Iroquois: History and the Effect of Christianity

Iroquois have historically been about six nations although before they were five nations and as a result are commonly referred to as the Five Nations. They were initially a confederacy that included Oneidas, Mohawks, Onondagas, Seneca and Oyugas. Tuscarora later became the sixth member. Iroquoian language was spoken both by the Iroquoians and the five nations of the Huron confederacy1

There were several unsuccessful attempts to establish missions among the Iroquois which resulted in losses both in monetary terms and the number of lives lost. Jogues the first Frenchman to enter Iroquois country was captured and killed when he had gone back on his second trip with the aim of establishing a mission. He was in the company of an attendant Lalande.2 Iroquois were hostile to the French because, Champlain had attacked them as allies of the Algonkin. This enmity lasting for about half a century was extended to all of New France. As such the Iroquois mission experienced many attacks with brief periods of peace. In l655 the Mohawks and Onondagas desired peaceful relations with the French; to demonstrate this they spared the life of a priest they had captured. Another priest, Father La Moyne was sent to inspect the situation, upon his good reception the French set about establishing a mission.

This was brief and not very prosperous because due to mistrust the Iroquois rose against the French. The government of New France took another five years to take part in any confrontation with the Iroquois. When they did however, they subdued them and eventually all of the five nations were asking for peace and Jesuit ministrations.3 By 1668 there was a mission in each one of the five tribes.

The success of the missionaries was not very great because of the prevalence of local culture where vices and superstitions were commonplace. In addition most converts had to be moved to other settlements because of the dangers they were exposed to. They were settled at a mission in St. Xavier which was later moved to Sault St. Lois. Here the Iroquois Christians received instruction on church rites and agriculture 4

Jesuit missionization was enhanced to a certain degree by the absorption of the Huron’s by the Iroquois. The Seneca group is reported to have absorbed an estimated 500 Hurons. Most of these Hurons had already been converted paving the way for Jesuit missionization among the Iroquois 5

The Iroquois villages had two groups that waited for the Jesuit missionaries to arrive. Both friends and enemies of the priests had war captives who had met the missionaries earlier. The factions that rose out of contact with the missionaries divided the villages deeply. The traditionalists were more predominant and stronger and caused the Jesuits to withdraw. The divisions however persisted for many years paving the way further for Iroquoian Christianization.6

The Hurons were easier to convert than any other group of Indians due to their reliance on agriculture. This made it easier for them to be available for long hours of instruction. However the Christianized Hurons were a threat to Iroquois commerce hence the constant attacks on Huron territory. The Iroquois needed to expand and the region that the Hurons occupied was their primary target. By reducing or removing Huron influence the Iroquois hoped to cause a diversion of the Ontario trade into their own market. The military campaign they launched against the Hurons led to destruction of Huron confederacy and desolation of all Huron villages. The Jesuits and Hurons had for sometimes continued with the usual chapel services unaware that the Iroquois meant to exterminate them. The town of St. Louis was captured while the Jesuits were ministering to the Huron villagers. Those captured were tortured and killed. These attacks led to the abandoning of missions, with Sainte Marie being one of the strongholds that was abandoned by the Jesuits. The Hurons homeland was left unoccupied as they were scattered all over and absorbed by various tribes including the Seneca. 7

The converted Hurons stayed with the Jesuits; the converts continued to increase while their culture continued to decline due to the disintegration that the Huron confederacy experienced.

The destruction of the Mohawk villages by a 1300 strong French Army in 1666 forced Mohawks to abandon their villages. The French destroyed all the villages and crops and food supplies. The attack contributed greatly to signing of peace treaties between Jesuit missionaries and the Iroquois federation. There Mohawks sustained great losses especially with the cold winter causing a lot of starvation and disease. The nation built other new villages and a Jesuit mission was constructed at Caughnawaga. Many Mohawks became converted at this place. 8 Kateri Takekwitha as among the many converts in the Mohawk valley.

The people were initially opposed to embracing Christianity but had a deep respect and fear for the mysteries of the Christian religion. Most people sent their children to the chapel. When the jugglers fell ill they willingly sought the assistance of the missionary, indicating openness to Christianity. For instance when one of the chief men fell ill and he was about to pass on, he requested that he baptized and also advised his children to accept Christianity.9

The young men received Christianity poorly. Most of them were involved in practices contrary to the Christianity religion, leaving the middle-aged and older men as the only ones with constancy where the Christian Religion was concerned.10

The womenfolk and girls on the other hand, embraced the Christian religion and keenly followed the rules of Christianity. The women were more or less enslaved by their brothers as the brothers could force them to marry whomever the brothers wanted, regardless of whether the man was married or not. However some women so embraced Christianity that they were ready to endure ill treatment to avoid breaking the Christian precepts on marriage.11

Some households where the man and wife were Christians, showed great commitment to the Catholic way of life by punctual attendance of public being prayerful and courageously supporting the Jesuits. They also held discussions about catechism, prayers, and issues of piety and sung hymns to one another. They did this without regard for the derisions of the jugglers and young libertines. 12

Generally, most Iroquois men initially rejected Christianity and were opposed to their families embracing Christianity. For example Tekakwitha’s uncle was greatly opposed to her becoming a Christian due to fear that he would lose her. 13 Other men especially the young simply treated their sisters who had embraced Christianity badly. This attitude among the Iroquoian men however changed with time evidenced by adoption of Christianity in certain households and the seeking out of Jesuit missionaries by the men when they fell ill.

