Onondaga Tribe: History & Explanation

Instructor: Richard Reid
Who are the Onondaga? In this lesson, we will learn about this Native American tribe from their beginnings as hunter-gatherers to their important role in the creation of the Iroquois nation.

Early Onondaga History

Initially, the Onondaga were hunter-gatherers who tracked deer and elk through the rich forests near the Great Lakes region. Like many North Americans who lived in the dense woodlands surrounding the east coast, the Onondaga were semi-nomadic, meaning they would build temporary shelters and structures that could be deconstructed to follow the wild game that was their livelihood.

Sometime around 1000 AD, the Onondaga settled down into a more permanently-placed lifestyle in what is today upper New York. The shores and basin of Lake Ontario provided the perfect opportunity for stable and consistent farming, and the Onondaga grew crops like squash, corn, and tubers to enhance their diet. Farming allowed for more food security, which in turn enabled the Onondaga to focus on aspects of life other than survival.

Many cultural developments got their start in this period of increased leisure time, most notably the development of the wampum. The wampum was the collection of many strings of beads and shells that together could form a belt, headpiece, or other garment. Large wampums were used to convey important messages and stories in pictorial or symbolic language, while smaller wampums were traded and used as an early form of currency among the Onondaga and other New York tribes.

The development of wampums allowed for a greater sophistication of Onondaga society and the solidification of shared culture and history. Unfortunately, due to their fragile nature, no wampums from the pre-European period have survived to the present day.

Modern-day Native Americans wearing wampums of the Iroquois Nation

The Birth of the Iroquois Nation

As the Onondaga settled into a more sedentary lifestyle, they came into conflict with their neighbors. The Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, and Mohawk tribes all fought against the Onondaga in order to secure the best farming land and, according to legends, the fighting was fierce.

A semi-legendary figure known only as The Great Peacemaker saw the fighting among the different tribes and visited each of their leaders, pleading for them to put down their weapons and create peace. Hiawatha, an important clan leader of either the Mohawk or Onondaga (stories differ on his origins), quickly became enchanted with the Great Peacemaker and traveled with him as his protege. Hiawatha was an instrumental proponent of peace among the tribes, and his excellent oratory skills helped to convince many tribe leaders to put down their weapons. While the other tribes were willing to work with the very charismatic Peacemaker, one leader of the Onondaga refused to capitulate and threatened to stop the peace talks before they could be finished. His name was Tadadaho.

Map showing the tribes that eventually became the Iroquois, with Onondaga in center

Tadadaho was well known among the tribe leaders of the area. Many legends and traditions claim that Tadadaho was so evil that snakes grew from his skin and tangled into his hair. Despite legend, Tadadaho clearly was a warrior of immense power and every tribe had stories of his military prowess. When Hiawatha approached Tadadaho, he was so opposed to the idea of peace among the tribes that he hunted and killed all of Hiawatha's children.

An Iroquois painting depicting Tadadaho

Hiawatha used the spiritual training he had gained from the Great Peacemaker to clear his mind. He sang songs of peace and understanding while walking down the shores of a lake and transformed his anger into compassion. He, along with with members of other nations, were said to have returned to Tadadaho with kindness in their hearts to comb the snakes from his hair and body and rub healing herbs over his twisted and mangled skin.

After these acts of supreme kindness, Tadadaho agreed to throw his weapons into a river and allow the Onondaga to join the other tribes in peace. After this point, the five tribes in western New York unified under a common banner and created the Iroquois nation sometime around 1451. To show their elation over Tadadaho's conversion away from evil, they appointed him to a key position of the new nation, the 'firekeeper,' that continues to this day to denote the spiritual leader of the Iroquois nation.

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