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Iroquois Native Americans are members of an Indian tribe indigenous to the northeastern United States. Originally, their homeland was between Niagara Falls and the Adirondack Mountains in what is now upstate New York. Five tribes initially made up the Iroquois nation: the Seneca, Mohawk, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Oneida. In 1722, a sixth tribe, the Tuscarora, joined them and became part of the Iroquois nation. Through conquest and migration, the Iroquois eventually gained control over most of eastern Canada and the northeastern United States.
Bound by similar languages and culture, the Iroquois Native Americans joined together to form the Iroquois Confederacy, or Iroquois League. The Mohawk, or “People of the Flint,” guarded the eastern part of the Iroquois nation; and the Seneca, “Great Hill People,” protected the west. Spread in between were the Cayuga, “People of the Mucky Land;” the Oneida, “People of the Standing Stone;” the Onondaga, “Keepers of the Fire;” and the Tuscarora, “Shirt Wearing People.”
Early Iroquois Native Americans were hunters and farmers. They lived in permanent villages and built houses that were made from elm bark and were called longhouses. Longhouses could be more than 200 feet (60.96 meters) long, and although they had openings at both ends, there were no doors or windows. The tribe was not nomadic, and villages were moved only when either the soil became exhausted — roughly every 20 years — or for defensive reasons. Squash, beans and corn were their main crops and were thought to be special gifts from their creator.
Gender roles among Iroquois Native Americans were differentiated along traditional lines with the exception of how tribal leaders were selected. Iroquois men were in charge of war, trading and hunting, and women were responsible for the family, farming and property. The Iroquois were a matrilineal society divided into clans, each ruled by a clan mother who made resource and land decisions, but the chiefs, who made trade agreements and military decisions, were all men. Tribal chiefs were selected by a democratic election held only among women who were clan mothers.
Generally speaking, the Iroquois are considered to have been the most important group of Native Americans during the colonial era in both the United States and Canada. This was largely because of their unique political system. The Iroquois Confederacy was a democracy based on a written constitution serving as the supreme law and an intricate system of checks and balances. Historians acknowledge that European contact with their political system directly influenced the development of both the Articles of Confederation and the U.S. Constitution.
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