On Iroquois Land

Smithsonian Institution. Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 1901

“Why don’t you write about the Iroquois?” my son Anthony said. His eyes gleamed with enthusiasm. “The people who lived here had a Matriarchal Democracy. Perfect!”

“Good idea,” I said. “It’s embarrassing how little I know.”

Five (later six) Indian nations in the northeastern United States, as far south as Virginia, joined together in the Iroquois Confederacy. (They called themselves Haudenausaunee and the name Iroquois is French.) Clan mothers were powerful in governance and had to approve any war. Peace was highly valued. Young men lived with their wives’ families in clan longhouses, so women stayed connected with their female lineage. I didn’t know much more.

“They worshiped the Three Sisters–Corn, Beans, and Squash,” Anthony said. For dinner, we’d chomped tender ears of local corn and my garden had ample amounts of beans and squash. I was hungry to know more.

I live on what was once Seneca Indian summer hunting grounds. Senecas were part of the Iroquois Confederacy. My deed begins with Elias Jewell in 1824, but this land was part of the Military Tract, huge amounts of conquered land rewarded to Revolutionary War officers, investors, and soldiers in 1781.

The Iroquois didn’t practice private land ownership, but the invaders liked fences and boundaries. During the Revolutionary War, Iroquois had sided with the British, but like other indigenous people in the Americas, the invaders would have found any excuse to take the land.

Seneca Lake

In 2005, my husband and I signed a conservation easement with the Finger Lakes Land Trust to protect the forest, fields. and water. Mike DeMunn, the conservation forester who watches over the healthy oak and hickory trees, is the grandson of a Seneca Indian clan mother. He taught me the Iroquois name for Seneca Lake, a prayer and blessing.

Ga nun da sa ga  Te car ne o di

Mike’s grandmother said the lake loves hearing her true name, roughly translated as Lake in the Hills. It’s a holy name and reminds me I live on sacred matriarchal land.

As I pushed aside crumpled brown leaves and picked the last greens from my garden, I remembered who lived here. When I picked abundant beans and harvested the second planting of zucchini, I remembered. As I crunched local corn, I reminded myself to honor the people who knew plants and animals were divine beings

Iroquois celebrated the Three Sisters in late August when corn ripened. The fall harvest produced squash, nuts, and acorns essential to indigenous diets and forest animals. Deer fattened for hunting season in November.

The translucent Monarch eggs I found on milkweed plants in summer are native here. I like knowing the Iroquois people welcomed Monarchs in June just as I do. Did they have a Monarch goddess? I haven’t discovered one, but I wonder.

Ah-Weh-Eyu, 1908, https://www.vintag.es/2018/06/ah-weh-eyu.html

Iroquois clan mother (https://iroquois6gle.weebly.com/clan-mothers.html)

An Iroquois wise man called The Peacemaker established the confederacy as early as 1140 AD. Although the exact date is unknown, the culture was matriarchal before the confederacy was formed. In 1784-94, after the Revolutionary War and less than 250 years ago, the Iroquois Nation was forced to cede their land to the European conquerors and were left with small reservations and decimated cultures.

It’s hard to find detailed information or photos of the clan mothers who were essential to the Iroquois culture. As is often the case, more is known about the history of wars and warriors than about the peacemakers.

The carnage went on for centuries and continues still.

I live on beautiful, stolen, blood-soaked land.


Do you know the history of the place where you live? I have a deed from 1824, but the history before that is obscure, so it’s thrilling to learn more and find vintage photos of the Iroquois people.

For a post about a sacred ritual circumambulation of Seneca Lake led by the Ojibwe water protector Sharon Day, see The Copper Vessel: A Prayer Walk for a Gas Free Seneca. For a post about learning the sacred name of Seneca Lake and using it as a mantra and blessing, see Angry Faces, Placid Water.


  1. This was such a beautiful post. Thank you for it.

  2. Joslyn Mathilda Gage was a suffragette and writer who lived in the Finger Lakes and wrote about the influence of the Iroquis on the founding fathers and the Constitutional form of government they created. Her daughter, Maud Gage, married Frank Baum, who wrote the Wizard of Oz. I only recently learned about her daughter from reading a historical novel, Finding Dorothy, by Elizabeth Letts. It’s fascinating history and acknowledging whose land we live on honors those who came before us white folks. Loved reading this, Elaine.

    • Thanks, Jill. There was so much I could have said (and so much I don’t know) about the short time the Iroquois were honored for their democratic government by British settlers. I want to learn more about the matriarchal aspect of their government and only found a few things. Matriarchy is seldom honored. I’ll look for more information and it sounds like I should begin with Joselyn Mathilda Gage. It’s fascinating history of this place where my roots have burrowed deep. My son’s friends know where to find Indian artifacts, arrowheads and other signs of early villages. I know so little, but after Vic’s death, as I walked under the old trees, I widened my perspective by imagining all the grief and resurrection those giant oaks and hickories had witnessed.

