Iroquoian Peoples

Neil Patrick O’donnell. 21st Century Anthropology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: H James Birx. Volume 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2010.

Iroquoian communities have long been the subject of anthropological discourse. Exemplified by Morgan’s League of the Ho-De-No-Sau-Nee or Iroquois (1851/1901), initial inquiries and theses served as little more than compilations of technologies, rituals, and myths attributed to only a fraction of all Iroquoian-speaking peoples. By the end of the 20th century, however, Iroquoian-centered research expanded to include analyses of Iroquoian political developments, the effect of European contact on Iroquoian peoples, and the progression of Iroquoian nations through the centuries. This long history of research has resulted in the preservation and knowledge of Iroquoian history and development, providing sound direction for anthropologists throughout the 21st century.

The Iroquoian Language Family

The Haudenosaunee Confederacy, its members commonly referred to as “the Iroquois,” is only part of the family of Native American nations that speak (or spoke) an Iroquoian language. Member nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy initially included the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk and were among the first Native American populations Europeans encountered. All speakers of an Iroquoian dialect, the Haudenosaunee nations occupied territory that covered most of present-day New York State. Additional Iroquoian-speaking peoples inhabited areas north and west of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, with the Erie, Wenro, and Neutral nations occupying much of the Niagara Frontier and the Huron and Petun settling in portions of present-day Ontario.

South of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy’s territory dwelled other Iroquoian-speaking populations. In the areas now recognized as southern New York State and Pennsylvania, the Susquehannock were the dominant Iroquoian nation. Further south, in the region of the Carolinas, other Iroquoian-speaking nations lived, which included the Tuscarora and the Cherokee. Collectively, Iroquoian nations occupied territory covering much of eastern North America.

Early Surveys of Iroquoian Peoples

Champlain, La Salle, and Cartier, among other explorers, provided the first written accounts regarding Iroquoian peoples. Far from the detailed research and texts generated by anthropologists during the late 19th century and onward, their writings relayed details of Iroquoian combat tactics, horticultural techniques, food processing and storage methods, religious beliefs, and architecture. Explorers also recorded the interactions between Iroquoians and neighboring nations, friendly or otherwise, which helped Europeans gauge the extent of Iroquoian territories and how to best manage relations with them. The latter proved beneficial in both maintaining peaceful coexistence at times and exploiting ties with Iroquoians to acquire resources, land, and allies as European conflicts played out in the New World.

Missionaries interacted with and recorded information regarding Iroquoians not long after explorers penetrated Iroquoian territories. While their journals and correspondence detailed similar events and customs as reported by explorers, Jesuits and other missionaries commented heavily on intersocietal relations and supplied translations of Iroquoian dialects, which added a linguistics component to the Jesuits’ efforts. Collectively, these firsthand accounts secured knowledge of Iroquoian cultures while simultaneously providing a foundation for early anthropological research of Iroquoians.

The conflicts, languages, relocation, treaties, and traditions of Iroquoian nations remained the subject of miscellaneous historical accounts. Yet it was not until the late 19th century that recognized anthropologists studied and documented Iroquoian lifestyles, activities, and history. Lewis Henry Morgan’s (1851/1901) League of the Ho-De-No-Sau-Nee or Iroquois was the most comprehensive such work, and it remains one of the foremost anthropological studies of Iroquoian society to date.

Morgan, an attorney from Rochester, New York, remains prominent among early anthropologists, particularly for his work Ancient Society (1877), which promoted and enhanced the idea of cultural evolution. Today, Morgan’s ideas regarding cultural evolution are generally rejected. Yet League of the Ho-De-No-Sau-Nee or Iroquois (1851/1901), a work he completed earlier in life, still maintains a prominence unmatched by most later anthropological publications.

