Adoption or Entree

David Scheimann

Of all the North American Indian tribes, the seventeenth-century Iroquois are the most renowned for their cruelty towards other human beings. Scholars know that they ruthlessly tortured war prisoners and that they were cannibals; in the Algonquin tongue the word Mohawk actually means "flesh-eater." There is even a story that the Indians in neighboring Iroquois territory would flee their homes upon sight of just a small band of Mohawks. Ironically, the Iroquois were not alone in these practices. There is ample evidence that most, if not all, of the Indians of northeastern America engaged in cannibalism and torture—there is documentation of the Huron, Neutral, and Algonquin tribes each exhibiting the same behavior. This paper will examine these atrocities, search through several possible explanations, and ultimately reveal that the practices of cannibalism and torture in the Iroquois were actually related.

First a bit of background is necessary to understand the state of the Native American people before colonial exploration and settlement. The Iroquois were the dominant force in northeastern America until the Europeans came to the New World. Five smaller nations made up the League of the Iroquois: they were the Onondaga, Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga, and Seneca tribes. The legendary Hiawatha joined these five tribes together into a single powerful confederation after fierce blood feuds threatened to destroy all five nations. The date of the League’s formation could be any time between 900 AD and 1570; the confederation was certainly established before European settlers made first contact. Based upon Hiawatha’s plan, members of each nation could only marry members of other Iroquois nations; these blood ties formed a web of loyalties between the different tribes. This Iroquois League now began to dominate the rest of the Native American tribes in the northeast.

Most of what scholars know about the Iroquois comes from European accounts. Very little of this information is flattering. These negative views result because Europeans settling in North America first came to encounter the Huron, Naragansett, and Algonquin tribes, who were enemies to the Iroquois. These tribes had become oppressed by the Iroquois nations after they had formed their confederation; prior to the League these three tribes were actually the dominant tribes of Native Americans in the Northeast. Later, these tribes were also among the first to accept Catholicism, which added favor in the eyes of the French. When the Europeans accepted the friendship of these tribes, however, they accepted the enmity of the Iroquois as well.

It is also important to establish that the practices of the Iroquois were more than the exaggeration and hearsay of excitable Frenchmen. The Iroquois surely performed torture upon war captives; many European settlers viewed first-hand the mutilated body-parts of war captives. However, there has been some doubt in the current century that cannibalism was really practiced by the Iroquois. Anthropologist W. Arens proposed in 1979 that there were no first-hand accounts of flesh eating among the Native Americans, and thus no solid proof for cannibalism. This controversial view has been refuted since, for there is indeed ample evidence in The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents alone to prove Arens’s thesis wrong. With this assertion in mind, it is now possible to inquire why the Native Americans performed these appalling acts.

The death of family members had a profound psychological effect upon the Iroquois, thus they required strong measures to relieve themselves of sadness. Essentially, they felt that they needed restitution in some form or another for the dead relative. Grieving matriarchs petitioned the tribe’s warriors to retrieve captives from an offending tribe. The Iroquois warriors then established a raid solely to gather captives; scholars call this practice "mourning-wars." According to Anthony Wallace, the grieving Iroquois could find restitution in one of three ways. The first was for a warrior to bring back the scalp of an Indian from the killer’s tribe and to present it to the grieving person. Though the scalp represented a captive, live prisoners were preferred. The other two options involved a live captive: the Iroquois either vengefully tortured the prisoner to death or adopted him or her into the tribe. Since the Iroquois were a matriarchal society, the mourning woman would ultimately decide the fate of those captives that were brought to the village, mostly based upon the amount of grief that she felt for her dead relation.

