Cayuga (Native Americans of the Northeast Woodlands)

The Cayugatmp207_thumb, from their word for "People of Oiogouen," were one of the five original tribes of the Iroquois League. The name Iroquois ("real adders") comes from the French adaptation of the Algonquian name for these people. Their self-designation was Kanonsionni, "League of the United (Extended) Households." Iroquois today refer to themselves as Haudenosaunee, "People of the Longhouse." See also Seneca.

Location In the early historical period, the Cayuga lived in upstate New York, especially between Cayuga and Owasco Lakes, land between that of the Onondaga and the Seneca. At the height of their power, the Iroquois controlled land from the Hudson to the Illinois Rivers and the Ottawa to the Tennessee Rivers. Today, Cayugas live in Canada, western New York, Wisconsin, and Oklahoma.

Population There were about 1,500 Cayuga in 1660 and possibly as many as several thousand or more a century earlier, of perhaps 20,000 members of the Iroquois League. In the 1990s fewer than 500 Cayugas lived in New York, about 3,000 lived in Canada, and about 2,500 Seneca-Cayugas lived in Oklahoma. There were roughly 70,000 Iroquois Indians living in the United States and Canada in the mid-1990s.

Language Cayugas spoke a Northern Iroquois dialect.

Historical Information

History The Iroquois began cultivating crops shortly after the first phase of their culture in New York was established around 800. Deganawida, a Huron prophet, and Hiawatha, a Mohawk shaman living among the Onondaga, founded the Iroquois League or Confederacy some time between 1450 and 1600. It originally consisted of five tribes: Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, and Seneca; the Tuscarora joined in the early eighteenth century. The league’s purpose was to end centuries of debilitating intertribal war and work for the common good. Both Deganawida and Hiawatha may have been actual or mythological people.

Iroquois first met non-natives in the sixteenth century. There were sporadic Jesuit missions in Cayuga country throughout the mid-seventeenth century. During those years, the Cayuga were more friendly toward the French than were some other Iroquois tribes. The people became heavily involved in the fur trade during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Trading, fighting, and political intrigue characterized those years. Although they were good at playing the European powers off against each other, the Iroquois increasingly became British allies in trade and in the colonial wars and were instrumental in the ultimate British victory over the French.

Diplomatic success allowed the Iroquois to concentrate on expanding their trapping territory and increasing their trade advantages, mainly by fighting many tribes to their west and south. The Cayuga warpath led as far south as Virginia. Iroquois power blocked European westward expansion. Two Siouan tribes, the Tutelo and the Saponi, joined the Cayuga in 1753.

The British victory in 1763 meant that the Iroquois no longer controlled the regional balance of power. Despite their long-standing allegiance, some Indians joined anti-British rebellions in an effort to protect their land. One such rebellion took place in 1774 and was led by Logan, a Cayuga chief of the Iroquoian Mingos of Pennsylvania.

The confederacy split its allegiance in the Revolutionary War, with most Cayugas siding with the British. This split resulted in the council fire’s being extinguished for the first time in some 200 years. The Iroquois suffered a major defeat in 1779. After the final U.S. victory, many Cayugas migrated to Ontario, Canada, where they established two villages on the Six Nations Reserve. Others settled with the Seneca in western New York. Still others remained for several more years in their homelands. However, by 1807 the Cayuga had sold all their land to the United States. After the Buffalo Creek and Tonawanda Reservations were sold in 1842, Indians who had been living there, including many Cayugas, relocated to the Cattaraugus and Allegany Reservations. Most Cayugas went to Cattaraugus.

The Iroquois Council officially split into two parts during that time. One branch was located at the Six Nations Reserve and the other at Buffalo Creek. Gradually, internal reservation affairs as well as relations with the United States and Canada assumed more significance than intraconfederacy matters. In the 1840s, when the Buffalo Creek Reservation was sold, the fire there was rekindled at Onondaga.

In Canada, the Cayugas, known with the Onondagas and Senecas as the "lower tribes," tended to retain more of their traditional beliefs than did the "upper" Iroquois tribes. Many subsequently adopted the Handsome Lake religion. Traditional structures were further weakened by the allotment of reservation lands in the 1840s; the requirement under Canadian law, from 1869 on, of patrilineal descent; and the transition of league councils and other political structures to a municipal government. In 1924, the Canadian government terminated confederacy rule entirely, mandating an (all male) elected system of government on the reserve.

The native economy gradually shifted from primarily hunting to farming, dependence on annuities received for the sale of land, and some wage labor. The people faced increasing pressure from non-natives to adopt Christianity and sell more land. The old religion declined during that time, although on some reservations the Handsome Lake religion grew in importance.

