Why Did the Iroquois Fight Mourning Wars?

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Why do nations go to war? There may be more reasons than you'd expect. In this lesson, we are going to explore Iroquois mourning wars and see what they meant to the nations of the Iroquois Confederacy.

Mourning Wars

Why do nations fight wars? Traditionally, warfare is seen as a way to expand political power, increase territories, and secure new means of material wealth. Basically, war is for money and land (with a bit of personal glory tossed in). That's the European view of warfare, but Amerindian nations of North America often saw war in very different terms.

To the five nations of the Iroquois Confederacy (the people who called themselves Haudenosaunee), warfare wasn't fought for material or territorial gain. It was fought for psychological and spiritual resolution.

Rough territory of the Iroquois Confederacy
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Okay, so what's that mean? The Iroquois nations practiced a form of warfare called mourning wars, which were raids to avenge the warriors killed in a previous battle. Mourning wars did not expand the Iroquois borders, and they did not make the Iroquois richer. What they did was provide an outlet for grief and mourning. How's that for a reason to fight a war?

Goals of the Mourning Wars

Imagine being in an Iroquois nation during the 15th century. Your village is raided by an enemy nation, and several of your warriors are killed. This is obviously tragic, and the village goes into mourning. In particular, the matriarch is in mourning, as a spiritual and political leader and representative of the people.

However, this mourning is not just because of the loss of family members. In Iroquois traditions, it was believed that when someone died, the entire clan or nation diminished in spiritual vitality proportionate to that person's physical and spiritual strength. Since the Iroquois cosmology was largely centered upon their responsibility to maintain cosmic harmony among spiritual and physical forces on Earth, that loss was a big deal. They had to compensate for it, and that compensation came through mourning wars.

Mourning wars were important parts of Iroquois cultures
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Mourning wars had three primary purposes, each of which helped restore the spiritual vitality of the Iroquois nations. First, mourning wars were fought for vengeance. The raid gave warriors a chance to provide some sense of closure to those who had lost a loved one. In Iroquois cultures, this was a big part of personal psychological and emotional healing after a loss.

Second, mourning wars gave young men a chance to prove themselves as warriors. Since these were raids and not always full battles, these new warriors could distinguish themselves through acts of bravery, rising to replace the warriors who had been killed. This was an important form of social advancement for Iroquois men.

Finally, and most importantly, the fundamental purpose of mourning wars was to abduct members of an enemy tribe as compensation. Occasionally, the matriarch of the clan demanded that these captives be killed in vengeance. That was relatively rare, however. More frequently, the captives were actually adopted by the grieving family members. It was the literal replacement of a lost loved one.

Spiritually, the captive restored the vitality that was lost by the death of an Iroquois citizen. Psychologically, this was an important part of Iroquois grieving and mourning, and to them it provided a sense of closure. Practically, the taking of captives ensured genetic diversity within the Iroquois nations and also ensured that a family did not suffer economically from the loss of an able-bodied child. Adopting captives as members of the family filled the emotional, spiritual, and practical void left in that clan.

History of the Mourning Wars

Nobody knows exactly how or when mourning wars began, but we know they've been part of Iroquois history for a long time. In fact, the Iroquois confederacy may have been founded because of these wars way back in the 12th century CE.

According to Iroquois histories, the five Haudenosaunee nations fought constant wars between them. Many of these were mourning wars. One village would attack another, that village would retaliate in vengeance, prompting the first village to mount a vengeful raid killing warriors from the second village, which responded with another raid…you can see how this would become an unbreakable cycle of vengeance.

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