During the last six years the writer has made a detailed field study of the various phases of Iroquois culture, special attention being directed to the rites and ceremonies of the semisecret orders and societies that yet survive among the so-called pagan Iroquois. It was only after diligent inquiry that the actual existence of these societies was clearly established. The False Face Company and the Secret Medicine Society, better termed The Little Water Company, have been known to ethnologists for some time, but no one has adequately described them or has seemed fully aware of their significance. Likewise certain dances, such as the Bird, the Bear, the Buffalo, the Dark, and the Death dances, have been mentioned. Ceremonies also, such as the Otter ceremony and the Woman's song, have been listed, but that back of all these ceremonies there was a society never seems to have occurred to anyone. The Indians do not volunteer information, and when some, rite is mentioned they usually call it a dance. Through this subterfuge the existence of these societies has long been concealed, not only from white investigators but from Christian Indians as well, the latter usually professing ignorance of the "pagan practices" of their unprogressive brothers.
Even so close an observer as Lewis H. Morgan says: "The Senecas have lost their Medicine Lodges, which fell out in modern times; but they formerly existed and formed an important part of their religious system. To hold a Medicine Lodge was to observe their highest religious mysteries. They had two such organizations, one for each phratry, which shows still further the natural connection of the phratry and the religious observances. Very little is now known concerning these lodges or their ceremonies. Each was a brotherhood into which new members were admitted by formal initiation." 2
Morgan's experience is that of most observers, close as their observation may be. The writer, with the assistance of his wife, however, living with the "pagans" and entering fully into their rites, discovered that the "medicine lodges," so far from having become extinct, are still active organizations, exercising a great
amount of influence not only over the pagans but also over the nominal Christians.
It was found that the organization and rites of the societies might best be studied among the Seneca, who have preserved their rituals with great fidelity. The Onondaga, although keeping up the form of some, have lost many of the ancient features and look to the Seneca for the correct forms.
The teachings of Ganio`dai'io`, Handsome Lake, the Seneca prophet, revolutionized the religious life of the Iroquois to a large extent, its greatest immediate effect being on the Seneca and Onondaga. Later it greatly influenced the Canadian Iroquois, excepting perhaps the Mohawk about the St Lawrence. Handsome Lake sought to destroy the ancient folk-ways of the people and to substitute a new system, built of course upon the framework of the old. Finding that he made little headway in his teachings, be sought to destroy the societies and orders that conserved the older religious rites, by proclaiming a revelation from the Creator. The divine decree was a command that all the animal societies hold a final meeting at a certain time, throw tobacco in the ceremonial fires, and dissolve. The heavenly reason for this order, Handsome Lake explained, was that men were acquainted with the effects of their familiarity with the spirits of the animals, which, although they might bring fortune and healing to the members of the animal's order, might work terrible harm to men and to other animals.
The chiefs who were friendly to the prophet and others who were frightened by his threats met in counsel and proclaimed that all the animal and mystery societies should immediately dissolve, and, by their order, were dissolved and disbanded. This they did without holding a hayänt'wûtgûs, tobacco-throwing ceremony, as directed. The members of the societies, therefore, declared that the order of the council was illegal and not binding, that the sin of disobedience was upon the chiefs and not upon the body of members. The societies consequently continued their rites, although they found it expedient to do so secretly, for they were branded as witches and wizards, 1 and the members of one society at least were executed as sorcerers when they were found practising their arts.
The existence of the societies became doubly veiled. The zealous proselytes of the New Religion denied their legality and even their existence, and the adherents of the old system did not care to
express themselves too strongly in the matter of proclaiming their sacred orders still very much alive. The rites of the societies were performed in secret places for a number of years after the advent of the prophet, but as the adherents of the New Religion became more conservative, the societies again gradually entered into public ceremonies held in the council houses on thanksgiving occasions. At such times some of them gave public exhibitions of their rites; others had no public ceremonies whatsoever. With the gradual acceptance of the New Religion by the great majority of the people, the older religious belief was blended into the new. The Iroquois regard it as their Old Testament. The tabooed societies became bolder in their operations, and the new religionists entered their folds with few if any qualms.
It was about this time that their policy seems to have changed, for after some inquiry the writer can find no restriction placed on membership by reason of phratry or clanship. Candidates might join any society regardless of clan except the society of Men-who-assist-the-women's-ceremonies, which is not a secret organization. This society consists of two divisions, the membership of a division being determined by phratry. It is purely a benevolent society, however, and has nothing to do with "medicine." The various societies of all kinds had, and still have, individual lodges, each of which is nominally independent of any jurisdiction save that of its own officers, The leaders, however, confer and keep their rites uniform. At present, especially in the Little Water Company, it is not even necessary for the song-holder, the chief officer, to be a pagan. This company is the only one which can boast of any great Christian membership or of a lodge composed entirely of nominal Christians. This lodge is the Pleasant Valley Lodge of the Little Water Company on the Cattaraugus reservation. Mrs Harriet Maxwell Converse joined this lodge in 1892, afterward joining the pagan lodge at Newtown.
A careful study of the Iroquois societies will lead to the conclusion that most of the societies are of ancient origin and that their rituals have been transmitted with little change for many years. Indeed, that under the circumstances any changes should have been made would be stranger than that none had occurred at all. Most of the rituals are chanted in unison by the entire company of members, and any change in note, syllable, or word would immediately be detected. Rites transmitted by song are more difficult to change than simple recitals where musical rhythm is not correlated with the
word. Some of the rituals, moreover, contain archaic words and expressions, and even entire sentences are not understood by the singers.
Each society has a legend by which its origin and peculiar rites are explained. Most of these legends portray the founder of the society as a lost hunter, an outcast orphan, or a venturesome youth curious to know what was farther on. The founder got into strange complications, saw strange or familiar animals engaged in their rites, was discovered, forgiven, adopted, kept a captive, and finally, after long study and many warnings, was sent back to his people to teach them the secrets of the animals and how their favor could be obtained. The secrets were to be preserved by the society which the hero was to found. 1 There are some variations of this abstract, but it covers the general features of most of the legends.
The study of the societies was commenced by the writer in 1902, and during the years 1905-6 an almost uninterrupted study was made for the New York State Education Department, and the results deposited in the State Library. Since that time the research has been continued for the New York State Museum. Paraphernalia have been collected, phonograph records have been made of many of the songs and ceremonial speeches, texts have been recorded and translated, legends have been gathered, and some music has already been transcribed. There still remains an enormous amount of work to be done, and it is greatly to be regretted that a multiplicity of duties bars the way for as speedy progress in this work as might be desirable, especially since many of the informants are old people and in ill health.
A brief outline of the various societies is presented in this paper. It is impossible for the sake of brevity to present a fair compend or even a systematic outline. The main features of the less known organizations and some neglected facts of the few that are better known are mentioned, it being hoped that even such statements may be useful to students of ethnology. The list follows. 2
113:1 Adapted from the author's article in American Anthropologist, 2:2, April-June, 1909.
113:2 Morgan, Ancient Society, p. 97, ed. 1907.
114:1 The modern Iroquois call all sorcerers and conjurers, regardless of sex, "witches." They never use the masculine form.
116:1 Myths and Legends of the Iroquois, N. Y. State Mus. Bul. 125, p. 176.
116:2 A description of some of these societies was prepared for incorporation in the Fifth Annual Report of the Director of the State Museum, 1909.