The People Of The Longhouse

by William N. Fenton Bureau of American Ethnology

Music location


Fierce warriors and able statesmen, the Five Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy were the acknowledged lords of the eastern woodlands of North America. Proud of their position, they loved singing only less than they exalted bravery and respected chiefship as attributes of superior men. Within the upper caste of ongwe'onwe, "men pre-eminently," they included only themselves: the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca tribes, less than 10,000 souls who occupied a dozen villages along the trail leading across central New York from Schenectady to Rochester. When the Europeans arrived, the five tribes had banded themselves into a league of nations which they called "the completed longhouse," likening the member tribes to adjacent fireside families that lived as blood relatives beneath a single, extended roof. Their comniunal household had become a symbol for society.

It was the woman who counted in Iroquois society. An old matron's house sheltered her children and her daughter's children, as well as those who had married in to form the joint household; but the children of the matron's sons belonged to the families of their wives' mothers. The matron and the earth were "mothers"; women and the crops–maize, beans, and squashes-were sisters, and the women of the household formed a work party that labored at planting, hoeing, and harvesting and wood gathering under the supervision of the matron. Therefore, to woman belonged the land, the village, the house and its furniture, and all the fruits of her horticulture and gathering; even the venison which a man brought home was his wife's to distribute.

Men who were hunters and warriors were also the singers. In the village they played at lacrosse or attended councils to ensure the peace or advance a war. Moreover, when at home a man's place was on his bunk. Here he had no especial duties other than mending his gear, and he was always glad to put his work overhead and take down a drum and bag of rattles to entertain his friends with singing. The visitor would relate the latest tale; the host would offer his latest songs.

The singing Iroquois thanked the Creator for life, children, and the growing crops. Going about his work or on the hunt he whistled or sang to himself, and in this way he frequently thought of a new series of songs. However, he did not carelessly sing the songs of his animal familiars, for their singing might bring him ill fortune. Possessed sometimes by supernaturals–animals or gods that appeared to him in dreams and taught him powerful songs with the understanding that he should sponsor feasts for them–he sang the songs which had been entrusted to him and put up a feast lest neglect of his familiars make him ill. He renewed these associations annually, usually at midwinter when people were home from the fall hunt subsisting on stored grain. A good crop which had yielded many strings of white corn to hang from the rafters meant that one's kin and friends were also in town for the winter. Then a propensity for organization which marked Iroquois society came into operation, for there was a chance to celebrate group rituals and form dancing associations of individuals who had had similar religious experiences and therefore had similar obligations. This seems to have been the origin of the Dream Feast or Midwinter Festival.

Moreover the Iroquois boasted his pedigree in song, and he ridiculed the ancestors of his rival. Song gave him courage in war, rhythm for dancing, a tune to hum on the warpath, and power to cure his wounds. Warriors frequently brought home captives. If tortured, captives sang their death songs; but if adopted to replace a lost clansman, as frequently happened, these naturalized Iroquois continued to sing songs from their homeland which sooner or later became current in Iroquois towns and are now in the song bag of their grandchildren. Since the warrior's path led Iroquois warriors far into the southeastern United States, and the Iroquois adopted many, captives from the southeastern tribes, we should naturally expect Iroquois songs to resemble Muskhogean and Siouan songs. We know, for example, that the Striking Dance of the Eagle Society (Side B, 4)) spread to the Iroquois as a variant of the calumet ceremony from tribes living south of the western Great Lakes during the eighteenth century. So also the social dances (Side B, 5) which the Iroquois still love to perform, resemble the "stomp dances" of other eastern tribes now living on reservations in Oklahoma. Although both men and women participate in the dances, it is a striking circumstance that in longhouse society of women farmers and men hunters, where descent and political power pass in the female line, Iroquois men are preeminently the singers.


Iroquois songs are among the earliest annotated music from the Americas. Father Gabriel Sagard who visited Huronia in 1623 attempted to write down the songs that he heard. We recognize them as characteristically Iroquois because then as now a preponderance of nonsense or burden syllables recur in regular meter, and Sagard was perplexed as all Europeans are at first when they discover that Indian song texts largely do not say anything that one can translate into ordinary speech. But if one remembers the tra-la-la or boogey-woogey jargon of his own song styles, then the Indian idiom does not seem so outlandish.

