as severe as their own non-observance of it was universal. To the poor they recommended vomiting, among other things, as the most expeditious mode of purification from their sins. “Some,” says Loskiel, “who believed in these absurdities, vomited so often that their lives were endangered by it.” He pertinently adds, “few indeed persevered in attending to so severe a regimen.” Others, he says, recommended stripes as the most effectual means to that end, “and advised their hearers to suffer themselves to be beaten with twelve different sticks, from the soles of their feet to their necks, that their sins might pass from them through their throats.” “Even these,” he says, “had their willing scholars, though it was apparent that the people became no better, but rather worse by these wretched doctrines.”

The Iroquois had five stated annual festivals, each conducted in a manner appropriate to the special event commemorated.

The first was held in the spring, after the close of the sugar-making season, in gratitude for the abundance of sap and quantity of sugar they had been permitted to make. The aged chiefs admonished the young men to rectitude and virtue as the way to merit a continuance of these favors. It was usually closed with dancing, singing and games.

The second was held immediately after corn-planting; when thanks were rendered for a favorable seed-time, instructions given for the care and cultivation of the crop, and the great spirit invoked to give it a healthy growth.

The third, called the green-corn feast, was held when the corn was ready for use, and thanks were rendered for this valuable gift, which was prepared and consumed in great quantity and in a variety of ways. Songs and dances entered largely into the ceremonies of the occasion, which were closed by the famous succotash dance. The pipe of peace was usually smoked on these festal days by the head men of the nation.

The fourth was held after the close of the corn harvest, for which thanks were given, and was followed by the usual festivities.

To the preceding festivals, which latterly occupied but one day each, three days each were formerly allotted.

The fifth, the last, and crowning festival of the year, the one to which the greatest importance was attached, was held late in January or early in February, immediately after the return of the hunters from the chase, with their wealth of game and skins, and was celebrated with great pomp and ceremony. When every preparation had been made by managers chosen for that purpose, runners were sent to every cabin in the nation, to give notice of the fact. The fire was extinguished in every cabin, each of which was then visited and purified by persons designated for that purpose, who scattered the ashes, swept the hearth and rekindled the fire. This occupied the first day. On the second the managers, fantastically dressed, visited each house and received the gifts of the people, which consisted of various articles useful for food, incense or sacrifice. This was continued several days, according to the time allotted for the continuance of the festival, during which time the people assembled at the council-house were engaged in various sports. All must give something, or be saluted with a “rub” by the solicitors, which left a mark of disgrace not easily effaced, and be excluded from the sacrificial absolution.

Preparations were made on the day preceding the last for the great sacrifice, which was to take place on the succeeding one. The offerings which had been collected were presented separately by the giver to the master of ceremonies, who, with the utmost gravity, uttered a short ejaculatory prayer, to which those present made a hearty response. These gifts as they were returned were hung around the council room. The sins of the people, which were supposed to have been concentrated in the managers, were transferred by them to two individuals clad in white, who, in turn, transferred them to two white dogs, which had been previously fantastically painted with red figures, decorated with small belts of wampum, ribbons and feathers, and killed by strangulation. These were then taken to the council-house and laid upon a platform, the whole proceedings being characterized by the most devout solemnity. They were subsequently carried with formal ceremony to the fire, which had been kindled outside the house, and around which the multitude gathered. Each in turn was thrown upon the fire, the act being preceded by prayer and song. Baskets of herbs and tobacco were thrown upon the fire at intervals and the whole consumed. 1

An Indian community swarmed with sorcerers, medicine-men and diviners, whose functions were often united in one person. The former, by charms, magic songs and feasts, and the beating of drums, professed power over spirits and those occult influences inherent in animals and inanimate things. The Indian mind, so prone to mysticisms, was largely influenced by these deceivers. The doctors knew how to cure wounds, and treated simple diseases successfully, but were not skilled in the practice of medicines. The general health was due more to their habits than to a knowledge of remedies. One method of treatment was the sweating bath, which was literally an earthen oven, around which heated stones were placed to raise the temperature. Into this the patient crawled, and after remaining under perspiration a certain length of time, was taken out and immersed suddenly in cold water, a process well calculated to “kill or cure.” The oil obtained from beavers was used by them in many forms and for various purposes. It was a remedy to which the Dutch attached much value. But they relied far more on magic than natural remedies. Diseases, they believed, resulted from supernatural causes, and hence supernatural and extremely ludicrous curative agencies were resorted to. They beat, shook, pinched and bit their patients, and sought to expel the evil spirits by deafening noises and various incantations. These, together with dances, feasts, dreams, an unearthly din in the cabin of the invalid, kept up for hours, and sufficient to make the well sick, strewing ashes about the hut, and rolling one of their number in skins, were the principal remedies.

The diviners, or prophets, had various means of reading the secrets of futurity, and wielded an immense influence with the people, who, apparently, were incapable of abstract thought. For the spiritual and purely ‘ethetical they cared nothing; but directed their study chiefly to physical phenomena, with which they were so intimately associated, always referring their causes to a supernatural agency. Hence their mind was a fruitful field for the mystic arts of divination. 2

The sorcerers, medicine-men and diviners did not usually exercise the functions of priests, says Parkman. Each man sacrificed for himself to the powers he wished to propitiate. The most common offering was tobacco, thrown into fire or water; scraps of meat were sometimes burned to the manitous; and on a few rare occasions of public solemnity, a white dog, the mystic animal of many tribes, was tied to the end of an upright pole, as a sacrifice to some superior spirit or to the sun, with which the superior spirits were constantly confounded by the primitive Indian.

History, Iroquois,

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

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  1. Clark’s Onondaga, in which may be found a more minute description.[][]
  2. Says Parkman: “There was a peculiar practice of divination very general in the Algonquin family of tribes, among some of whom it still subsists. A small, conical lodge was made by planting poles in a circle, lashing the tops together at the height of about seven feet from the ground, and closely covering them with hides. The prophet crawled in and closed the aperture after him. He then beat his drum and sang his magic songs to summon the spirits, whose weak, shrill voices were soon heard, mingled with his lugubrious chanting, while at intervals the juggler paused to interpret their communications to the attentive crowd seated on the ground without. During the whole scene, the lodge swayed to and fro with a violence which has astonished many a civilized beholder, and which some of the Jesuits explain by the ready solution of a genuine diabolic intervention.” This practice, he says, was first observed by Champlain. From his time to the present numerous writers have remarked it. Le Jeune, in the Relation of 1637, treats it at some length.[]

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