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Cayuga Indian Fact Sheet

Native American Facts For Kids was written for young people learning about the Cayuga tribe for school or home-schooling reports. We encourage students and teachers to visit our Cayuga language and culture pages for in-depth information about the tribe, but here are our answers to the questions we are most often asked by children, with Cayuga pictures and links we found suitable for all ages. Photographs are the property of the sources we have credited.

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     Cayuga Tribe

    Cayuga Indian girl             Iroquois dancer

How do you pronounce the word "Cayuga"? What does it mean?
Cayuga is pronounced "kye-OO-gah." It comes from their own name for themselves, Gayogohono, which means "people of the swamp."

Where do the Cayuga Indians live?
The Cayugas are original residents of what is now New York state. Many Cayuga people still live there today, though others were forced to migrate to Wisconsin, Oklahoma, and Ontario, Canada.

Are the Cayuga Iroquois people?

     Iroquois flag
Yes, the Cayuga tribe was one of the original members of the Iroquois Confederacy. The other member nations were the Seneca, Oneida, Onondaga, and Mohawks. Later a sixth tribe, the Tuscarora, joined the confederacy. Today these long-term allies refer to themselves as the Haudenosaunee ("people of the longhouse") or Six Nations.

How is the Cayuga Indian tribe organized?
The Cayuga nation had a tribal council chosen by the Cayuga clan mothers (matriarchs, or female leaders.) But the Cayugas were also subject to the decisions made by the Iroquois Great Council. Ten Cayuga chiefs represented their tribe's interests in the Iroquois Council. This is similar to American states which each have their own government, but are all subject to the US government. In fact, the Iroquois Confederacy was one of the examples of representative democracy used as a model by America's founding fathers.

The Cayuga Indians lost their land in the 1700's, and today they do not have a reservation of their own. In New York State, the Cayuga tribe lives with their allies the Senecas and Onondagas, but they still have their own council of clan chiefs distinct from the governments of the other tribes. In Canada, Cayuga Indians share the Six Nations Reserve with members of the other Iroquois nations. There are also Cayuga people living on mixed reservations in Oklahoma and Wisconsin and in smaller communities in New York.

What language do the Cayuga Indians speak?
Most Cayuga people speak English today, but some Cayugas, especially in Canada, also speak their native Cayuga language. Cayuga is a complex language with many sounds that are unlike the sounds in English. If you'd like to know a few easy Cayuga words, "sgę:no" (pronounced similar to SGEH-no) is a friendly greeting, and "nya:węh" (pronounced similar to NYAH-wenh) means 'thank you.' You can also hear Cayuga being spoken on this site, or read a Cayuga picture glossary here.

Today Cayuga is an endangered language because most children aren't learning it anymore. However, some Cayuga people are working to keep their language alive.

What was Cayuga culture like in the past? What is it like now?
Here are links to the Cayuga Nation and the Six Nations Reserve where you can find information about the Cayuga Indian people past and present.

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How do Cayuga Indian children live, and what did they do in the past?

 Cornhusk dolls
They do the same things all children do--play with each other, go to school and help around the house. Many Cayuga children like to go hunting and camping with their fathers. In the past, Indian kids had more chores and less time to play, just like colonial children. But they did have cornhusk dolls, toys, and games, such as one game where Cayuga kids tried to throw a dart through a moving hoop. Lacrosse was also a popular sport among Iroquois boys as it was among adult men. Like many Native Americans, Cayuga Indian mothers traditionally carried their babies in cradleboard carriers on their backs--a custom which many American parents have adopted.

What were men and women's roles in the Cayuga tribe?
Cayuga men were in charge of hunting, trading, and war. Cayuga women were in charge of farming, property, and family. These different roles were also reflected in Cayuga government. Cayuga Indian clans were always ruled by women, who made all the land and resource decisions for each community. But Cayuga chiefs, who made military decisions and trade agreements, were always men. Only men represented the Cayuga tribe at the Iroquois Great Council, but only women voted to determine who the Cayuga representatives would be. Both genders took part in storytelling, artwork and music, and traditional medicine.

What were Cayuga homes like in the past?

          Iroquois longhouse sketch
The Cayuga Indians lived in villages of longhouses, which are large wood-frame buildings covered with sheets of elm bark. Cayuga longhouses were up to a hundred feet long, and each one was home to an entire clan (up to 60 people.) Here are some pictures of longhouses like the ones Cayuga Indians used, and a drawing of what a longhouse looked like on the inside. Today, longhouses are only built for ceremonial purposes. Most Cayugas live in modern houses and apartment buildings, just like you.

What was Cayuga clothing like? Did they wear feather headdresses and face paint?

Cayuga headdress

  Cayuga warrior
Cayuga men wore breechcloths with leggings. Cayuga women wore wraparound skirts with shorter leggings. Men did not originally wear shirts in the Cayuga culture, but women often wore a poncho-like tunic called an overdress or kilt. Cayuga Indian people usually wore deerskin moccasins on their feet. In colonial times, the Cayugas adapted European costume such as cloth shirts and blouses, decorating them with fancy beadwork and ribbon applique. Here is a webpage about traditional Iroquois dress, and some photographs and links about American Indian clothes in general.

The Cayugas didn't wear long headdresses like the Sioux. Iroquois men wore a gustoweh, which is a traditional feathered cap with a different insignia for each tribe--the Cayuga headdress has one eagle feather trailing behind. Women sometimes wore beaded tiaras. In times of war, Cayuga men often shaved their heads except for a scalplock or a crest down the center of their head (the style known as a roach, or a "Mohawk.") Sometimes they would augment this hairstyle with splayed feathers or artificial roaches made of brightly dyed porcupine and deer hair. Here are some pictures of these different kinds of Native American headdress. Cayuga Indian women only cut their hair when they were in mourning. Otherwise they wore it long and loose or plaited into a long braid. Here is a website with pictures of these Native hairstyles. Men sometimes tattoed their faces and bodies with tribal designs, but Cayuga women generally didn't paint or tattoo themselves.

