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All About the Iroquois Longhouse

written by: Andrea Coventry • edited by: Amanda Grove • updated: 2/8/2012

The Iroquois longhouse is a classic example of the Native American structure found primarily in the Upstate New York region. Read on to learn more about this unique structure.

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    Who Are the Iroquois?

    The Iroquois Confederacy was a group of five Native American tribes that were peaked about 300-500 years ago. They were primarily located in Upstate New York. The Senecas were found in the west, the Mohawks in the east, and Onondagas in the center. The Cayuga and Oneidas were two other groups. When traveling through Upstate New York, you can find regions and cities named for these tribes.

    "Iroquois" was the name given to them by European settlers. Amongst themselves they were also known as "Haudenosaunee."

    They were known as farming tribes, as they primarily grew corn and maize in their villages.

    Information about these tribes was gained through tribal legends passed down from generation to generation, as well as recorded observations from missionaries and explorers who visited the region. Archaeological excavations at various village sites have also yielded a lot of information. The European explorer Jacques Cartier was the first to write descriptions of the longhouses. French explorer Samuel de Champlain actually lived among the Iroquois tribes.

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    The Longhouse

    Theiroquoislonghouse The longhouse is exactly what it sounds like. It is a structure that served as a home to clans (extended families) within the Iroquois tribal community. They were long and narrow in shape. They were commonly found throughout Ontario, Quebec, southern New England, Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey. The Iroquois specifically lived in Upstate New York. Similar structures were used by the Vikings and are used today by some communities in Borneo.

    Longhouses were the primary residence of tribal members prior to European colonization. Now they can found living on or near reservations in apartments, houses, and mobile homes. Longhouses are still used for tribal meetings and rituals.

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    Who Lived in the Longhouses?

    Inhabitants of the Iroquois longhouse were several families within a clan. Each clan consisted of the descendants of one particular person, usually a woman. There could be as many as twenty extended families living in one unit. One longhouse per clan was found in each village, though relatives could have longhouses in neighboring villages. Clans were not allowed to intermarry, so they had to find love in another abode. When a couple decided to marry, the husband would move out of his longhouse and into his wife's building.

    Each clan would have an animal as its symbol. These symbols were often found on the front doors to the longhouses, as well as in household decorations and tribal tattoos. Common clan symbols were the turtle, bear, and wolf.

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    How Were They Built?

    450px-Iroquois longhouse 

    The structure of an Iroquois longhouse is made of posts (often from cedar trees) placed in holes dug into the ground. After vertical posts were in place, horizontal poles were attached, making a sort of grid. Other branches were bent to create the traditional curved roof. Strips of bark were braided together like a rope and used to tie all of these parts together. They were then covered with large sheets of elm bark, also tied or lashed together.

    Most of the materials were harvested from what is known as a second growth forest. These are created when an older forest is destroyed by fire or when tree trunks are girdled.

    They were usually 180-220 feet in length, though a couple have been uncovered that were longer than a football field or city block. Length was determined by the size of the clan that would inhabit the home. They were almost always 20 feet high and 20 feet wide. Rounded ends often served as storage areas. The only doors to the buildings were found in the two ends and were covered by skins in the winter. Later longhouses became shorter, as smaller extended families lived within them.

    Running the entire length of the longhouse was a corridor that measured about ten feet wide. Two families would occupy a sort of apartment about twenty feet in length, with one family on either side of that aisle. These areas were used for family storage and as sleeping quarters. In the common area of the aisle was a fire for cooking and heat. Smoke could escape through a hole in the ceiling. These holes could be adjusted depending on the weather. They also served as skylights to bring in a bit of light as there were no windows.

    Insulation on the walls came from furs and mats. These were also used to make the sleeping benches more comfortable.

    To protect the property, a fence known as a palisade was built out of posts and poles along the perimeter.

    To create the longhouse, the Iroquois used stone axes to cut down trees and to cut and shape the logs. A tool known as an adz is similar in shape to a hoe but made like an ax. It was used to pare rough surfaces. They also used small knives made of flint for cutting, chisels made of deer antlers to dig holes, and bone tools as awls for piercing bark.

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    Symbolism

    The features of the Iroquois longhouse have great symbolism to the Iroquois nation. The floor represents Mother Earth, while the roof represents the sky. The rafters represent the Great Law of Peace, under which the tribes live. Five smoke holes in the roof represent the five nations that make up the Iroquois Confederacy.

References

  • Iroquois Longhouse Project (Slideshow) http://www.oneonta.edu/oas/collegecamp/Longhouse/index.htm
  • A Mohawk Iroquois Village, New York State Museum. http://www.nysm.nysed.gov/IroquoisVillage/constructionone.html
  • Iroquois Longhouse Drawing by Wilbur F. Gordy found in the public domain of Wikimedia Commons
  • Iroquois Longhouse Replica at the New York State Museum in Albany photograph by Jaro Nemčok, under Creative Commons License 3.0 on Wikimedia Commons
  • What Is a Longhouse?, Iroquois Museum. http://www.iroquoismuseum.org/longhouse.htm
  • Online Activities: Iroquoian Longhouse, Royal Ontario Museum. http://www.rom.on.ca/programs/activities/longhouse/longhouse1.php

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