Religious Customs of the Iroquois

A pine tree with an eagle perched atop represents the defeat of the evil Tadadaho and peace of the Iroquois Confederacy.
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The members of the Iroquois Confederacy possessed an intricate belief in a Great Spirit and the spiritual forces within nature. Ritual and its proper performance played an integral role in peace, subsistence, and protection from natural catastrophe. Therefore, it was vitally important that religious customs were incorporated into facets of everyday life and a proper relationship with the spirit world was maintained. Since the Iroquois were a multi-ethnic nation consisting of the Oneida, Onondaga, Mohawk, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora tribes, religious customs were also instrumental in establishing solidarity between nations and neighbors.

1 Prayer

The Iroquois remained vigilant in using prayer as a means of giving thanks to nature, the Creator, and the spirits that influenced life and subsistence. One such prayer, the “Ohen:ton Karihwatehkwen,” served such a purpose. Possessing many titles including, “The Words that Come Before All Else,” the prayer was recited to pay homage to the web of life that connects all creatures. It was reiterated in the morning and evening and during ceremonies.

2 The Green Corn Festival

For the Iroquois, proper performance of ritual was vital in thanking the forces that inhabited nature while simultaneously granted protection from evil. Agricultural festivals were quite prominent and served as just one way to honor nature for its gifts. Traditionally, the Green Corn Festival was held when the three sisters -- corn, squash, and beans -- became ripe. Celebration included feasting, religious dancing to rattles or drums, and a religious leader’s thanksgiving chant.

3 The Midwinter Festival

The Midwinter Festival, which occurred around the New Year, served as a time of renewal and ritualistic spiritual cleansing. During the festival, neighbors would stir ashes in the hearth of others with small paddles. The stirring represented an ending to the old year and asked for a prosperous future. Elders, the keepers of the faith, also went from home to home stirring ashes and giving thanks to the creator for taking care of the people during the previous year. The stirring rite predominantly survives today amongst those that practice the traditional faith.

4 Dream Guessing

Dream guessing, which often occurred after a festival, was also part of Iroquois spiritual custom. It was believed that dreams served as communication with spirits; therefore, it was very important that a supernatural directive be followed. The dreamer went before neighbors and described or demonstrated the dream to be interpreted. Satisfying the spirits and giving the dreamer what he requested was a way to make the dreamer whole again and ease the fear of a spirit’s retribution.

5 Wampum

Taken from the Algonquin word Wampumpeag, Europeans termed the Iroquois use of beading “Wampum.” The sacred beads made from quahog or whelk shells were used for adornment, civil affairs, to record history or in spiritual customs. Iroquois myth has it that beading was brought forth by Hiawatha, who discovered the shells while grieving for loss of his family and warring people. As a peacemaker, he strung the beads together for healing. Mourning wampum was also strung together to remove grief from those who had lost family members.

Nicole Paschal began writing professionally in 2005 and has written cultural, beauty, travel and entertainment content. She was also published by the Indiana Historical Society and had a stage play produced. Paschal holds a Bachelor of Arts in anthropology and philosophy.