The Iroquois: Tribes & Confederacy

Instructor: Stacy Chambers
The Iroquois tribes lived in what is now New York State and in the Eastern Woodlands. Learn how the Iroquois lived and how their formation of the Six Nations contributed to both their survival and their downfall.


The Iroquois people were natives of what is now the United States long before Europeans ever set foot in America. They lived in the Eastern Woodlands, a forest all along the East Coast that stretched as far west as the Mississippi River. The Iroquois tribes lived chiefly in what is now New York State, hunting and farming there as far back as 1000 A.D.

Prior to the formation of the Five Nations - the Iroquois Confederacy, a council of the five Iroquois tribes - they did not live peacefully. They fought amongst themselves as well as with their neighbors, the Algonquians -- at first fighting over hunting land and later for pure revenge. At one point, the Iroquois believed that when one of their members was harmed, the entire clan was harmed.

The Five Nations
iroquois five nations map

Their Lives

The Iroquois lived in wigwams and long houses. The wigwam was a round structure with a wooden frame over which a layer of tree bark and thatch (dried grass) were added. Long houses could accommodate anywhere from 30 to 60 people. The Iroquois built their houses using wooden poles as frames and animal skins as roof coverings. They cut holes in the roofs to let smoke from their fires escape. They wore clothes made of deer skin, which women decorated, using feathers and shells as beads. They wore moccasins made of animal skin or of corn husks, and wore them in the winter.

Iroquois Wigwam
iroquois wigwam

Long houses housed extended families. They were about 125 feet long, with a long hallway down the middle and rooms off to each side. Sleeping areas were 'cots' in the walls, which were covered with animal skins for warmth.

Iroquois Long House
iroqouis long house

The Iroquois were expert woods people and farmers. The men learned to hunt at a fairly young age, particularly deer, which was a mainstay of the Iroquois diet. Women tended to the farms where they grew mostly corn, squash, and beans.

The Tribes

The Iroquois consisted of five tribes - the Cayugas, the Mohawks, the Oneidas, the Onondagas, and the Senecas. These tribes lived near each other and spoke the same language (each with different dialects). As their numbers grew, so did their fighting. Eventually, they stopped fighting and formed the Iroquois Confederacy. No one knows for certain when the confederacy was formed, but in 1722 the Tuscaroras joined and the confederacy became the Six Nations. The Iroquois Confederacy is also known as the 'Five Nations,' the 'Six Nations' (for when the Tuscaroras joined), the Iroquois League, and the League of the Iroquois.

Families made up the smallest aspect of the Iroquois social structure. These families blended into lineages, which in turn blended into clans. One or more clans made up the two moieties that made up the tribes. The clans were matrilineal and matrilocal - meaning surnames were passed down through the women, and married couples resided in the woman's clan. Women controlled the land within the clans, and were influential in choosing the chiefs who represented their tribe in the confederacy.

The confederacy was formed as a non-aggression pact between the tribes. Iroquois lore states that a 'holy man' named Deganawida (the 'Peacemaker') urged the five nations to make peace with each other, and they did. The Book of the Great Law was formed, in which the laws and customs of the Iroquois were written down to be followed.

Every year representatives from each tribe would meet to reiterate these laws and to settle any disputes. While the tribes could self-govern and act within their own interests, they had to do it within the boundaries set forth by the laws in the book. The tribes were encouraged to keep in mind the interests of the Nations at all times.

The American Revolution

Relations between America and Britain deeply affected the Iroquois. The Revolution caused a civil war within the Six Nations, and the confederacy split during the Revolutionary War. The Mohawks fought on the side of Britain (along with, eventually, most Cayugas, Onondagas, and Senecas). But the Tuscaroras and Oneidas sided with America.

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