What is the Cayuga Tribe?

Heather Phillips

The Cayuga Tribe is one of the five original tribes in the Iroquois Confederacy. Historically, the tribe’s native lands were in the Finger Lakes region of New York, located in the central western part of the state that is bordered Lake Cayuga. The tribe lived in longhouses, which typically housed all the members of a clan. They hunted, fished, and farmed, growing peaches, onions, corn, squash, beans, and other crops.

Like many Native American groups, the Cayuga used canoes for trade, fishing, and warfare.
Like many Native American groups, the Cayuga used canoes for trade, fishing, and warfare.

Men and women shared governance in the Cayuga Tribe. Clans were matrilineal, meaning women often made decisions regarding land and resources. Women also elected chiefs, or sachems, among the men. These leaders were typically responsible for decisions about war and trade.

The Cayuga tribe were farmers who were adept at growing corn.
The Cayuga tribe were farmers who were adept at growing corn.

Ten Cayuga chiefs represented the Cayuga Tribe at Iroquois councils. These meetings hosted representatives from each of the five Native American tribes belonging to the Iroquois Confederacy. Decisions made by the council were generally made by consensus, and were binding for all members of the Iroquois Confederacy.

Cayuga dress was similar to that of other Iroquois Indians. Typical clothing for males consisted of breechcloths and leggings, often made of deerskin. Both men and women often wore deerskin moccasins as well. Women generally wore shorter leggings, with wrap skirts over them, usually with an overdress or tunic.

A frequently distinctive feature of male Cayuga attire was the gustoweh. This was a feathered cap, that usually held only a few feathers. These were designed, by feather arrangement, to denote which tribe an Iroquois man was from. A male Cayuga would usually wear one eagle feather trailing to the rear on his gustoweh to send this message.

Men of the Cayuga Tribe typically also wore their hair with the sides shaved. This hairstyle also featured either a scalplock — a long piece of hair left on the top of the head — or a mohawk — a crest of hair that ran from the crown to the back of the head. Women generally wore their hair long, and often braided. If in mourning, women would sometimes cut their hair short.

Traditionally, the Cayuga Tribe was not as populous as some of the other Native American tribes. In the mid-1600s, their population was estimated at 1,500 members. In the late 1700s, it was estimated at only 1,100.

During the Revolutionary War, the Cayuga Tribe sided with the British. When the American colonists won the war, many Cayuga moved to Canadian lands granted to them by the British as a reward for their support. Many Cayuga remain in Canada today. Still others joined the Seneca tribe in Ohio, while some stayed in New York, where their ancestors can currently be found.

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