The Onondaga Nation is one of the original
nations of the Iroquois Confederacy or Haudenosaunee, and lives on today in
upstate New York. The Onondaga Nation has
a powerful history as part of the union that the United States Government was
modeled after. The “People of the
Longhouse” have a rich background and vibrant history that continues today.
Keywords: Onondaga, Iroquois,
Haudenosaunee, “People of the Longhouse”, New York
Onondaga Nation of New York
Onondaga people live in upstate New York, and are one of the original five
nations that make up the Iroquois Confederacy or Haudenosaunee. The Onondaga Nation
of New York is centered on the Onondaga Reservation, near Syracuse. Onondaga means “people of the hills”, because
of the hilly wooded land they come from. The Onondaga still follow many of the
traditions of their people and have a rich culture that traces its roots back
thousands of years.
The Onondaga Nation is a sovereign nation
located within the confines of the State of New York and the United States of
American (Onondaga Nation, 2014), and is one of the tribes recognized by the
United States Federal Government. The Onondaga belong to a union of tribal
nations called the Iroquois Confederacy, or the Haudenosaunee, which means “People
of the Longhouse” (Josephy, 1994). The confederacy
was said to have begun at Onondaga Lake around the year 1142 (George-Kanentiio,
2000), which is in current day New York, but all five tribes had been
established for hundreds of years already.
Onondaga history says that a great Peacemaker worked to unite the tribes
of the Mohawks, Senecas, Oneidas, Cayugas, and Onondagas, which became united
together under the Great Law (Josephy, 1994).
The Tuscaroras later joined the Haudenosaunee confederation. The
democratic setup of the union was a foundation upon which the government of the
newly birthed United States was modeled (Josephy, 1994).
In the present day Onondaga nation, Chiefs are
the leaders of the people, and are chosen by clan mothers. The Haudenosaunee has 50 Chiefs, 14 of which
are from the Onondagas (Onondaga Nation, 2016). The Onondaga Nation defines
sovereignty on its website, and states that it reserves the authority to “adjudicate
internal disputes, pass laws of the welfare of their own community, assess
fees, regulate trade and commerce, control immigration and citizenship, oversee
public works, approve land use, and appoint officials to act on its behalf”
(Onondaga Nation, 2014b). Recently, the Chief of the Onondaga Nation and Chief
of the Beaver Clan, Irving Powless Jr. passed away in November 2017 (Moses,
2017). The current leadership of the Onondaga
Nation follows the same traditional format of leadership.
The Onondaga Nation has a reservation near
Nedrow, New York, which is near Syracuse.
The reservation consists of approximately 7,300 acres of land (Onondaga
Nation, 2014a). The population of the Onondaga people in 1995 was around 1596
people (George-Kanentiio, 1995). The
population of the reservation in 2000 according to the census was 1,473 (U.S.
Census Bureau, 2000). The population of
the reservation in the 2010 U.S. Census was listed as 468, and I was unable to
determine if this was some type of statistical error. It does not appear the area of the
reservation has changed between the two dates, but there is no explanation for
the drastic change in population. Calls
to the Onondaga reservation for assistance in answering this question went
Homes built on the reservation are owned by
the homeowner. Modern Onondaga homes are
no longer the longhouse, but frame, modular, or log homes like most new
construction. Since a bank cannot repossess the land or home in the event of a
default, banks will not provide funds to build a home. Therefore, homes are built with the funds of
the homeowner (Onondaga Nation, 2014). The
Onondaga reservation covers only a small portion of the area originally
inhabited by the Onondaga people, and appears to have been in existence since
at least the Canandaigua Treaty of 1794 (Onondaga Nation, 2014e). The Onondaga
Nation has filed several lawsuits in an attempt to reclaim the lands of their
The Onondaga language is still alive to this
day. “The Onondaga language is very integral to all aspects of
religious, political and social life. When we gather the Opening Ritual is
performed.” (Onondaga Nation, 2014c). The names of Chiefs are said in Onondaga,
and community classes in the language are financed by businesses on the
reservation. The Onondaga do not believe in operating casinos, but do
own a tobacco shop, restaurant, and sports arena on the reservation (Onondaga
Nation, 2014c). The language has many similarities
to the languages of the sister nations in the Iroquois Confederacy. The Onondaga Nation School began teaching
language and culture classes in 1972 (Onondaga Nation, 2014), and classes are
still taught at the school today. Children
also learn how to say the traditional Thanksgiving Address in Onondaga.
