The Washerwoman’s Genes

March 7, 2006

Review: The Ordeal of the Longhouse

Filed under: Reviews — by WWG @ 5:14 pm

The Ordeal of the Longhouse: The Peoples of the Iroquois League in the Era of European Colonization. Chapel Hill: UNC, 1992. Daniel K. Richter.

Focusing on the Iroquois, a culture of five tribal groups who lived to the west of the Hudson, this book delves deeply into original texts and documents to provide a detailed history of the interactions of the Iroquois with Europeans from first contact. Author Daniel K. Richter writes that “this is a story of European colonization viewed from the Indian side of the frontier” (viii).

The value of this book for me, as I study the history and culture of the Hudson Valley through the late 1800s, is that it gives such an exhaustive account of how Indians conducted their affairs with the Europeans. Richter notes that many native groups shared cultural perspectives and behaviors with their neighbors, even those of distinct groups. The communal lifestyle; the community-oriented religion; the elaborate rituals of unity; the emphasis on consensus and the reality of independent, even renegade, action; the matrilineal family structure; the gender divisions and the predominance of divorce are all traits that appear to be broader than the Iroquois groups. The book adds dimension to the early colonial world.

The four “ordeals” of the Longhouse people (their name for themselves) were: disease; economic dependence on European trade; involvement in the power struggles of the French versus the Dutch and then the English over territory; becoming overrun as Europeans moved onto and claimed their land.

Richter especially concentrates on a reconstruction of the religious dimensions of Iroquois culture and throughout the history shows how the Iroquois view of death and ceremony affected their interactions with Europeans.

The pre-colonial Iroquois culture embodied values and behaviors quite alien to the European mindset. The religion of the Iroquois was characterized by the vision of a “peacemaker” who offered a new way of dealing with grief that emphasized consolation and ritual rather than war-making, an ideal not always lived. Native religion focused on ceremonies of burial and “requickening,” by which a lost family member was rediscovered in another living person. Often that person was someone captured from another tribe or enemy. The increased fatalities resulting from European contact initiated increased captivity raids. In addition, the adoption of new, more lethal weaponry—metal tipped arrows and then guns—escalated battle mortality and inspired even more captive-seeking. Parallel to the capturing, rituals of torture, execution, and dismemberment also played a part as a communal response to threats and attacks.

A second major component of Iroquois culture was the prominence of what to Europeans were time-consuming ceremonies, endless speechmaking, and rituals of gifting. Possessions created status not by conspicuous consumption but instead by increasing the owners’ ability to give gifts and provide for others. Europeans often ignored the elaborate interactive practices of the pre-literate culture, practices designed to define and inculcate historical knowledge and create unity of understanding as well as group bonds; in doing so, colonists identified themselves as outsiders, boors, and threats.

Village life was communal. Mainly agricultural, the Iroquois built large settlements characterized by the longhouse, in which families lived in compartments along the sides and shared central fires were spaced out along the main axis of the building. Matrilineal families were the norm, with maternal brothers, not husbands, the main male authority.

Richter follows the economic and lifestyle disruptions brought about by European desires for pelts, the importing of European manufactures, and the missionary activities that were often intertwined with politics.

Christianity itself was disruptive; the Christian saga was bizarre to native people, and Indians could not understand why a people whose religion focused so much on sin were themselves so prone to cheat, lie, drink and be all kinds of evil. Most missionaries believed that only some natives were worthy of baptism and that faith had to be accompanied by a change in lifestyle, in everything from clothing to sexual behavior and family structure. Many posited that Indians could only become Christians by relocating from their tribal homes, and missionaries established separate settlements for Christian Indians. In times of warfare, these settlements were safer than other areas and attracted adherents as a result, but the conversion process itself split Indian communities.


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