Living in New York, Morgan was often in contact with members of Haudenosaunee Confederacy nations, commonly referred to as the Iroquois. Working in cooperation with Ely Parker, a Seneca and Civil War brigadier general, Morgan studied Iroquoian culture, his focus placed on the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk, and Tuscarora. The prominence of Morgan’s work was due to his providing more than just a simple historical account of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy’s formation and interaction with Europeans during the protohistoric period. Morgan’s in-depth research, coupled with his reliance on archaeological remains, oral tradition, and collaboration with Iroquoians themselves helped him construct a thorough relation of Iroquoian traditions, language patterns, political structure, religious beliefs, technological advancements, and architecture. Arguably, Morgan, beyond his work in cultural anthropological and archaeological research, also made strides in applied anthropology as he used his legal background and knowledge of Iroquoian history and customs to aid Haudenosaunee members in legal battles. Collectively, Lewis Henry Morgan’s efforts provided a foundation for both Iroquoian studies/knowledge and anthropological research; few anthropologists have made as lasting an effect in either regard.

Iroquoian Studies in the 20th Century

Archaeologists, both professional and amateur, provided a new impetus for Iroquoian research during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Highlighted by the work of Frederick Houghton (1927) and Arthur Parker (1916), the latter being an archaeologist of Iroquoian descent, such research initiatives, while often lacking any definitive scientific framework, helped uncover prehistoric Iroquoian sites and massive assemblages of ceramics, lithic, archaeological features, and faunal remains. The artifact assemblages alone were of monumental importance to anthropologists attempting to understand technological advancements in projectile points, pots, pipes, beadwork, and architecture. While much of this material culture resides in museum storage facilities, unanalyzed, the lithic, ceramic, and bone artifacts studied thus far provided insight into prehistoric Iroquoian communities as well as other northeastern Native American nations. The discovery of prehistoric and historic sites by anthropologists and anthropology enthusiasts of the time was equally important to current knowledge of Iroquoian nations and their societal development.

  1. L. Benedict, a medical doctor/Iroquoian specialist from Buffalo, New York, traveled throughout western New York State throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, looking for prehistoric Iroquoian sites. Ultimately, Benedict provided thousands of artifacts from Iroquoian sites. Specifically speaking, Benedict recorded the location of the sites he excavated and collected everything from projectile points and pottery shards to net sinkers and faunal remains. While Benedict’s notes lacked substantial provenience data, he provided the only evidence for many Iroquoian sites as parking lots and buildings now cover where the prehistoric sites once stood. Today, much of Benedict’s Iroquoian collections and notes are contained at museums and colleges throughout the western New York region.

Along with the massive assemblages of Iroquoian artifacts collected during this period, anthropologists also dedicated time to theorizing as to the origins of Iroquoian culture. Guided by archaeological investigations, oral traditions, and historical documentation, early 20th-century anthropologists reasoned that Iroquoian nations migrated into the northeastern regions of North America, replacing other native populations, including Algonquian-speaking nations. This migration hypothesis would dominate Iroquoian studies for decades until additional anthropological research redirected our understanding of Iroquoian origins.

In Situ Hypothesis: Pursuit of Iroquoian Origins

While the focus of cultural anthropologists on Iroquoian peoples comparatively diminished during the early 20th century, archaeologists provided an influx of data to our understanding of Iroquoian culture. With emphasis placed both on single, prehistoric Iroquoian populations/sites as well as regional development of Iroquoian culture, archaeologists, including William Ritchie, Alfred Guthe, Richard MacNeish, Marian White, and James Wright, excavated for, analyzed, and secured Iroquoian material culture from Erie, Huron, Haudenosaunee, and Neutral sites. Anthropologists acquired an improved knowledge of Iroquoian technologies during this time, which is to be expected. Yet a greater understanding of the development of Iroquoian culture(s) was arguably the greater achievement during this period. Archaeologists, most notably MacNeish and Ritchie, uncovered evidence of cultural connections between earlier Owasco societies and proto-Iroquoians via ceramic assemblages and architectural evidence causing some to argue that instead of the hypothesis of Iroquoians migrating into the northeast, it was likely that Iroquoian traditions developed in situ, or rather from earlier traditions long established in the region. A radical change in direction from earlier migration theories, the in situ hypothesis quickly became the dominant theory regarding Iroquoian origins in the northeast.

