Religion among the Iroquois tribe Essay


Religion is one of the most important aspects that make up the culture of a certain people. Religion guides the behavior of the people within the culture. This is an essay about the religion of the Indian Iroquois tribe. It covers believes of the Iroquois on the Great Spirit.

Religion among the Iroquois tribe


            The religion of the Iroquois tribe is referred to as the ‘new religion’ and it is based on the calling of one man. About the year 1800 a new religion was introduced among the Six Nations of the Iroquois, the exponent of which alleged to have received a revelation from the Great Spirit, with a commission to preach to them the new doctrine in which he was instructed. Before then, the tribe had a religion, but did not acknowledge the presence of the Great Spirit. The essay is aimed to prove that the Iroquois reference the Great Spirit, and to find out why they do so.

Introduction of the religion to the Iroquois

The revelation on the new religion was received in circumstances so remarkable and the precepts the exponent sought to inculcate contained in themselves such evidences of wisdom and beneficence to the Great Spirit to become their religious teacher. The new religion, as it is has ever since been called, embodied all the precepts of the ancient faith, recognized the ancient mode of worship giving it a new sanction of the Great Spirit and also comprehend such new doctrines as came in aptly, to lengthen out and enlarge the original system without impairing it. Changes of imposture and deception were at first preferred against the first person to talk of the religion, but disbelief of his divine mission gradually subsided, until at the time of his death the whole unchristianized portion of the Six Nations had become first believers in the new religion, which to the present day has continued to some extent as a prevailing faith. (Pritzker 2000)

The religion holds that the person who was destined to obtain such a spiritual sway over the descendants of the ancient Iroquois was Ga-ne-o-di-yo, or “Handsomelake”. He is said to have possessed superior talents, and was animated by sincere and ardent desire for the welfare of his race. Iroquois follow the religion that was introduced by Handsomelake. At this period and for about a century preceding, the prevailing habit of intemperance among the Iroquois as the fruitful source of their domestic trouble, this in connection with their political disasters seemed to threaten the speedy extinction of their race. Temperance, universal and radical, was the main and ultimate object of the mission which he assumed, and upon which he chiefly used his influence and eloquence through the remainder of his life. To secure a more speedy reception of his admonitions, he clothed them with divine sanction, to strengthen their moral principles, he enforced a new the precepts of the ancient faith; and to insure obedience to his teachings he held over the wicked the terrors of external punishment.

 Handsomelake moved from village to village among several nations of the league, with the exception of the Christianized Oneidas and Tuscaroras, continuing his visits from year to year, preaching the new doctrine with remarkable effect. Many abandoned their dissolute habits and became sober moral men; discord and contentions gave place to harmony and order. The origin of this project has at times been ascribed as a means to increase his influence, but this is not only improbable but is expressly denied. The motives by which Handsomelake claimed to be actuated were entirely of a religious and benevolent character, and in pursuance of the injunctions of his spiritual guides. (Johnson 2004)

 Handsomelake and the Great Spirit

At the time of his supernatural visitation, about the year 1800, Handsomelake resided at the village of Corn-planter, on the Alleghany River in the state of Pennsylvania. As he explained the case to his followers, having been sick for a long time, he had given up all hope of recovery and resigned himself to die. Then in the hourly expectation of death, three spiritual beings, in the form of men, sent by the Great spirit appeared before him, each carrying in his hand a shrub bearing different kinds of berries, which having been given to him to eat, he was by their miraculous virtue immediately restored to health. They afterward revealed to him the will of the Great Spirit upon a variety of subjects, and in particularly in relation to the prevailing intemperance, commissioning him to promulgate these doctrines among the league, causing him to see realities of the evil minded, and to see for himself the punishment inflicted upon the wicked, that he might with more propriety warn his people of the impending destiny. He was also permitted to see the realm and felicities of the heavenly residence of the virtuous. With his mind thus prepared, and stored with divine precepts, and with his zeal enkindled by the dignity of his mission, Handsomelake at once commenced his work of teaching. (Johnson 2004)

Upon his death, Sase-ha-wa, (Johnson) of Tonawanda, was appointed his successor. At the condolence and religious councils of the Iroquois, which are still held at intervals of a few years, among the scattered descendants of the Long House, it has been customary to set apart portions of two or three days to listen to a disclosure from Johnson upon the new religion. On these occasions, he explained minutely the circumstances, word for word, which he had been accustomed to give during his own administration. Handsomelake professed to repeat the messages which were given to him from time to time by the celestial visitations, with whom he alleged to be in frequent communication and whom he addressed as his spiritual guardian, thus enforcing his precepts as the direct command of the Great Spirit. These teachings are listened to by the followers of the religion in special meetings held once in a while.