Iroquois music has long merited serious consideration. The children of the longhouse have persisted in singing their old-time songs without much attention from white people, and we must thank the modem generation of Iroquois for their willingness to put them on records. Although several collections of records have been made in the past, the collectors generally have not bothered to take the song texts from the native singers, and this is the first attempt to make the recordings available in album form. Nevertheless, the album is, as it were, a byproduct of an academic study. As early as 1933 when I first went among the Seneca of Allegany Reservation, N. Y., I found the music as much alive as the language, and learning to sing Seneca songs proved much easier and more fun than learning to speak Seneca. I can recommend no better way to master the phonetics of an exotic language than learning to sing with the natives. The Senecas were eager to put their songs on wax cylinders, and at the end of the summer some of their best songs were "taken away in a packing box." Again in 1936, the Salt Creek Singers of Tonawanda made electric recordings on aluminum disks, but these fine records have languished in a laboratory awaiting study. A chance to complete existing collections of Iroquois music came in January 1941 when Simeon Gibson (Pl. 3, fig. I) invited me to visit the Six Nations on Grand River, Canada. I accepted, thinking that I could stop on the way home with my old friends, the Senecas of Coldspring longhouse on the Allegheny River in southwestern New York. It was the season of the Midwinter Festival which is the best time for collecting music because this festival marks the new year when in renewing "their societies" individuals go over the whole stock of songs.

The expedition was sponsored jointly by the Library of Congress and the Bureau of American Ethnology. Dr. Harold Spivacke, Chief of the Division of Music of the Library, solved the problem of where to borrow a recording machine by providing sound-recording apparatus and a stock of blanks with the understanding that the original field recordings would go into the Archive of American Folk Song in the Library of Congress. I am indebted to Dr. Spivacke for his continuing interest in our project; and Jerome Wiesner, Chief Engineer, and John Langenegger of the Recording Laboratory, who assembled the equipment and instructed me in its use the afternoon I left for the field, were my companions in labor during many hours of copying the records for transcription and dubbing the good songs onto master copies for the album. In all, 62 double-face records were filled and the song texts were transcribed phonetically at recording and corrected with the Indian singers.

Ohsweken is the hearth of the Six Nations council on Grand River. (pl. 2, fig. I). Arriving there, I set up the recorder in the home of Ike Hill, late storekeeper and horse trainer to the people of the longhouse. My erstwhile interpreter, Simeon Gibson, found the recording machine no more baffling than a machine gun which he had operated effectively in World War 1. He assumed responsibility for operating the generator and rounding up the singers, and he assisted them by singing responses, interjecting cries of supernaturals and devising other appropriate sound effects while I operated the controls and took the texts. Occasionally we moved the machine down the road to George Buck's log house for a particular ceremony for which a private place was better adapted (Pl, 3, fig. 2). And later, while working with Chancey Johnny John at Allegany, we made a recording studio out of the library of the Friends Indian School at Quaker Bridge, N. Y.


A line of brush marks the entrance to a modern Iroquois reservation. From the chimneys of scattered plank and log houses and an occasional farmstead, plumes of smoke rise straight to heaven through the clear upland air. One is reminded of the Medicine Men's Song, "the houses of my grandchildren stretch out in a thin line." Where the houses cluster, a frame or log house that is longer than the others and has a chimney at either end stands on a common which is also the playing field. This is the longhouse or council house of the conservative Iroquois (pl. 2, fig. 2). Hard by stands the public cookhouse. Here the faithful men and women kindle their fires to deliberate public issues, to return thanks for bountiful crops, and to dance for their own enjoyment. At such times the regular singers are men who, like the ancients, have "voices that sound the length of the house, their song carries over the fields, and it echoes from the hills." Particularly is this true at Coldspring, where the hills, great piles of dirt left over by the Creator when he made the world, mount straight up from the Allegheny River. From long habit of glancing up the slopes when hunting deer, the people of Ohii'yo', "beautiful stream," are said by those at Cattaraugus to have upturned eyelashes.