Sociocultural Investigations of Iroquoians

Aside from archaeological pursuits, sociocultural research did continue throughout the 20th century. Whereas archaeologists primarily sought to understand Iroquoian origins and the effect of European contact on Iroquoian societies, cultural anthropological interests, as with other indigenous populations throughout the world, focused on recording as much data on current Iroquoian traditions as possible before Iroquoians disappeared altogether. Obviously, such fears regarding the disappearance of Iroquoian populations did not come to full fruition. Yet such concerns did help salvage an understanding of Iroquoian culture that likely would have been lost otherwise. That said, these cultural investigations, including those of William Fenton (1951, 1978) and Martha Champion Randle (1951), concentrated on issues from land and nation rights to the contemporary roles of men and women within Iroquoian society. Reflective of the research methodology of Lewis Henry Morgan, these anthropologists ushered in a new wave of ethnological inquiries that accentuated the facts that Iroquoians were living societies, cognizant of their heritage and ceaselessly adapting and contributing to contemporary circumstances.

Given anthropology’s dependence on a multidiscipli-nary approach to the study of humanity, it is fitting that historians were markedly influential to anthropologists’ understanding of contemporary Iroquoian culture. While anthropologists long focused on Iroquoian prehistory, historians, including Barbara Graymont, Laurence Hauptman, and Daniel Richter, led efforts to record and interpret the recent history of Iroquoians, particularly that of Haudenosaunee nations. Though historians acknowledged the longevity of Iroquoian culture, their focus was on the effect that contact with non-Iroquoians continued to have on the lives and traditions of Iroquoian people. From the first arrival of missionaries and explorers up to 20th-century events, such as the building of the Kinzua Dam and its effect on Iroquoian societies, historians helped ensure the recording of Iroquoian adaptations to the ever-growing world population, a task anthropologists would have struggled to do alone. Together, anthropologists and historians ensured the preservation of Iroquoian history and traditions while simultaneously reminding the world that Iroquoian societies still existed. Evidence of such collaboration appeared in school textbooks, documentaries, and museum exhibit scripts where Iroquoianists attempted to explain that the Haudenosaunee were not the only Iroquoian-speaking nations and that there was more to Iroquoian culture than corn, beans, and squash.

20th-Century Anthropology: Forgotten Studies of Iroquoian Peoples

The aforementioned mid- to late 20th-century anthropological studies often overshadow other pivotal research centered on Iroquoian societies. Specifically speaking, non-Iroquoianists fail to realize that migration theories for Iroquoian origins are still supported, that settlement pattern analyses of prehistoric/early historic Iroquoian populations were prominent throughout the 20th century, and that the last decade of the century was dominated by efforts to inventory Iroquoian collections throughout the country.

Migration Versus In Situ Development

Anthropologists did not simply abandon migration theories once in situ hypotheses surfaced. While most anthropologists today still favor the latter category of hypotheses, arguments in support of the migration of established Iroquoian societies to the northeast (as opposed to Iroquoian culture developing in the northeast) remain. Adherents to migration hypotheses, Dean Snow (1996) most prominent among them, cite matrilineal-societal constructs and linguistic similarities between Iroquoian language families and populations outside the northeastern cultural area as evidence suggesting that Iroquoian culture is not indigenous to the northeast.

Debates regarding the origins of Iroquoian culture are not likely to end anytime soon. While in situ hypotheses remain more widely accepted, Snow and other migration theorists have raised important issues worth considering, particularly given the fact that so much information is still lacking with which to verify either argument.

Iroquoian Settlement Patterns

The settlement patterns of Iroquoian nations have long been the subject of narratives and anthropological studies, the former including the earliest known written accounts of Iroquoian peoples recorded by European missionaries and explorers circa CE 1600. Initially, such studies were quite basic in detail, providing rough dimensions for long-houses, population estimates for Iroquoians living within household and village boundaries, and analyses of household dispersal patterns relative to matrilocal residency. While this information was useful in early historic period military campaigns on the part of Europeans and non-Iroquoian, indigenous populations likely benefited the most from these rudimentary accounts; the information gathered reflected the fundamental understanding of Iroquoian settlement patterns well into the 20th century.