  3. Lovely, Elaine. I live on Abenaki land here in Vermont and have long been curious about their story and culture. You have motivated me to inquire. Thank you. .

    • I know so little, Janet, and there’s so much to know. The Abenaki were part of the Algonquin tribes (I just googled). When the Dalai Lama came to the US for the first time in 1979, he wanted to meet the indigenous people in this area. I wasn’t there for the meeting with tribal chiefs at the Onondaga (an Iroquois group) reservation, but my husband who was there said on the ride back to Seneca Lake, the Dalai Lama seemed most impressed by how the children on the Onondaga Reservation (another Iroquois group) look just like Tibetan children. They certainly do.

  4. Thanks Elaine,

    An interesting article . It emphasises the way that dominant Nationalistic myths ignore the richness of the cultures which have been devastated and subdued . It sounds as though where you live is a very special and evocative place which is being treated with the respect it deserves .The battle between mono cultures and diversity seems to be at the heart of so many issues. Best Wishes

    • It was interesting to write this, Gary. The Iroquois impressed the European settlers with their democratic system, but after the Revolutionary War, Iroquois land was taken and they were exiled into reservations. Humans (our government being a modern example) show little or no respect for cultures or lives once the land and resource struggles begin. I’m glad I can honor my land which borders the small Finger Lakes National Forest. I have so much to learn. Thanks for commenting and reflecting.

  5. Oh, how my heart fluttered when I read the Iroquois name for Seneca Lake! And how those living waters delight in hearing their true name being called across them. Re Monarchs, I’m pretty sure that the Iroquois would’ve had many a Butterfly Goddess and dance celebrated within their wonderful, rich story-telling traditions. Re photos, I love seeing those vintage photos! And I have to say that I stopped in my tracks when I read the truth in your words as you described the land you live on, “I live on beautiful, stolen, blood-soaked land.” Wow! Such beautiful, poetic writing Elaine!

    Myself, I live on the doorstep on a beautiful countryside park with ancient woodlands and a river meandering through so as luck would have it Mother Nature, in her abundance, is only a hop, skip and jump away from my front door! I don’t know the history of the land itself but when my house was built and the surrounding estate, it was the first time the land had been built on because it had a tendency to flood before earth works were carried out prior to construction. In its center during the dark half of the year a huge lake appears and remains there until early spring. Hmm, I need to find out more now! Thanks for the nudge. Warm autumnal blessings, Deborah.

    • I searched for a Monarch Goddess in local Iroquois cultures and also in Michoacan Mexican culture where the Biopreserve for wintering Monarchs is located and didn’t find anything. I was in touch with a few scholars who study pre-Spanish Mexico and everything was wiped out by the invaders with small remnants that became part of local celebrations and the Catholic church. The same is true here. I imagine the return of the Monarchs (soon after the migrating hummingbirds return) was noted and honored. I’ll keep looking.

      I’m glad you live in a beautiful place with nature right out the door. I agree we need to know more. Everything I learn makes me feel more connected. My son in North Carolina has done a little exploring about the slave/tobacco culture of his area and learned some interesting things. He also has old oak trees and stone walls to mark what came before. We’re having a blast of winter air and a small amount of snow (much more a few hundred miles west), but no forest fires, no floods, and nothing catastrophic. The firewood is stacked on the front porch and the woodstove warms me, my canine family, and a friend who’s staying here until her place is ready. (It’s lovely to have a dog lover in the house to help with all the in and out and training. A wonderful synchronicity that she needed a place and I needed a helper and friend (more than I knew). With love in winter friendship. You’ll soon be writing about December. Brrrrr….

  6. Yow, Elaine. This is fascinating to me too. I imagine the land I call “mine” has the same history. I walk it’s gravelly soil and forested areas and wonder about the people and animals that have dwelled here before me. Even though my name is on the deed, I know I can never really own this land. In fact I’m sure it owns me. My heart. I’ve planted pine trees and ponds here and tried to keep it well during my period of stewardship. And it has become more than a home to me. It’s more like a part of my very soul. It sounds crazy and crass maybe. But I ache for this land when I’m away. It’s like I have an inner GPS system that calls me back here, back home.

    • I wonder if you’re on Cayuga Tribal land or Seneca? I don’t feel like an owner either, but a caregiver and steward (with the help of Matt who has worked on the land for about a dozen years). Hunting season begins Saturday, so I won’t be walking far from the house until after Thanksgiving. My land is posted, but I’m close to the national forest border. Vic and I also planted and shaped the land to maintain views and keep some fields in wildflowers for birds and butterflies. Some of the scrub woods that was here when we bought the place in 1972 now needs to be thinned a bit (according to the conservation forester) so the trees are healthy and get enough light. Environmental changes and infestations have devastated many local forests, so I want this place to be as healthy as possible. I understand your sense of being called back to the land. I’m rooted and know the trees by name.

