The Onondaga Indians were the geographically central tribe of the Iroquois Confederacy, located near Onondaga Lake and the Oswego River, near present-day Syracuse. Onondaga, meaning “People of the Hill,” were one of the five original tribes of the Iroquois League.
Approximately 1,000 Onondaga were living in the mid 1600s. In 1990, roughly 1,600 Onondagas lived in the United States and another 3,000 lived in Canada.
There were Indians in upper New York at least 10,000 years ago.
The Onondaga began cultivating crops shortly after the first phase of their culture in New York was established around 800A.D. Deganawida, a Huron prophet, and Hiawatha, a Mohawk shaman living among the Onondaga, founded the Iroquois League or Confederacy some time between 1450 and 1600.
It originally consisted of five tribes: Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, and Seneca. The Tuscarora joined in the early 1700s. The league’s purpose was to end centuries of debilitating intertribal war and work for the common good.
The Iroquois first met non-natives in the sixteenth century. During those and subsequent years, the people became heavily involved in the fur trade.
Trading, fighting, and political intrigue characterized the period. Although they were good at playing the European powers off against each other, the Iroquois increasingly became British allies in trade and in the colonial wars and were instrumental in the ultimate British victory over the French.
Still, as a result of trade-motivated efforts to make peace with the French, a pro-French faction existed at Onondaga from the mid-seventeenth century on. The French also established a Catholic mission in their territory about that time.
By the mid-seventeenth century, war with the Susquehannock was taking a heavy toll on the Onondaga and other Iroquois tribes. In fact, captive foreigners outnumbered Onondagas in the tribe by the time the war ended in 1675.
Fighting with the French at the end of the seventeenth century led to the torching and temporary abandonment of the main Onondaga village.
In the mid 1700s, a number of Onondagas and other Iroquois went to live at Oswegatchie, a mission on the upper Saint Lawrence River.
These people became French allies in the French and Indian War, although they sided with the British in the American Revolutionary War.
The British victory in 1763 meant that the Iroquois no longer controlled the balance of power in the region. Despite the long-standing British alliance, some Indians joined anti-British rebellions as a defensive gesture. The Onondaga and the confederacy as a whole split their allegiance in the Revolutionary War.
This split resulted in the council fire’s being extinguished for the first time in roughly 200 years.
The Iroquois suffered a defeat in 1779 that broke the power of the confederacy. By war’s end most of their villages had been destroyed. When the 1783 Treaty of Paris divided Indian land between Britain and the United States, British Canadian officials established the Six Nations Reserve for their loyal allies, which included over 200 Onondagas.
Several hundred others moved to Buffalo Creek, New York, where groups of Senecas and Cayugas were living. A 100-square-mile Onondaga Reservation was established in 1788, although most of it had been lost by the early nineteenth century.
In 1806, the Oswegatchies were removed. They scattered to St. Regis, Onondaga, and elsewhere in New York.
The Iroquois council officially split into two parts during that time. One branch was located at the Six Nations Reserve and the other at Buffalo Creek. Gradually, the reservations as well as relations with the United States and Canada assumed more significance than intra-confederacy matters.
In the 1840s, when the Buffalo Creek Reservation was sold, the fire there was rekindled at Onondaga.
The Iroquois League Government
The Iroquois Great Council was made up of 50 hereditary chiefs, or sachems, from the constituent tribes. Each position was named for the original holder and had specific responsibilities.
Sachems were men, except where a woman acted as regent, but they were appointed by women. The head of the council was always an Onondaga. This person was assisted by a council of two other Onondagas, and a third Onondaga kept the council wampum.
The Onondaga sent 14 sachems to meetings of the Iroquois Great Council, which met in the fall and for emergencies.
Debates within the great council were a matter of strict clan, division, and tribal protocols, in a complex system of checks and balances.
Politically, individual league members often pursued their own best interests while maintaining an essential solidarity with the other members. The creators of the U.S. government used the Iroquois League as a model of democracy.
Onondaga Local Government
The village structure was governed by a headman and a council of elders (clan chiefs, elders, wise men). Matters before the local councils were handled according to a definite protocol based on the clan and division memberships of the chiefs. Village chiefs were chosen from groups as small as a single household.
Women nominated and recalled clan chiefs. Tribal chiefs represented the village and the nation at the general council of the league. The entire system was hierarchical and intertwined, from the family up to the great council. Decisions at all levels were reached by consensus.
There were also a number of nonhereditary chiefs (“pine tree” or “merit” chiefs), some of whom had no voting power. This may have been a postcontact phenomenon.
