Iroquios Personal Ornamentation

All Indians were very much addicted to personal ornamentation, the women more so than the men. In these decorations consisted their wealth, and they were a means also of marking their rank among themselves. 1 The men paid particular attention to the dress and adornment of their wives, and thought it scandalous to appear better clothed than they. 2 Their robes of fur were often richly decorated on the inside with painted figures and devices, and elaborately embroidered, and were of great value. Much time and labor was bestowed in decorating their faces and bodies with paint and other devices. The latter was frequently covered entirely with black, in case of mourning, and was most singularly tattooed with representations of serpents, birds and other creatures. The entire body was thus sometimes covered, and though the operation was severe and painful, at times resulting in death, not a murmur escaped the sufferer. From these decorations they sometimes acquired appellations by which their pride was exceedingly gratified; thus an Iroquois chief, whose breast was covered with black scarifications, was called the Black Prince. The face each day received a fresh application of paint, and this was an object of special care if they were going to a dance. Vermillion was their favorite color, and with it they frequently painted the entire head. At other times half the face and head were painted red and the other half black. Near the river Muskingum was found a yellow ochre, which, when burnt, made a beautiful red color. This the Huron warriors chiefly used for paint, and did not think a journey of a hundred miles too great a price to pay for it. Some preferred blue, “because,” says Loskiel, “it is the color of the sky, when calm and serene, and, being considered an emblem of peace, it is frequently introduced as such in their public orations.” White clay, soot and the red juice of certain berries, were among the agents employed in these fantastic decorations. Some wore a large pearl, or piece of silver, gold, or wampum, suspended from a hole bored in the cartilage of the nose. From their ears, which had been previously distended and lengthened as much as possible, depended pearls, rings, sparkling stones, feathers, flowers, corals, or silver crosses. A broad collar made of violet wampum was deemed a most precious ornament, and the rich even decorated their breasts with it. “It is always necessary,” says Father Sebastien Rasles, “to add a small piece of porcelain, which hangs at the end of the collar.” 1

The hair was worn in various and grotesque fashions, and decorated with silver and other trinkets of considerable weight. The women suffered it to grow without restraint, and thus it frequently reached below the hips. Nothing was thought more ignominious in women than to have it cut off, and this was only now and then resorted to as an act of punishment. They anointed it with bear’s grease to make it shine. “The Delaware women,” says Loskiel, “never plait their hair, but fold and tie it round with a piece of cloth. Some tie it behind, then roll it up, and wrap a ribband or the skin of a serpent round it. * * * But the Iroquois, Shawanose, and Huron women wear a queue, down to their hips, tied round with a piece of cloth, and hung with red ribbands.” The men did not allow their hair to grow long, and some even pulled so much of it out by the roots, that a little only remained round the crown of the head, forming a round crest of about two inches in diameter. This was divided into two parts, plaited, tied with ribbon, and allowed to hang on either side of the head. The crown was frequently ornamented with a plume of feathers, placed either upright or aslant; and the hair at feasts, with silver rings, corals, wampum, and even silver buckles. With some the hair was braided tight on one side and allowed to hang loose on the other; while with others, it bristled in a ridge across the crown, like the back of a hyena. 3

It was common to rub their bodies with the fat of bears or other animals, which was sometimes colored, to make their limbs supple, and to guard against the sting of mosquitoes and other insects.

The Iroquois studied dress and ornamentation more than any other Indian nation and were allowed to dictate the fashion to the rest.

The Iroquois married early in life, the men sometimes in their eighteenth, and the women in their fourteenth year. Both marriage and divorce were effected with equal facility and were attended with very little ceremony. The marriage ceremony consisted in the acceptance of a gift from a suitor by the intended wife, and the return on her part of a dish of boiled maize and an armful of fuel. 4 Divorces ensued at the pleasure of the parties, for the most trivial causes, and without disgrace to either, unless it had been occasioned by some scandalous offense. 5 The man signified his wish to marry by a present of blankets, cloth, linen, and perhaps a few belts of wampum, to the nearest relatives of the object of his desire. If they happened to be pleased with the present and suitor, they proposed the matter to the girl, who generally decided agreeably to the wish of the parents or relatives. If the proposal was declined the present was returned by way of a friendly negative. The woman or girl indicated this desire by sitting, with her face covered with a veil. If she attracted a suitor, negotiations were opened with parents or friends, presents given and the bride taken.

Monogamy was the rule; but polygamy was tolerated, though it mostly obtained among the chiefs. Among the Iroquois and kindred nations “experimental marriages” were common, but were usually of short duration. “The seal of the compact was merely the acceptance of a gift of wampum, made by the suitor to the object of his desire or his whim. These gifts were never returned on the dissolution of the connection; and as an attractive and enterprising damsel might, and often did, make twenty such marriages before her final establishment, she thus collected a wealth of wampum with which to adorn herself for the village dances. This provisional matrimony was no bar to a license, boundless and, apparently, universal, unattended with loss of reputation on either side.” 6 But notwithstanding this great freedom, the great majority of Iroquois marriages were permanent.

Indian women performed the functions of maternity with a facility almost unknown at the present day; but Schoolcraft bears testimony to the fact that the average number of children borne by them, who reached the adult period, scarcely exceeded two. “Much of this extraordinary result” he ascribes “to their erratic mode of life, and their cramped means of subsistence. Another cause is to be found in the accidents and exposure to which young children are liable, but still more to their shocking ignorance of medicine.”Citations:

  1. Kip’s Jesuits.[][]
  2. Loskiel.[]
  3. “See LeJeune, Relation, 1633, 35, ‘Quelles Hures!’ exclaimed some astonished Frenchmen. Hence the name Hurons.”–Parkman’s Jesuits.[]
  4. Van der Donck says the gift consisted of “some wampum or cloth, which [was] frequently [taken] back on separating, if this [occurred] any way soon.”–New York Colonial History.  Schoolcraft says, “The only ceremonial observance, of which I have heard, is the assigning of what is called an abbinos, or permanent lodge seat to the bridegroom.”–The Indian in his Wigwam.[]
  5. Loskiel says, “Sometimes an Indian forsakes his wife because she has a child to suckle, and marries another, whom he forsakes in her turn for the same reason.”–History of the Mission of the United Brethren among the Indians in North America. Van der Donck assigns as a reason for frequent separation the excessive unchastity and lasciviousness of both men and women.[]
  6. Parkman’s Jesuits.[]

Delaware, Iroquois,

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

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