Today, some Cayuga people still wear moccasins or a beaded shirt, but they wear modern clothes like jeans instead of breechcloths... and they only wear feathers in their hair on special occasions like a dance.

What was Cayuga transportation like in the days before cars? Did they paddle canoes?

Sometimes--the Cayuga Indians did use elm-bark or dugout canoes for fishing trips, but usually preferred to travel by land. Here is an article with pictures of different Indian canoe types. Originally the Cayuga tribe used dogs as pack animals. (There were no horses in North America until colonists brought them over from Europe.) In wintertime, the Cayugas used laced snowshoes and sleds to travel through the snow.

What was Cayuga food like in the days before supermarkets?

    Iroquois farmers
The Cayuga tribe were farmers. Cayuga women planted crops of corn, beans, and squash and harvested wild berries and herbs. Cayuga men hunted deer and elk and fished in the rivers and on the shores of Lake Ontario. Cayuga Indian recipes included cornbread, soups, and stews, which they cooked on stone hearths. Here is a website with more information about North American Indian food.

What were Cayuga weapons and tools like in the past?

     Iroquois war club
Cayuga hunters used bows and arrows. Cayuga fishermen used spears and fishing poles with bone hooks. In war, Cayuga men used their bows and arrows or fought with heavy war clubs and shields. Here is a website with pictures and more information about Iroquois Indian weapons.

Other important tools used by the Cayuga tribe included stone adzes (hand axes for woodworking), flint knives for skinning animals, and wooden hoes for farming. The Cayugas and other Iroquois were skilled woodworkers, steaming wood so that it could be bent to make curved tools. Some Iroquois artisans still make lacrosse sticks this way today.

What are Cayuga arts and crafts like?
Beadwork amulet
The Cayuga tribe was known for their mask carving, which is considered such a sacred art form that non-Iroquois are still not permitted to view many of these masks. Iroquois beadwork and the more demanding porcupine quillwork are more common Cayuga crafts. The Cayuga Indians also crafted wampum out of white and purple shell beads. Wampum beads were traded as a kind of currency, but they were more culturally important as an art material. The designs and pictures on wampum belts often told a story or represented a person's family.

What was Cayuga music like?

Cayuga water drum 
The two most important Cayuga instruments are drums and flutes. Iroquois drums were often filled with water to give them a distinctive sound different from the drums of other tribes. Most Cayuga Indian music is very rhythmic and consists mostly of drumming and lively singing. Flutes were used to woo women in the Cayuga tribe. A young Cayuga man would play beautiful flute music outside his girlfriend's longhouse at night to show her he was thinking about her.

What other Native Americans did the Cayuga tribe interact with?
The most important neighbors of the Cayuga tribe were the other Iroquois nations: the Seneca, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk. Before the Iroquois Confederacy the Cayugas sometimes fought wars with the other Iroquois tribes, but once the alliance was formed they were loyal to each other. Cayuga warriors fought against most of the other eastern tribes, particularly the Wabanaki tribes, the Algonquins and Ojibways, and Mohicans.. The Cayugas also traded with their neighbors, exchanging corn and woodcrafts for furs and quahog shells.

What kinds of stories do the Cayuga Indians tell?
There are lots of Cayuga legends and fairy tales. Storytelling is very important to the Cayuga Indian culture. Here is a traditional Iroquois story about the origin of mosquitoes.

What about Cayuga religion?
Spirituality and religion were important parts of Cayuga life, and some people continue to practice traditional beliefs today. It is respectful to avoid imitating religious rituals for school projects since some Cayuga people care about them deeply. You can read and learn about them, however. You can visit this site to learn more about Iroquois mythology or this site about American Indian religions in general.

Can you recommend a good book for me to read?
One book about the Cayuga tribe for younger readers is The Cayuga, which has many photographs about traditional and contemporary Cayuga life. Lacrosse: The National Game of the Iroquois is a lively look at the origins of this sport and at Iroquois culture in general, tracing the lives of three generations of Onondaga lacrosse players. Legends of the Iroquois is a good collection of traditional Six Nations stories, retold by a Mohawk author. Wampum Belts of the Iroquois is an interesting look at the symbolism and significance of the different wampum belt designs used by the Cayuga and other Iroquois peoples. If You Lived With The Iroquois provides a good look at daily life in the Iroquois tribes in the old days. You can also browse through our reading list of books by Native American writers. Disclaimer: we are an Amazon affiliate and our website earns a commission if you buy a book through one of these links. Most of them can also be found in a public library, though!

How do I cite your website in my bibliography?
You will need to ask your teacher for the format he or she wants you to use. The authors' names are Laura Redish and Orrin Lewis and the title of our site is Native Languages of the Americas. We are a nonprofit educational organization working to preserve and protect Native American languages and culture. You can learn more about our organization here. Our website was first created in 1998 and last updated in 2020.

Thanks for your interest in the Cayuga Indian people and their language!

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Learn More About The Cayuga Indian Tribe

Cayuga Native Americans
An overview of the Native American Cayuga tribe, their language and history.

Cayuga Dictionary
Short vocabulary of Cayuga Indian words.

Cayuga Culture and History Directory
Related links about the Cayuga tribe past and present.

Iroquois Confederacy
Information and links about the Iroquois League.

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