Among the Senecas of Coldspring lives Chancey Johnny John, whom the longhouse people call hau'no'on, "Cold-voice," of the Turtle clan of the Cayuga, (pl. 4, fig. I)- Chancey has been singing the Great Feather Dance at Coldspring longhouse for most of the 50 years since he moved from Cattaraugus. His Seneca father was a great singer before him. No Iroquois singer that I have known has a greater command of the song style of his people. Chancey's knowledge must approach a thousand verses of two score ceremonies and social dances. For some of them he sings several tribal versions. His singing ability is his hold on fame, for he holds no public office at the longhouse, although he makes the best baskets at Coldspring, is an excellent carver of masks, and knows upward of 200 medicinal plants. Rather his life is in the ceremonies, for the longhouse officers court his services, and when he is not mad at them he will sing for them. On some important occasions he fails to appear, as if to put officials at a disadvantage and underscore his own indispensability. Moreover, He-strikes-the-rushes, of Tonawanda, relates that once when he and Chancey were invited to sing Great Feather Dance together at Coldspring he had loaned a new turtle rattle to Chancey for the occasion. "He beat that rattle hard enough to break it, and an old lady said afterward that he was just jealous of my singing ability."

Chancey's musical instruments are made with a care and precision that results from mastery of technique and patient, leisurely handling. Besides turtle rattles, he makes flageolettes, water drums, and gourd rattles; and his horn rattles for singers of Women's Shuffle Dance and Fish Dance are recognized among Iroquois singers by their waisted octagonal handles (pl. 4, fig. 2).

Chancey is a true artist. Although not asocial, he is more interested in his art and himself than in what others think of him, except that his singing remain indispensable to the longhouse people. Rather than thrust himself forward, he patiently waits to be coaxed, and sometimes goes home in a peeve when slighted. But actively engaged in ceremonies, he is sincerely emotional and deeply moved by his own singing and its symbolism within the ritual. More than once I have seen tears course down his cheeks as singing Great Feather Dance or the Dream Song reminded him possibly that his father had sung this many years ago at Midwinter Festivals.

Singing is not all serious with the Iroquois; they also sing for fun. This I discovered was true in 1933 when living among Chancey Johnny John's neighbors at Coldspring, where as in other conservative Iroquois communities the longhouse people, followers of Handsome Lake's teachings, still go about helping each other plant. It was June. On the first Sunday of my visit I was told that a group of men and women who passed on the road carrying hoes were members of a mutual aid society en route to hoe an old lady's garden. That evening we stopped at Sarah Armstrong's because they were singing inside. At the back of the house, six men sat facing each other in two rows of chairs. One, who held the drum, sang a verse and the others kept time by bumping their heels and beating cow horn rattles in the palms of their left hands. Then they repeated the song together, vibrating their rattles double time with the drum, and simultaneously maintaining the slower, measured tempo with their heels. Youngsters sat on a nearby bench, hands clasped between knees, gently moving their heels and humming; they were learning the song and attempting to master the difficult rhythm.

My companion said, "This is en'si'da'ganye' oenon', 'the women shuffle their feet song'; the songs belong to the Women's Dance (Side B, 6). The men like to sing them. They are a society who meet to help each other, and when they have finished working they sing for pleasure."

Presently a speaker arose. He thanked the men and women who had helped Sarah Armstrong, our hostess. In return, he announced, she had set down a full kettle of hulled corn soup for the society. The speaker asked the men to assemble next week to cut brush in the tribal cemetery. Finishing in the cemetery, they were to go in a body and put roofing paper on an old woman's house. Meanwhile the women served the singers first with bowls of corn soup which Sarah ladled out of the kettle. Then Sarah passed me a brimming bowl of soup, a spoon, and a salt shaker, saying, "His face is white, but maybe he likes soup. Perhaps later on he may learn to sing." The leader soon gathered the cow horn rattles and the drum and put them in a hand basket. At the door he paused to say to me, "We are all glad that you came. You are welcome to sit with us. We will let you know where we meet next Tuesday." At midnight I walked down the road; I had found the Seneca as described–a charitable people. High in the north the Indian hunter and his dogs chased the great bear on its diurnal round of Polaris. My Seneca companion lit a match to check the time with his railroad watch as the Erie limited sped through the valley, leaving only its whistle to die on the hills like the whoop of a passing war party. My Indian friend was thinking of his morning job on the section: the songs of his ancestors were still ringing in my ears.1

