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The Haudenosaunee: A Look at Today's NYS Curriculums

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The following is excerpted from the report of an Independent Study undertaken by Bob Batdorf for Dr. Ellis McDowell-Loudan, SUNY/ Cortland, January, 2002


The American classroom has evolved over time. No longer is it important for students only to learn and become proficient at manipulating numbers and memorizing facts and dates. Today, more than ever, all children need to become critical thinkers so that they may be able to solve problems and to confront complex issues that await them in an ever-changing and diverse world. Certainly the key to accomplishing this formidable task is for teachers to strongly emphasize values such as responsibility, acceptance and respect. These values are essential, even critical, in building a foundation that recognizes a world that is made up of interdependent relationships, and that realizes everyone and everything is connected.

The focus of this study is to stress the importance of developing an academic curriculum that addresses and appreciates cultural diversity. The culture that will be specifically examined is that of the Haudenosaunee or the Iroquois. The Haudenosaunee or "people of the longhouse" have a rich and elaborate culture that is thousands of years old but continues to be dynamic into the twenty-first century. Therefore one of the major objectives of this study is to impress upon the reader that the Iroquois, and all Native American cultures for that matter, should be taught contemporarily as well as historically. Another goal is to highlight significant features of Iroquois life. Although this will certainly not be an exhaustive look at the culture, it hopes to give a general overview of important and relevant aspects of the Haudenosaunee. In introducing these features, this study will also attempt to address sensitive issues that should be respected and therefore not pursued in a more-comprehensive program. Lastly, this study will list valuable and noteworthy resources so that educators are able to more easily search for additional as well as appropriate information.

Whose culture is it anyway?

To begin this process I interviewed Freida Jacques, Onondaga clanmother and home school liaison at the Onondaga Nation School, located just south of Syracuse New York. Freida welcomed the opportunity to give insight into the culture of her people. One specific point of our discussion was the New York State social studies test that was given to 250,000 fifth graders this past November. The test was controversial in that portions of it were inappropriate and insensitive to Iroquois beliefs. First, the test referred to ceremonial objects and displayed the images of two cornhusk masks, all of which are sacred to the Iroquois. Secondly, a war club was listed amongst other objects, and students were asked to write how each was used in daily life. This seemed to imply that warfare was an everyday practice. Thirdly, a deerskin cap and rattle were misidentified as one another. And lastly, the test only focused on the historical viewpoint of the Haudenosaunee. Writers purposely based questions on pre-European Haudenosaunee practices and in that context it was not inappropriate. However, it served to reinforce the stereotypical concept, especially to young, impressionable children, that Native Americans are a people of the past..

In addition to these mistakes Freida made mention of the fact, that in most instances, the test concentrated on Iroquois "things" rather than on the people themselves. It was disheartening to know that the highest levels of the New York State Education Department could make such bad errors in judgment. It would also seem that if a culture is to be depicted, that it should be done so from the viewpoint of its members and not from the dominant society introducing it. Therefore, Iroquois representatives should have had more input. With the primary focus on materialistic "things" or objects it was clearly evident that the Iroquois were being represented from an ethnocentric viewpoint and not their own.

Exploring the human experience

Freida suggested that the Onondaga Nation School has and is still willing to offer advice to teachers and to school districts that want to do justice to their Iroquois curriculum. One such person that did so was Diana Andersen, a fourth grade teacher in the Ithaca school district. Diana graduated from Cornell University with a degree in Environmental Studies and a minor in American Indian Studies. Diana also did an internship at the Akwesasne reservation, a Mohawk community, along the St. Lawrence River and worked for the American Indian Program at Cornell University for three years. Even with this kind of experience, Diana felt it was important to contact the Onondaga Nation, to expand that knowledge and get approval, to ensure a quality program.

Diana and seven other team members, mostly comprised of Ithaca school teachers, were given the task last summer to create an Iroquois curriculum kit. Their goal was to give all fourth grade teachers, within the district, a package of lesson plans, children's literature, vocabulary and terminology, teacher resources, maps, parallel tasks for other subjects (other than social studies), photographs and images, and readily available background information. For the teacher who has no knowledge of the Iroquois culture, and even the teacher who does, this kit provides a well researched and thought out core curriculum. However, the best part about this kit is that it goes well beyond the basics of teaching about longhouses, the Three Sisters and historical references

To give you an idea of how the kit was formulated, the very first lesson is designed to show students how to identify and break down stereotypes. The program then continues to challenge students (and teachers) about what they already think they know about the Haudenosaunee. Unlike the aforementioned fifth grade test, this program states in its introduction to teachers that "studying material culture is an important way for children to begin to gain access to different cultures. However, only when we explore more deeply do we really understand and cherish the diversity of human experience."