Reverend Father Barthelemy Vimont presented a harrowing example of Iroquois torture that occurred in 1642 in The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents. In this account he told of an Iroquois war band that captured a small group of Algonquin and himself. Immediately the Iroquois cut off a few fingers from each captive using fish scales. The Iroquois intended to take the captives to their village. On the way one Algonquin woman, realizing what her fate would be, ran into a icy river and drowned herself rather than face the impending torture. Once they had arrived at their captors’ village, the Iroquois made their prisoners sing and dance upon a scaffold. Vimont’s companion, a converted Algonquin named Adrian, wouldn’t sing in the Iroquois’ language, and they slit his fingers lengthwise to cause him intense pain. Next they cleared the scaffold except for one Algonquin named Awessinipin, and they began burning his body with brands. The Iroquois forced an Algonquin woman to take a torch and burn Awessinipin and then killed her when she finally complied. Throughout this entire ordeal the Algonquin man showed no pain. They continued this torture throughout the night, building to a fervor, finally ending at sunrise by cutting his scalp open, forcing sand into the wound, and dragging his mutilated body around the camp. When they had finished, the Iroquois carved up and ate parts of his body.

The Jesuits Relations, The Explorations of Radisson, and Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison offer other detailed descriptions of Iroquois atrocities, but generally the torture followed the same pattern. First the victorious Iroquois warriors would mangle the prisoners’ hands; they did this by pulling out the captives’ fingernails and/or cutting off some of their fingers. The victors usually subjected the prisoners to a heavy beating at the same time. Thereafter the Iroquois took the captives to their village and subjected the men to the gantlet (or gauntlet). They then humbled those who survived in a number of ways; for example the Iroquois might strip them naked in front of the village and force them to sing and dance. This process always ended either in a slow death by fire and scalping or with adoption into the Iroquois village. The Iroquois tortured only men to death when they weren’t adopted; they either killed quickly women and children who were unadopted.

There are definitely reasons behind this torture that do not extend into metaphysical domains. The initial beating obviously broke the spirits of the captive and ensured submission. The act of battering prisoners to break their will is no isolated policy of the Iroquois alone, but of nearly every race throughout history. At this time the Iroquois also mangled a prisoner’s hands, a brutality performed so that the captive could no longer wield a weapon. After returning to their village, the Iroquois used the gantlet to further break the spirits of the captives and to serve as a test of endurance and physical tolerance. The Iroquois would execute without ceremony those captives who fell and did not get up, which indicates disdain for mental and physical weakness. Indeed, the Iroquois expected even those captives who underwent subsequent lethal torture to stand strong and not cry out—the warriors would disgustedly dispatch a captive who lost his composure. As the night went by and the prisoner remained silent, the entire tribe would become more and more frenzied until the sun came up and the prisoner was killed. Thus it seems that torturing captives to death was a ritualized act of vengeance that was truly fulfilled only when its objective (making the victim respond to the torture) failed!

The warriors were not the only ones who conducted the torture, however; the women and children of the village had just as much of an active role as the men did. While the captives were perched upon the scaffold, the children of the tribe would jab at the prisoner’s feet with knives. In addition to this, every person in the village took turns with the burning torches during the night ritual. In fact, the rest of the tribe would scorn anyone who did not partake in the torture as a weak and lazy individual. Because everyone took part, it becomes clear that besides being an act for grieving family members to vent their frustration on an unyielding victim and doing so feel avenged for the loved ones’ deaths, it was a reassertion of Iroquois dominance and power. Yet this second purpose seems of less importance considering the specialized nature of the mourning war. That is to say, the process of the mourning war is oriented far more towards the grieving matriarchs rather than the entire village.

This can be said partly because lethal torture was not always the fate of the captives. In fact, the grieving Iroquois more often than not adopted the captive into his or her family. Only when the captives were feeble, old, or unusually ugly, or the Iroquois matriarchs were particularly upset or felt they had suffered a great loss, then death by torture would be the guaranteed result. This stems from the belief that a clan or village lost power when its members died. The best way to maintain that power in the eyes of the Iroquois was to maintain the status quo by getting another individual to take the place of the slain family member. Only later when European diseases killed off huge numbers of Native Americans and tradition broke down did lethal torture become more frequent than adoption.

