North-South-East-West: American Indians and the Natural World
In the Forest: Animals and Humans
The Iroquois recognized the importance of the animals with which they shared the
forest. They depended on animals for survival and patterned their society on
the structure of Nature.
The Iroquois people organize themselves according to the model of the
animal world. Everyone belongs to the clan of his or her mother, and
every group has its own clan animal. One of the main functions of the clan is
to provide kinship with clan members in other villages. Hunting often took Iroquois
men away from the village. However, they could always depend upon their clan for
food and lodging.
Iroquois men spent much of their time and energy protecting
their village and territory, trading for goods, and hunting
and fishing. Their most important quarry was the deer, and they needed to shoot one a week
to provide sufficient meat for their families.
The European desire for furs, especially beaver,
began to dominate Iroquois
affairs in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In exchange for furs,
Iroquois men brought home a wealth of useful trade goods, especially metal
items such as guns, axes, knives, hoes, cooking pots, needles, scissors, and
By 1800 the Iroquois had exhausted their own supply of beaver. Through
alliances, first with the Dutch and then with the English, the Iroquois
established themselves as the middlemen in the fur trade. They regulated the
flow of furs coming from the western tribes to the traders in the east.
The Eastern Woodlands
The Iroquois occupied the land around the Great Lakes, from
southern Canada through much of present-day New York State.
Through trade, hunting, and warfare, their influence spread from the
Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River. At the end of the
seventeenth century, there were perhaps 15,000 Iroquois living on
one million square miles of territory.
The Eastern Woodlands included dense woods, mountains, hills, as
well as rivers, lakes, and streams. This area of the world has
four seasons, plentiful rainfall and snow, and warm summers.
This environment is ideal for many types of trees, including elm,
chestnut, hickory, oak, maple, and pine. Plants, herbs, and berry
bushes thrive here as well.
The bounty of the land supports a wide variety of mammals, birds,
and fish. The Iroquois were well provided for by Nature.