Kate Monk's Onomastikon

(Dictionary of Names)



The Iroquois have linguistic links with the Huron, Erie, Petun, Wenro and Susquehannock and before European invasion, occupied the territory that is now New York, south Ontario and parts of Quebec, Ohio and Pennsylvania. They are thought to have migrated to the area by AD 900, probably moving north along the Susquehanna River, bringing with them the Owasco Culture. They lived in hamlets and villages, often in large longhouses which would have been the home of several families. Although it later became common to move frequently, this earlier period shows evidence of rebuilding in one place. Warfare with neighbouring Algonquian peoples was widespread and there were frequent inter-community raids.

The climate changes of the C14th led to the abandonment of some unproductive farming areas and villages became more clustered together. They had palisade defences and some were occupied for up to a century at a time with farming, fishing and game all providing food. Village sizes continued to grow, probably as a result of a population increase, and horticultural advances were made. By the C16th, warfare and internal feuding necessitated turning the increasingly populous villages into far more defensible sites.

The Five Nations confederation was established about 1525 with the Oneidas and Cayugas known as 'younger brothers' by their 'older brothers' the Mohawk, Onondagas and Senecas. Each nation provided League Chiefs chosen by the senior women in the internal clan structures but majority rule was not practised - everyone could speak at meetings and the nations could act separately if they wished. Replacement chiefs took the name and identity of their predecessors and could be removed if they did not perform their duties properly.

There was a population surge in the late C16th due both to immigration from neighbouring peoples such as the Jefferson County Iroquians and Susquehannocks and to internal growth. The first Iroquois contacts with Europeans were with the Basque and Norman fishermen on the Grand Banks in the C16th and their influence grew as trade became established. The name 'Iroquois' comes from the pidgin Basque word Hilokoa or 'killer people' given a French spelling by later settlers. The voyages of the French explorer Cartier along the St Lawrence river during the 1530s and 40s brought him as far as the site of modern Montreal but the Adirondack Mountains, rapids and a great lake prevented much direct contact until a settlement was founded by Champlain at Quebec in 1608. He also began exploration around the lake that was to be named after him. At what is now Crown Point, Champlain and his Algonquian allies fought a large army of Iroquois and the European guns killed Mohawk leaders, putting an end to the traditional arrow-dodging battle technique previously used.

In September 1609, Henry Hudson, an Englishman employed by the Dutch to look for a passage to the Pacific, reached almost as far as modern Albany. His relations with the Iroquois were more peaceful and the Dutch established permanent trading bases on the Hudson river and began to trade with the Mohawks. In 1614, Fort Nassau was established on an island south of the site of Albany and trade increased but this was destroyed by floods in 1617 although the Dutch continued to travel to the place occasionally for trading purposes. This trade led to the Iroquois becoming more united as the other nations abandoned their former trading partners and concentrated on the Dutch.

Further Dutch and English settlements were founded in the 1620s, Jesuit missionaries arrived and after the blockade of Quebec in 1628, the whole of Canada fell under English control but was returned to France after the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye in 1632. In 1634-5, the Iroquois lost large numbers to European diseases such as smallpox and measles to which they had no resistance. The Mohawks abandoned their old villages for four smaller new ones, which later became only three but some villages lost half their population and their social structure was badly damaged. It is possible that the highly developed medicine societies of the Iroquois reached their peak at this period. The emotional reaction to their huge losses may also have contributed to the intensive warfare against other nations which, despite Dutch attempts to outlaw their sale to the Indians, was now augmented by guns. The Iroquois destroyed or dispersed the Huron, Petun and Erie by the 1650s and the Seneca absorbed a group of Christianised Huron which prepared the ground for the Jesuit missionaries. The Mohawk began fur trade with the English but although the Dutch encouraged their aggressive behaviour towards other Indian nations, especially the Susquehannocks and Mahicans, they were not involved in the First Anglo-Dutch war of 1652-4.

The English took New Netherland, later renaming it New York, in 1664 and the Second Anglo-Dutch war lasted until 1667. The Mohawks were now neighbours of the English rather than the Dutch and were initially reluctant to join the western Iroquois in signing their treaty with the French in 1665 although they eventually agreed to it by 1667. This allowed more Jesuits to move in and many Iroquois became Roman Catholics but raids and fighting continued through the late C17th. After 1700, two thirds of the Iroquois were living in Canada, mostly on the south bank of the St Lawrence River. There were now only about 5000 of them altogether and the League was under threat from internal division and indecision over whether to ally with France or England. The Seneca, Cayuga and Onodagas were pro-French, the Mohawk and Oneida pro-English and as there was no possibility of agreement, the League was disbanded.