A mutual aid and singing society has ordinarily affiliated societies of singers on other Iroquois reservations. At the annual Six Nations meetings of Handsome Lake's followers the societies meet to exchange new groups of songs which members have composed during the year. Therefore when I visited Tonawanda a year or so later an entree had already been prepared for me among the affiliates of the Coldspring Singers. There were in 1935 two societies that met "down below" near the Tonawanda longhouse, and I was invited to join "The Salt Creek Mutual Aid and Singing Society" (gajikhedon' adanide'onshe') which had recently been formed. Their number included some principal chiefs of the reservation and such notable figures as Jesse Cornplanter, the Seneca author and artist, and it was in these meetings that I first heard Joshua "Billy" Buck, who later recorded for me at Ohsweken, Canada (pl. 5, fig. 2). Billy was currently living at home with his mother, a Tonawanda Seneca, who had
gotten him years ago while on a visit to the Six Nations of Canada. Joshua Buck, his father, was a famous Onondaga chief, and in years of migrating back and forth to visit both families Billy, a natural singer, has picked up the songs of both communities.

It was my good fortune to find Billy visiting his half brother George when I arrived at Six Nations with a recording machine (pl. 3, fig. 2). The brothers Buck had been singing mates for years, and George, whose voice is peculiarly adapted for recording, was at his best with Billy's support. Together they recorded George's most recent songs for the Women's Shuffle Dance (Side B, 6), typical examples of groups composed by modern singing society members; and the Iroquois War Dance and Scalp Dance (Record IV A), which have long since become standard repertoire of the Indian Medicine Show, carry the listener back to the War of 1812. With little support George Buck carries both parts of Corn Song for which the responses are usually sung by a long column of dancers (Side B, 1). Billy Buck with the help of Simeon Gibson swings the listener into the short step of Warrior's Stomp Dance (Side B , 5) just as he has led off hundreds of social dances, and he ends on a humorous note that Ohsweken is full of good-looking unmarried women. However, before the latter began to occupy his whole attention, Billy Buck and Simeon Gibson collaborated in recording the sound effects of a complete ceremony for the False-faces, those awesome yet ridiculous supernaturals of Iroquois dream life, which are impersonated by men wearing wooden masks that are credited with great healing power (Side A, 8.3).

Not every Indian is a chief, but Joseph Logan as Tadodo'ho' is principal chief of the Onondaga nation and as such was the "hook" or executive officer of the grand council of the Six Nations Confederacy on Grand River until the system of life chiefs was abolished in 1924 (pl. 3, fig. I) - Nevertheless, he has continued as speaker for his side of the Onondaga nation at the ceremonies in Onondaga longhouse. My project to record Onondaga songs received an enormous boost when Chief Logan commended me to his people who had assembled in their longhouse to celebrate the last day of the Midwinter Festival. I had known Chief Logan several years since we first met at Tonawanda where he had come to attend a Six Nations Meetings, and twice I had eaten corn bread at Chief Logan's house where I had accompanied a messenger from the Tonawanda council to the Six Nations in Canada. Chief Logan is a powerful speaker with a splendid voice. The Iroquois respect him as a great athlete who at an early age was appointed to occupy a position of responsibility in the government of his people. Before the old men had all gone the long trail, young Logan conscientiously learned from them the lore of the longhouse, and it is this thorough knowledge of his people's ceremonies and ritual chants that make his recordings of the Creator's song at the White Dog Sacrifice (Side A, 3), the Medicine Men's celebration (Side A, 7), and Eagle Dance (Side B, 4) unique documents. The first of these is now obsolete since white dogs are no longer sacrificed at midwinter, and although Logan had once recorded hadi'hi"duus for Alexander Goldenweiser, the cylinders are no longer available. Only one who has worked with him through a solid day of recording can appreciate Chief Logan's painstaking effort to put the songs on the record correctly, for in final analysis the ethnologist's materials are only as good as his sources.


A word should be said about the instruments that singers "use to prop up the songs." They are turtle, gourd, and horn rattles, and the water drum. Individuals and stomp dancers sing unaccompanied, but most dances and medicine society rites require metronomes for the dancers to follow.

In Iroquoian cosmology the very earth rests on the back of a snapping turtle, and rattles made from its whole carapace and plastron with the head and neck stretched over a stick inserted to form the handle were described by seventeenth-century explorers who observed the Iroquois. Turtle rattles are still being made and singers consistently employ them to beat out the tempo for the two dances that are characteristically Iroquois–Great Feather Dance and the Dance of the False-faces with whom the turtle rattle is standard equipment. A turtle rattle about 10 inches to a foot long, including the handle, is considered best for singing. The singer sits astride a wooden bench and beats out the measures between his knees, striking the board on which he sits with the edge of the turtle's shell. It takes a good singer to raise his voice above the din.

