Iroquois Feasts

Prodigality was as much a characteristic of their feasts as their dances and other amusements, with which they were often associated, and like them are supposed to have had their origin in religion. They were often participated in by whole villages, sometimes even by neighboring villages, and in this way a vain or ambitious host applied all his substance to one entertainment. Br‚beuf relates an instance of this kind which occurred in the winter of 1635, at the village of Contarrea, where thirty kettles were over the fires, and twenty deer and four bears were served up. 1 The invitation was simple and consisted in the concise summons, “Come and eat.” To refuse was a grave offense. Each guest took his dish and spoon and as he entered, greeted his host with the ejaculation, Ho! He then ranged himself with the rest, squatted on the earthen floor or on the platform along the sides of the house, around the steaming kettles. A long prelude of lugubrious singing preceded the feast. The host, who took no share in the feast, then proclaimed in a loud voice the contents of each kettle and at each announcement the company responded in unison, Ho! The attendant squaws then filled the bowls of the guests, who interspersed their feasting with talking, laughing, jesting, singing and smoking, at times protracting the entertainment throughout the day.

When the feast partook of a medical character it was indispensable that each guest should eat all that was served to him, however enormous the quantity, even if he should die. Should he fail, the host would be outraged, the community shocked, and the spirits roused to vengeance. Disaster would befall the nation; death, perhaps, the individual. A vicarious alternative was provided, however; and when one found himself unable to conform to the ridiculous practice, he engaged, when he could, another of the company to eat what remained of his portion, generally rewarding his benefactor with a present. This was the only way of getting out of the dilemma. “in some cases the imagined efficacy of the feast was proportioned to the rapidity with which the viands were dispatched. Prizes of tobacco were offered to the most rapid feeder; and the spectacle then became truly porcine.” These feasts were much dreaded, but were never known to be declined. 2

The Indians had rude, though positive religious ideas, which were associated with–almost entirely embodied in–superstition, that natural concomitant of ignorance. As observed by the early Jesuits, before being contaminated by those of civilized nations, they were in strict accordance, as with other nations, civilized or barbarous, with their mental and moral development, and hence differed in different nations. They evinced, in perfect analogy with the barbaric condition of the Indians themselves, a greater fear of evil than of reverence for good; and hence their devotions consisted more in propitiating evil spirits than invoking the interposition of the good. Indeed, and here we realize the beauty of their simplicity, it was deemed superfluous to importune the source of goodness. Analogous to this difference in their religious ideas is their differing cosmogonies. 3 The belief in immortality was almost universal, but, though rarely, there were those who denied it; 4 even animals were endowed with it, and were deified and worshiped. 5 This veneration for the animal kingdom is reflected in the common practice of selecting from it the names by which the tribes were designated.

The Indians’ God, whom the Iroquois called Hawenniio (meaning he rules, he is master,) was endowed with attributes akin to their own, but primitively not with that of moral goodness. The Indian language had no word expressive of our abstract idea of deity. The Iroquois had another God, with equal claims to supremacy. Him they called Areskoui, and his most prominent attribute was that of a god of war. He was often invoked, and the flesh of animals and captive enemies was burned in his honor. They had also a third deity, called Tarenyowagon, or Teharonhiawagon, whose place and character is not well defined. In some traditions he appears as the son of Jouskeha, the ruler of the world, and endowed with great influence, for he it was who spoke to men in dreams. Some writers identify him with Hiawatha, to whom the Iroquois ascribe their confederation; while Vander Donck assumes that he is God, and Areskoui, the Devil. 6 Beside these they had numerous objects, both animate and inanimate, which were endowed with supernatural powers and supplicated. These the Iroquois called Okies; the Algonquins and other tribes, Manitous. There were local manitous of streams, rocks, mountains, cataracts and forests, which, when they revealed themselves to mortal sight, bore the semblance of beasts, reptiles or birds, in unusual or distorted shapes, their conception betraying, for the most part, a striking poverty of imagination. There were manitous without local habitations, some good, some evil, countless in number and indefinite in attributes. They filled the world and controlled the destinies of Indians, who were held to be under a spiritual rule distinct from that which governs the white man. These were, for the most part, in the shape of animals. Sometimes they took the form of stones, and, though less frequently, assumed human she was soon delivered of a daughter, who, in turn loved two boys, whose paternity is unexplained. They were called Taouscaron and Jouskeha, and presently fell to blows, Jouskeha killing his brother with the horn of a stag.

The back of the tortoise grew into a world full of verdure and life; and Jouskeha with his grandmother Antaentsic ruled over its destinies.”

“According to Van der Donck, Antaentsic become mother of a deer, a bear, and a wolf, by whom she afterwards bore all the other animals, mankind included.”–Parkman’s Jesuits.

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

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  1. Parkman’s Jesuits.[]
  2. Kip’s and Parkman’s Jesuits.[]
  3. That of the Iroquois is thus described by Brebeuf, Relations des Hurons, 1636, 86, and, though no two Indians told it precisely alike, nearly all agreed as to its essential points:–
    “While the world was as yet a waste of waters there was * * * a heaven filled with lakes, streams, plains and forests, inhabited by animals, by spirits, and, as some affirm, by human beings. Here a certain female spirit, named Antaentsic, was once chasing a bear, which slipping through a hole, fell down to the earth. Antaentsic’s dog followed, when she herself, struck with despair, jumped after them. Others declare that she was kicked out of heaven by the spirit, her husband, for an amour with a man; while others, again, hold the belief, that she fell in the attempt to gather for her husband the medicinal leaves of a certain tree. Be this as it may, the animals swimming in the watery waste below saw her falling, and hastily met in council to determine what should be done. The case was referred to the beaver. The beaver commended it to the judgment of the tortoise, who thereupon called on the other animals to dive, bring up mud, and place it on his back. Thus was formed a floating island, on which Antaentsic fell; and here, being pregnant…..[]
  4. “Father Gravier says that a Peoria Indian once told him that there was no future life.”–Parkman’s Jesuits.[]
  5. “It is the settled belief among the northern Algonquins that animals will fare better in another world, in the precise ratio that their lives and enjoyments have been curtailed in this life.–Schoolcraft’s Notes.[]
  6. Loskiel says the Devil is an European importation; that they seem to have had no idea of him previous to the advent of the whites. Ruttenber says, “to them God had less to do with the world than did the devil, who was the principal subject of their fears, and the source of their earthly hopes. No expeditions of hunting, fishing or war were undertaken unless the devil was first consulted, and to him they offer the first fruits of the chase, or a victory.”[]

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