In mythic times, Tadodaho, a furious Onandaga war chief, was soothed by Hiawatha, the founder of the Great League of Peace and Power. In recognition of Tadodaho’s conversion, the Onondaga played a role in Iroquois politics that outweighed their small population. The Onondaga were firekeepers, who would host and moderate meetings between the major chiefs of the Five Nations.
Clan structure and kinship were extremely important in colonial-era Onondaga society, and the clans themselves were divided into two moieties, or sides, which sat on opposite sides of the fire during diplomatic councils. Within Onondaga villages, as in other Iroquois villages, political life was not exclusively the domain of men. Since women were often in charge of village life while men were away for extended periods, conducting trade, diplomacy, and war, they assumed no small measure of political power in Onondaga villages. Iroquois women also played an important role in the mourning war (a war in which enemy captives were taken to replace dead kin) by determining when it had reached its conclusion.
The onset of European colonization brought significant changes to Onondaga country. Like the other Iroquois nations, the Onondaga allied themselves loosely with the Dutch in an effort to facilitate trade in beaver pelts. It eventually became clear, however, that the French and English would be the major European players in the colonization of the Northeast, and many native communities adjusted their diplomacy to deal with this emerging reality. The Iroquois were particularly adept at playing the English and the French off one another to maintain their autonomy and position as the main native power brokers of the Northeast. The Onondaga were longtime advocates, and perhaps even architects, of Iroquois neutrality, although this did not save them from a devastating attack by the French and their Algonquin-speaking allies in 1690. In a series of councils in 1700, the Onondaga helped craft a workable Iroquois foreign policy, one of which recognized that the Iroquois had become dependent on European goods and could no longer resist either the French or the English. (The end of the so-called Beaver Wars of the seventeenth century did allow the Iroquois to rebuild and regroup.) As the eighteenth century progressed, the carefully constructed Iroquois policy of neutrality became increasingly difficult to maintain. The Onondaga still maintained control of their day-to-day lives, but their external affairs were more firmly in the hands of Euro-Americans. The unfolding of the American War for Independence hammered this point home.
As they had previously, the Onondaga people struggled to main their autonomy and neutrality, although the fighting threatened to tear apart the Six Nations of the Iroquois. American forces, believing that Onondaga were supporting the British war effort, attacked the Onondaga. Such offensive action prefigured a new era in which native peoples could not remain neutral. Following the war, the Onondaga entered into a treaty relationship with the state of New York, which significantly reduced the tribe’s land base to 7,300 acres near Syracuse. Some Onondagas relocated to Ontario. In 1815, the prophet Handsome Lake, who, in the early 1800s, had developed a new religion that many Onondagas continue to practice, died and was buried outside the Onondaga longhouse at Nedrow, New York. The Onondaga in the early twenty-first century have steadfastly maintained that the treaties they signed with New York were not legitimate, thus forming the basis for one of the largest unsettled land claims in the United States. In both Canada and the United States, Onondaga people have continued their role as the fire keepers for the Six Nations Iroquois. Matthew Jennings See also: Iroquois Confederacy; Native American-European Conflict; Native American-European Relations; Native Americans. Bibliography Bradley, James W. Evolution of the Onondaga Iroquois: Accommodating Change, 1500 1655. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1987. Mohawk, John C. “Onondaga.” In Encyclopedia of North American Indians, edited by Frederick E. Hoxie, 443 44. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996. Richter, Daniel K. The Ordeal of the Longhouse: The Peoples of the Iroquois League in the Era of European Colonization. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.