The Onondaga have a total of nine clans: Bear,
Turtle, Wolf, Snipe, Heron, Hawk, Beaver, Deer, and Eel (George-Kanentiio,
2000). The Onondaga society is a
matrilineal one, and both women and men hold positions of power. Upon marriage, a man left his family longhouse
and moved into the longhouse of his wife’s family. Onondaga do not marry within
their own clan, as they believe they descend from the same line. People of the
same clan but a different nation are still considered to be the same family
(Onondaga Nation, 2014a). Children born of the marriage belong to the clan of
their mother, and their name is chosen by the clan mother (George-Kanentiio,
2000). According to the Onondaga Nation “in
order to be considered Onondaga, your line MUST be enrolled by 1875, as all
those considered legitimate were already tracked” (2014d). The woman is the center of the Onondaga
family, as they are revered as the givers of life.
Any meeting of the Onondaga begins with a message of thanks,
also known as the Thanksgiving Address (George-Kanentiio, 2000). The address is used at a meeting of Chiefs,
at schools, at weddings, social dances, or other large gathering (NYS Museum,
2014). The greeting is extended to all of the cousins of the Onondaga, Mother
Earth, trees, animals, the winds, the sun and moon, children, and the
There are several ceremonies each year that the Onondaga
celebrate, which include the New Year, Midwinter, Maple Sap, Planting,
Strawberry, Green Corn, and Harvest Ceremonies.
The ceremonies consist of a gathering, songs, dances, and the giving of
thanks for the particular occasion. The ceremonies
are held when the clan faithkeepers determine it is the proper time for them. Faithkeepers are chosen by the people of
their clan for their knowledge of the natural world, the spiritual world, and
moral guidance (George-Kanentiio, 2000).
Ceremonies are also special to the Onondaga because babies are named by
the clan mother at ceremonies.
Another special part of the Onondaga culture are wampum
belts. All important events were
signified by the creation of a wampum belt, which is a gift by which to
remember what occurred (Thomas, Ballantine, & Ballantine, 1993). The most
famous wampum belt is that which signifies the Haudenosaunee union, made from
purple and white shells, with a pine tree in the center and four figures. The
five figures together represent the original five nations (see Figure 1).
The Iroquois or Haudenosaunee Confederacy has
been traced back to at least 1142. The
legend of the beginning of the union starts with two people bringing together
the five original tribes: the Mohawks, Secenca, Oenida, Caygua, and Onondaga
tribes. The tribes had each warred with
each other, and tired of the wars. A
Peacemaker named Deganawidah walked through the land and spoke of a vision he
had where the five tribes were united together under a tree of great peace (Thomas,
Ballantine, & Ballantine, 1993).
Deganawidah met with a Mohawk man named Hiawatha, or Aiionwatha. The two spread the message, and the last
Chief to agree to the peace was an evil spirit named Tadodaho
(George-Kanentiio, 2000). Upon Tadodaho agreeing
to the peace, the Great Law of the union was enacted, and a large white pine
tree planted as a symbol. The treaty was
sealed with a gift of wampum, and the Onondaga became the keepers of the wampum
Haudenosaunee people traditionally lived in
longhouses, which were communal homes to families. Each longhouse was laid out from east to
west, and the house could be as large as 40 feet by 200 feet. Longhouses were constructed of pieces of
bark, and could hold ten to twelve families (Thomas, Ballantine, &
Ballantine, 1993). Each family had a
separate area to sleep on a platform along the walls, and food, tools, and
pelts were stored above the platforms.