The Iroquois usually chose the captives who were adopted during their torture, specifically after they had run the gantlet or were suffering the humiliation stage. Pierre Radisson exemplifies this when his adopted Iroquois parents drag him by the hair from the gantlet in his second captivity. At first the practice of torturing a potential family member seems extraordinarily odd, but the Iroquois had a reason for this, too. When the Iroquois adopted a captive, the torture acted as a symbolic end to the captive’s old life. In theory, the captive rejoiced that his tormentors had saved his or her life and was happy to join the Iroquois. In practice, this did not always guarantee the adopted member’s loyalty. This is also demonstrated by Pierre Radisson when he was captured twice; though he even came to empathize with his new parents after his second capture, he still chose to escape when he had the opportunity. Yet a significant number of accounts do indicate that many captives, nearly all from other Native American tribes, did elect to stay with their new Iroquois families.

Though modern Americans do not associate other tribes with the practice of mourning wars, they performed the same methods of torture that the Iroquois did. These accounts are much less frequent than descriptions of Iroquois torture, nevertheless they do exist and are no less ruthless in nature. Samuel de Champlain’s notes contain accounts of the Algonquins, Montagnais, and Etechemins as the aggressors. After they captured a handful of Iroquois in battle, these "friendly" tribes proceeded to torture the captives to death. They burned the body of one captive Iroquois then poured water on him in cycles so that his flesh would fall off his body. When they had finally killed him and threw his innards into the river, the Indians told Champlain that this act was done in vengeance for their own mutilated tribesmen. There is mention in Relation des Hurons of the Neutrals and Hurons performing the same cruelties, and the Hurons are mentioned for taking captives to be adopted. Nevertheless there are no vastly different reasons that can be determined for the atrocities of the other northeastern tribes. All of these other tribes practiced torture as an act of vengeance for their own mutilated dead, and in some cases even performed similar adoption ceremonies.

But can a desire for vengeance be sufficient to explain Iroquois cannibalism? In nearly every instance the Iroquois ate parts of the bodies of war prisoners who had been tortured to death. In Father Vimont’s previous account it was the heart or other internal organs that were consumed as well as the hands and feet of the tortured prisoner. Another Jesuit gives this account: "having cut off (the captive’s) hands and feet, (the Iroquois) skinned him and separated the flesh from the bones, in order to make from it a detestable repast." Further accounts include multiple mentions of the cannibalistic "customary feasts" of the Iroquois. There is obviously more to this form of cannibalism than the necessity of consuming human flesh to stay alive in hard times. Vengeance alone does not provide an ample explanation for cannibalism like it does for torture, yet the two always occur together.

As previously mentioned, the Iroquois were not alone in this practice, as various accounts describe the Winnebagos, Huron, and other French-sympathizing Indians partaking in feasts of human flesh. In the aforementioned Champlain account, the Algonquins, Montagnais, and Etechemins did not actually eat the Iroquois captive’s flesh, but rather forced the other captives to eat his heart. Though this makes a case against cannibalistic practice, another account one year later tells of these same three tribes taking a quartered body home to be eaten. In another part of the country, a Neutral brave is recorded in Relation des Hurons saying to the Jesuit Father Brebeuf and his company, "[I’ve had] enough of the dark-colored flesh of our enemies…I wish to know the taste of white meat, and I will eat yours." In the same set of accounts the Jesuits chastise the Hurons to "eat no human flesh" so that they could be good Catholics.

There was also a form of cannibalism that occurred in another near-by tribe, which is now studied by psychologists and anthropologists. Occasionally members of the Algonquin tribe suffered from a particular psychosis in which the Indian believed himself or herself "possessed" by the Wendigo, an Indian demon. The affected Native American would crave human flesh and kill people in order to eat their bodies. Anthropologist, however, diagnose this as a strange mental disorder, and obviously not applicable to the Iroquois practice in any way. Nor has there been, from a historical viewpoint, any mention of the Wendigo in association with the Iroquois. It is also true that the Iroquois never ate the flesh of their own people. Though Wendigo Psychosis has no bearing to the Iroquois, examining another flesh-eating culture may provide a clue to their abominable acts.

