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Ritual & Ceremony
The Jesuits had very little to say about the passage-related ceremonies of birth, marriage, puberty and death. Apparently the Iroquois were not very involved in rituals involving these transitional periods in life. The only exception was the last, death, where fairly elaborate "condolence" rituals were conducted to ease the grief of the relatives of the departed.

Keep in mind though, that there is considerable reason to believe that Iroquoian rituals underwent a process of elaboration and modification in the 1700's and 1800's due to many outside influences such as western culture, Christianity and Handsome Lake, an Iroquois leader of the Seneca nation who, around the year 1800, taught a new philosophy based on brotherhood and harmony to the Iroquois. His teachings have become central to Iroquois life in the years since and have thus influenced their ceremonial life. Thus, what we know about their rituals may have changed since Och-Toch's time.

The longest and most important ritual was the Mid-Winter Ceremony. It was held in mid-January and apparently was a major relief for people who had been shut up in their longhouses for days. The ceremony lasted 3-5 days. Its major components included: (1) a dream-guessing game; (2) a gambling game which involved two clans playing against each other, taking turns tossing beans or seeds; (3) children going door to door begging for maple sugar candy (trick or treat!). The children impersonated mischievous wood spirits. Most of the "dances" associated with the Mid-Winter ceremony seemed to be mainly for fun.

The remaining Iroquoian ceremonies were "calendrical" ceremonies, which is typical of a primitive agricultural society. They were all fairly short, lasting perhaps several hours. The format was similar to the following:

  • A sachem made a preliminary speech, invoking whichever spirit was being honored and explaining the purpose of the ritual. This was called a Thanksgiving Speech, but was really more than that. (One can visualize Och-Toch as a child, listening to her father addressing the assembled community...)
  • A tobacco blessing (not done in all cases).
  • A ritual dance associated with this particular ceremony.
  • A feast.
  • social dances - for fun.
  • A concluding Thanksgiving speech by the sachem.

The other major calendrical ceremonies were:

  • Maple - when the sap ran.
  • Sun - performed on the first warm day of spring (no relation to the Sun Dance practised by certain Plains tribes).
  • Thunder - performed at the first thunderstorm of spring.
  • Seed planting.
  • Bean harvest.
  • New Corn.
  • Green Corn.
  • Corn Harvest.


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