Based in what are now our Northeastern states, much history surrounds the famed Iroquois League. Ultimately containing six tribes, they figured most prominently in building a foundation for the modern government today. They structured an outline that would become, basically, the framework for the United States Constitution.
- They Were the Largest of the Five Tribes of the Iroquois League.
- They Were Fierce Warriors and Weaponry Experts.
- Red Jacket was a great and memorable leader.
- The “Three Sisters” agricultural concept was the basis for the Seneca nation’s success in crop productivity.
- Culture and Religious Beliefs Build a Foundation for the Supernatural.
The Seneca was the largest of the original five tribes that composed the Iroquois League (originally known as the Five Nations). The five tribes included the Seneca, the Cayuga, the Onondaga, the Oneida, and the Mohawk. The Iroquois League, or Iroquois Confederacy, would later become known as the Six Nations as another tribe, the Tuscarora, joined the alliance.
The Seneca Indians were known for their skill at weaponry and their practice of being fierce warriors. They were a ferocious enemy to any other tribe who had any ideas of dominating them. Members of the Seneca tribe were given guns by Dutch colonists, and they learned how to use them well. Their Mohawk hair styles put one immediately on the alert as to the dangerous potential that was lurking behind those menacing eyes and tattooed skin. They had a reputation for torturing any prisoners taken and even participating in cannibalism for the sake of ritual rites.
Red Jacket was an eloquent speaker for the Seneca nation and served as the official spokesman for the Iroquois League. He fought with the British and against the Americans in the American Revolutionary War, and one of the British troops gave him a “red jacket,” hence the nickname with which he was bestowed. Red Jacket was a staunch supporter of keeping the Seneca heritage alive and vehemently opposing integration with white people and/or Christian beliefs brought by missionaries. That said, though, his goal was to live in peace with the white man.
Corn, beans, and squash are believed to be treasured gifts from the Great Spirit. Legend in the tribe transformed the way crops were raised in the Seneca culture. Corn, beans, and squash were said to thrive and grow best when they were planted together. Planting the crops in this manner, together in the same mounds, was the first and most natural way of assuring the soil would remain fertile over the long term. This was environmental stewardship to the earth in its early beginnings. These crops were also the best sources of nutrition to promote a healthy diet. Growing these three crops in this manner also made the most efficient use of the land in food production. The Three Sisters legend stated that corn needed to be grown with the benefit and companionship of having the other crops beside it, each one nourishing the growth of the other. The legend of the Three Sisters was just one of their traditional beliefs that contributed to the success of the tribe.
The Seneca, as many Native American Indian cultures, believe in the dreams, customs, and traditions of their ancestors. The earth is at the center of their daily existence, and the waters that flow in the rivers are their lifeline. A sense of community is foremost in their minds and taking care of each other is of prime importance. At one point, after many wars and battles, the people became downtrodden.
Handsome Lake was a Seneca religious leader who had a significant impact on the Iroquois people. Handsome Lake’s struggles with illness and alcoholism led him to tout the importance of reviving traditional Native American customs and practices. He claimed to have received wisdom and guidance from three visions he had.
The visions and prophecies of Handsome Lake eventually led the Seneca nation’s peoples from despair to which they had turned in the waning years of their culture, to one of new possibilities and hope. Many believe these visions were supernatural.