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Who are the Onondaga? In this lesson, we will learn about this Native American tribe from their beginnings as hunter-gatherers to their important role in the creation of the Iroquois nation.

Early Onondaga History

Initially, the Onondaga were hunter-gatherers who tracked deer and elk through the rich forests near the Great Lakes region. Like many North Americans who lived in the dense woodlands surrounding the east coast, the Onondaga were semi-nomadic, meaning they would build temporary shelters and structures that could be deconstructed to follow the wild game that was their livelihood.Sometime around 1000 AD, the Onondaga settled down into a more permanently-placed lifestyle in what is today upper New York. The shores and basin of Lake Ontario provided the perfect opportunity for stable and consistent farming, and the Onondaga grew crops like squash, corn, and tubers to enhance their diet. Farming allowed for more food security, which in turn enabled the Onondaga to focus on aspects of life other than survival.Many cultural developments got their start in this period of increased leisure time, most notably the development of the wampum. The wampum was the collection of many strings of beads and shells that together could form a belt, headpiece, or other garment.

Large wampums were used to convey important messages and stories in pictorial or symbolic language, while smaller wampums were traded and used as an early form of currency among the Onondaga and other New York tribes.The development of wampums allowed for a greater sophistication of Onondaga society and the solidification of shared culture and history. Unfortunately, due to their fragile nature, no wampums from the pre-European period have survived to the present day.

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Modern-day Native Americans wearing wampums of the Iroquois Nation
Map showing the tribes that eventually became the Iroquois, with Onondaga in center
map

Tadadaho was well known among the tribe leaders of the area. Many legends and traditions claim that Tadadaho was so evil that snakes grew from his skin and tangled into his hair. Despite legend, Tadadaho clearly was a warrior of immense power and every tribe had stories of his military prowess. When Hiawatha approached Tadadaho, he was so opposed to the idea of peace among the tribes that he hunted and killed all of Hiawatha’s children.

An Iroquois painting depicting Tadadaho
Tadadaho

Hiawatha used the spiritual training he had gained from the Great Peacemaker to clear his mind. He sang songs of peace and understanding while walking down the shores of a lake and transformed his anger into compassion. He, along with with members of other nations, were said to have returned to Tadadaho with kindness in their hearts to comb the snakes from his hair and body and rub healing herbs over his twisted and mangled skin.After these acts of supreme kindness, Tadadaho agreed to throw his weapons into a river and allow the Onondaga to join the other tribes in peace. After this point, the five tribes in western New York unified under a common banner and created the Iroquois nation sometime around 1451.

To show their elation over Tadadaho’s conversion away from evil, they appointed him to a key position of the new nation, the ‘firekeeper,’ that continues to this day to denote the spiritual leader of the Iroquois nation.

The Great Law of Peace and Iroquois Traditions

The Great Law of Peace was the constitution that the five original nations of the Iroquois created after Tadadaho was cured of his wicked ways. This constitution guaranteed membership in the nation for all member tribes so long as they continued to be peaceful to one another.

It also guaranteed each individual tribe’s autonomy to make internal decisions about marriage practices, laws, and customs in their own lands. Tribes also sent delegations to annual or bi-annual meetings about matters of national interests, like setting up trade or potentially adding new members into the confederation.The Constitution was passed on by inscribing important passages and sections onto Onondaga-styled wampums and has since been translated into English. The Great Law of Peace was so successful that the Americans copied parts of its structure when creating its own form of government. The idea of local state governments working for their own interests and sending delegations to federal meetings has been directly accredited to early American settlers’ contact with the Iroquois nation.

Another important part of the new Iroquois society was the creation of clan mothers. Iroquois legends state that a young woman helped the Great Peacemaker while he was lost in the wilderness and asked for nothing in return. He was so struck by this generosity that he vowed to emphasize the importance of women in the newly-created Iroquois state. He helped to create a system wherein women inherited the role of clan mother from important ancestors of each tribe. These clan mothers had immense power and were in charge of ceremonies, naming children, calling meetings, and choosing the men who would represent the tribe as chiefs at the clan councils. The Iroquois and the Onondaga were serious about the role of women in their society.

Lesson Summary

The Onondaga were a tribe of North American hunter-gatherers who eventually settled down in parts of western New York.

As they began to farm and adopt sedentary lifestyles, they created new cultural traditions like the beaded belts called wampums. The Onondaga quickly came into conflict with their neighbors by the 1400s. Tribal legends say that the Great Peacemaker came to unify the tribes and promote peace throughout the land. However, the evil leader of the Onondaga, Tadadaho, refused to submit until he was subdued by the power of kindness and compassion from the leaders of the other tribes.

After Tadadaho and the Onondaga became peaceful, the tribes created a new nation under the Great Law of Peace that guaranteed tribal autonomy and representation.

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