Between 1920 and 1970, a large quantity of archaeological reconnaissance, tempered by a thorough analysis of features, ecofacts, and artifacts collected, led anthropologists toward a more comprehensive understanding of Iroquoian settlement patterns. The culmination of anthropological understanding of this settlement data was evident in Ritchie and Funk’s publication, Aboriginal Settlement Patterns in the Northeast (1973). After centuries of studying and interacting with Iroquoians, anthropologists affirmed the general layout of Iroquoian communities up to early historic times, common elements being the presence of multiple longhouses located on an elevated plane or knoll, which were often surrounded by a palisade. In addition, anthropologists, mostly through the recovery and investigation of archaeological features (postmolds, hearths, and storage pits in particular), discerned that villages were composed of multiple clans, each of which maintained one or more longhouses. Residency was matrilocal; husbands moved in with their wives’ extended family. Within the longhouse, an additional breakdown of households occurred, each nuclear family maintaining their own apartment area where they slept, ate, and stored personal possessions.

Additional archaeological excavations of Iroquoian sites, particularly the large-scale excavations conducted on Huron sites in southeastern Ontario, further emphasized this understanding. With the addition of historical research and accounts, anthropologists and historians alike have determined that villages were occupied for up to 30 years before natural resources and soil nutrients were depleted, making a village occupation zone inefficient for Iroquoian needs. Furthermore, archaeologists, once again dependent on archaeological features recovered, determined that the architecture of longhouses (and overall village design) was relatively constant throughout northern Iroquoian nations well into protohistoric times, a point most effectively made by Mima Kapches (1993a, 1993b) during the late 20th century. All knowledge considered, including accounts of the assimilation of captured peoples into other Iroquoian nations, settlement patterns for Iroquoian societies remained relatively constant for a considerable length of time.

Turning attention toward historically recent and contemporary Iroquoian societies, anthropologists, once again, had the benefit of historical documents and field observations with which to determine settlement patterns. As the United States of America expanded, Iroquoian communities were continually forced westward onto reservations. During the 19th century, a series of questionable transactions between Iroquoian nations and North American governments further depleted Iroquoian territories, including arable land suitable for farming. Iroquoians, as with many Native American nations, were compelled to live in cities in order to obtain work and a means to survive. Consequently, Iroquoian household structures increasingly reflected the nuclear family residences. Further erosion of Iroquoian lands continued into the 20th century as state and national infrastructure projects, most notably the Kinzua Dam, claimed thousands of acres of reservation land. Such action further influenced Iroquoians to leave reservations to secure work and resources. Today, individuals of Iroquoian descent live throughout North America, both on reservations in the United States and Canada as well as in cities and towns throughout the continent. As for household structure, nuclear families commonly make up domestic residences. Yet the extended family cohesion still exists as clans maintain political rights and control of property and natural resources.

Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA)

NAGPRA legislation, passed in the United States in 1990, provided a significant opportunity for anthropologists interested in Iroquoian studies. This act required any federal institution or institution receiving federal funding to document all Native American objects and/or remains held and return human remains, sacred artifacts, and objects of cultural patrimony to respective Native American nations. Faced with the prospect of loss of federal funds, museums, libraries, and similar repositories sought archaeologists and cultural anthropologists to help identify and analyze Native American material in exhibits and storage. With the help of federal, state, and local grants, these cultural institutions provided an impetus for research on native cultures including Iroquoians.

From the start, NAGPRA brought together anthropologists and Iroquoians, which helped open a series of dialogues regarding Iroquoian rights, beliefs, and concerns over the preservation of Iroquoian heritage. The resultant dialogue also allowed Iroquoians to provide greater insight into their traditions, political endeavors, and educational efforts. Essentially, anthropologists started placing greater emphasis on contemporary Iroquoian societies, people who were often ignored as opposed to the early historic populations depicted in narratives and archaeological research. The resultant information, collected quickly, found its way into museum scripts, miscellaneous texts, and educational programming, which helped strengthen a long heeded axiom: Iroquoians still exist.

In addition to the increased interaction between anthropologists and Iroquoians after the inception of NAGPRA, the resulting analyses of collected artifacts and human remains helped validate and disprove long-held beliefs regarding Iroquoian culture. For instance, with so much archaeological material collected and unanalyzed during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the evaluations initiated through NAGPRA uncovered evidence of European trade goods, including glass beads and metal tools, at Iroquoian sites where previously such evidence was not recovered. In some cases, Iroquoian material stored in the collections of cultural institutions provided evidence of Iroquoian occupations occupying territories longer than previously believed. Ultimately, NAGPRA provided anthropologists with an opportunity to check their findings and correct our knowledge and understanding of Iroquoian societies.