  7. Beautiful, as always, Elaine! Ive been learning more about this history myself. I’m curious why you didn’t reference the Haudenausaunee, the people’s name for themselves. Iroquois was the name the French gave them

    • I wish I’d mentioned the name Haudenausaunee, Cathy, so thank you. I’ll edit the article to add it. My article skims the surface and I didn’t remember to use the real name as I did with Seneca Lake. Thanks for the addition and correction. (It was daring to write about something I’m just exploring a bit. I’m safer writing about Greek mythology or Monarchs which I’ve studied in more depth.) I miss seeing you.

  8. As you know, the three most important mentors in my life story have been women: Grandmother, Mother, Aunt. Through them I saw the feminine face of God.

    Years ago I was part of a trio of women who spearheaded a college-wide federal grant to bring cooperative learning into the classroom. It completely revolutionized my thinking about teaching and learning and acknowledged that instruction can be a shared experience.

    As your post suggests, a matriarchal democracy is an idea whose time has come – again, I hope. I think of strong female leaders: Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher, and others. Actually, in a perfect world, sisters (and brothers) would use their complementary gifts to work together. But that would be the Garden of Eden, I suppose. Once again, you got me thinking here, Elaine!

    • Marian, as I read and reviewed your wonderful book about a Mennonite girlhood, I thought of the matriarchy in which you lived (hidden within a male dominated structure). Thanks for sharing your experience of teaching with other women in a cooperative venture. I’m sure the students benefited greatly. I agree with you that in a perfect world we’d have a balance of female and male power. I’m not sure it can happen, but we move slowly in that direction and can be aware of the possibility in our personal and political worlds. I’m glad I got you thinking.

  9. As the people here would say,”Lim-Limpt” (thank you) for sharing your story and recognizing that the land on which we live once belonged to others.

    • Thank you, Marsha. I need to learn so much more. It’s cold and windy on my hill right now and I understand why people wintered down by the lake. I celebrate your good news and homecoming.

  10. A couple of thoughts… Native American biologist and writer Robin Wall Kimmerer may be able to point you to what you seek. Just googling her I see she is on Facebook. She has great ideas and insights. Also, it’s very, very dated in some ways, but “Another Mother Tongue” by Judy Grahn addresses many ignored, hidden, and outright destroyed historical/herstorical details and clues about all of the things you are touching on and wondering about, and a great many more besides. You’re right, there’s much we don’t know and much that was deliberately hidden from us.

    • Thank you, Joe. I’ve also been directed to the work of Finger Lakes local “Matilda Joslyn Gage, a 19th-century women’s suffragist, a Native American rights activist, an abolitionist, a free thinker, and a prolific author, who was born with a hatred of oppression.” Our local library has her books and I’ll look for what you suggest. I’ve read Robin Kimmerer’s ‘Braiding Sweetgrass,’ but not other books she’s written and hadn’t heard of ‘Another Mother Tongue.’ I have a long winter’s reading list. I appreciate your suggestions.

  11. Dear Elaine,

    Not enough has been written and we need to know this part of our forgotten history. I recently finished a novel that partly deals with the Indian boarding schools. My research left me wanting to know more. Thank you for this wonderful article.
    I live in the KCMO area. Close by is Shawnee Mission KS. There are many streets in the area named for Native Americans. You do make me want to find out even more about the original owners of the land.



    • Thanks for reading and adding to this story, Rochelle. I’ve read a little about the boarding schools, especially about the Cherokee after two visits to the Chiricahua National Monument in Arizona. The old photographs of these defeated people broke my heart and how they were marched to FL (many died, of course) and then the remaining children shipped off to boarding schools. So many native names survive in my area but I know few details about the history. My sons and their friends who went to schools here know more than I do. I moved to this land in 1972 and it’s past time to learn more about the history of the place where I’m rooted. Blessings to you.

  12. Thanks Elaine, it’s important I reckon to know the history of the place we call home. Which once was someone else’s … blood-soaked, stolen, deeded – and to acknowledge that and have double respect for Mother Nature in the ongoing nurturance of it. Rich histories of the land indeed.
    I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a butterfly goddess … in fact Monarch means Ruler does it not?

    • Yes, Monarch means ruler, so you’d think that name would lead somewhere, but I can’t find reliable historical traces before European invasion. I haven’t done the deeper research myself, but have read and talked to researchers. We European invaders did a thorough job of destroying the original cultures here, even the noble Iroquois who were admired before they were displaced. I’m grateful for the trees and lakes that are still here in a few places and have seen it all. I know your country has its own history of colonization and violence. In the US, we like to demonize others without facing what we’ve done and continue to do.