Onondaga War Practices
Boys began developing war skills at a young age. Prestige and leadership were often gained through war, which was in many ways the most important activity.
The title of Pine Tree Chief was a historical invention to honor especially brave warriors.
Enemies included Algonquins, Montagnais, Ojibwas, Crees, and tribes of the Abenaki Confederacy.
In traditional warfare, large groups met face to face and fired a few arrows after a period of jeering, then engaged in another period of hand-to-hand combat using clubs and spears.
All aspects of warfare, from the initiation to the conclusion, were highly ritualized. War could be decided as a matter of policy or undertaken as a vendetta. During war season, generally the fall, Iroquois war parties ranged up to 1,000 miles or more.
Women had a large, sometimes decisive, say in the question of whether or not to fight.
Women and children prisoners were regularly adopted. Male prisoners were often forced to run the gauntlet. Those who made it through were adopted, but those who did not might be tortured by widows. Some captives were eaten.
Onondaga Familial Customs
The Onondaga probably recognized a dual division, each composed of eight matrilineal, animal-named clans. The clans in turn were composed of matrilineal lineages. Each owned a set number of personal names, some of which were linked with particular activities and responsibilities.
Women enjoyed a high degree of prestige, being largely equated with the “three sisters” (corn, beans, and squash), and they were in charge of most village activities, including marriage.
Great intra-village lacrosse games included heavy gambling. Other games included snowsnake, or sliding a spear along a trench in the snow for distance.
Food was shared so that everyone had roughly the same to eat.
Young men’s mothers arranged marriages with a prospective bride’s mother.
Divorce was possible but not readily obtained because it was considered a discredit.
People committed suicide on occasion for specific reasons such as men who lost prestige, women who were abandoned, or children who were treated harshly.
Murder could be revenged or paid for with sufficient gifts.
The dead were buried in a sitting position, with food and tools for use on the way to the land of the dead. A ceremony was held after ten days. The condolence ceremony mourned dead league chiefs and installed successors. A modified version also applied to common people.
In the 1600s, Onondagas probably lived in two villages, a large one (roughly 140 longhouses) and a small one (roughly 24 longhouses). The people built their villages near water and often on a hill after circa 1300.
Some villages were palisaded. Other Iroquois villages had up to 150 longhouses and 1,000 or more people. Villages were moved about twice in a generation, when firewood and soil were exhausted.
The Onondaga Indians built elm-bark longhouses, 50-100 feet long, depending on how many people lived there, from about the twelfth century on. They usually held around two or three extended families, but could have as many as 20 families, related maternally, as well as their dogs.
There were smoke holes over each two-family fire. Beds were raised platforms; people slept on mats, their feet to the fire, covered by pelts.
Upper platforms were used for food and gear storage. Roofs were shingled with elm bark. The people also built some single-family houses.
Women made most clothing from deerskins. Men wore shirts and short breechclouts and a tunic in cooler weather; women wore skirts. Both wore leggings, moccasins, and corn-husk slippers in summer.
Robes were made of lighter or heavier skins or pelts, depending on the season. These were often painted.
Clothing was decorated with feathers and porcupine quills.
Both men and women tattooed their bodies extensively.
Men often wore their hair in a roach; women wore theirs in a single braid doubled up and fastened with a thong. Some men wore feather caps or, in winter, fur hoods.
What did the Onondaga eat?
Women grew corn, beans, squash, and gourds. The people grew great peach, pear, and apple orchards from the 1700s on.
Corn was the staple and was used in soups, stews, breads, and puddings.
It was stored in bark-lined cellars. Women also gathered a variety of greens, nuts, seeds, roots, berries, fruits, and mushrooms. Tobacco was grown for ceremonial and social smoking.
After the harvest, men and some women took to the woods for several months to hunt and dry meat. Hunting was a source of potential prestige.
Men hunted large game and trapped smaller game, mostly for the fur. They also caught waterfowl and other birds, and they fished.
The Onondaga recognized Ha-wah-ne-u as the supreme creator. Other animate and inanimate objects and natural forces were also considered of a spiritual nature.
They held important festivals to celebrate maple sap and strawberries as well as corn planting, ripening (Green Corn ceremony), and harvest. These festivals often included singing, male dancing, game playing, gambling, feasting, and food distribution.
The eight-day new year’s festival may have been most important of all. Held in midwinter, it was a time to give thanks, to forget past wrongs, and to kindle new fires, with much attention paid to new and old dreams.