The Haudenosaunee

The name Iroquois actually was adapted by the French and originated from an Algonkian term that is thought to mean "snakes," because of the silent manner that the Haudenosaunee struck its enemies (George; 2000, p.9). Both names, Iroquois and Haudenosaunee, are still widely used by its members today and throughout this study I will use them interchangeably. As mentioned earlier, Haudenosaunee (hoe-de-no-show-nee) means "people of the longhouse" and was the name that they gave to themselves. The five original nations of the Iroquois, or the Iroquois Confederacy, are made up of the: Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca nations. They were brought together by the Peacemaker, and although the date of this union is unknown, it was well before contact with European settlers. A sixth nation, the Tuscaroras, joined the Confederacy around 1722, after being pressured to move northward by European colonialism. The Peacemaker brought the five nations together in a formal alliance of peace and brotherhood. The basis for this union, and the principles that the Iroquois still abide by, is called the Great Law of Peace. The symbol for this union is called the Tree of Peace and its four roots represent the hope that peace would stretch in all four directions of the wind (George; 2000, p.23).

Geographically, the Haudenosaunee lived primarily in what is now thought of as New York State. The five original nations of the Confederacy were named after their geographic position within the symbolic longhouse. The Seneca were called the "Keepers of the Western Door", Cayuga the "Younger Brother to the Seneca", Onondaga the "Keepers of the Central Fire", Oneida the "Younger Brother to the Mohawk", and Mohawk the "Keepers of the Eastern Door". The Tuscarora, because of their late arrival, did not have a name that associated with its area of origin and was thus called the "Shirt Wearers" (Andersen; 2001, p.50).

Today many Iroquois live on reservations (called reserves in Canada) or areas that were reserved. The Onondaga, who live just south of Syracuse, live on the Onondaga Nation Territory. Some of these reservations are located in New York State, one in Wisconsin, and one in Oklahoma. Six more reserves are located in Canada: four in Ontario and two in Quebec.

In the 1830's the U.S. federal government tried to relocate all Iroquois people to reservations in the west. Two of these groups were successfully removed (those now located in Wisconsin and Oklahoma) but the remaining Iroquois groups were able to use legal means and popular consensus to avoid relocation from their ancestral homes (Andersen; 2001, p.57).

Like most Native Americans before European contact, the Haudenosaunee relied solely on an oral tradition to pass down important cultural values from one generation to the next. These people learned through stories about: their history, their origins, and valuable lessons in life (Cornelius; 1999, p.45). That is not to say that all Native Americans are alike. They are not. Before Christopher Columbus and other Europeans started to explore the western hemisphere there were believed to have been close to 500 independent native nations and estimates of up to forty million inhabitants across the North American continent (Josephy; 1994, p.8). Each, including the five nations of the Iroquois, had their own languages, customs, and stories that described and enhanced their unique lives. It is therefore necessary for all students to realize these distinctions, so that stereotypes can be broken down and a better awareness can be achieved.

The family was and still is an integral part of Haudenosaunee society. Families revolve around a clan membership that takes on an affiliation with any one of nine animals (turtle, bear, wolf, deer, beaver, snipe, hawk, eel and heron). Each nation varies as to which animals are represented but all clan members that affiliate with the same animal, regardless of nation, are considered relatives (Andersen; 2001, p.91). In the past, the Iroquois husband would move into the longhouse of his wife and her family. Together they lived in these extended or multi-family units and children born to them would take on the clan membership of their mother.

Women play a vital role in Iroquois culture because they are believed to be "far more sensitive to the rhythms of the Mother Earth (George; 2000, p.55)." This can be witnessed by the Haudenosaunee traditional form of government, which is composed of equal numbers of men and women. Clanmothers are especially revered in Haudenosaunee society. They nominate and advise the chiefs of the nation, convene all clan meetings, retain the right to veto any laws that they deem inappropriate and can remove a chief from power if he has been in violation of Iroquois law. In the past they also had to approve declarations of war and to consider treaties of peace (George; 2000, p.55).

The Original Thanksgiving

The ceremonies of the Haudenosaunee reflect their interconnectedness with the natural world. Ceremonies are held throughout the year and parallel the cycles of nature. For example the Iroquois hold a Maple ceremony in March when the maple sap begins to flow, a Strawberry ceremony is held in June when the strawberries begin to ripen, and a Harvest ceremony is held in the September/October period when all crops have been harvested and stored (Cornelius; 1999, p.92). These are several of the many ceremonies of the Haudenosaunee, and each nation varies as to how many days each lasts. All of these ceremonies are a form of celebration to thank the Creator for all he has given to them. Before and after each ceremony, but not limited to just ceremonies, the Haudenosaunee acknowledge all the other life forms that make up the world in a Thanksgiving Address. This prayer serves to bring everyone that is present, together as one, in a concept called the use of the "good mind." Clanmother of the Onondaga nation, Freida Jacques, describes it in this way:

As Haudenosaunee, we give thanks to all the parts of Creation that make life possible here on Earth (The Ganonhannioh). This keeps us connected with the very vital purpose of all living things. So our respect, love includes all parts of Creation. This understanding helps us to use the Good Mind in our interactions with the natural world around us as well (Jacques; 2000).

