Haudenosaunee : "People of the Longhouse"

Situated in an often harsh climate and centuries prior to European contact, the Nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy discovered that communal housing was the most advantageous form of shelter.  One large dwelling, housing several families, was far more practical than several individual dwellings which protected only one or two families from the elements.

Communal fires not only conserved firewood and thus, freed up labour for other activities, but also provided sources of heat for cooking and the sharing of food.  It's not hard to imagine the warm glow of several small fire pits adding an ambiance of security and mystique as winter winds and snow raged outside the longhouses.

To be sure, such a communal living space wasn't without its drawbacks as well.   Although the cause was yet to be understood, communicable diseases such as tuberculosis and the dreaded smallpox would rapidly spread throughout the longhouses and the modern notion of a sense of of privacy was a concession to more pragmatic motivations.

Longhouses are long and narrow bark covered structures that the Haudenosaunee lived in until the latter half of the 1800's.  These dwellings contained one large extended family with all the women and children living in a longhouse of the same clan. 

The Haudenosaunee are matrilineal in that the clan affiliation is passed from mothers to their children.  When a daughter married her husband (who was required to be of a different clan than his wife), he would live in the longhouse of his new wife and her mother.  If this couple had children, the children would be of the clan of their mother.  A husband did not lose or switch his clan upon marriage.

Longhouses had two doors - one at each end - and no windows.  A Haudenosaunee village would have a varying number of longhouses and was frequently protected by an 18-foot wooden palisade.   

The longhouse was constructed using a wooden pole framework set vertically into the ground, spaced 4 to 5 feet apart and standing 10 feet tall.  Poles were laid horizontally across the top and were tied into place with splints or rope made from slippery elm or bass wood fibres.  More poles were tied horizontally to the frame to reinforce the structure against wind.   

Young sapling elm tree poles formed the arched roof frame, with perpendicular poles adding strength against any snow build up.  The 5 to 10 foot roof, combined with the height of the walls, made the longhouse between 15 and 20 feet tall.  

Elm or black ash bark was carefully stripped from felled trees in 6 foot lengths.  A few feet in width, this bark was flattened into "shingles", then tied to the outside roof and walls of the Longhouse.  This exteriour bark shell, while acting primarily as a barrier to the weather, also served as additional reinforcement to the longhouse in general.

During construction, holes were left in the roof directly over the fire pits to allow the smoke to escape.  One of the Haudenosaunee social dances still practiced today - the Smoke Dance - had its origin when Longhouse dancers would move about in order to disperse the smoke. 

At 20 feet wide and from 40 feet to 200 feet long, the length of each Longhouse would vary depending upon the number of daughters a family might have.  As additional husbands and children would reside in the Longhouse, it could easily be extended.

It is a testament to Haudenosaunee ingenuity and skill that such a large structure could be constructed using only materials that the natural world around them supplied.

Today, the term 'Longhouse' takes on a different meaning and context.  The Longhouses found on many Haudenosaunee communities are the Traditional gathering place where ancient ceremonies and customs take place.  Due to the sacred spiritual nature of these institutions which are intended solely for the use of the Haudenosaunee, outsiders are not permitted to enter Longhouses in order to preserve the cultural integrity and respect they demand.


Built in 1892 on Six Nations, Sour Springs Longhouse is one of the oldest Longhouses still in existence.


What transpires within Longhouse is neither useful to, nor intended for non-Haudenosaunee.  It is not to be toured as a tourist attraction or site for the merely curious; neither is it to be seen as a general public's 'church' for those seeking a venue to express or seek personal guidance or direction.

'Longhouse' also refers to the people and practices that keep the unique culture of the Haudenosaunee alive and handed down throughout the generations.

The Haudenosaunee Longhouse became both a symbol and a namesake for one of the largest and most powerful Native societies in all of North America.  As a communal shelter, it protected generations of our ancestors for centuries.

And as a way of life and living, it has continued to inspire, strengthen and motivate through its teachings for centuries as well.

Both physically and philosophically, Longhouse has protected the Haudenosaunee... past, present and future.

Haudenosaunee Music : Songs of Life, Thanks and Joy

Music plays an important part in any culture and the Haudenosaunee are no different.

To non-Natives, the music of the First Nations lacks the melodic harmonies and choral sophistication so often found in many non-Aboriginal genres of music.  Traditionally, water drums, horn rattles and the vocal accompany of a handful of singers is the oldest form of Haudenosaunee music.