21st-Century Anthropology: Iroquoian Research

Iroquoian studies remain an important part of anthropology. To an extent, the interests of anthropologists, including cultural anthropologists and archaeologists, revolve around long-standing debates, which have yet to be sorted out. Yet new avenues of anthropological research have begun, which are clarifying the resilience and adaptability of Iroquoians to their constantly changing circumstances.

Iroquoian Culture and Societies: Updating the Masses

The arrival of the new millennium and the 21st century brought with it a reconsideration of our knowledge of Iroquoian societies as well as the commitment to rectify the shortcomings of museum exhibits and miscellaneous texts used to educate students of all ages. Such purpose and obligation is by no means innovative since every generation (of anthropologists or otherwise) seemingly renews its pursuit of truth. Yet as the first decade of the 21st century draws to a close, evidence of anthropologists rectifying misinterpretations of Iroquoian culture, history, and action is already apparent. In New York State, archaeologists and cultural anthropologists have been enlisted by schools to educate teachers about Iroquoian culture and societies so that school curriculums are accurate. For too long, Iroquoian (and other Native American) peoples remained relegated to a general “native” status with little recognition for the ingenuity of and differences among Iroquoian societies. The input of anthropologists specialized in Iroquoian studies (including many of Iroquoian descent) has and will continue to rectify such shortsightedness.

Museums, likewise, have hired anthropologists specialized in Iroquoian studies to update exhibits and educational programming. Given the prominence of member nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy in recent years, particularly with regards to treaty rights, casino gambling, and taxation enforcement for nonnatives on reservation land, it is becoming harder to ignore the fact that Iroquoian peoples are not locked in a vacuum where bark-covered longhouses are still the preferred form of dwelling. Unfortunately, many museum exhibits and lecture series continue to promote a basic corn, beans, and squash approach, which focuses on early historic Iroquoian cultures. There is generally little or no mention of Iroquoian involvement in military campaigns of the United States, the seizure of Iroquoian land via eminent domain on the part of the United States, or the current living conditions for Iroquoians on reservation land. Within the last decade alone, anthropologists as well as historians and Iroquoians themselves have helped rectify such misunderstanding on the part of cultural institutions.

As for general references (encyclopedias, dictionaries, etc.) and textbooks, anthropologists specialized in Iroquoian studies have generated entries regarding Iroquoian culture and societies that have corrected misunderstandings long held by students and teachers alike. Admittedly, with the far-reaching capabilities of the Internet and the volume of incorrect information available therein, questions could be and have been raised as to the benefit of many references available. However, given the rise in Web use by cultural institutions with Iroquoian specialists on staff, the ability of anthropologists to provide verifiable data regarding Iroquoians is certainly greater than in the past. As with the aforementioned feedback, instruction and direction provided by anthropologists, the continued monitoring and adjustment of what is taught to students and the community at large, is a responsibility to all of us Iroquoianists.

NAGPRA Enforcement: An Ongoing Research Project

The effect of NAGPRA has certainly been influential on Iroquoian studies and the development of anthropology in general. For the foreseeable future, NAGPRA will continue to require cultural institutions and staff anthropologists to unbox collections that have remained hidden and unanalyzed for, in some instances, over a century. While these collections rarely are associated with any detailed records— their collectors usually more interested in the object rather than its overall context within Iroquoian culture—the records that still exist could help anthropologists to better understand issues ranging from the origins of Iroquoian culture (migration vs. in situ) to the birth of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy. Consequently, anthropologists should remain mindful of the fact that museums, libraries, and historical societies likely contain artifacts, narratives, and correspondence that could enhance our understanding of Iroquoian societies and culture.