Adoption of Catholic beliefs did not lead to complete erosion of Iroquois religious rituals and culture. For instance, according to Iroquoian tradition, a person could receive several names in a lifetime depending on the life stage or a particular rite of passage he individual had gone through.14

Iroquoian names were also used to revive the social identity of clan members who had passed on. Conversion to Christianity altered but did not completely these naming practices. Every convert would get a Christian name when they got baptized but the names were not supplanted rather they were prefixed to their Indian names; continuing the tradition of giving names after a rite of passage.

In addition, the Iroquois conception of the power of names to revive deceased personalities may have contributed to the Christian Iroquois attempts to emulate as much as possible the virtues of the Saints after whom they were named. For example Tekakwitha’s penitential excesses led to her early death; these excesses were characteristic Catherine of Sienna who she was named after. 15

Volume 1 of the Jesuit relations describes the system of religion that existed among the Iroquois. They had no really definite character of a Deity or a regular way of worshipping but they believed in the existence of a Deity. They had a divinity called Maniton who apparently was the source of evil and was feared greatly.16

Most did not believe that the consequences of sin were punishment in eternal fire because according to them, there was no wood and there were no forests that could maintain a fire for such a long time. With this kind of reasoning, many of them could not at first be convinced of the truth of the gospel.17 However, an ingenious priest overcame their belief by using sulphur which he thrust down on coals in the presence of a large audience of tribal judge and people. When the sulphur caught fire a second time and a third time, the crowd in astonishment began to believe in the possibility of a fire without wood.18 This incident describes how impressionable they were and the importance of physical evidence in explaining some of them doctrines of Christianity. When this was done the Iroquois people became more receptive of Christianity.

Self-mortification and martyrdom are among the characteristics and traditions of the Catholic Church that were adopted by some Iroquois Indians. A good example is illustrated by the death of Tekakwitha from her self-inflictions. It has been theorized that some Christian Indians, in order to prevent death and suffering inflicted by enemies replaced the torture of war-captives with self-torture.19 Cruelty to prisoners of war was a ritual among the Iroquois people. They tortured the prisoners and for those prisoners who bore their suffering bravely without begging for mercy, the Iroquois people would cut out their hearts to be eaten so that they could gain the courage and strength if the valiant man. 20 This is what happened to Father Brebenf, a Jesuit priest who could not leave the Hurons when they had been attacked by the Iroquois people.

The women mainly performed the function of caring for household affairs. They did many things to ensure that all the work was done in the family. They constructed and repaired the houses, fetched water and wood, and prepared the food. Men generally were involved in hunting and war.21 Most of the women were married off as early as 8 years and often it was to a person who had been selected by the girl’s brothers or father. Refusal was punishable by death. With the coming of the missionaries many women after converting to Christianity either escaped to avoid forced marriages or withstood ill treatment until such a time when they could relocate to a settlement. The men since they had so little to do indulged in licentiousness and debauchery while their women worked.

The women are also responsible for tilling the land and sowing. They did this alone leaving the men to participate in singing and dancing. Due to their love of these activities the men initially averse to Christianity while women were more inclined to adopt the religion. The nature of the social and clan relationship in the Iroquois nation was matrilineal. At the time before Jesuit involvement there seemed to be a balance of power between the sexes. Holly, states that around the 19th century there was a shift from the matriarchal society to a patriarchal society. There was also adoption of patriarchal monotheism.22 Earlier, men had not been involved in agriculture but with the change, Iroquois culture came to be characterized by male agriculture. These changes she argues were facilitated by the teachings of early 19th century Seneca prophet, Handsome Lake. The changes resulted in development of women and Holly argues that exogenous influences contributed to this change.23 Some of these exogenous influences can be conjectured to be the influence of Christianity. Christianity generally promotes a patriarchal society with its emphasis on a patriarchal Deity.