In 1701, Iroquois leaders went to Montreal where they negotiated the Grand Settlement in which they agreed to neutrality which at first enabled them to forge new links of friendship with the western nations. The Mohawk leader Theyanoguin (called King Hendrick by the English) diverted the centre of Iroquois power from the Onandagas to his own nation, converted to Protestant Christianity and became a preacher. In 1710, he went with three other leaders to London to meet Queen Anne, emphasising their loyalty to England but he was temporarily deposed as sachem apparently when he objected to providing funds for a new chapel in 1712-3.

The Tuscaroa of North Carolina were driven north by European settlement and were adopted as 'younger brothers' by the Iroquois in 1722-3 although they did not send sachems to the Grand Council. The English governor, Clinton, appointed William Johnson as colonel of the Six Nations and he became friendly with Theyanoguin who died in the Anglo-French conflict of the 1750s in which Iroquois were involved on both sides. The British took Montreal in 1760, virtually ending the war in America. Johnson sent Mohawks including the future chief, Joseph Brant, to learn English at Wheelock's Indian School in Connecticut but could not stop George Klock, who settled in Mohawk territory, from encouraging them to drink alcohol.

In the 1770s, expeditions by the Americans drove out many Iroquois and those remaining were forced to sell much of their land although some was recognised by the government as belonging to them and formed the beginnings of the reservation system. At the end of the C18th, most Iroquois were living in small cabins on reservations but believed they were still able to hunt the land they had vacated. It soon filled with European settlers and the Iroquois began the manufacture ash splint baskets, introduced by the Swedes to the Delaware in the early C18th, in order to earn a living.

The visions of Handsome Lake (Skanyadariyoh) led to some revival of the traditional lifestyle and he also opposed land sales and Iroquois involvement in American wars but failed to prevent them entirely. Joseph Brant leased land to settlers because he felt that contact with Europeans would give the Iroquois a better chance of survival in the C19th. The New England Puritan missionary, Samuel Kirkland, and the Caughnawaga Mohawk, Eleazar Williams, converted most Oneidas but there was conflict between the Christian and pagan Iroquois which became a serious split in the community. Handsome Lake's longhouse religion was codified in the 1820s/30s and became a tradition and the practice of electing governments was adopted by the Senecas in 1848. The Mohawks managed to retain the old hereditary chiefs to run internal affairs with an elected local government which still exists as the tribal council.

Under the influence of the New York lawyer and anthropologist, Lewis H. Morgan, and the historian Francis Parkman, interest in the Iroquois and their supposed empire revived in the 1850s. The Seneca, under two tribal governments, were securely settled at Alegany, Cattaraugas and Tonawanda but most of the Cayuga had left New York and the Oneidas land and population continued to be reduced. Indians were still not counted as citizens by the Americans but were given permission to join the army in 1862. The American Civil War saw the Seneca Eli Parker rise to the rank of Brigadier General and Iroquois fought on the northern side in many battles.

After the Civil War and the Dawes General Allotment Act, a policy of assimilation was adopted by the American and Canadian governments and the Iroquois were encouraged to adopt European-style family farms. Many believed that the old ways were no longer relevant and tribal enrolments were very low. The old matrilinear society had virtually disappeared and the Christian idea of legitimate births was encouraged. The half Onondaga, half Mohawk, Seth Newhouse tried to establish a League constitution but it was too heavily biased in favour of the Mohawks and was only reluctantly accepted in 1890. A new (English) written version was created under the influence of Seneca leader John Gibson and approved in 1900 but there were some problems with its adoption as the oral tradition did not allow for a single, set version.

In 1924, all Indians were given US citizenship but many Iroquois did not welcome this. They wanted to be recognised as Native Americans so that they could travel back and forth across the Canadian border as they still lived on both sides of it. The Indian Defense League, established by the Tuscaroa, Clinton Rickard in 1927, won a case which allowed them to do this and it is still an Iroquois right. As elders died during the mid C20th, language and oral traditions were gradually lost but the population was recovering and most reservations were no longer being reduced in size. Many Iroquois became Americanised and their cultural identity was in danger of being lost.

Land was taken for a reservoir and a main road in the 1950s and 60s and although compensation money was extracted, the Seneca lost most of their traditional homes. They began to gain status as landlords during the 1990s when the 99-year leases on some of their remaining territory came up for renewal. The Mohawks gained some freedom through the gambling option allowed them by the government in 1981 but there was conflict with those who believed it to be wrong. There are currently many land claims in the American legal system, some of them backed by violent protests.