It is said that the original Haudenosaunee
territory was shaped like a large longhouse.
The Mohawks and Senecas held territory to the east of the Onondagas, and
the Cayugas and Oneidas held territory to the west. The Onondagas were the central part of the
longhouse, and were the “keepers of the fire” (Josephy, 1994). The Haudenosaunee governance followed the
figure of the longhouse, with the Oneidas and Cayugas to the west of the
Council fire, and the Mohawks and Senecas to the east. The Onondaga, the council fire keepers, were
in the north. The longhouse was not only the family home, but it was also the
map of the Haudenosaunee nation and model for the Haudenosaunee leadership. Despite being the “People of the Longhouse”,
modern Haudenosaunee no longer live in longhouses.
The Onondaga have filed several lawsuits regarding
lands near their ancestral home.
Corporations that have been responsible for environmental pollution
around Onondaga Lake and other areas have been named as defendants, with the
goal of caring for the land and cleaning up polluted areas. The Nation has previously filed suit to
regain possession of lands that were once theirs, and are now part of the City
of Syracuse, though the suit was dismissed.
Another project undertaken by the Onondaga
include installing a water purification system on the reservation and
installation of wells. The funds for
these projects were also provided by the profits of the businesses on the reservation,
and work toward keeping both the population healthy and the Earth healthy, in
harmony (Onondaga Nation, 2014).
A source of current conflict within the modern
Onondaga society is a perception of corrupt councilors. Some of the more notable Chiefs, including
the recently passed Irving Powless Jr. and Oren Lyons were adopted into the
Onondaga nation, as their mothers were not Onondaga, which creates discontent
with some Onondaga (Onondaga Nation’s Issues and Concerns Facebook page, 2018). Some of the Onondaga question leadership by
these Chiefs, as they do not follow the matrilineal clan membership of the
Onondaga. In the 1980s the Onondaga
closed three tobacco shops on the reservation because the Chiefs were requiring
they pay a tax on cigarettes, but refused to account for where the funds from
taxes were going (Burns, 1995). The
shops refused to pay, and clan mothers blocked the businesses from opening.
The Onondaga School District has three
schools: two elementary schools and one junior/senior high school, which serve
about 950 schools. The LaFayette School
District, which includes the Onondaga Nation School on the Onondaga
Reservation, has four schools in the district.
The Onondaga Nation School was built with much symbolism from the Onondaga
history. There is a turtle inlaid on the
floor of the cultural gallery, circle windows for the circle wampum symbolizing
the original 50 Chiefs of the Haudenosaunee, and purple building materials for
the purple quahog shell.
The above image is one that accompanied the
topic of respect for women in my prior knowledge assignment. I previously discussed how it was impressive
that indigenous communities long ago had respect for women, who often held
positions of power equally. The Onondaga
is a nation that is matrilineal, and women are considered the center of the
family since they have the power to give life.
In modern Onondaga society, women can be faithkeepers and are clan mothers. Typically the oldest and most respected woman
in the clan is the clan mother. Clan mothers can appoint or remove Chiefs from
their positions. Therefore, the Onondaga
do have respect for women which I spoke of in my prior knowledge assignment.
The Onondaga have endured through thousands of
years, despite huge population loss since the coming of the settlers to the
country now known as America. The
Onondaga have a rich culture and history as one of the five original nations in
the Iroquois Confederacy. Today they
fight to reclaim lands that once belonged to them. The Onondaga language lives on and is taught
to students in school, along with community members in classes funded by
businesses on the reservation. The
Onondaga are guardians of the environment, working to keep companies
responsible for pollution of their lands responsible and to engage them in
cleanup operations. Despite some conflict with Chiefs, the Onondaga are a
Nation united together. The legacy of
the “People of the Hills” will continue on as they face many of the issues
their non-native counterparts do.