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The tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy and other Iroquois speaking peoples, including the Huron, lived in the region including what is now New York State and the Great Lakes area. The Iroquois Confederacy was composed of five different tribes (a sixth was added later) who had banded together shortly before European contact. While not Iroquois, the Huron fall into the same linguistic group and share many customs similar to the Iroquois’. These peoples were predominately agricultural and developed certain cultural customs related to their lifestyle. Among these developments were ideas concerning the nature and management of property. The Iroquois developed a system of economics very different from the now dominant western variety. This system consisted of several unique components including land ownership, the division of labor, and trade.
The Huron had an essentially communal land system of land ownership. The Frenchman Gabriel Sagard described the fundamentals. The Huron had “as much land as they need[ed]” (Axtell, 110-111). As a result, the Huron could give families their own land and still have a large amount of excess land owned communally. Any Huron was free to clear the land and farm. He maintained possession of the land as long as he continued to actively cultivate and tend the fields. Once he abandoned the land, it reverted to communal ownership and anyone could take it up for themselves(Axtell, 111). While the Huron did seem to have lands designated for the individual, the significance of this possession may be of little relevance; the placement of corn storage vessels in the longhouses , which contained multiple families in one kinship group, suggests the occupants of a given longhouse held all production in common (Trigger, 28).
The Iroquois had a similar communal system of land distribution. The tribe owned all lands but gave out tracts to the different clans for further distribution among households for cultivation. The land would be redistributed among the households every few years and a clan could request a redistribution of tracts when the tribal council gathered. Land property was really only the concern of the women, since it was the women’s job to cultivate food and not the men’s (Stites, 71-72).
The Iroquois system of land management had to change with the coming of the Europeans and the forced isolation to reservations. The Iroquois had a system of collectively owned land free to be used as needed by their members. While this system was not wholly collective as land was distributed to individual family groups, the Iroquois lacked the western conception of property as a commodity (Noon). After the Europeans arrived and placed the Iroquois on reservations, the natives had to adjust their property system to a more western model. Despite the influence of western culture, the Iroquois have maintained a unique view of property over the years. Modern day Iroquois Doug George-Kanentiio sums up his perception of the Iroquois property view: The Iroquois have “no absolute right to claim territory for purely monetary purposes. Our Creator gave us our aboriginal lands in trust with very specific rules regarding its uses. We are caretakers of our Mother Earth, not lords of the land. Our claims are valid only so far as we dwell in peace and harmony upon her” (George-Kanentiio, 169-170).
The system of the Grand River Iroquois demonstrates the one group integrated the traditional Iroquois property structure with the new way of life forced upon them. The reservation was established under two deeds in the eighteenth-century. These deeds gave corporate ownership of the reservation lands to the Six Nations of the Iroquois (Noon, 86-88). Individuals would then take a perpetual lease on a piece of land from the Confederacy (Noon, 88). The Iroquois idea that land came into one’s possession if cared for and reverted to public control if left alone persisted in reservation property law. In one property dispute case, the Iroquois Council sided with the claimant who had made improvements and cultivated the land over the one who had left it alone (Noon, 88). The natural resources on the land belonged to the tribe as a whole and not to those who possessed the particular parcel (Noon, 92). The Iroquois leased the right to extract stone from the lands in one instance and fixed royalties on all the production (Noon, 94). After natural gas had been discovered on the reservation, the Six Nations took direct ownership of the natural gas wells and paid those who had wells on their land compensation only for damages done by gas extraction (Noon, 94). This set up closely resembled the pre-contact land distribution system where the tribes actually owned the land and distributed it for use but not unconditional ownership. Another instance of traditional Iroquois property views impacting modern day Indian life involves the purchase of land in New York State by the Seneca-Cayuga tribe perhaps for a casino. The casino would be an additional collectively owned revenue maker. The Seneca-Cayuga already own a bingo hall, a gas station, and a cigarette factory (Adams). The later day organization of reservation property directly reflects the influence of the pre-contact view of land ownership.
Division of Labor
The Iroquois had to have a system of work to match their system of land ownership. Since the Iroquois owned property together, they worked together as well. The division of labor in Iroquois society, like other Eastern American tribes, was mainly along sexual lines (Axtell, 103). The Iroquois men were responsible for hunting, trading, and fighting while the women took care of farming, food gathering , and housekeeping. The women performed difficult work in large groups going from field to field helping one another work each others’ land. Together they would sow the fields as a “mistress of the field” distributed a set amount of seeds to each of the women (Axtell 124-125). The Iroquois women of each agricultural group would select an old but active member of their group to act as their leader for that year and agree to follow her directions (Stites, 32). The women performed other work cooperatively as well. The women would cut their own wood, but their leader would oversee the collective carrying of the wood back to the village(Stites, 32). The women’s clans performed other work and, according to Mary Jemison , a white assimilated as an Indian, the collective effort averted “every jealously of one having done more or less work than another…”(Stites, 32).