Iroquois religious ceremonies

The Iroquois believe that Heno (Thunder) and his assistants are assigned the duty of watching over the earth and all its produces for their good by the Great Spirit. They organize the great Feather and the Thanksgiving ceremonies to thank the Ruler and Maker of all things occasionally. This was also done by their fore fathers, and has been passed on from one generation to another. During the performance of these ceremonies, they are also required to give tobacco smoke to their forefathers. Tobacco is recognized among them as a holy shrub, and is normally used in many religious ceremonies. They also thank the earth, to whom they refer as their mother; they believe they are related to the earth. The tribe also gives thanks to life itself. These ceremonies must be performed during the day when the sun is bright, and should not be prolonged until it is dark. During the cold season, the leaders announce to the people that it is the beginning of the hunting season, and that the people are free to amuse themselves. On the fifth day of the new moon Nis-go-wuk-na (about February 1st); they are required to commence the annual jubilee of thanksgiving to their creator. At this festival, every person can give evidence of their devotion to the will of the Great Spirit by participating in all of its ceremonies. (Johnson 2004)

Religious believes of the Iroquois

At their councils and religious festivals, it is customary for the chiefs and keepers of the faith to express their confidence in the new religion and to exhort others to strengthen their beliefs. The Indian religious leaders always remind them to observe the operations of nature. They also remind them of the source and beginning of their religion. Iroquois believe that the year is divided into seasons, and every season has its fruits. The birds of the air, though coated in similar feathers, are divided into many classes, and one class is never seen to associate or intermingle with any except those of its own kind.  They acknowledge that each and every class of species was created by the Great Spirit, and that this rule also applies to every human being in the universe. (Pritzker 2000) They believe that the human race was created and divided into different human classes, which were placed separate from each other, having different customs, manners, laws, and religions.

To the Iroquois, it seems that no more religion had originally been than was to be found in the operations of nature, which taught them that there was a supreme being, all powerful and all wise; and on this account, as well as on a account of his great goodness, they learned to love and reverence him. The Iroquois also believe that later on, when the “restless and ambitious spirit of the white-skinned race” crossed their boundaries and made inroads, the Great Spirit was angry, and became determined to reveal his will to the Indians through his servant, Handsomelake. The substance of that will was no more than to confirm their ancient belief that they were entitled to a different religion- a religion adapted to their customs, manners and ways of thinking. The tribe believes that the Great Spirit protects them from evil influences, and hence the reference him. They also believe that the Great Spirit looked down from heaven upon the suffering and the wanderings of the ‘red children’. He saw that they had greatly decreased and degenerated. For this reason, he raised up a sacred inspiration, Handsomelake, who, having traveled among them for sixteen years, was called from his work to enjoy eternal felicity with the Great Spirit in heaven.

The tribe believes in the spirit of medicine. They say that it watches over them constantly and assists them whenever necessity requires. It is said that the Great Spirit decided that one man among them should possess the skill of medicine, and therefore gave him powers to heal. However, the spirit becomes angry when he sees the medicine man making charges for attending to the sick with his gift. The religion believes that their creator gave them tobacco, a plant that must be used in administering medicine. Therefore, when a sick person recovers, he should return his thanks to the Great Spirit by means of tobacco, because it is by his power that he heals. The Great Spirit blesses the medicine, and the medicine man must receive as a reward whatever the healed person gives for after recovery. It is also believed that just being grateful is enough reward to the creator. (Pritzker 2000)

            Sharing is emphasized within the religion because it is believed that the creator made men dependent upon each other. For this reason, it is believed that whenever a person receives visitors, they must be given food, even if the visitor is the next door neighbor. The neighbor must then eat the food and thank whoever gave it to him. Stealing is also forbidden. If a person needs anything, he should say so that he can be helped. The parents are given instruction to teach their children not to take what does not belong to them. Another religious belief among the people is that young people should always be kind to the old. It is required that the old be respected and referenced because they have seen much and felt the pain of life on earth. The will of the Great Spirit is that they be nursed and be taken care of as they are old and helpless. (Johnson 2004)

Their religious culture also takes in to importance their “red” faces. They say the creator made them a race, separate and distinct from the “pale” faces. It is therefore a great sin among them to intermarry and mingle the blood of the two races. Furthermore, it is a sin to mourn for a dead person for more than ten days. Mourning for a long time causes the death of children. The dead are respected, and only good deeds are spoken of them. The faithful should obey the commands of the great spirit and repent whenever they go wrong, as failure to do so would make the creator to lose his forbearance and patience, and cause their increase to cease. (Pritzker 2000)

            The writings of the religion read that a time will come when the sun will stop shining, and the moon will no longer appear. The earth will then be covered with total darkness. The springs and rivers will no longer run and a great smoke will rise and spread over all the earth. All monsters, poisonous animals and every wicked person will perish together. However, before this dreadful time, the Great Spirit will have taken home to himself all the good people and the faithful. They will die first, but will later on rise and go home with the creator. The followers of the religion are urged to remember and understand the fate which awaits the earth, the unbelieving and the unfaithful. (Johnson 2004)


            The essay has met the thesis set, that the Iroquois hold a high place for the Great Spirit. He is their creator and the source of life for every Iroquoian. It is for this reason that they praise and reference him. The tribe has tried to pass the religion to the young generation to ensure the continuity of their culture.


1)      Johnson E. (2004). Legends, Traditions and Laws of the Iroquois Or Six Nations and History of the Tuscarora Indians. New York: Kessinger Publishing.

2)      Pritzker B. (2000) A Native American encyclopedia: history, culture, and peoples. California: Oxford University Press US