The Seneca nation, the largest tribe in the Iroquois Confederacy, has deep historical roots that have been the subject of many archaeological discoveries in the last century. The movement of the tribe followed the geographical pattern running from Canada into New York as many factions of the nation set up camps throughout New York in the seventeenth century. This tribe, though, is one shrouded in mystery. Perhaps these three are the most commonly addressed:

    1. Why have more Seneca cemeteries been found than any other tribe of the Five Nations?
    2. How did the Iroquois become known for their entrepreneurial spirit?
    3. Why did the Iroquois choose the longhouse structure as the most suitable for their living arrangements?

Why have more Seneca cemeteries been found than any other tribe of the Five Nations?

The Seneca tribe, unlike the other tribes in the Five, and then Six, Nations (also called the Iroquois League or Iroquois Confederacy) was found to have at least one cemetery at each living site. While other tribes of the nation (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and later the sixth, Tuscarora) have a few known cemeteries scattered throughout the region, none are more numerous or resemble the highly structured and complex burial traditions that have been found within the Seneca tribal practices.

The Seneca tribe had a more elaborate burial ritual than the other tribes in the Iroquois Confederacy; they buried their dead in precise positions with the body flexed. Artifacts and belongings were buried with the dead within the grave. These relics were often scissors, gun flints, gun parts, pottery, and glass and shell beads. This ceremonial practice could also have factored in the cemeteries being located closer to the community center.

The Seneca communities were located farther geographically than the other tribal villages from any European settlements. All the tribes, having an innate fear of catching a disease, or an Evil Spirit, from outsiders, wanted to be as far as possible from any foreign elements. They wanted to trade with the Europeans, but they didn’t want to live with them. Most tribes tended to locate their cemeteries far from the central living areas as well, but the Seneca cemeteries were located closer to the community. This fact could also lead to the reason why Seneca cemeteries were more accessible to archaeologists and easier to find.

The Cayuga, as did many of the other tribes, it must be noted, have had some possible burial sites destroyed by vandalism; therefore, it is not possible to reconstruct them in their entirety to more closely scrutinize the Iroquois burial tradition. The New York Rochester Museum is currently analyzing excavation findings to continue learning about the burial habits of the Seneca tribe. The Rochester Museum and some of its top archaeologists, including Charles Wray and Harry Schoff, are also credited with saving many Seneca burial artifacts and gathering written history to document the Seneca burial customs and patterns.

How did the Iroquois become known for their entrepreneurial spirit?

The Iroquois traded with Dutch settlers from the beginning of their cohabitation. This fact was pieced together through archaeological evidence. The Iroquois, utilizing the Three Sisters successful method of agriculture, growing corn, beans, and squash together, used fertile land in the best possible manner. They would trade or sell extra crops to supplement their economy and lifestyle. Archaeological evidence tells a story of how far ranging their trade networks were.

Successful entrepreneurs, the Iroquois busied about trading furs (raccoon and beaver) and selling off pieces of their land. From these trades, the Native Americans received beads, ribbon, brass kettles, and men’s ruffled shirts. When they ran out of land to sell, they needed to come up with something else to sell in the market place as a means of support. Iroquois tribal members, beginning in the mid-1800s, began making and selling different kinds of craft items such as beadwork, paintings and baskets to tourists who were beginning to visit the areas of Niagara Falls, New York and Montreal, Canada. Yet others saw the benefit in performing Native American dances at some of the festivals and gatherings as they would occur.

Why did the Iroquois choose the longhouse structure as the most suitable for their living arrangements?

The longhouse, whose very name is part of the Iroquois language, Haudenosaunee, which means People of the Longhouse, tells us much about the social organization of the Seneca people. From archaeological finds, we know that the longhouse could be built from 25 to 400 feet long but typically were built between 180 and 220 feet long. Longhouses are long, as their name implies, narrow, and rectangular in shape. The longhouse was built as a home with extended families in mind. This lends itself to the sense of community this nation shared. Each family had a personal interior space of about six feet by nine feet, divided as compartments, with a general “hall” running the length of the structure.

This mode of housing was designed to hold not only parents and their children, but grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins as well. In the Iroquois tribe, 20 or more families could reside in a longhouse, typically all the relatives from the mother’s side of the clan. Women were important in Iroquois society and each member of a “clan” was a descendant from one person, following the mother’s bloodline. Each clan had its own longhouse and was named after an animal or a bird. The animal or bird was inscribed as a logo on the longhouse and it was depicted on many decorative items contained within the longhouse. The longhouse, however, was more than a home to each clan to the Iroquois; the Five Nations considered each branch a part of their overall society’s home.