Historical Cross-Comparison of the Iroquois and Eastern Cherokee


The five Iroquois nations and the Eastern Cherokee occupied opposite areas of the eastern area of what is now the United States.

The Iroquois nations occupied the northeastern area along modern-day Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, while the Cherokee lived in the southeastern Appalachian mountains and valleys, and swamps. The northeast was temperate woodlands, and the southeast more humid wooded mountains. Both had access to many species of trees, leading to a wide range of timber, pole, and bark resources, which had a marked effect on the construction of artifacts. Both relied on deer for hides and meat, and the Cherokee had access to turkey for meat and feathers, and even buffalo (who ranged much farther than modern North Americans are accustomed) for their robes. Iroquois territory was divided between the five nations in north-south running strips (the largest belonging to the Mohawk), giving each access to all the biomes in their collective territory, including the waterfront.

The Cherokee generally built their dwellings near flowing bodies of water for access to fish and game, as well as religious considerations. Their villages tended to be spread out, due to the challenges of finding level land to build on in the Appalachian environment. At the upward end, Cherokee settlements could encompass up to 450 acres.


The Eastern Cherokee and the Iroquois shared many technologies, with variations occurring mainly to regional differences in flora. Both groups had tailored clothing of deer skin, but while the Cherokee had needles, the Iroquois used bone awls. A high percentage of Iroquois artifacts were made from flexible materials, such as making containers, ladles, and trays out of maple sap. Others included the many conveyances and tools made out of bark, such as hickory bark covered canoes from twenty to forty feet long, bark toboggans, hickory-framed snowshoes laced with bark, and nets woven out of shredded bark for trapping pigeons and quail.

In “This Land Was Theirs”, Wendell H. Oswalt points out that in Eastern Cherokee culture, women produced a disproportionate number of artifacts, and artifact production was divided along the lines of gender role. Women made almost everything except log canoes, traps, and traditional instrument of war, which were all made by men (including clubs, spears, bows, and arrows).

The Iroquois and the Eastern Cherokee seem to have both made few stone artifacts. The Iroquois did have ground and polished adzes and mortars, and used flaked stone axe blades and arrow points, it seems that the Cherokee only used fish scale or bone points.

Both peoples used tobacco recreationally and ceremonially, and Cherokee women in particular enjoyed social smoking, using soapstone pipes. Iroquois smoking pipes were made of fired clay. Both peoples also used woven and pole manufactures, such as Iroquois cone fish traps, and housing.

Cherokee women had developed a highly specialized glazed pottery technique that took years to learn and master, but Iroquois women only used grit-tempered, fire-hardened pottery among their diverse vessels. Cherokee women had also mastered the challenging art of weaving with swamp cane, such as baskets for clothing and food, mats, and sieves. In addition to the Three Sisters of corn, beans, and squash grown by the Iroquois, the Cherokee also grew gourds, which along with deer skins, were used as containers for bear-oil, water, and honey.

The Iroquois peoples lived in iconic longhouses, pole-framed dwellings which could be 130 feet long and sixteen feet across. They had bark-layered, dome roofs, hinged doors at each end, and were divided into many apartments.

The Eastern Cherokee built similar summer and winter dwellings with pole frames woven with branches and covered with mud. These structures had no windows or chimneys, though like the Iroquois they employed indoor fires, surrounded by low platforms and woven mats.

An interesting technological development among the Iroquois after extensive contact with Europeans and new Euro-Americans was the ironwork (and later, steelwork) of the “skywalkers.” Oswalt says that Mohawk and other Native Americans were attracted to the dangerous occupations of building skyscrapers and bridges because of its high pay, excitement, and possibly because some Mohawk did not have a culturally ingrained fear of heights.

Social and Political Organization

Notably, both the Iroquois nations and the Eastern Cherokee cultures had a great deal of influence from women, though not in the typical way that most non-Native Americans view a “matriarchy.” Women were the primary providers through the steady work of farming, and often the instigators of “mourning wars” for prisoners which to ritually adopt or torture. Women own the land they work and the food they harvest. The Iroquois were, however, and arguably so are the Cherokee, matrifocal.

Socially, Iroquois people segregated men and women except for kinship, and each gender found friends among themselves. A deceased woman’s property was handed down to her offspring, while a deceased man’s was distributed among his matrilineage. The Eastern Cherokee lived among a matrilineal extended family of several nuclear families. These people associated not just by blood, but by mutual obligation and distinctly defined relationship parameters.