Contact and Disease: Population Decline in Iroquoian Societies

The crippling impact of European-borne diseases on Native American communities has long been documented and discussed, such discourse present even in the earliest journals of explorers and missionaries who first entered North America. Yet, detailed and specific understanding of how, when, and through what conditions such diseases became virulent among Iroquoian societies did not surface until the late 20th century as highlighted by the work of Snow and Starna (1989). Part of the interest in the effect of diseases is related to attempts to ascertain the size of Native American populations before contact with Europeans. Anthropologists, long concerned with the validity of population estimates of Native Americans relayed in historical documents written in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, questioned if the spread of European diseases outpaced the actual rate of contact between Europeans and Native American societies. This interest has carried over into the 21st century, as evidenced by the work of Warrick (2003), which focused on the depopulation of Huron and Petun Iroquoians due to European diseases. Such recent investigations suggest that European-borne diseases would not have decimated Native American populations until greater concentrations of Europeans, including families, arrived in the New World. Consequently, there is evidence that initial population estimates for Iroquoian nations provided by missionaries and explorers were relatively accurate.

Rise of the League of the Haudenosaunee

The story of Hiawatha and the formation of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy is a staple of school textbooks and museum scripts throughout the northeast. It also remains the focus of anthropological research, discourse, and conjecture. As for the actual date of when the Haudenosaunee Confederacy formed, estimates have ranged from centuries before Europeans first entered North America to years after contact between Europeans and Iroquoians, the confederacy’s formation resulting from Iroquoian reacting to European conquest. As for data used to calculate the Haudenosaunee Confederacy’s formation, everything from oral tradition to historical records and archaeological remains have been cited, the more distant dates often related to oral tradition. Disagreements over when the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk nations first united long remained heated, and no consensus appears likely as anthropologists continue to search for an answer.

As for recent anthropological approaches to determining the confederacy’s formation, including that of Kuhn and Sempowski (2001), emphasis has been placed on the examination of related artifact assemblages, the argument being that emergence of similarities in ceramic patterning among Haudenosaunee nations reflects the confederacy’s formation or, at the very least, growing contact between the respective Haudenosaunee member nations. Kuhn and Sempowski’s research, which linked their findings to some oral traditions, focused attention on the Seneca and Mohawk nations, an understandable data set given that these two Native American nations were the respective western and eastern geographical extremes (doorways) of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. The results of their comparison of Seneca and Mohawk (pipe) ceramics indicated the confederacy formed circa CE 1600. While these results will not likely end the debate as to when the Haudenosaunee Confederacy formed, the methodology certainly provided guidance for further investigations.

The Forgotten Iroquoians

The Haudenosaunee Confederacy (including the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk, and Tuscarora), the Huron, and to a lesser extent, the Erie, Neutral, and Wenro are arguably the most noted of the northern Iroquoian populations. What is generally unknown is that additional Iroquoian-speaking populations occupied territories peripheral to these Iroquoian nations, including territory along the St. Lawrence River and in Jefferson County, New York State. History books, not to mention museum exhibits and multiple media outlets, rarely include text, artifacts, diagrams, or maps referring to these populations nor did many manuscripts completed by anthropologists until the mid to late 20th century. Within the first decade of the 21st century, however, research and publications have already devoted more attention to these Iroquoians including research by Engelbrecht (2003) and Morin (2001). While these forgotten Iroquoian populations remain a mystery to anthropologists and other research, continued focus on them will hopefully add to our understanding on the development of Iroquoian culture.

Warfare and Iroquoian Societies

The term “Iroquois” has long stirred fear in the hearts of Europeans and Native Americans, the term itself becoming synonymous with war. Even the earliest historical accounts written by missionaries and explorers seemed to equate the Iroquois, or rather the Haudenosaunee Confederacy with the marked conflicts that seemed almost commonplace throughout the New World. Yet though most Native American societies were seen as militant and “savage” to Europeans, the Iroquois seemed especially feared and respected, akin to the fiercest of foes one could ever imagine encountering. During the concluding decades of the 20th century, anthropologists endeavored to dispel such sweeping generalizations, arguing that the Haudenosaunee were no more invested in warfare than most societies, turning toward conflict only when pressed by need. Work completed during the early 21st century has already focused on clarifying and supporting this argument.