The Thanksgiving Address usually includes sixteen or more parts in which the Haudenosaunee thank the: people, earth, plants, water, trees, animals, birds, Three Sisters (corn, squash and beans), wind, thunderers, elder brother Sun, Grandmother Moon, stars, four beings, Handsome Lake, Creator, and anything that might have been overlooked (Cornelius; 1999, p.70). The Thanksgiving Address comes in different lengths. It can take minutes to recite, while other versions can take days. Native author Doug George-Kanentiio meaningfully describes the purpose of this prayer;

"It is believed the earth listens to the words and is assured humans have not lost sight of their obligation to treat our 'mother' with compassion and respect (2000, p.35)."

A Show of Respect

As mentioned earlier, and in reference to the 2001 New York State fifth grade social studies test, the Haudenosaunee consider specific ceremonies, rituals and objects to be sacred, as do all cultures. Iroquois culture incorporated religious or medicine societies in an attempt to rid villages and individuals of diseases and ailments. They were also active to keep evil spirits at bay (Oswalt;1999, p.428). The societies and its members were said to possess supernatural powers. Members of these societies, called False Face Societies or Husk Face Societies, wore masks made from wood and corn husks respectively (Hertzberg; 1984, p.43). The Iroquois highly object to the display of these masks or their images in any form. They also protest the display of turtle shell rattles that are used in the ceremonies and the description of the ceremonies themselves. Many older publications have displayed them and, to add to the confusion, a few non-traditional Iroquois have made and sold replicas of these medicine masks to non-natives for profit (Snow; 2000, p.219). Other publications are contradictory, on one hand they mention that the Iroquois hold ceremonial objects to be sacred, and then on the other, include images of them in their text.

Wampum belts, once thought to be a form of currency by European colonists and explorers, are also considered to be sacred to the Haudenosaunee. Knowing this, many museums and private collectors have sought to obtain historical wampum belts over the past two centuries. Although some have since been returned, not all of them have found their way back to their rightful owners. Mohawk author Doug George-Kanentiio describes wampum in this way:

Wampum is used to record important events such as treaty signings. It is also a badge of office for a rotiiane [chief] or clanmother. In addition, wampum has ceremonial uses. No Iroquois nation is said to have legal standing until it has its national wampum (2000, p.47).

The creation of wampum belts dates back to the Peacemaker. Aiionwatha (also referred to Hiawatha) was one of the Peacemaker's disciples in his quest for peace. It was he who used a string of purple and white quahog shells (wampum) to teach the Great Law of Peace to the other would-be nations of the Iroquois Confederacy (George; 2000, p.46).


Native Americans have contributed immensely to today's global community. One book that goes into great detail about these contributions is Jack Weatherford's book Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World. The Haudenosaunee arguably, may have made the greatest of these, as it is widely believed that the democratic form of government of the United States was created in the likeness of the Iroquois Confederacy. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were both said to have been heavily influenced by what they witnessed when they came in contact with the Confederacy. A statement that illustrates this is Benjamin Franklin's offensive yet informative words regarding an Albany Plan of Union:

It would be a very strange thing, if six nations of ignorant Savages should be capable of forming a Scheme for such a Union, and be able to execute it in such a Manner, as that it has subsisted ages, and appears indissoluble; and yet that a like Union should be impractical for ten or a Dozen English colonies, to whom it is more necessary, and must be more advantageous; and who cannot be supposed to want an equal understanding of their ignorance (Cornelius; 1999, p.15).

The Three Sisters

You cannot mention the Haudenosaunee without also addressing the importance that corn (or maize) had on the culture. It played a major role in subsistence and was planted in great quantities and up to fifteen different varieties along with beans and squash. Together they were called the Three Sisters. Bean vines were planted next to corn sprouts to support the growing stalks, and squash was planted to retain moisture in the soil and to prevent weeds from taking hold (George; 2000, p.51). This system of farming helped to provide a varied diet and to furnish the Iroquois with an endless combination of dishes. To introduce corn as only a productive food source, however, would not fully explain its far more wide-ranging contribution. Every part of the corn plant was utilized. Leaves and husks were used to weave moccasins, rugs, baskets, dolls and ceremonial masks. They were also used in stuffing mattresses, as torches, and as shells for baking meat. Corn stalks were made into fish lines, containers, and dipped into maple sugar for children to chew. The juice of corn was used as medicine and applied on exposed infections. Even the dried-out cobs were exploited in fires to cure meat and to tan hides (George; 2000 p.51).