A condolence ceremony had quasi-religious components. Medicine groups such as the False Face Society, which wore carved wooden masks, and the Medicine, Dark Dance and Death Feast Societies (the last two controlled by women) also conducted ceremonies, since most illness was thought to be of supernatural origin.
Personal health and luck were maintained by performing various individual rituals, including singing and dancing, learned in dreams.
Members of the False Face medicine society wore wooden masks carved from trees and used rattles and tobacco.
Shamans used up to 200 or more plant medicines to cure illness.
In the early 1800s, many Iroquois embraced the teachings of Handsome Lake.
This religion was born during the general religious ferment known as the Second Great Awakening and came directly out of the radical breakdown of Iroquois life.
Beginning in 1799, the Seneca Handsome Lake spoke of Jesus and called upon Iroquois to give up alcohol and a host of negative behaviors, such as witchcraft and sexual promiscuity. He also exhorted them to maintain their traditional religious celebrations.
A blend of traditional (especially thanksgiving ceremonies) and Christian teachings, the Handsome Lake religion had the effect of facilitating the cultural transition occurring at the time.
The Onondaga had up to 30 or more different types of dances.
Important Onongaga Crafts and Tools
Hunting equipment included snares, bow and arrow, stone knife, and bentwood pack frame. Fish were caught using traps, nets, bone hooks, and spears. Farming tools were made of stone, bone, wood (spades), and antler.
They used unstable elm-bark canoes, which were roughly 25 feet long. The people were also great runners and preferred to travel on land. They used snowshoes in winter.
Weapons included the bow and arrow, ball-headed club, shield, rod armor, and guns after 1640.
Other important material items included elm-bark containers, cordage from inner tree bark and fibers, and levers to move timbers. Men steamed wood or bent green wood to make many items, including lacrosse sticks.
Women wove corn husk dolls, tobacco trays, mats, and baskets.
They used porcupine quills and wampum belts as a record of events.
Wampum was also used as a gift connoting sincerity and, later, as trade money. These shell disks, strung or woven into belts, were probably a postcontact technological innovation.
Onondagas obtained birch-bark products from the Huron. They imported copper and shells and exported carved wooden and stone pipes. They were extensively involved in the trade in beaver furs from the seventeenth century on.
Men carved wooden masks worn by the Society of Faces in their curing ceremonies. Women decorated clothing with dyed porcupine quills and moose-hair embroidery.
Modern Onondaga Life
The Onondaga Reservation, Onondaga County, New York, contains 7,300 acres, all of which is tribally owned. The Indian population was about 1,600 in the mid-1990s. Government is by a council of hereditary chiefs, selected by the clan mothers.
The Six Nations/Grand River Reserve, Ontario, Canada, was established in 1784. It is governed by both an elected and a hereditary council, although only the first is federally recognized.
Onondagas are considered to be the most conservative of the Six Nations. The Onondaga Reservation is again the capital of the Iroquois Confederacy.
The leader of the Iroquois League, who alone can summon meetings of the Great Council, is always an Onondaga. Recent political activism has resulted in the return of wampum belts, education reforms, and the prevention of acquisition of reservation land for road widening by New York State.
In 1994 the tribe ceased seeking or accepting federal grants.
Although most Onondagas are Christian, all chiefs must adhere to the Longhouse religion.
This requirement ties them to other Iroquois Longhouse communities throughout the United States and Canada.
A hereditary council heads both political and religious life. Many people speak Onondaga, although English is the official tribal language. The community is known for its artists and athletes, especially its lacrosse players. Mutual aid remains strong.
In general, traditional political and clan structures remain intact. One major exception is caused by Canada’s requirement that band membership be reckoned patrilineally.
The political structure of the Iroquois League continues to be a source of controversy for many Haudenosaunee. Some recognize two seats—at Onondaga and Six Nations—whereas others consider the government at Six Nations a reflection of or a corollary to the traditional seat at Onondaga.
Important issues concerning the confederacy in the later twentieth century include Indian burial sites, sovereignty, gambling casinos, and land claims.
The Six Nations Reserve is still marked by the existence of “progressive” and “traditional” factions, with the former generally supporting the elected band council and following the Christian faith and the latter supporting the confederacy and the Longhouse religion.
Traditional Onondaga Indians celebrate at least ten traditional or quasi-traditional events, including the midwinter, green corn, and strawberry ceremonies. All Iroquois still observe condolence ceremonies as one way to hold the league together after roughly 500 years of existence.
Onondaga Tribes Today:
Onondaga Nation (New York, USA)
Six Nations of the Grand River (Ontario, CANADA) – Includes Mohawk, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Seneca, Tuscarora and Delaware