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Onondaga Indian Fact Sheet

Native American Facts For Kids was written for young people learning about the Onondagas for school or home-schooling reports. We encourage students and teachers to visit our Onondaga 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 Onondaga pictures and links we believe are suitable for all ages. Photographs are the property of the sources we have credited.





  Onondaga Tribe


       Lacrosse player           Onondaga child

How do you pronounce the word "Onondaga"? What does it mean?
Onondaga is pronounced "ON-on-DAH-gah." It comes from their own tribal name, Onundaga'ono, which means "people of the hill."

Where do the Onondagas live?
The Onondaga tribe originally lived in New York state. Many Onondaga people still live there today, though others fled to Ontario, Canada in the 1700's.

Are the Onondaga Iroquois people?

       Iroquois flag
Yes, the Onondaga nation was one of the original members of the Iroquois League, or Kanonsionni in their own language ("league of clans.") The other member nations were the Mohawk, the Seneca, the Cayuga, and the Oneida. 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 Onondaga Indian nation organized?
The Onondaga nation had a tribal council chosen by the Onondaga clan mothers (matriarchs, or female leaders.) But the Onondagas were also subject to the Iroquois Great Council. Fourteen Onondaga 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.

Today the Onondaga tribe lives on a reservation in New York. A reservation is land that belongs to an Indian tribe and is under their control. The Onondaga Indian tribe has its own government, laws, police, and services, just like a small country. In fact, they still have a traditional tribal council of men who are elected by Onondaga women. But the Onandagas are also US citizens and must obey American law. Other Onondaga people live on the Six Nations Reserve in Canada, which they share with members of the other Iroquois nations.

What language do the Onondagas speak?
Most Onondaga people speak English today, but some Onondagas, especially in Canada, also speak their native Onondaga language. Onondaga is a complex language with many sounds that are unlike the sounds in English. You can hear Onondaga being spoken here. If you'd like to know a few easy Onondaga words, "sge:no" (pronounced similar to sgay-no) is a friendly greeting, and "nya:weh" (pronounced similar to nyah-wenh) means 'thank you.'

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

What was Onondaga culture like in the past? What is it like now?
Here is the homepage of the Onondaga Nation School, where you can learn about the Onondaga community past and present.

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

  Cornhusk doll
They do the same things any children do--play with each other, go to school and help around the house. Many Onondaga children like to go hunting and fishing with their fathers. In the past, Indian kids had more chores and less time to play, just like early colonial children. But they did have corn husk dolls, toys, and games, such as one game where kids tried to throw a dart through a moving hoop. Lacrosse was a popular sport among Onondaga boys as it was among adult men. Onondaga mothers, like many Native Americans, 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 Onondaga tribe?
Onondaga men were in charge of hunting, trading, and war. Onondaga women were in charge of farming, property, and family. These different roles were reflected in Onondaga government. Onondaga clans were ruled by women, who made the land and resource decisions for each clan. But the chiefs, who made military decisions and trade agreements, were always men. Only men represented the Onondaga Nation at the Iroquois Great Council, but only women voted to determine who the Onondaga representatives would be. Both genders took part in storytelling, art and music, and traditional medicine.

What were Onondaga homes like in the past?

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

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

Onondaga headdress

 
    Onondaga boy
Onondaga men wore breechcloths with leggings. Onondaga women wore wraparound skirts with shorter leggings. Men did not originally wear shirts in Onondaga culture, but women often wore a long tunic called an overdress. The Onondagas usually wore deerskin moccasins on their feet. In colonial times, the Onondaga tribe adapted European costume like cloth shirts and blouses, decorating them with beadwork and ribbon applique. Here is a webpage about traditional Iroquois dress, and here are some photographs and links about American Indian clothes in general.

The Onondagas didn't wear long headdresses like the Sioux. Men wore traditional Iroquois headdresses, which were feathered caps with a different insignia for each tribe. (The Onondaga headdress has one eagle feather standing straight and one trailing behind.) Women sometimes wore beaded tiaras. In times of war, Onondaga 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 "Mohawk." Sometimes they would augment this hairstyle with splayed feathers or artificial roaches made of brightly dyed porcupine hair. Here are some pictures of these different kinds of American Indian headdress. Onondaga women only cut their hair when they were in mourning. Otherwise they wore it long and loose or plaited into a long braid. Men sometimes decorated their faces and bodies with tribal tattoo art, but Onondaga women generally didn't paint or tattoo themselves.

Today, some Onondagas 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 Onondaga transportation like in the days before cars? Did they paddle canoes?
   
Iroquois snowshoes
Sometimes--the Onondaga Indians did use canoes for fishing trips, but usually preferred to travel by land. Originally the Onondaga tribe used dogs as pack animals. (There were no horses in North America until colonists brought them over from Europe.) In wintertime, the Onondagas used laced snowshoes and sleds to travel through the snow.

What was Onondaga food like in the days before supermarkets?

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

What were Onondaga weapons and tools like in the past?

     Iroquois war club
Onondaga hunters used bows and arrows. Onondaga fishermen used spears and fishing poles. In war, Onondaga men used their bows and arrows or fought with clubs, spears and shields. Here is a website with pictures and information about Native American Indian weapons.

Other important tools used by the Onondagas included stone adzes (hand axes for woodworking), flint knives for skinning animals, and wooden hoes for farming. The Onondagas 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 Onondaga arts and crafts like?
     
Iroquois beadwork 
The Onondaga and other Iroquois tribes were known for their carved masks, which are considered such a sacred art form that outsiders are still not permitted to view many of these masks. American Indian beadwork and the more demanding porcupine quill work are more common Onondaga crafts. The Onondagas 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 Onondaga music like?

 Iroquois Water Drum 
The two most important Onondaga 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 Onondaga music is very rhythmic and consists mostly of drumming and lively singing. Flutes were used to woo women in the Onondaga tribe. A young Onondaga 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 Onondaga tribe interact with?
The most important neighbors of the Onondaga tribe were the other Iroquois nations: the Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, and Mohawk. Before the Iroquois Confederacy existed the Onondagas sometimes fought with the other Iroquois tribes, but once the alliance was formed they were loyal to each other. The Iroquois were fierce warriors who fought with most of the other eastern tribes, particularly the Wabanaki tribes, the Algonquin and Ojibway, and the Mohican bands. The Onondagas also engaged in trade with their neighbors, exchanging corn and woodcrafts for furs and quahog shells.

What kinds of stories do the Onondagas tell?
There are lots of traditional Onondaga legends and fairy tales. Storytelling is very important to the Onondaga Indian culture. Here is an Onondaga story about the origin of the Pleiades. Here's a website where you can read more about Iroquois mythology.

What about Onondaga religion?
Religions are too complicated and culturally sensitive to describe appropriately in only a few simple sentences, and we strongly want to avoid misleading anybody. You can visit this site to learn more about Iroquois beliefs or this site about Native religions in general.

Can you recommend a good book for me to read?
One book about the Onondaga tribe for younger readers is The Onandaga, which has many photographs about traditional and contemporary Onondaga life. Lacrosse: The National Game of the Iroquois is a lively look at the origins of this traditional sport and 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 an Iroquois author. Wampum Belts of the Iroquois is an interesting look at the symbolism and significance of the different wampum belt designs used by the Onondaga and other Iroquois peoples. Or 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 recommended American Indian books in general.

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 2013.

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

Learn More About The Onondagas

Onandaga Indian Tribe
An overview of the Onandaga people, their language and history.

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

Iroquois League
Information and links about the Iroquois Confederacy.

Onondaga Indian Words
Onondaga Indian vocabulary lists.



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