In 1817, some of the New York Cayuga, along with other Iroquois and Delaware Indians, moved west to near the Sandusky River in Ohio. They were removed to Indian Territory (Oklahoma) in 1831. Some other Cayugas moved to Wisconsin in 1832 with a group of Oneidas. The Cayuga maintained a separate tribal government in Oklahoma until 1937. Mainly because of fraud and outright theft, their 65,000-acre reservation had been reduced to 140 acres of tribal land by 1936. In 1937, the Seneca-Cayuga incorporated under Oklahoma law, adopting a constitution and by-laws and electing a business committee. Although their land base quickly grew, almost 300 acres were later taken away as a result of reservoir construction. The tribe successfully resisted termination in the 1950s. With other members of the confederacy, the Cayuga resisted the 1924 citizenship act, selective service, and all federal and state intrusions on their sovereignty.

Religion The Cayuga recognized Orenda, a supreme creator. Other animate and inanimate objects and natural forces were also considered of a spiritual nature. They held important festivals to celebrate maple sap and strawberries as well as corn planting, ripening (Green Corn ceremony), and harvest. These festivals often included singing, male dancing, game playing, gambling, feasting, and food distribution.

The eight-day new year’s festival may have been most important of all. Held in midwinter, it was a time to give thanks, to forget past wrongs, and to kindle new fires, with much attention paid to new and old dreams. A condolence ceremony had quasi-religious components. Curing societies also conducted ceremonies, since illness was thought to be of supernatural origin.

In the early nineteenth century, many Iroquois embraced the teachings of Handsome Lake. This religion was born during the general religious ferment known as the Second Great Awakening and came directly out of the radical breakdown of Iroquois life. Beginning in 1799, the Seneca Handsome Lake spoke of Jesus and called upon Iroquois to give up alcohol and a host of negative behaviors, such as witchcraft and sexual promiscuity. He also exhorted them to maintain their traditional religious celebrations. A blend of traditional and Christian teachings, the Handsome Lake religion had the effect of facilitating the cultural transition occurring at the time.

Government The Iroquois League comprised 50 hereditary chiefs, or sachems, from the constituent tribes. Each position was named for the original holder and had specific responsibilities. Sachems were men, except where a woman acted as regent, but they were appointed by women. The Cayuga sent ten sachems to meetings of the Iroquois Great Council, which met in the fall and for emergencies. Their symbol at this gathering was the Great Pipe.

Tribes were divided into two divisions within the league, the Cayuga belonging to the "younger brothers." Debates within the great council were a matter of strict clan, division, and tribal protocols, in a complex system of checks and balances. Politically, individual league members often pursued their own best interests while maintaining an essential solidarity with the other members. The creators of the U.S. government used the Iroquois League as a model of democracy.

Locally, the village structure was governed by a headman and a council of elders (clan chiefs, elders, wise men). Matters before the local councils were handled according to a definite protocol based on the clan and division memberships of the chiefs. Village chiefs were chosen from groups as small as a single household. Women nominated and recalled clan chiefs. Tribal chiefs represented the village and the nation at the general council of the league. The entire system was hierarchical and intertwined, from the family up to the great council. Decisions at all levels were reached by consensus.

There were also a number of nonhereditary chiefs ("pine tree" or "merit" chiefs), some of whom had no voting power. This may have been a post contact phenomenon.

Customs The Cayuga recognized a dual division, each composed of two more matrilineal, animal-named clans. The clans in turn were composed of matrilineal lineages. The Cayuga probably had nine clans. Each owned a set number of personal names, some of which were linked with particular activities and responsibilities.

Women enjoyed a high degree of prestige, being largely equated with the "three sisters" (corn, beans, and squash), and they were in charge of most village activities, including marriage. Great intravillage lacrosse games included heavy gambling. Other games included snowsnake, or sliding a spear along a trench in the snow for distance. Food was shared so that everyone had roughly the same to eat.

Personal health and luck were maintained by performing various individual rituals, including singing and dancing, learned in dreams. Members of the False Face medicine society wore wooden masks carved from trees and used rattles and tobacco. Shamans also used up to 200 or more plant medicines to cure illness. People committed suicide on occasion for specific reasons (men who lost prestige; women who were abandoned; children who were treated harshly). Murder could be revenged or paid for with sufficient gifts.

The dead were buried in a sitting position, with food and tools for use on the way to the land of the dead. A ceremony was held after ten days. The condolence ceremony mourned dead league chiefs and installed successors. A modified version also applied to common people.

Dwellings In the early eighteenth century, Cayugas lived in at least three villages of 30 or more longhouses, each village with 500 or more people. The people built their villages near water and often on a hill after about 1300. Some villages were palisaded. Other Iroquois villages had up to 150 longhouses and 1,000 or more people. Villages were moved about twice in a generation, when firewood and soil were exhausted.

Iroquois Indians built elm-bark longhouses, 50-100 feet long, depending on how many people lived there, from about the twelfth century on. The longhouses held 2 or 3 or as many as 20 families, related maternally (lineage segments), as well as their dogs. There were smoke holes over each two-family fire. Beds were raised platforms; people slept on mats, their feet to the fire, covered by pelts. Upper platforms were used for food and gear storage. Roofs were shingled with elm bark. The people also built some single-family houses.