William Engelbrecht, a leading anthropologist among Iroquoian specialists, provided one of the first such studies, which included data he collected over a long career studying Iroquoian culture. In his book, titled Iroquoia: The Development of a Native World (2003), Engelbrecht provided insight into the Haudenosaunee nations and the prevalence war and conflict played in their society. From the construction of village fortifications, such as palisades, to the purposes linked to conflict, ranging from economic concerns to revenge, all Iroquoian nations, as have many societies through time, relied on warfare for protection and acquisition. Engelbrecht’s work, published in the early years of the 21st century, was a major first step in clarifying the context in which warfare arises among Iroquoian societies. His work also helps anthropologists recognize areas of their objectives, theories, and methodologies that still need work.

Iroquoian Societies Today

Iroquoian studies, particularly as presented in museum exhibit scripts and school textbooks, often focused on historical events or changes to Iroquoian societies during the past. Today, while anthropological research continues to emphasize Iroquoians in a historical context, more anthropologists are examining contemporary Iroquoian societies and their effect locally, nationally, and internationally. As previously mentioned, NAGPRA legislation certainly influenced this change in research focus by bringing anthropologists and Iroquoians together. Consequently, anthropologists interacted with Iroquoians in the real world, learning firsthand how Iroquoians were coping in the contemporary world. Now, Iroquoians are more colleagues than subjects being observed from a distance, often collaborating with anthropologists in the development of educational programming for schools, exhibits for cultural institutions, and manuscripts for both academic and general public venues.

Admittedly, anthropologists remain predominately interested in the prehistoric development of Iroquoian societies as well as in the effect of Iroquoians on formation and historical transformation of North America in general. Yet contemporary actions on the part of Iroquoian communities throughout North America, particularly in New York State, increasingly drive anthropologists to examine Iroquoian actions of today. Furthermore, where anthropologists have long examined Iroquoian societies from a distance, now a growing number of Iroquoians have assumed the role of anthropologist, providing internal viewpoints with extraordinary insight. All things considered, anthropological studies of Iroquoian societies should provide valuable and interesting insight during the next century.

What’s Good for the 20th Century

Anthropological research objectives and activities of the 20th century should not be completely discarded simply because times have changed. Much of the work conducted by anthropologists regarding Iroquoian societies during the last 50 years alone remains unfinished as related artifacts in the collections of museums and other repositories have yet to be examined and analyzed within the context of Iroquoian knowledge thus far obtained. In addition, as land is continually developed and Iroquoian sites are uncovered through archaeological reconnaissance, careful excavation and analysis of recovered material remains a priority as the destructive nature of excavation provides only one chance to get our observations right. Consequently, there needs to be a continuation of the analysis of collected Iroquoian material culture, as well as the incorporation of newly acquired artifacts, oral tradition, and historical documentation. Cultural Resource Management efforts, in particular, will undoubtedly serve as a major source of new artifacts and feature analyses. However, NAGPRA-generated research of repository collections will also need to continue as artifacts and records collected by anthropologists during the 20th century may still provide vital information in the effort to better understand Iroquoian societies, then and now.

Future Directions

Iroquoian societies were among the first indigenous populations European explorers and missionaries encountered and extensively interacted with on setting foot on North American soil. With Lewis Henry Morgan leading the way, Iroquoians were also among the first Native Americans thoroughly studied by anthropologists. Now, as the 21st century rapidly approaches its 2nd decade, Iroquoians, fittingly, remain a major focus of anthropological inquiry: not only because Iroquoians have long been a source of interest but also because there is still so much anthropologists still do not understand about the development and histories of these Native American nations. As for the direction of Iroquoian studies for the duration of the 21st century, specific research questions to consider, given the knowledge thus far acquired, include inquiries regarding government structure, Iroquoian diversity, and the ingenuity of Iroquoian peoples through history.

Iroquoian Governments: Beyond the Haudenosaunee

The structure of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, which still exists, is well documented in historical manuscripts dating back as far as the 17th century. This includes governmental structure at the village, tribe, and national level. The governmental structure of other northern Iroquoian nations, particularly that of the Erie, Neutral, and Wenro nations, is relatively nonexistent. While scholars from multiple fields have hypothesized that the Erie, Neutral, and Wenro confederacies were possibly structured in a similar fashion to that of the Haudenosaunee, extensive research has yet to be devoted to such inquiries. The author (O’Donnell, 2003) opened the door for comparisons between the Haudenosaunee and those Iroquoian confederacies aforementioned. With focus placed on differences in longhouse architectural patterns, it was hypothesized that stark differences did exist between Iroquoian nations at least at the village level. With only a small sample of longhouse patterns to include in the study, there are obvious limitations to what can be determined with regards to the differences among the Iroquoian nations. Yet this initial work provides, at the minimum, direction for future research.