      I love the recent true story about the Onondaga tribe, an Iroquois group about 90 miles from here. When they were granted a return of some tribal land, they asked for a clean up of Onondaga Lake instead. The lake had been heavily polluted by industry so nothing lived there anymore. The lake has since returned to life and has a large population of all kinds of natural life, including Bald Headed Eagles. What a noble request and great outcome!

  13. Elaine, you captured the feelings that I have always had when I visit the region. I grew up in Brooklyn, but have always had a strong connection to the Finger Lakes Region and the Iroquois Nation. Unexplainable! I instantly feel a sense of peace, pride and tranquility the minute I enter the area.
    I am glad to know that I connect with others in reverence for the lakes, the trees, the monarchs, as well as the flora and fauna. My reverence is real and I usually cry when I see one of the waterfalls in your area.
    Please research and write more because today you wrote for me and made me both happy and sad.
    Thank you

    • Thanks for your moving comment, Bobbie. This area is a special place. Today there was an osprey, large and white-chested in the morning sun, perched at the edge of the forest watching over the field. It was quiet a long time and I tried to capture it with a photo, but it was too far away. This afternoon, there was a rainbow arcing on both sides of the sun. This evening, the sunset is ruby red. How did I get so lucky as to witness all this? I fell in love with the sky on this land in 1972. The farmhouse was tar paper with many busted windows and snow coming through the roof but the roof line was straight and my husband convinced me we could save it. I was young. I trusted him. I’m so glad I did because this land brings me to a place of reverence nearly every day.

  14. What a gift you gave your readers, Elaine, by taking on a topic that is not in your usual repertoire. I, too, was delighted by the beauty of the Iroquois name for Seneca Lake: Ga nun da sa ga Te car ne o di I tried looking up a pronunciation for it and couldn’t find one, so I’ll just have to use my imagination as I let these syllables roll off my tongue. It does sound like a prayer and a blessing.

    I live on land where the Upper Skagit once lived and often wonder how to honor those who came before as well as atone for what was done to them. The name of the creek that runs close by, as well as the unpaved road we live on, is Diobsud, and we’re told that it means “where the goats run around.” Indeed, on a hike up Diobsud Buttes a few years ago, we came upon a pair of them.

    This morning I watched a great blue heron fly off from our pond and found myself wondering, just as you wrote, “How did I get so lucky as to witness all this?” Your writing is a reminder that, always, beauty and sorrow are inextricably intertwined.

    • Thanks, Anne. Not in my usual repertoire as I feel my writing focus shift without knowing where it’s going. It feels good to allow new things to show up. I know only one person who can pronounce the Seneca Lake name. The Seneca language is tonal and has different pitch accents which makes it even more challenging. I couldn’t pronounce the name properly (or hear it well) so went with the English phonetics and assumed the Lake Mother would forgive me. It’s great you know the ancient names and got confirmation on a hike. I have to keep remembering to lift my eyes off the dogs or the printed page or the ground to notice what’s in the trees. A friend who’s staying here spotted a large white chested bird on a sunny morning. I assumed it was the belly of a red tailed hawk (they’re often pale), but she identified it as an osprey, and it turns out there are more osprey in the Finger Lakes than in the past. Thank you for the last sentence of your comment. I’m honored.

  15. Nice. Thank you.

  16. My in laws had a cottage on a inland lake and found pottery, broken, from the Indians that had lived in the area. The city of Grand Rapids has Mound Indians that lived here. The whole area has a deep Native American history

    • Thanks for telling me since I went to high school in Michigan and met you there. I know nothing, but look what I found with a quick google search. (So much to learn.) “Around 1700 A.D., people of the Three Fires – the Ottawa (Odawa), Chippewa (Ojibwa) and Potawatomi Indians – established villages in and around what is now Grand Rapids.” An Ojibwa woman, a Water Protector, led the Seneca Lake prayer walks to save the water. Michigan is a land of water.

  17. This is wonderful Elaine! I have a weekend house on the shores of Clearlake where the Pomo tribe made their home not so long ago. They were wiped out by the white settlers from illness, violence, or slavery. It’s a sad story. I often consider those who came before me and how they must loved this land as much as I do. I should research more about their history and practices. I know they wove beautiful baskets from the reeds around the lake, some are preserved in the local museum. Thanks for the lovely glimpse into the lives of those who cared for this land before we came along.

    • Another sad story among so many sad stories in our history. Thanks for remembering the Pomo tribe. I will read a little about them on wikipedia, but I know the California tribes were decimated. A book about Ishi, the last known member of the Native American Yahi people, made a big impression on me many years ago. I’m ashamed to say I’ve never visited the Seneca Indian cultural center which is about an hour and a half from me. It’s not too late to make amends. I’m planning a day trip and also borrowing books from the library so I can put a small dent in my ignorance.

Leave a Reply