The Iroquois men also organized themselves in a cooperative fashion. Of course the men acted collectively during military actions as there is little sense in a single individual fighting entirely alone in battle(Stites, 33-34). The other jobs of men, such as hunting and fishing, also involved cooperative elements similar to women’s cooperation. However, the men differed from the women in that they organized as a whole village rather than as a clan (Stites, 33). The men organized hunting parties where they used extensive cooperation to kill a large amount of game. One first hand account told of a large hunting party that built a large brush fence in a forest forming a V. The hunters burned the forest from the open side of the V forcing the animals to run towards the point where the village’s hunters waited in an opening. A hundred deer could be killed at a time under such a plan (Stites, 36-37). The men also fished in large groups. Extensive fishing expeditions often took place where men with weirs, with nets, and in canoes covered entire streams to reap large amounts of fish, sometimes a thousand in half of a day (Stites, 37-38). A hunting or fishing party’s takings were considered common property and would be divided among the party by the leader or taken to the village for a feast (Stites, 70). Hunting and fishing were not always cooperative efforts, but the Iroquois generally did better in parties than as individuals (Stites, 30).
The cooperative production and communal distribution of goods made internal trade within the Iroquois Confederacy pointless, but external trade with tribes in regions with resources the Iroquois lacked served a purpose (Stites, 79). The Iroquois traded excess corn and tobacco for the pelts from the tribes to the north and the wampum from the tribes to the east (Stites, 79-80). The Iroquois used present-giving more often than any other mode of exchange. Present-giving reflected the reciprocity in Iroquois society. The exchange would begun with one clan giving another tribe or clan a present and expected some sort of needed commodity to be given in return. This form of trade ties to the Iroquois culture’s tendency to share property and cooperate in labor. In all cases, no explicit agreement is made, but one service is performed for the community or another member of the community’s good with the expectation that the community or another individual would give back (Stites, 81). External trade offered one of the few opportunities for individual enterprise in Iroquois society. A person who discovered a new trading route had the exclusive right to trade along the same route in the future; however, clans would still collectivize trading routes to gain a monopoly on a certain type of trade (Stites, 80).
Impact on Iroquois Culture and Society
The structure of the Iroquois economy created a unique property and work ethic. The threat of theft was almost nonexistent since little was held by the individual except basic tools and implements which were so prevalent they had little value. The only good worth stealing would have been wampum (Speck, 31-32). While a theft-free society can be respected by all, communal systems such as that of the Iroquois are often criticized for not providing any incentive to work. In order for the Iroquois to succeed without an individual incentive, they had to develop a communal work ethic. Virtue became synonymous with productivity. The idealized Iroquois man was a good warrior and productive hunter while the perfect woman excelled in agriculture and housekeeping (Stites, 144-145). By emphasizing an individual’s usefulness to society, the Iroquois created a mindset that encouraged their members to contribute even though they received similar benefits no matter how hard they worked.
As a result of their communal system, some would expect the Iroquois to have a culture of dependence without individuality. The Iroquois, however, had a strong tradition of autonomous responsibility. Iroquois men were taught to be self-disciplined, self-reliant, and responsible as well as stoic (Wallace, 30). The Iroquois attempted to eliminate any feelings of dependency during childhood and foster a desire for responsibility. At the same time, the child would have to participate in a communal culture so children were taught to think as individuals but work for the community (Wallace, 34).
Jim Adams, “Oklahoma Native Tribe Buys Land in New York State,” Indian Country Today, 24 November 2002.
James Axtell, ed., The Indian Peoples of Eastern America: A Documentary History of the Sexes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981).
Doug George-Kanentiio, Iroquois Culture and Commentary (Santa Fe: Clear Light Publishers).
Bruce G. Trigger, The Huron Farmers of the North (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969), 28.
John A. Noon, Law and Government of the Grand River Iroquois (New York: The Viking Fund), 1949).
Frank G. Speck, Iroquois (Bloomfield Hills, Michigan: Cranbrook Press, 1945).
Sara Henry Stites, Economics of the Iroquois (Lancaster, Pennsylvania: The New Era Printing Company).
Anthony F.C. Wallace, The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca (New York: Vintage Books, 1969).
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