The Iroquois were a people far more conspicuous in history, and their institutions are not yet extinct. In early and recent times, they have been closely studied, and no little light has been cast upon a subject as difficult and obscure as it is curious. By comparing the statements of observers, old and new, the character of their singular organization becomes sufficiently clear.
[ Among modern students of Iroquois institutions, a place far in advance of all others is due to Lewis H. Morgan, himself an Iroquois by adoption, and intimate with the race from boyhood. His work, The League of the Iroquois, is a production of most thorough and able research, conducted under peculiar advantages, and with the aid of an efficient co-laborer, Hasanoanda (Ely S. Parker), an educated and highly intelligent Iroquois of the Seneca nation. Though often differing widely from Mr. Morgan's conclusions, I cannot bear a too emphatic testimony to the value of his researches. The Notes on the Iroquois of Mr. H. R. Schoolcraft also contain some interesting facts; but here, as in all Mr. Schoolcraft's productions, the reader must scrupulously reserve his right of private judgment. None of the old writers are so satisfactory as Lafitau. His work, Moeurs des Sauvages Ameriquains comparees aux Moeurs des Premiers Temps, relates chiefly to the Iroquois and Hurons: the basis for his account of the former being his own observations and those of Father Julien Garnier, who was a missionary among them more than sixty years, from his novitiate to his death. ]
Both reason and tradition point to the conclusion, that the Iroquois formed originally one undivided people. Sundered, like countless other tribes, by dissension, caprice, or the necessities of the hunter life, they separated into five distinct nations, cantoned from east to west along the centre of New York, in the following order: Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, Senecas. There was discord among them; wars followed, and they lived in mutual fear, each ensconced in its palisaded villages. At length, says tradition, a celestial being, incarnate on earth, counselled them to compose their strife and unite in a league of defence and aggression. Another personage, wholly mortal, yet wonderfully endowed, a renowned warrior and a mighty magician, stands, with his hair of writhing snakes, grotesquely conspicuous through the dim light of tradition at this birth of Iroquois nationality. This was Atotarho, a chief of the Onondagas; and from this honored source has sprung a long line of chieftains, heirs not to the blood alone, but to the name of their great predecessor. A few years since, there lived in Onondaga Hollow a handsome Indian boy on whom the dwindled remnant of the nation looked with pride as their destined Atotarho. With earthly and celestial aid the league was consummated, and through all the land the forests trembled at the name of the Iroquois.
The Iroquois people was divided into eight clans. When the original stock was sundered into five parts, each of these clans was also sundered into five parts; and as, by the principle already indicated, the clans were intimately mingled in every village, hamlet, and cabin, each one of the five nations had its portion of each of the eight clans. [ 1 ] When the league was formed, these separate portions readily resumed their ancient tie of fraternity. Thus, of the Turtle clan, all the members became brothers again, nominal members of one family, whether Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, or Senecas; and so, too, of the remaining clans. All the Iroquois, irrespective of nationality, were therefore divided into eight families, each tracing its descent to a common mother, and each designated by its distinctive emblem or totem. This connection of clan or family was exceedingly strong, and by it the five nations of the league were linked together as by an eightfold chain.
[ 1 With a view to clearness, the above statement is made categorical. It requires, however, to be qualified. It is not quite certain, that, at the formation of the confederacy, there were eight clans, though there is positive proof of the existence of seven. Neither is it certain, that, at the separation, every clan was represented in every nation. Among the Mohawks and Oneidas there is no positive proof of the existence of more than three clans, - the Wolf, Bear, and Tortoise; though there is presumptive evidence of the existence of several others. - See Morgan, 81, note.
The eight clans of the Iroquois were as follows: Wolf, Bear, Beaver, Tortoise, Deer, Snipe, Heron, Hawk. (Morgan, 79.) The clans of the Snipe and the Heron are the same designated in an early French document as La famille du Petit Pluvier and La famille du Grand Pluvier. (New York Colonial Documents, IX. 47.) The anonymous author of this document adds a ninth clan, that of the Potato, meaning the wild Indian potato, Glycine apios. This clan, if it existed, was very inconspicuous, and of little importance.
Remarkable analogies exist between Iroquois clanship and that of other tribes. The eight clans of the Iroquois were separated into two divisions, four in each. Originally, marriage was interdicted between all the members of the same division, but in time the interdict was limited to the members of the individual clans. Another tribe, the Choctaws, remote from the Iroquois, and radically different in language, had also eight clans, similarly divided, with a similar interdict of marriage. - Gallatin, Synopsis, 109.
The Creeks, according to the account given by their old chief, Sekopechi, to Mr. D. W. Eakins, were divided into nine clans, named in most cases from animals: clanship being transmitted, as usual, through the female. ]