Oneidas: Way of Life


Agriculture: Corn, Beans & Squash

Planted crops were very important to the Iroquois diet. They were known as “The Three Sisters” as they were also grown together. The women grew many crops. The most important crops were the Three Sisters; corn, beans and squash. The corn was used in many different ways. They had cornmeal, corncakes, soups and puddings. The Iroquois ate many different kinds of beans like kidney and lima beans. They also ate sunflower seeds. The Iroquois enjoyed eating the crops they planted.


Sneak Peek at Oneida Education Series Native Homes.


Hunting & Fishing

Iroquois people hunted deer, rabbit, and bear. They also fished using spears and nets. Snowshoes made winter hunting easier for the Iroquois. They traveled up to 50 miles a day wearing the snowshoes in deep snow. A banner stone was used as a weight to produce thrust when throwing a spear. It is believed to have been a prized possession of the chief of the tribe. A soapstone net sinker, with a complete groove, was used as a weight for either fish nets or a hand line. Arrow points and spear points were carved from flint stone and attached to the shaft for arrows or spears as needed by the men using them.

Gathering Food: Berries, Nuts, Roots, etc.

Berries, nuts, and wild plants were important forms of food. Many of these tribes were considered to be excellent farmers. They had berries, such as wild cherries, strawberries, currents and huckleberries. They also collected many types of nuts. For instance, chestnuts, beechnuts, hickory nuts, butternuts, acorns and black walnuts were eaten by the Iroquois. Also, maple sap was one of the few sweeteners that the Indians had. The sap was collected from maple trees in the forest the maple sap was used for making maple sugar to put in breads. They also boiled the sap and made syrup and even made a type of snow cone candy treat for the children. A very important part of the forest was the plants used for medicine. The medicines were used to cure sicknesses that could cause deaths. Foods from the forest were an important part of the Iroquois diet.

Goods and Trading

Oneida’s practice slash-burn horticulture, and had a very complex trade network with other native groups. Clay pipes were an important trade piece that stretched along the east coast Native Americans. During the fur trade era, the Iroquois people were very hostile to their neighboring tribes in order to shield and develop their middleman position. Though, others believe their belligerence came from the scarcity of furs in their own territory, making it difficult to obtain European trade goods. Iroquois hostile relations were to obtain the trade goods of their neighbors who were in closer contact with Europeans. After fur trading dealings had moved farther west, the Iroquois continued to take part in an important role as explorers and trappers.


Building Structures: Longhouses

The average longhouse was about three hundred feet long by fifty to sixty feet wide by 30 feet tall. They were some times taller than that so they could hang their canoes up above them. There were several families that lived in one longhouse.  One could tell by the number of smoke holes in the roof.  Normally, there would be one family on each side of the smoke hole.  The longhouse housed one clan.  So, Oneida would have up to nine longhouses. One longhouse for each of the different clans and their sub clans. There would be one longhouse for ceremonies and the exterior would be made from elmbark and mud moss. The interior structure was made from maple tree saplings. There would be layers of mud moss and then a layer of bark. The longhouse would stay a comfortable 70-75 degrees year round. There was always a symbol above the door that told the people which clan resided in that longhouse.  There was always something to eat and a fire burning in each longhouse. If there were hungry kids they would be fed right away for food was normally rationed.  Any visitors that would stop by were given a bowl of food and were sat down by the fire to warm up. The longhouses were a home not only for a family, but a home for a community.

Making Dyes

The Iroquois Indians used various plants to create dyes to dye fibers, quills, and other items used to decorate their clothing and household goods. Yellow dye was made from, Sunflower, Gold thread, Cone flower petals with decayed oak bark or cattail root, black willow roots, fox moss, yellow or curled dock root, cottonwood, lichen, Oregon grape, and Osage orange wood. Red dye was made with, Choke cherry or wild plum, tamarack bark, spruce cones, sumac berries, alder, and hemlock inner bark; poke berry, bloodroot, sassafras, red bedstraw, buffalo-berry, squaw current, red osier dogwood, red cedar. Black dye was made with, wild grape maples, burr oak, elderberries, hazel nut bark combined with powdered brown stone. Brown dye was made with hickory or walnuts gathered green and turned black, and rushes. Purple dye was made from blueberries, blackberries, elderberries, Northern dog whelk, and white maple. Blue dye Larkspur, beech, wire birch, and indigo. Green dyes was made from prince’s pine, moosewood, evergreen, copper mixed with ammonia (urine).

Preserving Foods & Hides

Storage pits were dug inside the longhouse and used to store food. When a pit was used for storing food, it is thought that it was lined with bark and grass and covered with bark mats for lids.

Pottery is a very important aspect in the Iroquoian culture. They used to make pottery to hold food and water and they made them thick and strong enough to cook food or boil water for soup. They also made the pottery strong enough to be buried in the ground for short and long periods of time. Pots were used to carry water from the lakes, rivers, and streams. They were used as storage devices for food or anything you would want put away for safekeeping. Pots were also given to people as gifts for celebrations like the birth of a child or for a wedding gift. Today we still have pottery artists who make their pots as decoration for there homes. Some potters sell their pottery or give it away to friends or family in the community. To this day, pottery is a form of artwork and a large aspect of Iroquoian culture.

Black Ash Baskets like pottery were a major aspect in the Iroquois culture. Baskets were used to carry anything from fruits and berries to dried corn and even water some times. The baskets are made from black ash trees. These trees are used because they were the easiest to shape and mold when they were wet. The way you would get the splints for the baskets was a long process. First you would let a log soak up water for a few days. Then you would take a hatchet or a mallet and hammer the side of the log so the bark fell off. After that you would peel strips of wood and get your splints. They would keep the splints wet so they could keep the basket in a shape that they wanted. Baskets were sometimes used as gift-wrap. People would place a gift in the basket and pass it on to a person. Then that person would use it as a gift-wrap and pass it along. Some times the same basket would be used all of the time. Other times people would keep it to show they appreciate the time that person took in making the basket. Most basketry today is for decoration and show. The baskets I see around are usually being sold by vendors or are still being handed out as gifts. Iroquois basketry is a major aspect of their art and culture.