The Depopulation of Iroquoia

Warrick’s (2003) examination into the depopulation of Huron and Petun territories/villages offered valuable insight, not only into the effect of contact of Native American peoples but also into the errors of long-held assumptions on the part of anthropologists and historians alike. The belief that diseases spread quicker than the rate of actual contact between Iroquoians and Europeans is certainly in doubt, as discussed earlier. Admittedly, such examinations were limited to only a portion of the northern Iroquoian nations that occupied portions of northeastern North America at the time of contact. Yet the methodology that Warrick implemented as well as his findings certainly provide anthropologists with a direction and a tool set with which to determine if all Iroquoian peoples were affected similarly by European-borne diseases. The methodology may also serve as a guide for the study of other indigenous populations as well since the Iroquoians were not the only societies occupying North America when Europeans first arrived.

To Preserve, Record, and Defend

Too many archaeological sites have been destroyed or rendered inaccessible due to construction activities during the 20th century. As more records recorded by archaeologists during the early 20th century surface, anthropologists learn of more sites discovered. Yet when visiting the site locations described by these early Iroquoian enthusiasts, all too often we discover that the area of the site is now home to a building, golf course, or parking lot, which leaves little chance for recovery of additional material culture or relevant features. As collections continue to surface, anthropologists must pay heed to documentation of sites uncovered during the recent and distant past. Any site described should be photographed and examined, with current conditions of the area recorded. A lack of trained anthropologists for this initiative certainly limits the volume of records that can be examined and respective sites that can be recorded. However, as more development continues, more Iroquoian sites are at risk to bulldozers and suburban sprawl. This leaves anthropologists with an added burden of excavating sites at danger of destruction through construction and/or preserving sites until such time that they can be examined by properly trained anthropologists. While it is likely not every site will be sampled through fieldwork or protected to any extent, we have to try.


Mima Kapches’s (1993a, 1993b) work has certainly provided valuable insight into the complexities of Iroquoian engineering as well as the spatial contexts within Iroquoian villages. The implications of Kapches’s discoveries are too important to ignore. Already, other anthropologists have received direction from Kapches’s research (Engelbrecht, 2003; O’Donnell, 2003; Williams-Shuker & Allen, 1997), with special interest focused on Kapches’s findings and their implications regarding societal differences between Haudenosaunee peoples and other Iroquoian nations. Guiding questions with regard to these findings include inquiries into the power of clans within the various Iroquoian nations and the alliances that may have existed among Iroquoian societies. Ultimately, given our lack of understanding with regard to non-Haudenosaunee Iroquoians, Mima Kapches’s (1993a, 1993b) research can only help in providing anthropologists with a course in our research.

Looking to the Future of Iroquoian Research

Anthropologists’ understanding of Iroquoian societies has certainly progressed significantly during the last century. From a larger vantage point, it could be argued that Iroquoians are even one of the most studied and understood Native American cultures to date. Yet the work is not finished. From an archaeological standpoint, many sites have yet to be fully excavated and/or discovered, limiting anthropological understanding of how Iroquoian culture formed and the differences that developed between the various Iroquoian nations. From a cultural anthropology standpoint, too little emphasis has been directed toward living Iroquoian communities and the continuing development of their societies both on reservations and within urban spaces. Also, collaboration with Iroquoian peoples today needs to be expanded as oral tradition and private collections could provide additional information pertinent to anthropological inquiries. The reality of what still needs to be studied and accomplished is not meant to discourage anthropologists or to critique the research currently underway by anthropologists. The points highlighted throughout this article are simply meant to remind anthropologists and Iroquoian enthusiasts that we all have our work cut out for us in the 21st century. Given what we learned about Iroquoians during the last century, it seems fair to say that the next century should provide some interesting insight into Iroquoian culture.