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Economy of the Iroquois

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Economy of the Iroquois

Iroquois women grinding corn or dried berries; note infant on cradleboard in background (1664 engraving)

The economy of the Iroquois (also known as Haudenosaunee) historically was based on communal production and combined elements of both horticulture and hunter-gatherer systems. The tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy and other Northern Iroquoian-speaking peoples, including the Huron, had their traditional territory in what is now New York State and the southern areas bordering the Great Lakes.

The Iroquois Confederacy was composed of Five Nations: Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, and Seneca, who had created an alliance long before European contact. The Tuscarora were added as a sixth nation in the early eighteenth century after they migrated from North Carolina. The Huron peoples, located mostly in what is now Canada, were also Iroquioan-speaking and shared some culture, but were never part of the Iroquois.

The Iroquois peoples were predominantly agricultural, harvesting the "Three Sisters" commonly grown by Native American groups: corn, beans, and squash. They developed certain cultural customs. Among these developments were ideas concerning the nature and management of property. The Iroquois developed a system very different from the now-dominant Western variety. This system was characterized by such components as common ownership of land, division of labor by gender, and trade mostly based on gift economy.

Contact with Europeans in the early 17th century had a profound impact on the economy of the Iroquois. At first, they became important trading partners, but the expansion of European settlement upset the balance of the Iroquois economy. By 1800, following the American Revolutionary War, in which most of the nations supported the British and had to share their defeat, the Iroquois were reduced to reservations, primarily in New York in the United States, and Quebec and Ontario in Canada. They had to adapt their traditional economic system to dramatic changes. In the 20th century, some of the Iroquois nations in the United States have benefited from their sovereign status by founding gambling and recreation facilities, which have yielded greater revenues than some other enterprises. Individually, Iroquois have also become part of the larger economies in cities off the reservation.

Contents

  • Land ownership 1
  • Division of labor: agriculture and forestry 2
  • Trade 3
  • Effect on Iroquois culture and society 4

Land ownership

Latter-day Iroquois longhouse housing several hundred people.

The iroquois had an essentially communal system of land ownership. The French Catholic missionary Gabriel Sagard described the fundamentals. The Huron had "as much land as they need[ed]."[1] 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 on the basis of usufruct. 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.[2] 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.[3]

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 Clan Mothers' Council gathered.[4] Those clans that abused their allocated land or otherwise did not take care of it would be warned and eventually punished by the Clan Mothers' Council by having the land redistributed to another clan.[5] 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.[4]

The Clan Mothers' Council also reserved certain areas of land to be worked by the women of all the different clans. Food from such lands, called kěndiǔ"gwǎ'ge' hodi'yěn'tho, would be used at festivals and large council gatherings.[5]

Division of labor: agriculture and forestry

The division of labor reflected the complementary aspects common in Iroquois culture: The twin gods Sapling (East) and Flint (West) embodied the two complementary halves. Each gender had defined roles in labor to support the people, which complemented each other. Women did all work involving the field, including planting, cultivating and harvesting the crops; while men did all work involving the forest, including the manufacture of anything involving wood.[6] The Iroquois men carried out hunting and fishing, trading, and fighting, while the women took care of farming, food gathering and processing, rearing of children, and housekeeping. This gendered division of labor was the predominant means of dividing work in Iroquois society.[7] At the time of contact with Europeans, Iroquois women produced about 65% of the goods and the men 35%.[8] The combined production of food made famine and hunger extremely rare; early Europeans settlers often envied the success of Iroquois food production.[8]

The Iroquois system of work reflected their communal land system. Since the Iroquois owned property together, they worked together as well. The women performed difficult work in large groups, going from field to field helping one another work each other's land. Together they would sow the fields as a "mistress of the field" distributed a set amount of seeds to each of the women.[9] 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. The women performed other work cooperatively as well. The women individually cut wood for family use, but their leader would oversee the collective carrying of the wood back to the village.[10] The women's clans performed other work. According to Mary Jemison, a white woman assimilated with the Seneca while a young woman, the collective effort averted "every jealousy of one having done more or less work than another."[10]

Samuel de Champlain's sketch of a Huron deer hunt; Huron men make noise and drive animals along a V-shaped fence towards an apex where they are captured and killed.

The Iroquois men also organized in a cooperative fashion. The men acted collectively during military actions.[11] The other jobs of men, such as hunting and fishing, also involved cooperative elements. The men more often organized as a whole deer at a time by such a plan.[13]

Native Americans of unknown tribe fishing in fashion similar to Iroquois.

The men also fished in large groups. Fishing expeditions included men in canoes using weirs and nets to cover entire streams and harvest large amounts of fish, sometimes a thousand in half of a day.[14] A hunting or fishing party's takings were considered common property; they were divided among the party by the leader or taken to the village for a feast.[15] Hunting and fishing were not always cooperative efforts, but the Iroquois generally did better in parties than as individuals.[16]

Trade

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.[17] The Iroquois used present-giving more often than any other mode of exchange. Present-giving reflected the reciprocity in Iroquois society. The exchange would begin with one clan giving another tribe or clan a present with the expectation of some sort of needed commodity being 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.[18] 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. Often clans collectivized trading routes to gain a monopoly on a certain type of trade.[19]

Iroquois with Western goods, presumably acquired through trade (French engraving, 1722)

The arrival of Europeans created the opportunity for greatly expanded trade. Furs were in demand in Europe, and they could be acquired cheaply from Indians in exchange for manufactured goods the Indians could not make themselves.[20] Trade did not always benefit the Natives. The British took advantage of the gift-giving culture. They showered the Iroquois with European goods, making them dependent on such items as rifles and metal axes. For a time, the access to guns gave the Mohawk and other Iroquois advantages over other tribes, and they entered trading seriously. The British primarily used these gifts to gain support among the Iroquois for fighting against the French.[21]

The Iroquois also traded for alcohol, which the Europeans introduced. Eventually, this would have a very negative influence on their society, as they suffered a high rate of alcoholism. By 1753 Scarrooyady, a chief, petitioned the Governor of Pennsylvania to intervene in trade:

"Your Traders now bring scarce anything but Rum and Flour; they bring little powder and lead, or other valuable goods . . . and get all the skins that should go to pay the debts we have contracted for goods bought of the Fair Traders; by this means we not only ruin ourselves but them too. These wicked Whiskey Sellers, when they have once got the Indians in liquor, make them sell their very clothes from their backs. In short, if this practice be continued, we must be inevitably ruined."[20]

Effect 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 that were so prevalent they had little value. The only goods worth stealing would have been wampum.[22] While a theft-free society can be respected by all, communal systems such as that of the Iroquois are often criticized for providing less of an 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

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