The change in women’s role was also evident from the refusal of marriage by most girls after they had converted to Christianity. Most girls were required by tradition to marry as this had some economic advantage to the family and also for the purpose of maintaining the matrilineal society.24 Most girls who embraced Christianity and were potential Saints abandoned all domestic roles that Iroquois girls and women were involved in. for instance Tekawitha, as a girl helped in gathering of firewood, went to work in the cornfields and acquired skills in decorative crafts. Later on, when she had left her village and settled at Kahnawake she looked upon these activities as a ‘great sin’ that required ‘penance’25

The patriarchal implications of Christianity led to some degree of resistance the women in the early stages of introduction of Christianity.26 This is evidenced by converted Indian men asserting that is the women who were the cause of all the misfortunes that the Indians experienced at the time due to their failure to get baptized, to pay and the desire of the women to be independent. The men asserted that the women would have to obey their husbands.27 This could have been a strategy of the men to impose male domination over their women by using Christianity.

This argument is however watered down by the fact that many women embraced Christianity and that even though the Jesuits presented patriarchy, Catholicism also had a lot of female imagery which combined with women Saints gave women power rather than disempowering them. The Jesuit’s admiration of virgins who would not marry led to many women leaving their ascribed role of wife and mother in Iroquois society.

The effect of Christian mission on Iroquois culture cannot be denied as it resulted in adoption of new religious beliefs and changes in the gender roles. Though the Jesuit missionaries’ primary aim was to redeem the people who they regarded as heathen most of the missionaries did not limit their focus to only spiritual salvation. Most priests used a more comprehensive approach where by they included the earthly needs of the Iroquois people and sometimes this included creating separate settlements for the converted Christians so that they could escape the wrath of the traditionalist Iroquois.


Choquette Leslie 2005, review of Greer Allan’s Mohawk Saint: Catherine Tekawitha and the Jesuits, Institut francais, Assumption College. H-France Review Vol. 5 (2005), No. 10

Greer Allan, 2005 Mohawk Saint: Catherine Tekakwitha and the Jesuits. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2005 ISBN 0-19-517487-9. pp 1-4

Holly Marilyn, 2005 Handsome Lakes Teachings: The Shift from Female to Male Agriculture, Agriculture and Human Values, Springer Publishers pp80-94

Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, 1610-1791, vol 1 pp 28-31, pp 231-295. Web.

Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, 1610-1791, vol 65 pp 65-74. Web.

Martyrdom and Christian Missions: French Jesuits in North America.

Shoemaker Nancy 1995 Negotiators of Change: Historical perspectives on Native American Women Routledge ISBN 0415909937 pp51-55

Snow Dean, 1994. The Iroquois 1994 Blackwell Publishing ISBN 1557869383 pp1-3

Warner Henry 1985 American Indians and Christian Missions University of Chicago Press ISBN 0226068129 pp60-64, 91-95


  1. Snow Dean, 1994. The Iroquois 1994 Blackwell Publishing ISBN 1557869383 pp1-3
  2. The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, 1610-1791, vol 1 pp 28-31, pp 231-295
  3. Jesuit Relations, 1610-1791, vol 1 pp 28-30
  4. Jesuit Relations, 1610-1791, vol 1 pp 28-30
  5. Snow, 1994, pp 2-3
  6. Richter DK, 2002 Iroquois versus Iroquois: Jesuit Missions and Christianity in Village Politics, 1642-1682, Ethno history vol 32, no1 pp1-16
  7. Warner Henry 1985 American Indians and Christian Missions
  8. University of Chicago Press ISBN 0226068129 pp60-64, 91-95
  9.  Martyrdom and Christian Missions: French Jesuits in North America
  10. The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, 1610-1791, vol 65 pp. Web.
  11.  Jesuit Relations vol 65 pp 65-70
  12. Jesuit Relations vol 65 pp 65-70
  13. Jesuit Relations vol 65 pp 65-70
  14. Greer Allan, 2005 Mohawk Saint: Catherine Tekakwitha and the Jesuits. Oxford and New York:Oxford University Press, 2005 ISBN 0-19-517487-9. p. 3
  15.  Choquette Leslie 2005, review of Greer Allan’s Mohawk Saint: Catherine Tekawitha and the Jesuits, Institut francais, Assumption College. H-France Review Vol. 5 (2005), No. 10
  16.  Greer, 2005, pp 4
  17. Jesuit Relations ,vol1,pp 29-30
  18. Jesuit Relations ,vol 1,pp 29-30
  19. Jesuit Relations ,vol 1,pp 29-30. Web.
  20. Jesuit Relations ,vol 1,pp 29-30
  21. Jesuit Relations ,vol 1,pp 231
  22. Holly Marilyn, 2005 Handsome Lakes Teachings: The Shift from Female to Male Agriculture, Agriculture and Human Values, Springer Publishers pp. 80-94
  23. Holly, 2005, pp 80-94
  24. Shoemaker Nancy 1995 Negotiators of Change: Historical perspectives on Native American Women Routledge ISBN 0415909937 pp51-55
  25. Shoemaker, 1995, pp 53
  26. Shoemaker,1995, pp51
  27. Shoemaker,1995, pp51