  Varying amounts of water in the drum produce differing tones.

Haudenosaunee Water Drum

As times evolved, so did the music of the Haudenosaunee... to the point where today, Native hiphop takes its place among the other varieties of musical expression.

On Six Nations today, Country and Blues are extremely popular but for purposes here, only Traditional Haudenosaunee social dance music is being examined.

The Creator instructed the Haudenosaunee to express gratitude for all they had been given to sustain and enhance their lives through certain songs and dances.

Additionally, the social gatherings where food, camaraderie and mingling - all in great lively abundance - were a key highlight of the cultural life.

Then, as now, it was a time to pause and give thanks.  It was also a chance for gentle gossip, joking and good natured teasing where many young Haudenosaunee would find friends... as well as prospects for romance. 

Some things never change.

Ohwejagehka: Ha`degaenage: is a non-profit organization based on Six Nations of the Grand River that was established to help preserve and nurture the Iroquoian languages and songs.

The website of Ohwejagehka: Ha`degaenage: contains descriptions of the Haudenosaunee social dances and audio clips of the Traditional songs which are sung at socials today.

Click on 'Earth Songs' to read the dance descriptions and listen to the songs clips.

Clicking on the horn rattle below will open a separate window of TEN VIDEOS OF HAUDENOSAUNEE SOCIAL DANCES; these have been selected to show the various dances and a few provide explanations offering greater insight behind the origins and purposes of these dances.

The first five videos were filmed inside a Longhouse located on the Akwesasne Mohawk Territory.

 Click to enlarge : Opens a new window



   Among life's necessities - food, clothing and shelter - food ranks as a society's greatest daily requirement as well as the greatest source of enjoyment.

   Eating transcends all human activities and ranges from merely providing a means to support life to gastronomic celebrations.  Nutritional value is important but creating a true sensory delight is a learned behaviour.

   The Haudenosaunee were very much a part of their environment, using the most commonly natural components of their world to provide all they needed to sustain and grow as a People.

   As a skilled agrarian society. the Haudenosaunee grew crops and harvested food from the lands they inhabited.  Animals such as deer, turkeys, geese and fish would supplement their diet as well, but in times of duress, it would be storable food that would see them through the hard times.

Wooden Spoon by Richard Chrisjohn, Sr., Oneida and Elmbark Tray by Richard T. Chrisjohn, Jr., Oneida

   The Haudenosaunee were well known for agricultural skill. Partly due to the practice of planting crops like corn, beans and squash, sometimes known as the three sisters, together to encourage growth. These three foods, grown together, made up a large portion of the Haudenosaunee diet. The versatility of the corn itself provided a variety of choices. Corn was often ground in a mortar and pestle type instrument consisting of a hollowed out stump to make a wooden mortar and a large, rounded pestle made of wood. Depending on the amount of corn needing to be ground people could work in teams on either side of the stump.

   One common dish among the Haudenosaunee was succotash, a stew type meal combining green unripe corn which is scraped from the cob into the pot and combined with unripe beans which had nearly been cooked.

   Other dishes were a combination of the three sisters, corn bread, corn soup and a variety of other soups and stews using vegetables and/or beans grown in the fields and a variety of meats from hunting expeditions.  Maple syrup and berries were also added as sweeteners to dishes or to water as a beverage.


   Foods could also be gathered from the forests and Haudenosaunee women often went in search of mushrooms, berries, roots and shoots and even certain barks which could be used in soup. During hunting expeditions even the men would keep an eye out for certain edibles that could be brought back with them. Nuts were often brought back and included in breads. Among some of the nuts eaten were hickory, walnut, butternut, hazelnut, beechnut, chestnut and acorns. Root plants like wild potato were often used in stews.

   Alongside agriculture and gathering, hunting provided many types of meats to be used in various dishes. Deer, bear, beaver, muskrat, rabbits and many types of squirrel were all used in some form or other. Fowl like wild ducks, geese, owls, partridge, quail and woodcock were often boiled until half done

and then roasted.   Owls are said to be tasty and the oil produced while cooking is saved for use as a medicine. Even reptiles were sometimes eaten including bullfrog and the leopard frog. One of the most common foods was fish which was often gathered in the spring. Fish were often boiled and then fried or added to soups. Eels were also caught and dried or fried.

   Food was generally boiled though meats were usually baked or roasted by placing the meat in the ashes. There weren�t many utensils and families usually had spoons just for dishing out food. Foods were eaten with the hands out of bowls made from carved wood or bent bark.