By Daniel M. Cobb, Ph.D., The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
At the time of contact in the 17th century, the St. Lawrence Lowlands and Great Lakes-Riverine area were vast and diverse Native regions of the Northeast. Let’s develop a case study around the Wendat and Iroquois confederacies and learn more about their shared attributes.
The Iroquois and Wendat
The Iroquois, also known collectively as the Iroquois Confederacy, the Haudenosaunee, and the People of the Longhouse, occupied an extensive area in what is today upstate New York, bordered by the Mohawk and Genesee River valleys.
Moving from west to east, the Iroquois Confederacy included the Seneca, or the people of the great hill; the Cayuga, or the people at the landing— meaning a boat landing; the Onondaga, the people of the hills; the Oneida, the people of the standing stone; and the Mohawk, the people of the flint.
The Wendat, whose name means islanders or dwellers on a peninsula, lived in a more circumscribed space at the southeastern edge of Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay in present-day Ontario. They called their homeland Wendake.
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Wendat and Iroquois: Common Agricultural Techniques
The Iroquois and Wendat used swidden, a technique of clearing fields by slashing and burning the undergrowth. This technique made it possible for planting to occur and fertilized the soil with ash.
They also practiced what was called girdling, which refers to cutting a deep groove into a tree and removing a wide strip of bark. Over time, this led to the tree’s death. When it fell, the trunk and limbs could be used to construct homes and protective walls. And as the stump rotted in place, like the ash produced from swidden, it fertilized the fields that were now cleared for planting.
The Induced Edge Effect
Native people throughout the Northeast also learned that replanting the same crops for 10–12 years without respite took a toll on the land’s productivity. This made it necessary to leave older fields fallow, to clear new land, and even to relocate entire villages.
The abandonment of cleared fields, in turn, contributed to what is called an induced edge effect. Over time, meadows emerged in the fields’ place, and the stark line between forest and meadow attracted edge species such as deer, elk, rabbit, and hare.
The edges also carried the added benefit of making these animals easier prey for hunters.
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Ingenious Agricultural Practices of the Natives
The Iroquois practiced interplanting. They planted corn, beans, and squash, which they referred to as the three sisters, together in small mounds. The corn stalk served as a pole for the beans to grow up on, while the squash provided groundcover that inhibited the growth of weeds and allowed the soil to retain its moisture.
Indeed, studies now show that this Indigenous farming technique allowed Native people to use the same land more productively than European ones.
Wendat and Iroquois: Common Foodways
The combination of corn, beans, and squash carried over into foodways, too. Like many other peoples across Native America, the Iroquois and Wendat discerned that when eaten together, the amino acids in beans and corn combined to provide a more nutritious protein than when eaten separately.
Add into that roasted corn, baked or boiled squash, fruits, berries, game, and fish, and Native people throughout the Northeast produced diets that one historian describes as, “far superior to anything crooked-boned, bad-teethed Europeans—who worked so hard for their daily bread, and little else—could imagine.”
Wendat and Iroquois: Common Social Organization
Women were the primary agriculturalists, and since they cultivated the land, they owned it in a sense. This economic power translated into political power.
Matrilineality, for instance, meant that one’s identity was rooted in the mother’s clan, and the right to lead rested on the authority of clan mothers. Men, on the other hand, hunted, fished, traded, and waged war. And, with the support of clan mothers, they represented their people in the context of village, national, and international politics.
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The five nations of the Iroquois Confederacy referred to themselves as the People of the Longhouse. Why?
On one level, it’s a direct reference to their primary place of residence. Bent saplings provided the frames, and sheets of elm bark formed the outer shell. They were often 20 feet tall, 25 feet wide, and averaged from 80–100 feet in length.
Iroquois villages, although they varied in size, might consist of 30–150 longhouses.
People of the Longhouse
But the phrase, “People of the Longhouse” meant more than just “the Iroquois are people who live in longhouses”. In fact, the interior spatial geography of longhouses reveals their deeper cultural significance.
The inside of each longhouse was divided into compartments that ran along either side of a center corridor. Members of nuclear families lived in each compartment and shared a fire.
This is meaningful. As historian Daniel Richter puts it: “The organization of physical space embodied an ethic of sharing and reciprocity between kingroups who, although separated, ‘boil in one kettle, eat out of one dish, and with one spoon, and so be one.’”
Iroquois and Wendat Confederacies Imagined as Longhouses
The entire Iroquois Confederacy was imagined as a longhouse, with the Seneca serving as the Keepers of the Western Door, the Mohawk serving as the Keepers of the Eastern Door, and the Onondaga as the Keepers of the Central Fire.
The Wendat didn’t refer to themselves as People of the Longhouse, but longhouses did serve as their primary places of residence. And, as with the Iroquois, Wendat longhouses served as reflections of their values and patterns of social organization.
Iroquois and Wendat: Not All Was Well
The Iroquois and Wendat had a lot in common, from language and agricultural practices to foodways, gender roles, and homes, and they also engaged in trade with one another. But all was not peaceful. Hostilities between the Iroquois Confederacy and surrounding peoples, including the Wendat, had started to escalate just as Europeans began establishing their presence along the Eastern Seaboard.
Common Questions about Natives of Iroquois and Wendat and Their Commonalities
The Natives of Iroquois occupied an extensive area in what is today upstate New York, bordered by the Mohawk and Genesee River valleys.
The Natives of Wendat lived at the southeastern edge of Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay in present-day Ontario.
The Iroquois Confederacy was imagined as a longhouse, with the Seneca serving as the Keepers of the Western Door, the Mohawk serving as the Keepers of the Eastern Door, and the Onondaga as the Keepers of the Central Fire.