Iroquois Art, Symbols & Artifacts

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

The original inhabitants of North America made beautiful carved masks and clothing adorned with delicate beadwork. In this lesson, learn about Iroquois art and explore some of its symbols and artifacts.

Which Iroquois?

Some of North America's original inhabitants are known for beautiful art objects. Among them are the Iroquois. In this lesson we'll explore their symbols, art and artifacts. Artifacts are objects uncovered during archaeological excavations. But first, let's discuss the people because the term 'Iroquois' has two related meanings.

One definition of 'Iroquois' is a large group of tribes native to North America that spoke a similar language called Iroquoian. They inhabited land around the Great Lakes of Huron, Erie and Ontario, were agricultural, and lived in communal family structures called longhouses.

But there's another specific definition of Iroquois that refers to a group of five and later six tribes that lived in what is today Upstate New York. The original five members were the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida and Mohawk tribes. They founded a loose tribal affiliation called a confederacy.

The Iroquois Confederacy, established around 1570, was organized so leaders could work with each other, but each tribe retained independent sovereignty. Today, the descendants of this group are the Iroquois Nation. The latter Iroquois group is the focus of this lesson.

Iroquois Artifacts

The Iroquois made objects of materials from their immediate environment, including clay, stone, bone and antler. Artifacts uncovered at early Iroquois sites (from circa 1400 until European contact around the mid-1600s) include clay pots. The pots have distinct collars or upper borders with incised decorative geometric lines cut into them. Some pots, called effigy pottery have collars with shapes resembling faces or whole figures molded on them.

Iroquois bone combs
Bone combs

Other artifacts include combs made of bone or antler with figures of people and animals carved on them. Archaeologists have also found stemmed clay pipes decorated with human or bird figures. Another type of artifact found in Iroquois sites are wampum beads.

Wampum beads are small circular beads cut from white and purple mollusk shells. Strung together into belts and other objects, they were viewed as currency. They were also used on some of the Iroquois' most important objects, including peace treaties with other tribes and nations.

Example of wampum beads strung into a belt. This is a 17th century peace treaty.
wampum beads

Iroquois Art

Prior to European contact, the Iroquois wore clothing and shoes made of deer hide. They decorated clothing with intricate geometric curving designs, some resembling plants or creatures. Originally, the designs were made from porcupine quills, prepared by softening them, dyeing them with natural colors, and then weaving them onto the the hide surface.

After Europeans arrived, the Iroquois traded for metal goods, woolen cloth, and small glass beads. The beads then replaced the quillwork for beaded designs on clothing, shoes and bags.

Iroquois beaded bag
Iroquois beaded bag

The Iroquois were also expert mask makers. They used corn husks to weave a type of mask called a husk face mask, associated with the harvest of corn, a crop vital to the community's survival.

The Iroquois carved basswood to create a type of mask called a false-face mask. These faces, with contorted facial features, were usually painted red and edged with black horse hair. They were used in healing ceremonies to scare away harmful spirits.

It's important to understand that neither kind of mask was viewed as simply art. They were important sacred objects and not mere decoration.

Iroquois false-face mask
False Face Mask

Iroquois Symbols

These Iroquois tribes had several important symbols, including the Hiawatha Belt. The Hiawatha Belt is a line of two squares, then a central pine tree shape followed by two more squares. All shapes are connected by a single horizontal line running through their middle. The Hiawatha Belt symbol has been found on wampum belts and today it's the official emblem of the Iroquois Nation.

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