The Aztecs are a perhaps the best known nation of people besides the Iroquois who possessed cannibalistic practices. High priests ritually sacrificed victims to their god Uitzilopochtli by removing the captive’s heart. When they had finished with the body they threw it down the steps of the sacred pyramid where it was taken and eaten by the citizens. Despite the association with religion, contemporary anthropologists have come to the conclusion that the act of cannibalism had less to do with the sacrificial ceremony and more with improper nutrition. Their practice results from a protein-deficient diet in which human beings are the only real source of meat. While there are instances of Native Americans resorting to cannibalism in very hard times, these northeastern Indians generally had no lack of meat, and since their cannibalism was limited to war prisoners, this reason is unlikely. This is not to say that cannibalism was never practiced for food by the Iroquois or their neighbors, just that it was definitely not the primary practice in the present context.

Bringing up the Aztecs, however, leads to another worthy point of examination: that the practice of cannibalism might have been religious in nature. There was indeed a single god of war, sun, and fire, who was present by various names in many of the northeastern Indian tribes. His name was Aireskoi and he required sacrifice and consumption of human flesh in his honor. There are some further links between him and the atrocities the Iroquois committed. In a particular act of torture recounted by a Jesuit, Father Brebeuf, the Iroquois set eleven bonfires around their captive and tortured him until sunrise, when Aireskoi could look upon their work. Though not usually referred to in such religious terms, the practice of torture did last the entire night in most accounts. The bulk of Iroquois lethal torture consisted of the use of flame upon the captive’s body, which is also indicative of Aireskoi’s domain (of course, fire was also excruciatingly painful and non-lethal in the way the Iroquois used it). Though these points begin to make a case that religious worship was the cause of northeastern Indian atrocities, there are no other accounts besides this one, written by a priest, that claim religious motivation for the cannibalism. Iroquois cannibalism generally occupies part of a torture routine, however, it is more akin to "brunch" than a Thanksgiving dinner.

Another religious figure that has cannibalistic associations is one of the creators of the earth, the Good Twin. While the Iroquois creation myth is too long and involved to be mentioned in detail here, what bears importance to this paper is that the Bad Twin killed the Sky-Mother when the two were born and blamed it on the Good Twin, who was expelled from Family. The Good Twin would wander the earth and help man when he could. In years that they predicted a famine, the Iroquois mystics would "see" the Good Twin holding withered ear of corn and eating a human leg. This suggests cannibalism might have begun as a result of famine, but once again the circumstances under which it was conducted and its association with mourning raids had little to do with starvation. Instead the existence of this imagery certainly proves that this practice had been around for a long time in Iroquois history.

There is one more possibility dealing with supernatural beliefs that needs to be considered. All of the Indian tribes believe that every object, animate or inanimate, has a spirit. Even rocks and old bones as well as living shamans can possess supernatural abilities and magical powers. An interesting example of this belief is the story of Arent Van Corlaer, a Dutch colonist. There was a particular rock in Lake George that the Iroquois believed held a spirit, and they would offer tobacco to it each time they passed. Van Corlaer, while on a trip with the Mohawks, mocked this tribute to the rock, and mooned it. Shortly afterwards, a storm blew up and capsized his boat, killing the Van Arent. Other similar stories can be found in Iroquois folklore.

The Iroquois also hold the belief that to eat a thing is to gain its power. This follows naturally from the previous view, because even in death the body’s remains keep at least part of its soul. This is most apparent in the everyday diet of the Native Americans. For example, the people of the river villages Akweasne and Kahnawake were known to be excellent swimmers, and this was reputedly caused by the large amount of fish in their diets. A hunter’s talent was also supposed to depend upon the amount of game that he consumed (which only makes sense because the better hunter would be able to acquire and thus consume more game).

With these two premises, it follows that devouring the flesh of a great warrior would transfer his prowess into the one doing the eating. There is no mention that the Iroquois ate the flesh of those captives who did not die ceremoniously; perhaps these "weak" prisoners were considered unworthy to be eaten. There is also no mention that the Iroquois ate the flesh of anyone who was not tortured to death; those people who did not have had a chance to prove themselves. Yet like the previous spiritual explanation, only one account exists that establishes a link between great warriors and the humans they eat. A Huron Indian who escaped Iroquois captivity described how a Jesuit was killed and eaten. The priest had endured great pain before his death, and the Iroquois told the Huron that they drank his blood and ate his flesh so that they could be as strong as the priest had been.

