North-South-East-West: American Indians and the Natural World

Sovereign People: Ancestry in the Land

Elm Bark Tray From the sixteenth century on, six nations have allied themselves to form the Iroquois Confederacy. Originally, they lived in the Eastern Woodlands, in an area that extended from the land south of Lake Ontario, along the Mohawk River, and westward to the Finger Lakes and Genessee River, in what is now New York State.

Though known as the Iroquois, they call themselves Haudenosaunee, the People of the Longhouse. The Mohawk nation has historically stood guard at the easternmost door of a symbolic loghouse. The Seneca watch over the western door, while the other nations, the Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and the Tuscarora, are spread in between.

Skilled in warfare and gifted in peace, the six nations established a peace treaty which led to the formation of one of the world's earliest democracies. This society gave rise to great orators, like the Onondaga, Hiawatha, and noble leaders, such as the Seneca, Cornplanter, who was rewarded with a tract of land along Pennsylvania's Allegheny River for his diplomatic efforts with the fledgling government of the American Colonies.

Image: Elm Bark Trays
(Left) George Key, Canada, Wolf clan, Seneca, pre-1910
(Right) Seneca, pre-1910

In the spring and early summer, when the sap was up, bark was peeled from elm trees and bent to make trays and bowls. These items served every conceivable culinary purpose. They held cooking ingredients and prepared foods, and made good mixing bowls and dishpans. On occasion, Iroquois women even added hot stones to bring the liquid in larger bowls to a boil, or they carefully placed the vessels over the fire to heat water.

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