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The St. Lawrence Iroquoians (around 1500 CE)

By Claude Chapdelaine

In the 15th century, about 25 nations of Iroquoian-speaking peoples were living in the St. Lawrence lowlands and east of the Great Lakes. The St. Lawrence Iroquoians occupied the territory that extended from the mouth of Lake Ontario to the St. Lawrence Estuary. The French explorer Jacques Cartier met St. Lawrence Iroquoians when he visited Hochelaga (present-day Montreal) in 1534. When Samuel de Champlain passed through the region in 1603, however, nothing but traces of the village remained. The St. Lawrence Iroquoians were dispersed from their homeland in the late 16th century: the exact causes of this upheaval continue to be debated.

Their way of life

The St. Lawrence Iroquoians were a farming people who cultivated fields of corn, beans, squash, tobacco and sunflowers. They lived in villages consisting of a number of longhouses. The occupants of a single longhouse formed an independent economic unit. The villages were inhabited all year round but the women, responsible for the fields, were more sedentary than the men, who were occupied outside the village except during the winter months. As a result of the relative fragility of the buildings, the gradual depletion of the soil and the need to go increasing distances to collect firewood, the inhabitants would abandon the village after a dozen years or so and re-locate a few kilometres away on another suitably sandy site. The villages, then, were semi-permanent. Moreover, the settlements were left regularly during major fishing and hunting expeditions.

The St. Lawrence Iroquoians fished all year round using hooks and lines, harpoons and especially nets. They also constructed weirs and dams. Their fishing probably took place on as large a scale, if not larger, than in Huronia. Hunting - particularly of whitetailed deer and also of moose and caribou downriver from the island of Montreal - was also a major activity.

Outside activities such as these were often transformed into trading expeditions and even negotiating sessions. The men thus practised an external economy, and the women a domestic one. Alliances were established and through them many valuable and often rare resources were obtained - including native copper, shells to make beads, silicious stones to make tools, furs and meat - in exchange for corn, nets, tobacco, information and assistance of all kinds.

Wild fruit was gathered in the autumn, mainly by women and children, who collected large quantities of berries and nuts, which were then preserved. The St. Lawrence Iroquoians were not, apparently, great gatherers of shellfish, although shells are found regularly at Iroquoian sites.

Social and family organization

The community's women were central to Iroquoian social organization. In charge of sowing the crops, maintaining the fields and harvesting, they were also responsible for raising the children and preparing the meals.

The system of lineage recognized both maternal and paternal ancestry, but clan membership was decided by the maternal line. Children's social identity was thus derived from the mother. Related women formed a matrilineal descent line, which was also a residential group.

The Iroquoian women's social position enabled them to participate actively in the political life of the community. They had the power to appoint and dismiss non-military chiefs (who were usually nominated by consensus). They also played an active role in military affairs and could instruct the war chiefs to organize punitive expeditions to avenge the deaths of members of a family or lineage. They took charge of prisoners and decided their fate: some were forced into slavery, some were adopted into the family to replace those lost and some were tortured, an activity in which the women participated equally with the men.

The distribution of resources was an important aspect of Iroquoian social organization. Iroquoians, members of a society that set no store on personal wealth, were never forced into any specific activity, regardless of their age. They were, however, expected to commit themselves to two fundamental values: autonomy and responsibility. While remaining independent, the responsibility for their acts was not theirs alone. The consequences of those acts were shared by their nuclear family, members of their matrilineal descent line and their community.

The basic dwelling place of the St. Lawrence Iroquoians was the longhouse. The width of these structures varied little (ranging from 6 to 7 metres), and the height was slightly less than the width; the length depended on the number of families to be accommodated. The largest houses, sometimes as long as 30 metres, were home to a dozen or so families who would share the use of five fireplaces.

Tools and techniques

The wide range of tools and other objects required were manufactured by members of the community. Most of the materials employed were found locally, although some of the less essential ones came from further afield. Firewood and the logs used for buildings and palisades were hewn with axes, adzes and wedges. The only agricultural implements employed were digging sticks and splintwood baskets for harvesting. Bows and arrows, snares, traps and enclosures were used for hunting; nets, hooks, harpoons, dams and weirs were employed for fishing. The corn was ground with stones and pestles and cooked in earthenware pots. Food, pipes and tobacco were stored in containers made of bark. The Iroquoians also employed various scraping tools to prepare animal skins, sewed their clothes using bone needles and awls, carved wood with knives made of beaver incisors, extracted mineral dyes from various natural substances and fabricated beads from shells to make necklaces. At periods when the waterways were navigable they travelled in bark canoes, which were replaced by snowshoes in the winter; their hunting and fishing catches were transported on sleds.


Archaeological and ethnohistorical research provides glimpses of the St. Lawrence Iroquoian's belief system. They did not fear death. They believed in the immortality of the soul and in life after death. Like all other Iroquoian groups, they imagined that their next life would unfold within a context very similar to that of their everyday existence. Their day-to-day lives were governed by superior and supernatural forces, and their religion comprehended a series of regulations - feasts, dances, taboos, tobacco offerings (as food for the gods), healing rites and animal sacrifices - that could only be transgressed at the risk of offending the Spirits of the other world. These Spirits were invoked to ensure a good crop, to guarantee the favourable outcome of a conflict or simply to heal. Certain members of the community were particularly adept at communicating with the Spirits. Primarily healers, these "shamans" were also able to interpret dreams and visions. They acted as appeasers of natural forces and were well-versed in the medicinal properties of plants and the power of healing ceremonies.


Source: "Wrapped in the Colours of the Earth. Cultural Heritage of the First Nations" Exhibition Catalogue, Montreal: McCord Museum, 1992.


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