Gourds are still raised among the Six Nations for containers and especially to make rattles for "pumpkin shakes," as meetings of the Medicine Men's fraternity are colloquially called. A summer squash will do almost as well.

The horn rattle and the water drum are the instruments for social dances. The head singer is the drummer, and although his present drum may be a cut-down paint keg with a head from an old shoe top, or even a bell jar with a rubber head from a discarded inner tube, the original drums were pots or wooden vessels burned out of tree knots and the head was of woodchuck skin. The drums for the Feast for the Dead are relatively large, but social dance drums are a convenient size to hold in the left hand, about 41 inches in diameter at the base; Seneca drums are somewhat larger across the head, but in Canada among the Six Nations the head is stretched over the smaller end. The pitch of the drum is raised by tightening the head, and this is accomplished by driving down the hoop. But there is a plug in the side of the drum where water is inserted, about a mouthful a day, and the plug must be removed first to prevent bursting the head. When not in use the drum should be kept in an inverted position to keep the head wet. Blowing a mouthful of water into the drum every day will insure a uniform water table and accurate pitch, for if the drum should dry out the staves of the modern keg drums will collapse. Seneca drum sticks are usually the length of the extended thumb plus the width of the hand and one or two fingers more–8 to 10 inches over all. Frequently they are cut from white ash, and sometimes pine. One type has opposite grips for thumb and forefinger and a second type has a slight extension or fluke, as on the handle of barbers' scissors, to serve as a lever or the little finger when rolling a fast rhythm. There is almost as great a variety of drum sticks as there are individual preferences among singers. Occasionally drum sticks have ornately carved animal or geometric forms on the handles, and some carvers whittle a wooden ball which gyrates in a slot, setting up an echo beat.

The horn rattles which the drummer's helpers shake are a section of steer's horn mounted on a stick by pegging the horn to two flanged wooden heads through which the handle passes. A few lead shot provide the percussion. Although the modern horn rattle may be derived from similar rattles of Buffalo horn which the Iroquois acquired from prairie tribes, contemporary singers consider it a modern invention dating from the introduction of cattle, for traditions say that in olden times the cylinder was of hickory bark containing some chokecherry seeds. It was similarly made and produced about the same sound.

In each community a few men are noted rattle makers, and their instruments are recognized everywhere by Iroquois musicians. In a restricted sense the craftsman's position in society is not unlike that occupied by the old violin makers of Cremona. In Coldspring, Jonas Snow and Chancey Johnny John make instruments. Horn rattles with octagonal-shaped handles derive from Cattaraugus Reservation where Chancey formerly lived: Chancey's rattles have long handles that are waisted near the head, but James Crow of Cattaraugus prefers to make them short and squat with short handles that are waisted at the middle and octagonal in cross section. Horn rattles made at Tonawanda have light heads and long, slender handles that are sometimes double waisted, as they taper and flare from near the middle to a knob at both ends.

Regular singers prefer to use their own musical instruments but they do not always have them. just as in our own society, the group provides for talented artists by furnishing the instruments where they are requested to perform. The longhouse community owns a complete set of drums and rattles which are in the care of one of the longhouse officials. His duty is to see that they are set out for the singers and that the correct instrument is at hand for the particular ceremony. Likewise the leader of the mutual aid and singing society ordinarily has a drum and bag of horn rattles of assorted sizes which he brings to meetings, and these are regarded as somewhat the property of the group. He empties the bag on the floor and the singers pick up the rattles and shake them, trying them for weight and balance and passing them around until each individual has one which suits him. There is usually a dud in the bag which goes to some youngster at the end of the bench, much to everyone's amusement. The Medicine Men's Society also has a bag of assorted gourd rattles which the appointed keeper carries to meetings. When an individual joins the society he is given a rattle and a song of his own which is said to
repose in the rattle that he takes home from meetings and hangs overhead.

1 Journal of a field expedition to the Seneca Indians at Coldspring on the Allegheny River, June to September, 1933 (ms.).