Understanding Haudenosaunee Culture

This article is reprinted from www.sixnations.org, the official website of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.

Who are the Haudenosaunee?

Haudenosaunee is the general term we use to refer to ourselves, instead of “Iroquois.” The word “Iroquois” is not a Haudenosaunee word. It is derived from a French version of a Huron Indian name that was applied to our ancestors and it was considered derogatory, meaning “Black Snakes.” Haudenosaunee means “People building an extended house” or more commonly referred to as “People of the Long House.” The longhouse was a metaphor introduced by the Peace Maker at the time of the formation of the Confederacy meaning that the people are meant to live together as families in the same house. Today this means that those who support the traditions, beliefs, values and authority of the Confederacy are to be know as Haudenosaunee.

The founding constitution of the Confederacy brought the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk nations under one law. Together they were called the Five Nations by the English, and Iroquois by the French. The Tuscarora joined around 1720, and collectively they are now called the Six Nations.

We also refer to ourselves as Ongwehonweh, meaning that we are the “Original People” or “First People” of this land. The Haudenosaunee is actually six separate nations of people who have agreed to live under the traditional law of governance that we call the Great Law of Peace. Each of these nations have their own identity, In one sense, these are our “nationalities.” Many of the names that we have come to know the tribes by are not even Indian words, such as Tuscarora or Iroquois. The original member nations are:

Seneca, Onondowahgah, meaning The People of the Great Hill, also referred to as the Large Dark Door.
Cayuga, Guyohkohnyoh, meaning The People of the Great Swamp.
Onondaga, Onundagaono, meaning The People of the Hills.
Oneida, Onayotekaono, meaning The People of the Upright Stone.
Mohawk, Kanienkahagen, meaning The People of the Flint.
Tuscarora, known as Ska-Ruh-Reh meaning The Shirt Wearing People.

What is the Great Law of Peace?

The Great Law is the founding constitution of the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy. It is an oral tradition, codified in a series of wampum belts now held by the Onondaga Nation. It defines the functions of the Grand Council and how the native nations can resolve disputes between themselves and maintain peace.

The Peacemaker traveled among the Iroquois for many years, spreading his message of peace, unity and the power of the good mind. Oral history says that it may have taken him forty some years to reach everyone...[and that] he was met with much skepticism...he continued and was able to persuade fifty leaders to receive his message. He gathered them together and recited the passages of the Great Law of Peace. He assigned duties to each of the leaders...he selected the women as the Clan Mothers, to lead the family clans and select the male chiefs...The Peace Maker then established clans among the Haudenosaunee as a way to unite the Five Nations and as a form of social order.

...A clan is a group of families that share a common female ancestry. Members of one clan are considered relatives and intermarriage in the same clan is forbidden. Clans are named after animals that give special assistance to the people - water (turtle, eel, beaver); land (bear, deer, wolf), sky (snipe, heron, hawk). Clanship identity is very important to the Haudenosaunee. The Chiefs were to use the power of their minds to reason, to figure what was best for the welfare of the people... We are to view the chiefs like a circle of standing trees, supporting the Tree of Peace that grows in the middle. They help to keep it from falling over...

The hardest part of the Great Law is to understand the meaning of the concept of peace. Peace is not simply the absence of war. In the Iroquoian mind, peace is a state of mind...Each individual has a base spiritual power. As you go through life as Haudenosaunee, experience different things, learn more, comprehend more and tap into other forms of spiritual power, your own spirit grows as well. The old timers called it orenda. Everyone is thought to have it to some degree. It effects how we do things. Good minds have strong orenda. So the ultimate power of the Great Law rests in how well the individual person develops their sense of self...in regard to the well-being of the others in the clan, in the village, in the nation and in the Confederacy of the Six Nations.

What are the Underlying Values of Haudenosaunee Culture?

Our culture is a way of thinking, a way of feeling, but also an intuitive way of problem solving and a unique way to express ourself in the world. The Haudenosaunee call all of this “Ongwehonweka” meaning all of things that pertain to the way of life of the Original People. Ongwehonweka includes all of the values, mores, ethics, philosophy and beliefs that we have inherited from our ancestors.


There are shared values held by each generation that contribute to the concept of the self. Values are shared principles that are considered important in life, that include:


There are mores that are the customs that are considered essential to maintaining the characteristics of the community:


• To be generous • To feed others • To share
• To be thankful • To show respect • To be hospitable
• To honor others • To be kind • To love your family
• To be cooperative • To live in peace • To live in harmony with nature
• To be honest • To ignore evil or idle talk  


The philosophy of the Haudenosaunee is the search for understanding of the basic truths of the native universe. It is how the Haudenosaunee have come to understand their role in the world and the important lessons that understanding teaches:


Belief is the feeling that something is real and true. The Haudenosaunee trust and have confidence in their beliefs about the universe, about the spiritual powers of that universe and about how humans are to conduct themselves on their journey through life. To believe is a conscious act that affects the way we see the world. Art, in broad terms of language, music, dance, and making things, is the act by which we manifest belief, express our own personalities as people living in the world. The Haudenosaunee beliefs include the following: