Reciprocity, or gift exchange, shaped the Iroquois way of life. It was through reciprocity in which communities were built, alliances formed, peace maintained, and trade preserved. Additionally, the lack or unwillingness to exchange gifts resulted in hostility towards villages and nations, unfriendliness towards European colonists, and resulted in war. Reciprocity was revered so highly among the Iroquois because gift exchange was a part of the Cosmogonic Myth, an important aspect of Iroquois spirituality.

Iroquois reciprocity was entrenched in their belief in the Cosmogonic Myth; which was a mythological belief based on the Sky World. The Cosmogonic Myth details the creation of the universe as the Iroquois believe it transpired.[1] Sky Woman and her husband were two vital participants in the Cosmogonic Myth an­­­­d they resided in the Sky World. Like a courting ritual, Sky Woman and her husband exchanged gifts and obligations with each other to establish their relationship. Sky Woman took care of her prospective husband by cooking him a “potent” soup which cured his illness. Sky Woman brought her husband bread baked with berries; her potential husband sent her home with enough venison to nearly fill her house.[2]

According to the Cosmogonic Myth, Sky Woman was sent down to earth to begin her role as the mother of all beings. While Sky Woman was pregnant, her jealous husband dreamed a great tree must get uprooted. The husband believed removing the tree would provide a window to the world below, so people of the village worked together and pulled up the tree. When Sky Woman looked over into the hole, her husband pushed her down to the world below.[3] While on earth, Sky woman gave birth to a daughter. This daughter then gave birth to two twins. The Good Twin was responsible for creating lakes, animals and food while the Bad Twin destroyed all which the Good Twin created. Eventually, the two twins engaged in a battle for the title of “creator” and the Good Twin won. The Bad Twin acknowledged the Good Twin as the “creator.”[4]

The Iroquois believed in the principles of the Cosmogonic Myth. This is what linked reciprocity and exchange to the Sky World and to their creator. Because of this spiritual connection, a high importance was placed upon reciprocity. Relationships built upon reciprocity were held as sacred relationships defined by an unbreakable bond of trust and allegiance. Such relationships rooted in themes of reciprocity were further categorized under the Great League of Peace and Power; the device used to band the villages of the Five Nations together in peace and spiritual unity.[5] The Iroquois villages maintained peace by an entwinement of methods. Reciprocity and exchange were among the components used to define most relationships among persons, kin groups, and villages.[6]

Reciprocity helped create and strengthen relationships, as well as helped maintain traditional rituals and ceremonial rites, which further provided support to the strength and the stability of communities. Within the Seneca tribe, reciprocity “threads through all Seneca ritual arrangements.”[7] Reciprocity brought interclan communities together in times of need. “Principles of interclan reciprocity required members of another kin group to “cover” the grief of the bereaved by conducting funeral rituals, providing feasts, and bestowing gifts.”[8] Reciprocity is the link used to bond people together in trust and friendship, as well as the tool used to strengthen kinship ties.

As an example of interclan reciprocity, clans had reciprocal obligations which were focused on ceremonial gift giving and “mutual ritual duties.” These obligations mainly pertained to mourning and funerals. The various clans among the Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas were grouped into two moieties. The leaders of the moieties “metaphorically and physically sat across a fire from each other in village councils and exchanged ritual obligations.”[9] During condolence ceremonies, one moiety would console the other side. Games like lacrosse and the Sacred Bowl Game were often played.[10] The League Sachems were divided into two moieties. The older side consisted of the Mohawks, Onondagas, and Senecas. The younger side consisted of the Oneidas and the Cayugas. If one of the fifty Sachems died, then one clan owed another clan a village funeral ritual. At the funeral ritual, the “clear-minded” moiety recited the Deganawidah Epic, spoke Words of Condolence to the grieving side, and requickened the deceased Sachem into the person the bereaved moiety chose to replace the deceased.[11]

In regards to internal politics and external diplomacy, gift exchange symbolized everything to the Iroquois society. Reciprocity created relationships, formed alliances and preserved peace. Gifts were used to signify treaty agreement between tribes and various other European colonists, as well as used to give worth to spoken words offered by various men of importance. “Presents were assurances that promises made in the name of followers were likely to be carried out, for they proved that the speaker had the consent of the kin and followers who had banded together to produce them. Belts and strings of wampum were prepared in advance to accompany each “word” to be presented at a treaty conference.”[12]

The Iroquois people were a bit of a paradox since they were extremely martial, but valued peace. They held a more spiritual rather than a political form of unity.[13] As such, the people of the Five Nations valued peace over war.[14]  An outsider, such as a European colonist, could gain great allegiance and trade benefits from the Iroquois if such an outsider engaged in ample gift exchange with the Iroquois. The Iroquois League of the Five Nations acquired some of their most precious gifts of the Sky World through trade. Trade often represented an act of reciprocity which then led to diplomatic relations. Reciprocity nestled itself nicely within the Iroquois relationships of trade and diplomacy shared with members of various tribes, as well as with traders and colonists from Europe.  “Indeed much, if not most, of the Five Nations’ traditional foreign commerce seems to have taken the form of ceremonial exchanges of gifts between individuals and groups. Highly prized commodities acquired in this way included such rare gifts of the spirit world as shells from the Atlantic coast and copper from the Great Lakes. Trade, in this context, was a function of diplomacy.” “What Europeans called diplomacy and what they called trade therefore tended, at least on one level, to be identical for people of the Five Nations.”[15] Reciprocity influenced trade relationships between the Iroquois people and the people of Europe.

Arent Van Curler was a Dutch colonist during the mid-seventeenth century. His understanding of reciprocity is what made him a key player in establishing the diplomatic relationship between the Five Nations and the North American town of New Netherland.[16] Gift exchange further maintained diplomacy with the Five Nations and the Dutch during the time of Van Curler, and reciprocity is what further elevates the status of Van Curler among the people of the Iroquois Nation.[17]

For example, Arent Van Curler spent a tremendous amount of time in the woods learning about Indian customs. Van Curler visited with the Mohawks and the Mahicans since these were the Indians with whom he traded. He took the time to learn about the Indian custom of generosity. Van Curler’s grand generosity to the Indians earned him the respected Iroquois title of “headman” due to his diplomatic visits which bestowed gifts upon three Mohawk towns. Van Curler conformed to the Iroquois understanding of peace, generosity, and reciprocity. His understanding elevated his status among the Iroquois.[18]

A British colonist, Colonel Peter Schuyler, also understood reciprocity and the beneficial arrangement which could manifest with the Iroquois Nation. Colonel Schuyler gained a reputation as a valuable ally to the Five Nations. He further helped make Albany, New York, a British stronghold for the Crown, but not without the help of the Iroquois. Colonel Schuyler had control of the local government offices in Albany. He instructed members of his local government to support and reward the “native clients.” Such decorum agreed with the “Iroquois expectations about generous headmen and the ratification of political ties through ritual exchange of gifts.” The leaders in Albany acted in a manner that was understood by the Iroquois.[19]

Reciprocity was used as a means to form alliances, maintain peace, and to fuel trade and diplomacy. A lack of reciprocity often initiated hostility among other villages and nations, as well as provided a reason for war. “Because relationships among people rested on the alliances of spiritual power that came from reciprocity, a lack of reciprocity, as epitomized by the absence of trading relationships, could easily lead to a presumption of hostility.”[20] The lack of reciprocity, if hostility is implied, could make villages and nations candidates for mourning- war raids. For example, items of high value, especially gifts believed to hold spiritual power, were highly desired in exchange relationships among the Five Nations. The failure to exchange or offer valued items during reciprocity were grounds for war.[21]

The Iroquois League had a culture which relied heavily upon the relationship of reciprocity and exchange. Reciprocity produced tangible, useful, and spiritual objects which represented a relationship between the clans within the Iroquois League and with the European colonists. Reciprocity helped purport the Iroquois into a dominant role supporting elite powers in New York. Gifts appeased the Iroquois. The Iroquois valued such relationships based upon gifts; the more valuable the gift the better the relationship. As such, the Iroquois followed these relationships dutifully, as reciprocity was firmly planted in their system of spiritual belief. Understanding the Iroquois signifies understanding their custom of reciprocity.





[1] Richter, Daniel K, The Ordeal of the Longhouse: The People of the Iroquois League in the Era of European Colonization (North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 1992), 8.

[2] “Ibid.” pg. 9.

[3]Ibid.” pgs. 8-9

[4] Wallace, Anthony F.C., The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca (New York: Random House, 1969), 87-91.

[5] Richter, Daniel K pg. 7.

[6] “Ibid” pg. 29.

[7] Wallace, Anthony F.C., pg. 15.

[8] Richter, Daniel K, pg. 33.

[9]Ibid.” pg. 21.

[10] Wallace, Anthony F.C., pg. 15.

[11] Richter, Daniel K, pg. 39.

[12] “Ibid” pg. 47.

[13] “Ibid” pg. 3.

[14] “Ibid” pg. 38.

[15] “Ibid.” pg. 48.

[16] “Ibid.” pg. 24.

[17] “Ibid.” pg. 94

[18] “Ibid.”

[19] “Ibid.” pg. 177

[20] “Ibid.” pg. 29.

[21] “Ibid.”