This hypothesis for cannibalism has yet another more important implication. As stated previously, the three ways to appease a grieving Iroquois were with an enemy scalp that represented a prisoner or with a captive who would be adopted or tortured to death. In each of these scenarios, the Iroquois brought a captive or a physical representative of the captive to the tribe, and in each case that individual remained with the tribe in a very physical way. Though eating another warrior did not transfer his prowess into the one who devoured him, his "essence" stayed with the village; in this manner the status quo remains, and the unwanted prisoners would not be wasted. This belief also allowed for the possibility of revenge by torture without detriment to the tribe’s power.

This answer fits well within the Iroquois belief system. The Native Americans were incredibly superstitious, and a spiritual solution would be a reason to condone nearly any sort of behavior. Many of a tribe’s decisions were made only after supernatural omens or dreams were consulted, which clearly demonstrates that spiritual influences had deep effects in the Indian psyche. Supernatural meaning in dreams played an especially large role in Iroquois life, often to the point that something received in a dream could be bestowed upon the dreamer in reality, or an action performed while dreaming would be reenacted by the entire tribe. The same supernatural forces imbued shamans with great powers and influence even beyond even the chief’s authority. The Iroquois even had a purpose for tobacco smoking—the pungent smoke was supposed to be an offering to the spirits of the dead. A belief system with this kind of spiritual emphasis in its make-up could easily condone cannibalistic practices.

There is also a question as to why the same cannibalistic practices were not performed on members of the same tribe. If it did indeed occur, then it was very rare or very private, since no accounts have been found telling of this occurrence. By the previous solution, dead members of one’s own tribe should have been the first ones to be eaten. The confederation system itself is perhaps the solution; instead of fighting amongst other nations for the rights to the dead body, it was more productive to let it be buried. Perhaps the more likely solution to this snag is that the Iroquois could not bear to eat one of their own tribesmen. Since the grieving process upset the Iroquois so much, they were probably unable to bring themselves to cannibalize their own "flesh and blood." This also places emphasis on the "replacement" act of the mourning wars rather than "recycling."

Eating one’s enemies in order to regain lost power has a very broad appeal that also accounts for cannibalism in other northeastern Indian nations. Nearly all of the tribes in this area descend from the Iroquoia people, and many of the primitive beliefs, like their shared language, would also have been passed on to the presently developed tribes. The Iroquoia area, between Lake Erie and the Atlantic Ocean had more than five large rivers flowing out from its heart, which guaranteed this prehistoric people the opportunity to spread their culture. Capturing prisoners and eating their flesh may very well have come from this prehistoric time; whereas the ritual the mourning war, was a contemporary practice brought on by the infighting between the five nations that later formed the Iroquois League.

This solution proposes an answer for both practices that binds the two closely together. While torture served as vengeance against a tribe’s enemy and emotional venting of grief over a relative’s death, cannibalism served to keep tribe’s supernatural power constant while permitting torture to occur. Eating an enemy’s flesh in order to retain this spiritual strength allowed a tribesman to vent his or her frustrations without subtracting from the tribe’s power as a whole. Without the practice of cannibalism, torture probably would still have existed, but certainly not on the large scale in which it had been present. Torture was more the domain of the mourning wars and ensuring that captives would remain with the tribe, while cannibalism had more to do with supernatural belief. Both were tied together by the need to adopt enemies.

Through the course of this paper several possibilities have been proposed that might account for cannibalism and torture among the seventeenth-century Iroquois and other northeastern American tribes. Though many (especially the religious views) may have influenced these abominable practices to varying degrees, the source of these acts stems from the need of the Iroquois to strengthen their own tribes by inducting physically or supernaturally a replacement for a slain member. This practice known as mourning wars did not extend in name to the other tribes, but they doubtlessly performed acts of cannibalism and torture for similar purposes. Though it is not a rationale that we can fully comprehend, cannibalism and torture nonetheless served a very important purpose to the Iroquois and their neighbors.