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What Is the Onondaga Nation?

Squash can be planted alongside corn and beans to complete the "three sisters" technique.
Like other tribes in the Iroquois Confederation, the Onondaga used canoes to trade, fish, and conduct warfare across the waterways of the American Northeast and Great Lakes regions.
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  • Written By: Heather Phillips
  • Edited By: Michelle Arevalo
  • Last Modified Date: 11 October 2014
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The Onondaga Nation is one of the six Native American tribes that make up the Iroquois Confederacy. Onondagas are also known as Iroquois, or Haudenosaunee, which means 'people of the longhouse'. The nation's ancestral lands are in central New York. Traditionally, the Onondaga tribe was a hunting, gathering, and agricultural society. Today, the Onondaga retain their national identity by owning 7,300 acres near Syracuse, NY, and operating as an indigenous, democratic, sovereign nation within the United States, but not governed by it.

It is estimated that the Onondaga Nation has been a member of the Iroquois Confederacy since approximately 1000 A.D. Onondaga historical accounts of the confederacy's formation tell the story of a person, known as the Peacemaker, who was sent by the Creator to bring unity to the Cayuga, Oneida, Onondaga, Mohawk and Seneca nations. Prior to this point in history, the individual Indian nations were often at war. The Peacemaker enlisted the help of Hiawatha, an Onondaga warrior, in forming the alliance between the five different Native American tribes. Much later — in the 1700s — the Tuscarora people joined the five-nation Iroquois Confederacy as the sixth, non-voting member tribe.

Traditional dress for male members of the Onondaga Nation typically included deerskin breechcloths, leggings, moccasins, and — as the weather grew cold — heavy robes. Females generally wore shorter leggings than the men, a wrap skirt made of deerskin, and a long deerskin tunic. Women also wore heavy robes and moccasins in winter.

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A distinguishing characteristic of traditional male Iroquois dress was the gustoweh, a headpiece that identified which Iroquois Nation the man belonged to, by the arrangement of feathers on it. The Onondaga male’s gustoweh typically consisted of strips of wood adorned with eagle, turkey, hawk, or pheasant feathers. The arrangement of feathers for an Onondaga on the gustoweh would be one feather pointing up and one pointing to the back.

An important traditional agricultural practice of the Onondaga Nation was the planting of the ‘Three Sisters’, an interplanting of corn, beans, and squash. Corn was first planted in rows, and as it sprouted, dirt was mounded around the immature cornstalks. Then, Onondaga women would plant beans in the hill they had made, and the beans would grow up the cornstalks, adding nitrogen to the soil. Squash was then planted between rows, keeping weeds away and shading the soil so that it retained moisture.

The Onondaga Nation has many ceremonies that are still practiced today, and generally revolve around the lunar calendar. The first celebration of the Onondaga lunar year is known as ‘Midwinters’ and is a time for giving thanks to the Creator. Some of the other ceremonies include a maple sap ceremony, a strawberry ceremony, and a planting ceremony.

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