Iroquois Ceremonies

Among the Iroquois, and, indeed, all the stationary tribes, there was an incredible number of mystic ceremonies, extravagant, puerile, and often disgusting, designed for the cure of the sick or for the general weal of the community. Most of their observances seem originally to have been dictated by dreams, and transmitted as a sacred heritage from generation to generation.

They consisted in an endless variety of dances, masquerading, and nondescript orgies; and a scrupulous adherence to all the traditional forms was held to be of the last moment, as the slightest failure in this respect might entail serious calamities.

Dreams were the great Indian oracles, and were implicitly obeyed. They believed them to be direct emanations from the Great Spirit, and as such were immutable laws to them. From this source arose many of their evils and miseries. In them were revealed their destiny and duty; war and peace, health and sickness, rain and drouth, were all revealed by a a class of professional dreamers and dream interpreters.

Wizards and witches were the great bane of the Iroquois, and objects of utter detestation. Murder might be condoned, but witchcraft was punishable with death in all cases. Any one might kill a witch on sight with impunity. They believed that witches could transform themselves at will into any one of the wild animals or birds, or even assume the shape of logs, trees, rocks, &c., and, in forms invisible, visit public assemblies or private houses, and inflict all manner of evils. The delusion was at one time so prevalent and their destruction so great as to seriously lessen the population. 1

The Indians never destroyed rattlesnakes, because they believed them to be the offspring of the devil, who they thought, would revenge the act by preventing their success in hunting.

Indian burials were attended with solemn ceremonies, and differed somewhat in the method of conducting them. The most ancient mode of burial among the Iroquois was first to place the corpse upon a scaffold, some eight feet high, and allow it to remain there till the flesh fell off, when the bones were interred. 2 How long this method prevailed is not known, but latterly, and from their first association with the whites, a more commendable one prevailed. The corpse was clad, usually in the best attire of the deceased. The grave, usually about three feet deep, was lined with bark, into which the body was laid. Then were deposited in the bark coffin a kettle of provisions, deer skin and the sinews of the deer (to sew patches on the moccasins, which, it was believed, would wear out in the long journey to the spirit land,) bows and arrows, a tomahawk, knife, and sometimes, if he was a distinguished person, a gun. These were deemed indispensable to a prosperous and happy journey to the Indian’s land of shades. The final covering was then placed over the whole, and the grave filled with earth. This done the Indian women kneeled down by the grave and wept. The men were silent for a time, but eventually set up a doleful cry, chanted the death dirge, and all silently retired to their homes. It was formerly customary for the friends to visit the grave before sunrise and after sunset for twelve successive days, but this practice has been abandoned.

The practice of putting into the grave certain articles designed to promote the journey of the deceased to the great hunting ground was common to all Indian nations, and often very costly ornaments and trinkets belonging to the deceased were buried with them. The face and hair of the corpse were sometimes painted red, to obscure the pallor of death, and give it an animated appearance, and the obsequies were celebrated with all the pomp of savage splendor. With the Natchez it was customary for the mourning friend to name the degree of relationship he sustained toward the deceased, and the nearest relatives continued this ceremony for three months.

With the Delawares, says Loskiel, “the first degree of mourning in a widow consists in her sitting down in the ashes near the fire, and weeping most bitterly; she then rises and runs to the grave, where she makes loud lamentations, returning again to her seat in the ashes. She will neither eat, drink, nor sleep, and refuses all consolation. But after some time she suffers herself to be persuaded to rise, drink some rum, and receive some comfort. However, she must attend to the second degree of mourning for one whole year, that is to dress without any ornaments, and wash herself but seldom. As soon as she appears decent, combs and anoints her hair, and washes herself clean, it is considered a sign that she wishes to marry again.” The Nanticokes, he says, have the singular custom of disinterring the remains after three or four months, and having cleaned and dried the bones and wrapped them in new linen, to re-inter them. A feast was provided for the occasion, consisting of the best they could afford.

Colden says the custom was to make a large round hole, in which the body was placed in a sitting posture. It was then covered with timber, to support the earth, which was heaped up in a round hill.

“At intervals of ten or twelve years,” says Parkman, “the Hurons, the Neutrals, and other kindred tribes, were accustomed to collect the bones of their dead, and deposit them, with great ceremony, in a common place of burial. The whole nation was sometimes assembled at this solemnity; and hundreds of corpses, brought from their temporary resting places, were inhumed in one capacious pit. From this hour the immortality of the soul began. They took wing, as some affirmed, in the shape of pigeons; while the greater number declared that they journeyed on foot, and in their own likeness, to the land of shades, bearing with them the ghosts of the wampum-belts, beaver-skins, bows, arrows, pipes, kettles, beads, and rings buried with them in the common grave. But as the spirits of the old and of the children are too feeble for the march, they are forced to stay behind, lingering near their earthly villages, where the living often hear the shutting of their invisible cabin-doors, and the weak voices of the disembodied children driving birds from the corn-fields.”

