Agriculture was very sacred and the Iroquois held many ceremonies as Thanksgiving for fertility as far as food and the stability it gave them. Some aspects of the harvest festival include the green corn, planting, strawberry, green bean and the maple, which has its own forest dance for part of the celebration. The strawberry ceremony was thanksgiving for all berries and new life birth. Another ceremony was the midwinter which is held in January or February. You would look for the dipper constellations and when you see the new moon the new spiritual year begins. You wait 5 days and celebrate for the 9 days after.
Death and Afterlife:
After the death of a Sachem, the chief of a tribe, the Iroquois people would hold a special ceremony to mourn his loss as well as to replace the old Sachem. They would have already voted on and confirmed the new Sachem before this ceremony. They were very thorough believers in the afterlife and after the ceremony they would mourn for a whole year before they held a feast the represent the end of the souls journey to unite with the dead. The Iroquois would bury their dead in a sitting and facing the east in the early historic times. Even before that they would leave their dead sitting exposed on a wooden scaffolding and after a time they would place their bones in a room with the other deceased. After the death of one of their tribe members, the Iroquois would release a captured bird in order to symbolize the spirit of the dead flying away with the bird.
A popular form of art in iroquois in the false face mask. These masks were made of maple, white pine, basswood, and poplar. Masks represent spirits coming free through the burning of tobacco (this ritual is completed before the mask is taken out of the tree).
The Iroquois tribe was polytheistic but their most important god was the Great Spirit, and other deities included the Thunderer and the Three Sisters, the spirits of maize, beans and squash. Most of the Iroquois converted the Christianity after the arrival of the Europeans and it wasn’t until the 1800’s that their traditional views were revived by their prophet, Handsome Lake. He had a series of visions that were consistent with some of the European belief and some of the original Iroquois beliefs. The Iroquois regarded dreams as supernatural signs that showed the soul’s desire. By the 1960’s, about half of the Iroquois accepted the Handsome Lake religion.
An Iroquois Creation Story
"In the beginning, in the Sky World, a pregnant wife asked her husband to fetch the delicacies she craved. But she wanted the bark of a root of the Great Tree in the middle of the Sky World, which none were permitted to touch. Finally, however, he gave in, and scraped away soil to bare the root of the Tree. Underneath was a hole, and as the woman peered down into it, she fell through. The birds helped transport her as she fell, and the great Sea Turtle received her on his back.
"Here, on the Sea Turtle's back, she planted bits of the roots and plants she had brought from the Sky World. And she walked across the turtle's back, planting, praying and creating the Earth that we know as Turtle Island.
"The woman who had fallen from the sky then had a daughter, who became impregnated by the West Wind. While in the womb, the daughter's unborn twins began to quarrel about how they should emerge, the left-handed twin refusing to be born in the usual way. Instead, he forced himself out of his mother's left armpit, killing her as a result. The newborn twins then buried their mother, who became Corn Mother, source of corn, beans and squash, the Three Sisters of the Iroquois. From her heart grew sacred tobacco, used to send messages and thanks to the Sky World.
"The two brothers continued to compete with each other as they created the animals and plants, and in the process, represented different ways of living. Right-Handed Twin created the beautiful hills, lakes, blossoms, gentle creatures; Left-Handed Twin, the jagged cliffs and whirlpools, thorns and predators. Right-Handed Twin was always truthful, reasonable, goodhearted, and "straight-arrow"; Left-Handed Twin lied, fought, rebelled and made "crooked" choices.
"Because Right-Handed Twin created human beings, he is known as "Our Creator," and "The Master of Life." But Left-Handed Twin helped, and invented rituals of sorcery and healing. The world they built included both cooperation and competition, lovingkindness and aggression.
"After they finished their creations, the continued to compete in other ways - by gambling, by playing lacross, then fighting with clubs. One day, grasping a deer antler, Right-handed Twin finally prevailed, and killed his brother, throwing the body of Left-Handed Twin over the edge of the earth. As a result, Right-Handed Twin rules day and the Sky-Worldand Left-Handed Twin prevails over night and the lower world.
"Grandmother Skywoman was furious that Right-Handed Twin murdered his brother, and accused him of wrongdoing. Angry, and believing that grandmother had always favored the errant Left- Handed Twin, he cut off her head and threw it up toward the sky, where it became the Moon. Then he threw her body into the ocean, where it became all the fish of the sea.
"The Iroquois believe that both Left-Handed Twin and Right- Handed Twin are necessary for the world to be in balance. During festivals, day activities honor Right-Handed Twin, and night activities such as feasting, singing and dancing honor Left-Handed Twin. This tension and struggle for balance between the two brothers and principles of life is incorporated into Iroquois festivals and cycles of life. "