The Three Sisters are considered special gifts, even spirits that are collectively called De-o-ha-ko or "our sustainers" (Andersen; 2001, p.157). The Three Sisters were woven into stories, dances and ceremonies. As you might recall, they are also specifically named and honored in the Thanksgiving Address. Today the Haudenosaunee are not the prominent agriculturalists they once were, but corn and the Three Sisters remain an important part of ceremonies and to the culture (Cornelius; 1999, p.91). One book that I would highly recommend to all educators, particularly those trying to implement multi-culturalism, Iroquois Corn in a Culture-Based Curriculum: A Framework for Respectfully Teaching about Cultures by Oneida and Mahican author Carol Cornelius. It not only impresses upon the reader the important features of Iroquois life but proposes fundamental philosophies for the integration of all cultures.

Local Resources

From a local standpoint, I feel it is important to teach about the history of your particular place in the world. In doing so, students gain a clearer connection with, and hopefully respect for the people and land of your area. It also gives them new insight to their role in an ongoing and living history. I have been fortunate to have joined the Iroquois Studies Association (ISA) in the Binghamton region in 1996. The ISA consultant, Dolores Elliott, and president, Ellie McDowell-Loudan, have been instrumental in supplying me information for varying projects, including this one, over these past six years. ISA is an educational, not-for-profit organization that teaches, advocates, and celebrates the unique cultural diversity of Native Americans, from both North and South America, with a special emphasis on the Haudenosaunee.


Many school textbooks, although showing improvement over years past, still often fall short of portraying the Haudenosaunee, and Native Americans in general, accurately and without bias. Omissions, stereotypes, and misinformation are still prevalent, as has been previously indicated. Unfortunately, educators often have to rely on these sources as they are continually given more to do in less time. Although schools welcome curricula that integrate diversity and lessons that promote multi-culturalism, the education system in place has failed to develop a deeper and richer understanding of "other" cultures. The Ithaca school district, led by Diana Andersen, should be commended for taking a step forward to reverse this trend. It is certainly obvious to me that for any curriculum to be truly authentic, there needs to be input from members of the culture being studied. This can be accomplished in part by including parents, guest speakers, and utilizing literature from native authors. It is vital that students be given the opportunity to learn about how to appreciate and respect others different from themselves and for the world in which we all live. Children are products of what they are taught. Teach them well!


Adult Literature on the Haudenosaunee:

Iroquois Culture & Commentaryby Doug George-Kanentiio Clearlight Publishers, 2000.
New Voices from the Longhouse edited by Joseph Bruchac, Greenfield Review Press, 1989.
Iroquois Corn in a Culture-Based Curriculum: A Framework for Respectfully Teaching about Cultures by Carol Cornelius, State University of NY Press, 1999.
Lifeways: The Iroquois by Raymond Bial Benchmark Books, 1999.
The American Indians: Realm of the Iroquois, Time Life Books, 1993.
The Three Sisters: Exploring an Iroquois Garden by Marcia Eames-Sheavly, Cornell Cooperative Extension, 1993.

Children's Literature on the Haudenosaunee:

The Boy who Lived with Bears and Other Iroquois Stories edited by Joseph Bruchac, Harper Collins Publishers, 1995.
Eagle Song by Joseph Bruchac, Dial Books for Young Readers, 1997.
The Iroquois: A First American's Book by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve, Holiday House, c1995.

Web sites:

Bob Batdorf's References:

Andersen, D. (September 2001). Iroquois Curriculum Kit.
Cornelius, C. (1999). Iroquois Corn in a Culture-Based Curriculum: A Framework for Respectfully Teaching about Cultures. New York: State University of NY Press.
George-Kanentiio, D. (2000). Iroquois Culture & Commentary. Santa Fe, New Mexico: Clearlight Publishers.
Hertzberg, H. W. (1984). Teaching a Pre-Columbian Culture: The Iroquois. New York: SUNY Press
Jacques, F. J. (9/19/2000). Discipline of the Good Mind
Josephy, A. M. (1994). 500 Nations: An Illustrated History of North American Indians. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. Oswalt. W. H. & Neely, S. (1999).
This Land was Theirs: A Study of Native Americans. (6th ed.). Mountain View, California: Mayfield Publishing Company.
Snow, D. R. (2000). The Iroquois. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers Inc.
Weatherford, J. (1988). Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World. New York: Fawcett Columbine.

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