Oral Traditional Stories

Corn Husk Dolls are made from the husks of the corn ear. These dolls were made to entertain the children while their parents did their duties in the village. After the doll is made, there is no face put on it. There is a story of why there are no faces on the dolls. A long time ago the children in the village were distracting the parents and saying that they had nothing to do. The Creator noticed how much they were bothering the parents. So he sent down a young girl and told the people that she is the one who will play with the children while the parents did their duties. The young girl was responsible for taking the kids to play and stay out of the way of their parents. One hot summer day the kids wanted to go to the lake to play in the water and cool off. The young girl said okay and followed the children to the lake. She was a little hesitant of the water and had never had to go into it before. A couple of the kids went to the other side of the lake and they told her to come and get them. At that moment she looked down into the water and seen her reflection for the first time. She seen how beautiful she was. The children kept yelling to her to come and get them and she just ignored them and stared at her reflection all day.

Later that day after sitting by the lake staring at herself all day, she noticed all the children had gone back to the village. She hurried back and seen some of the children crying. The parents were angry and disappointed that the young girl neglected her duties. She apologized and asked for another chance. The parents agreed and said they would give her another chance. The Creator heard of what happened and came to her in her dream explaining to her what her responsibilities are. He scolded her and warned her not to do it again.

The next day it was hot again. All the children wanted to go back to the lake again. She took them and sat at the top of the hill where she could se them all. After a while she thought the children were okay, so she went down to the lake. She sat on the bank and looked over at her reflection. Again in amazement she stared at herself all day. The children wanted to leave but this time she didn’t let them go. She made them stay with her so she wouldn’t get in trouble again. They were there for a long time. The children were getting tired and hungry. After she noticed the sun was starting to set, they all went back to the village. When they all returned the kids all looked sick from hunger. The parents asked the children why they didn’t come back earlier. They all told their parents that the young girl wouldn’t let them leave because she was staring at her reflection in the water. The parents were really angry with her this time.

That night the Creator came to her in her dream and told her she ruined her second chance and now she had to come back to the Creator’s land. So that night the Creator sent down the Owl to take her face away. The next morning the young girl woke up early and went to the lake without the kids. When she got to the lake and looked into the water she seen that her face was gone. She started to cry and asked the Creator why he would give her such beauty and then just take it away. He told her that her beauty had nothing to do with her responsibilities. So as she sat there by the lake the creator turned her into a cornhusk doll and when the children came to the lake they found her and brought her back to the village. To this day the cornhusk dolls do not have faces. They say that if you put a face on a cornhusk doll that the Creator would send the Owl to take its face away. Today, cornhusk dolls are made for decoration. Although the dolls are only for decoration, they still have no faces.

Traditional Clothing

Their clothing was made mostly from hides of animals. In the winter, the men wore shirts, leggings, and moccasins made of buckskin. Buckskin is clothing made from the skins of animals, mainly deer. The woman wore skirts they had woven from the wild grasses, covered with furs, with leggings underneath. In the summer, the men wore a breechcloth, a short piece of buckskin that hung from the front to the back of the person. The woman wore their grass dresses, and the children wore nothing at all. A bone awl was the Indian woman’s needle for sewing clothing and pulling strands apart when weaving.

Traditional Games

The sacred bowl game was played the last day of the “Ceremonial of Midwinter” which marked the end of the year. The bowl wooden bowl was decorated with four clan symbols- the bear, wolf, turtle, and deer. To play the game a player placed the six nuts which were colored on one side inside the bowl and hit the bowl against the ground. If five of the six pits turned up the same color, the player scored and took another turn. The first player to reach 10 points wins the game. The Iroquois enjoyed playing games to improve their strength and agility. A game played in the winter by the Iroquois was called snowsnake. They started out by digging a path or grove in the snow and sprinkling it with water which made a smooth surface. Then they made a long wooden stick and slid it across the path dug in the snow. The person who slid the snowsnake the farthest won. A game often played in the summer was called darts. The game started out with two teams. Each player within the two teams had six darts or spears. Each team had a hoop rolled in front of them. The players then had to try to throw the darts though the hoop. The team with the best accuracy won. Iroquois games were very important in their every day lives because they learned skills that helped them in their adult lives. The Iroquois played many sports and games, but lacrosse was their favorite. They did not have much equipment. They had a stick with a net at one end, a ball made out of wood or animal skin, a goal post at each end on the field and no other protective equipment. The purpose of the game was to pass the ball around and try to score goals. Whoever scored the most goals, was the winner. The game was played for fun, but that’s not the only reason. They also played to improve their skills including aim, speed and strength. Lacrosse was played by boys and men mainly. The games sometimes went on for two or three days. One game even ended up in a war. Thanks to the Iroquois, lacrosse is still played today by people of all ages. The Iroquois children had fun playing for entertainment in their spare time. The girls spent most of their time playing with corn husk dolls. These dolls had no face because the Iroquois felt if they did, a spirit would be harmed. The young girls would also play house to strengthen their mothering skills. The boys had fun playing many sports and games. While playing, the Iroquois children learned skills that would help them throughout life.


Pirtle, Pam. “Eastern Woodland Indians Tribes.” Woodland Indian Tribes, 26 Apr. 2006. Web. 13 Jul. 2009,1,Eastern Woodland Indians Tribes