Iroquois Names

Upon reaching adolescence, young Iroquois were given adult names. Clans each had their own specific group of names and when one of these was bestowed, the recipient became a reincarnation of previous bearers Modern Iroquois have usually adopted the European naming system with inherited surnames.


Chingachgook Deganawida Ganeodiyo beautiful lake Garakonthie moving sun Gawasowaneh big snow snake Gyantwaka planter
Hadawa'ko shaking snow Hiawatha/Ayonhwathah river maker Igoo Ongwaterohiathe lightens the sky for us Otetiani prepared Skenandoa deer
Thayendanegea places two bets          


Degonwadonti Genesee/Gennisheyo/Geneseo shining/beautiful valley Jigonhsasee Minnie-haha Nahcomis Oheo beautiful
Oniatario sparkling water Sheauga racoon        


Kayohkhono in their language

They still live on the Six Nations reserve in Oklahoma and at the Seneca reservation at Cattaraugas in New York and gained some court victories over land claims in the 1980s.

Dawenhethon Dayohronyonkah Dekaeayough Deskae Deyothorehgwen Kadagwarasonh
Soyouwes Tsinondawerhon Wadondaherha Watyaseronneh    


'Man-eaters' in either the Massachusett or Narragansett languages of New England but they called themselves Kanyenkehaka or 'People of Kanyenke' (which may mean 'flint' or 'crystal'). They live in the Six Nations reserve, the Kanesatake and Kahnawake in Quebec, the Gibson Reserve near Parry Sound, Canada and the former girl's camp at Ganienkeh in the Adirondacks.


Ayonhwathah Cenelitonooro Dehennakarineh Dekarihokenh Deskaheh Deyoenhegwenh
Karoniaktejeh Onwarenhiiaki 'tree cutter' Orenregowah Rastawenseronthah Sagayonguaroughton Shadekariwadeh
Sharenhowaneh Shosheowa Shoskoarowaneh Tarageorus Theyandanega Theyanoguin 'the western door is open'


Kateri Tekakwitha Tekahionwake 'double wampum'        


Oneyote 'Place of the Erected Stone' (their village name)

There are Oneidas in Wisconsin, Ontario and New York. Only about 32 acres of their traditional homeland remain but claims to regain at least some of it are in progress. They are a federally recognised tribe with a government and constitution and are trying to retain some language and clan identity.


Adahondeayenh Adyadonneatha Dayohagweniyah Dehonareken Kanongweniyah Odatshedeh
Ronwatshadonhonh Ronyadashayouh Shononses      


Onontakeka 'People of the Hill'

Modern Onondaga is one of the three Iroquois reservations which is governed by traditional hereditary chiefs. Sales of parts of it to New York State in the late C18th early C19th may lead to land claims. In 1989, they regained 12 wampum belts recording their history at a ceremony in Albany.


Arirhonh Awekenyat Awennisara Dehatkadons Dehayatgwarah Oewayonhnyeanih
Oewenniseronni Ononwirehtonh Sadegwaseh Sakokaeah Seawi Skanaawadi
Thadodaho Yadajiwakenh        


Dutch Sinnekens but their name for themselves was Onontowaka 'People of The Big Hill' The Tonawanda Senecas are still governed by traditional hereditary leaders.


Dadgayadoh 'boys betting' Deshayenah Deyohninhohhakarawenh Donehogawa Kanokareh Karonkerihdawih
Shadekaronyes Shakenjohwaneh Shodhenawat Skanhadariyoh Thaonawyuthe 'chain breaker'  


Kanestie 'head of navigation'          


This is one of the traditionally governed groups.

Sakarissa/Sagarissa/Sequareesa 'spear dagger'          


Clan lineage was traced through the maternal line with the mother's relatives providing the strongest influences upon young men although the Mohawk athonni, a family unit of the father's lineage, was also important.

Ball Bear Beaver Deer Eel Heron
Snipe Turtle Wolf      


Midwinter Moon

Sugar Moon

Fishing Moon

Planting Moon

Strawberry Moon

Lost Moon

Green Bean Moon

Green Corn Moon

Fresh Moon

Harvest Moon

Hunting Moon

Cold Moon

Very Cold Moon

This collection of names was compiled by Kate Monk and is ©1997, Kate Monk.

Copies may be made for personal use only.

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