Diet Women grew corn, beans, squash, and gourds. Corn was the staple and was used in soups, stews, breads, and puddings. It was stored in bark-lined cellars. Women also gathered a variety of greens, nuts, seeds, roots, berries, fruits, and mushrooms. Tobacco was grown for ceremonial and social smoking.

After the harvest, men and some women took to the woods for several months to hunt and dry meat. Men hunted large game and trapped smaller game, mostly for the fur. Hunting was a source of potential prestige. They also caught waterfowl and other birds, and they fished. The people grew peaches, pears, and apples in orchards from the eighteenth century on.

Key Technology Iroquois used porcupine quills and wampum belts as a record of events. Wampum was also used as a gift connoting sincerity and, later, as trade money. These shell disks, strung or woven into belts, were probably a postcontact technological innovation.

Hunting equipment included snares, bow and arrow, stone knife, and bentwood pack frame. Fish were caught using traps, nets, bone hooks, and spears. Farming tools were made of stone, bone, wood (spades), and antler. Women wove tobacco trays, mats, and baskets.

Other important material items included elm-bark containers, cordage from inner tree bark and fibers, and levers to move timbers. Men steamed wood or bent green wood to make many items, including lacrosse sticks.

Trade Cayugas obtained birch-bark products from the Huron. They imported copper and shells. They were extensively involved in the trade in beaver furs from the seventeenth century on.

Notable Arts Men carved wooden masks worn by the Society of Faces in their curing ceremonies. Women decorated clothing with dyed porcupine quills.

Transportation Unstable elm-bark canoes were roughly 25 feet long. The people were also great runners and preferred to travel on land. They used snowshoes in winter.

Dress Women made most clothing from deerskins. Men wore breechclouts and shirts; women wore skirts. Both wore leggings, moccasins, and corn-husk slippers in summer. Clothing was decorated with feathers and porcupine quills. Both men and women tattooed their bodies extensively.

War and Weapons Boys began developing war skills at a young age. Prestige and leadership were often gained through war, which was in many ways the most important activity. The title of Pine Tree Chief was a historical invention to honor especially brave warriors.

All aspects of warfare, from the initiation to the conclusion, were highly ritualized. War could be decided as a matter of policy or undertaken as a vendetta. Women had a large, sometimes decisive, say in the question of whether or not to fight. During war season, generally the fall, Iroquois war parties ranged over hundreds of miles. Their weapons included the bow and arrow, ball-headed club, shield, rod armor, and guns after 1640.

Male prisoners were often forced to run the gauntlet: Those who made it through were adopted, but those who did not might be tortured by widows. Women and children prisoners were regularly adopted. Some captives were eaten.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations The Cayuga have no reservation. Most live on the three Seneca reservations—Allegany, Oil Spring, and especially Cattaraugus—and on the Onondaga Reservation. The tribe is governed by a council of hereditary chiefs. Their headquarters is located in Versailles, New York.

Cayugas also live on the Six Nations/Grand River Reserve, Ontario, Canada. Established in 1784, it is governed by both an elected and a hereditary council, although only the first is federally recognized.

The Seneca-Cayuga Tribe is located in Ottawa County, Oklahoma. The tribe owned roughly 4,000 acres of trust and allotted land in 1993.

Economy There is generally high unemployment in New York and Canada. Many Cayugas are integrated into local economies, especially in construction, the trades, and the service industries. Oklahoma Cayugas work in ranching and in nearby cities.

Legal Status The Cayuga Nation of New York and the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe of Oklahoma are federally recognized tribal entities. There are ongoing negotiations with the federal government over land claims; in one such case, a federal court ruled against the state of New York in 1991.

Daily Life Traditional political and social (clan) structures remain intact, as does the language. One major exception is caused by Canada’s requirement that band membership be reckoned patrilineally. The tribe generally meets annually in Versailles and in the Buffalo area. Cayugas and Senecas have yet to resolve issues of Cayuga land ownership on the Cattaraugus reservation. Cayugas may avail themselves of health, education, and other programs of the Seneca Nation.

Cayugas gather with other Iroquois Indians for various festivals, such as the Six Nations festival held on Labor Day weekend. They make some traditional foods, such as hulled corn soup, especially for special occasions. The political structure of the Iroquois League continues to be a source of controversy for many Iroquois (Haudensaunee). Some recognize two seats—at Onondaga and Six Nations—whereas others consider the government at Six Nations a reflection of or a corollary to the traditional seat at Onondaga. Important issues concerning the confederacy in the later twentieth century include Indian burial sites, sovereignty, gambling casinos, and land claims.

The Six Nations Reserve is still marked by the existence of "progressive" and "traditional" factions, with the former generally supporting the elected band council and following the Christian faith and the latter supporting the confederacy and the Longhouse religion. Traditional Iroquois Indians, many of whom are Cayugas, celebrate at least ten traditional or quasi-traditional ceremonies, including the Midwinter, Green Corn, and Strawberry. Oklahoma Cayugas maintain ties with their northeastern relatives. They celebrate the Green Corn and other ceremonies and maintain a longhouse.

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