Cleared areas were chosen for this sepulcher. The ceremonies attending the event lasted for days and were very imposing. The subsequent discovery of these immense deposits of bones have elicited much curious inquiry on the part of those not familiar with the facts. Father Br‚beuf saw and fully explained one of these burials in 1636.

Wampum, or Zewant, served the Indians as a currency, as an ornament, and as the public archives of the nation. It was, therefore, an important factor in all their civil, social, political and religious affairs. It was of two kinds, purple or black, and white, both being used as a measure of value, the black being estimated at twice the value of white. The purple wampum was made from the interior portions of the common conch, (venus merceneria,) and the white from the pillar of the periwinkle. Each kind was fashioned into round or oval beads, about a quarter of an inch long, which were perforated and strung on a fibre of deer’s sinew, but latterly on linen thread, after that was discovered. The article was highly prized as an ornament, and as such constituted an object of traffic between the sea coast and interior tribes. It was worn in various ways, upon the clothing and in the form of necklaces, bracelets, collars and belts; and when these strings were united, it formed the broad wampum belts, by which solemn public transactions were confirmed. As a substitute for gold and silver coin, its price was fixed by law, though its value was subject to variations, according to time and place. Three purple beads, or six white ones, were equal to a stiver with the Dutch, or a penny with the English, each equal to two cents United States currency. The price of a string six feet long, denominated a fathom of wampum, ruled at five shillings in New England, and was known to reach as high as four guilders in New Netherland.

Previous to the advent of the Europeans wampum was made largely of small pieces of wood of equal size, stained black or white. Its manufacture from shells was very difficult, and although much time was spent in finishing it, it presented a very clumsy appearance, owing to the want of proper tools. The Dutch introduced the lathe in its manufacture, polished and perforated it with exactness, and by supplying an article far superior to that previously in use, soon had the monopoly of the trade, which they found very advantageous. The principal place of manufacture was Hackensack, N. J., and the principal deposit of sea shells, Long Island. Imitations in glass and porcelain soon became abundant.

The most important use to which wampum was applied, however, was in confirming compacts and treaties between nations, both Indian and European, for which purpose it took the place of feathers, which had been previously employed. Every speech and principal part of a speech was made valid by a string or belt of wampum, the value of which was determined by the gravity of the subject under consideration. The color of the wampum was of no less importance than its other qualities, as it had an immediate reference to the things which it was meant to confirm; thus a black belt implied a warning against evil, or an earnest reproof, and if it was marked with red and had the added figure of a hatchet of white wampum in the center, it signified war. Black or purple always signified something grave, if not of doubtful import; while white was the symbol of peace. It was necessary that the answer given to a speech be confirmed by strings and belts of the same size and number as those received. The Indian women dexterously wove these strings into belts of wampum, and skillfully wrought into them elaborate and significant devices, suggestive of the substance of the compact or speech, and designed as aids to memory. These strings and belts of wampum became the national records, and one or more old men were charged with their safe keeping and interpretation. At certain seasons the Indians met to study their meaning, and as it was customary to admit to these assemblies the young men of the nation who were related to the chiefs, a knowledge of these documents was thus transmitted to posterity. The figures on wampum belts were, for the most part, simply mnemonic; so also were those carved on wooden tablets, or painted on bark and skin, to preserve in memory the songs of war, hunting or magic. The Hurons had, however, in common with other tribes, a system of rude pictures and arbitrary signs, by which they could convey to each other, with tolerable precision, information touching the ordinary subjects of Indian interest.

The Indian standards of value were the hand or fathom of wampum, and the denotas, or bags, which they themselves made for measuring and preserving corn.

Hospitality among the Indians was proverbial, not only among their own race, but was extended also with the greatest freedom toward strangers. They regarded it as a sacred duty, from which no one was exempt. Whoever refused relief to any one, committed a grievous offense, and not only made himself an object of detestation and abhorrence, but subjected himself to the liability of revenge from the offended person. Loskiel relates a remarkable instance in which the war-like intent of a party of two hundred Huron warriors, who had taken the war-path against the Delawares, were dissuaded from their purpose by the generous hospitality tendered them by the latter.

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

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  1. The last execution of witches at Oneida occurred about 1805, when Hon Yost, according to the decree of a council, tomahawked two women in their cabins, who were charged with that offense.[]
  2. La Fort.[]

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