Politically, the Iroquois are famous for the Iroquois League, or the League of the Longhouse, later replaced by the Iroquois Confederacy. The League was loosely led by the Grand Council, which had delegates from each of the Five Nations, the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk. The League was inspired by the teachings of the human Hiawatha and the spirit Deganawada, who spread the Good News of Peace and Power, which allowed people to deal with their grief without mourning wars, which would ultimately cause more grief. Oswalt notes, however, that war was “the paramount interest of the Iroquois, irrespective of the goals of the League.”

The Cherokee were divided into seven clans, the Blue Paint, Red Paint, Bird, Deer, Twister-Long Hair, Wolf, and Wild Potato. Usually every village had representatives from all the clans, and if a clan member committed a crime, all the other members were held accountable. Control of a settlement or band of settlements was given to a council of elderly men and women, the heads of each clan, and a delegate from the war and peace organizations the Reds (war) and the Whites (peace). Whites were characterized by serene elderly people, while Reds were expected to be brash and energetic, and were often in-marrying husbands. As they grew older, Reds transitioned to Whites.

Religion Ideology

Similar to many cultures in the east of temperate North America, Iroquois and Cherokee origin stories begin with a world encompassed entirely by water. In the Cherokee version, the world was an island of water amid an ocean, and animals lived above the sky vault. An exploratory water beetle was responsible for bringing up the first bit of earth, which spread to become the land, tethered by four cables out of the water. A buzzard was the first creature to successfully come to the new land, but late in his flight, when he was tired, his wing feathers scored the mountains and valleys of the Cherokee homeland. Soon after, a pair of siblings came to make their home, and the brother took a fish, and struck his sister with it, commanding her to reproduce, which she did in seven days. This continued until the pressure of the population increase led to the limit of having one child a year.

In the Iroquois story, at least the consistent elements of the over forty known accounts, there was a sea of water in darkness, occupied only by aquatic animals, while humans lived in a skydome above the clouds. In the clouds was an enormous tree that always bloomed. Sky Woman, the pregnant daughter of the Great chief, followed the roots down, and was gifted with the basic elements of her gender role: maize, a mortar, a pot, and a firebrand. The aquatic animals dove under the water, and the muskrat was the successful animal who brought up a bit of mud, which spread to be supported on the back of a turtle. Sky Woman gave birth to a daughter, who met a man, then gave birth to a son. It is interesting to note that in both stories, the progenitive woman initially reproduces asexually (at least Oswalt makes no mention of who sired Sky Woman’s first child).

Oswalt goes on to describe little about any Cherokee pantheon of spirits, but he describes that of the Iroquois in some detail. Their primary deity was the Great Chief, the creator of the world, but who only indirectly influenced mortal affairs. More directly involved in human lives were the two twin sons of Sky Woman. The elder was named Sapling, and the younger, Flint, was born through Sky Woman’s armpit, killing her in his birth to Sapling’s great grief. Sapling’s standard vaginal birth made him an entity of order, whereas Flint’s anomalous birth made him the Iroquois agent of chaos. Sapling created the celestial elements of the stars and moon from his Sky Woman’s breasts and face, and his ordered placement of rivers and mountains was jumbled into their present-day configuration by Flint. Sapling eventually defeats his Evil Twin, who hides in a cave, still directing evil into the world.

The two main Eastern Cherokee ceremonies that Oswalt described were the Harvest and the Green Corn Ceremonies. The Green Corn Ceremony was arguably their most important ritual, and unified the Cherokee and celebrated the work of women. During the ceremony people confessed things such as adultery, unworthy feelings, and unpaid debts, which were publicly forgiven by the onlookers. After a period of feasting and dancing, people painted themselves with white clay and performed a bathing ritual in a river. This ceremony symbolized a return to the Cherokee socio-spiritual ideal of the Harmony Ethic.

The Iroquois had a similar ethic of confessions, and one of their six major ceremonies was the Green Maize Ceremony. When the Iroquois publicly confessed, they were not judged, but they were expected to improve themselves.

Both cultures had strong traditions in the forcible adoption and ritual torture of captives. Also, in both Iroquois and Cherokee society, it was usually the women who demanded that the men make raids to take captives. They would either torture the captives to avenge the death of a family member, or adopt a prisoner to replace them. In Iroquois society, captives slated for adoption had to run a gauntlet of women and children armed with whips in order to reach their new home. Only those who successfully reached the house were adopted, while those who fell were considered unfit, and executed.

See Also


Oswalt, Wendell H. "This Land Was Theirs: A Study of Native North Americans" chapters 12 and 13. Oxford University Press.


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