Onondaga Council Fire

All business between other nations and the Iroquois was brought to the council fire of Onondaga,(*) and the conclusion there reached carried with it all the weight of a kingly edict. The deliberations of the sachems were conducted with the utmost decorum, and a rigid adherence to their notions of parliamentary usage which challenged the admiration of civilized nations. No speaker interrupted another. Each gave his opinion in turn, but not until he had stated in full the subject of discussion, to prove that he understood it, and had repeated the arguments pro and con of previous speakers. Thus their debates were exceedingly prolix, but resulted in a thorough sifting of the matter in hand. Their sachems received no compensation for their services. Honor and esteem were their chief rewards; shame and being despised, their punishment. Their principal men, both sachems and chiefs, were generally poorer than the common people; for they affected to give away and distribute all the presents or plunder they got by treaty or in war.(+) They held their office by reason of merit and the esteem in which they were held by the people, and forfeited this distinction when that esteem was lost. Thus while the system held out ample incentives to valorous achievement, there was nothing to tempt the covetous and sordid. A respect for native superiority, and a willingness to yield to it were always conspicuous.

In his own nation each sachem was a civil magistrate and decided the differences between his people in public audiences of his tribe. In military matters he had no control; these were confided to the chiefs of tribes. If he engaged in war he held only the rank of a common warrior.

Each of the Iroquois nations was divided into nine clans or tribes, each having a specific device or totem, denoting original consanguinity. These totems were universally respected, and were often tattooed on the person of the Indian and were painted rudely on the gable end of his cabin, some in black, others in red. They entitled the wandering savage to the hospitality of the wigwam which bore the emblem corresponding with his own. These devices consisted of animals, birds, &c. They had various uses, but the most important was that which denoted tribal relation.
E. B. O’Callaghan, M. D., in Doc. Hist. vol. I. p. 3, (Paris Documents of 1666,) says:

“The Iroquois Nation consists of nine tribes, which form two divisions, one of four tribes and the other of five.

“They call the first division GUEY-NIOTITESHESGUE, which means the four tribes; and the second division they call OUICHE-NIOTITESHESGUE, which means the five tribes.

“The first is that of the Tortoise, which calls itself Atiniathin. It is the first because they pretend when the Master of Life made the earth, that he placed it on a tortoise; and when there are earthquakes, it is the tortoise that stirs.

“The second tribe is that of the Wolf, and calls itself Enanthayonni, or Cahenhisenhonon, and brother of the Tortoise tribe. When there is question of war they deliberate together; and if the affair is of great moment, they communicate it to the other tribes to deliberate together thereupon; so of all the other tribes. They assemble in the hut of a war-chief when the question is of war, and in the hut of a council-chief when it is for ordinary matters of state.

“The third tribe is that of the Bear, which they call Atinionguin.

“The fourth tribe is that of the Beaver, and brother to that of the Bear. These four tribes compose the first division.

Second Division
“The fifth tribe is that of the Deer, which they name Canendeshe.

“The sixth is that of the Potatoe, which they call Schoneschioronon.

“The seventh is that of the Great Plover, which they call Otinanchahi.

“The eighth is that of the Little Plover, which they call Asco, or Nicohes.

“The ninth is that of the Kilion [Eagle], which they call Canonchahonronon. [It] derives its origin from a cabin that was in the interior (daus les terres,) and composed of several fires or establishments. In the middle of the cabin was a partition which divided [it] in two.

“Weary of knowing no one, and consequently unable to marry, they all married among themselves; which is the reason that their name signifies two cabins united together.”

Parkman, in speaking of the ninth tribe, which he denominates the Potatoe, says, if it existed it was very inconspicuous and of little importance. Other authors name only eight tribes. Ruttenber designates nine.

Previous to the formation of the Iroquois confederacy, each of the five nations composing it was divided into five tribes. When their union was effected, each tribe transferred one-fifth of its numbers to every other nation, thus giving each nation nine tribes. The tribal names were as follows: Tortoise, or Turtle, Wolf, Bear, Beaver, Deer, Potatoe, Snipe, Heron and Hawk. 1

These tribes formed two divisions, the second subordinate to the first, which was composed of the four first named. The members of each division were regarded as brothers to those in that division to which they belonged, while they were only cousins to those in the other divisions. Each tribe constituted a family, and while all its members were accounted brothers and sisters, they were also brothers and sisters of the members of all the other tribes having the same device. The indissoluble bond thus formed by the ties of consanguinity was still further strengthened by the marriage relation. Originally marriage was interdicted between members of the same division, but in time the restriction was limited to those of the same tribe. It was held to be an abomination for two persons of the same tribe to intermarry; hence every individual family must contain members from at least two tribes. The child belonged to the clan of the mother, not the father, from whom it could not inherit anything. All rank, titles and possessions passed through the female. The son of a chief could never be-a chief by hereditary title, though he might become one through personal merit; but a grandson, greatgrandson or nephew might succeed him. 2

“This system of clanship, with the rule of descent inseparable from it, was,” says Parkman, “of very wide prevalence. Indeed, it is more than probable that close observation would have detected it in every tribe east of the Mississippi; while there is positive evidence of its existence in by far the greater number.”Citations:

  1. These are the more modern names as given by Morgan, though he and other authors omit the Potatoe. The Snipe and Heron correspond with the Great and Little Plover, and the Hawk, with the Eagle, of the early French Documents.[]
  2. That excellent observer, Champlain, noticed this rule of descent among the Hurons in 1615, and doubtless referred it to its true origin, viz: a child must be the son of his mother, while he may not be of his putative father; a consideration, says Parkman, of more than ordinary force in an Indian community. The same observation had been made with reference to the tribes in Virginia several years before by Capt. John Smith.[]

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

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