Iroquois Torture as a Reflection of Culture

In the Jesuit Relations, French missionaries were able to witness (and be victims of) Iroquois torture. Torture was nothing new to the French missionaries when they came to New France in the early 17th century. Nor was torture a new idea for the Iroquois when the missionaries arrived in Iroquois towns and villages. But in the European sense, torture was a means to extract information or confessions from prisoners; in the Iroquois culture, torture seemed to be a way to strip the prisoners of their former lives so that they may be integrated into Iroquois society or killed for their spiritual power. Indeed, the entire ceremony surrounding the capturing, pre-torture festivities, the torture, and the post-torture all have deep cultural reasoning; the replacement the dead, or, at least, to ease the grieving of the mourners. But more importantly, almost the entirety of Iroquois culture in the early 17th century can be reflected in their torture rituals.


Capture and Pre-Torture

Historical stereotypes of the Iroquois depict them as a war-loving peoples. This is not entirely the case. Before the heavy influence of and Iroquois dependence on European trade, warfare was almost exclusively for the purpose of ‘replacing’ the recently deceased with captured enemies.1 In the Iroquois war, taking as many captives was essential. Killing off an enemy or even suffering a few casualties “would subvert the purpose of warfare as a means of replacing the dead with captives.”2 As mentioned earlier, torture procedures began long before the actual torture. Captives were usually of non-Iroquois nations and villages, and usually those who were on bad relations with the Iroquois because of the lack of trade or political disagreements.3 After initial capture, the captives were abused during the journey back to the Iroquois village; there are conflicting reports4 as to the exact treatment of the captives, but both reports state that the hands, legs, feet, and especially fingers of the prisoners were greatly abused and mutilated. The captives were frequently forced to sing, as they were showered with gifts of food and beads and treated as guests of honor or esteemed clansmen and kindred. While being able to perceive the reasoning behind the capture of the prisoner , the French missionaries were not able to see the deeper meaning of the Iroquois kindness. The Iroquois religious, political, and social structures were all based on gift giving. To gain power and influence over a person or a group of people, one would have to give numerous material gifts away, usually beads, furs, or food. Therefore, by giving the captive material gifts, the Iroquois were demonstrating to him that they had absolute power over him;5 the power of life or death. “From the victim’s perspective, torture was at once a reminder of his captors’ dominance, a test of perseverance, (reflected in songs and in taunts hurled at the torturers), and an altered state of consciousness similar to a vision quest or a dream that provided contact with sources of spiritual power and paved the way for a new life.”6
In the second account in the Jesuit Relations, however, a slightly different story is told. This time, the captive is a French missionary. Like other captives, he is abused on the journey, but when he arrives at the village, he is not treated nicely at all.7 This is probably because the French and other Europeans, who had by that time (1653) began to trade directly with some Iroquois clans, did not have a sense of the same gift-giving culture as the Iroquois, and therefore did not exchange gifts often, if at all. This mistake of the Europeans probably led to the practice of not giving gifts to Europeans prior to torture, or maybe, and equally as possible, torture practices varied greatly in between Iroquois towns and villages.


Torture

The actual torture process was equally filled with cultural meaning, if not more so. The captives were ‘given’ to a family in mourning over the death of a person of kin, and this family chose whether to adopt or kill the captive. Relations contains stories of both end results. But either way, the captive had to endure hours of torture. Those Iroquois that conducted the torture was seemingly the entire town, but more specifically, it was the young men and the grieving women that tortured the captive. The grieving women, who held a great deal of political power in the Iroquois' matrilineal society, could initially request the ‘mourning-war’8 could also ask for a specific harm to be done to the captive; as illustrated by an elderly woman offering beads in exchange for one of Father Joseph Poncet’s fingers. His finger was removed by a child; possibly of the woman’s lineage, for young men within the grieving lineage were expected to retrieve captives in the first place.9 Young men did most of the actual torturing, it seems. In the first part of Relations, after a headman or chief tells them to “cease tormenting [the captive], saying that it was important for him to see the light of day.”10 Seeing the light of day would have been important for the Iroquois, who worshiped the sun as a god. But the headmen or chiefs could want either (or both) of two things from this. Either they want the captive to live, to be adopted into the society, or they want to present him to their god, as an offering of sorts. Compared to the previous torture, they did stop, but to the eyes of the witnessing missionaries, they did not. The Iroquois continued to burn the captive’s feet, legs, and occasionally other body parts, but not to the degree as they had previously witnessed. During this time, they were calling the captive “uncle” in what the missionaries presumed to be mocking fashion.11 While it’s possible and probable they were mocking him in some fashion, the “uncle” was probably not part of this. In Iroquois longhouses, the father usually did not live with the children, and so the Uncle of the children filled the role of the father that Europeans were accustomed to; “Uncle” was a sign of respect, and if the captive was to be integrated into the Iroquois society, as was the intention and purpose of the torturing, he would probably be of an esteemed social rank because in this case, he was given to a chief or headsman.12


Adoption and Post-Torture

After the torturing of the captive was finished, by his premature death or otherwise, the family he was given to got to ultimately decide his fate; to kill or keep. If the captives were killed, they were cooked and eaten by the Iroquois village, thus they absorbed the captive’s spiritual power.13 If the captive were to be kept alive, his wounds were treated, and he became a member of Iroquois society as a member of the recently deceased; “I became aware that I was given in return for a dead man... causing the dead to become alive again in my person, according to their custom.”14 In the European sense, these adoptees were slaves, but in the Iroquois sense, they were members of their society with little to no political or social power; an infant. These adoptees could live dormantly as ‘lower class’ citizens or they could, using adopted Iroquois culture and techniques, rise through the political, social, or spiritual ranks to wield great power and influence over other Iroquois.15




Through torture, Iroquois reflected their complex culture to their victims. The need or desire to keep the captives alive resulted in heroism for the Iroquois warriors. The gift giving ceremonies reflected the social and political system of the Iroquois. The decisions of the grieving women to keep the captives alive or to kill them off reflected women's power within the society. The torturers’ taunts perversely reflected social life in the longhouses. If the captive died his spiritual power was absorbed, reflecting the Iroquois religion in a simplistic manner. And if the captive was adopted into an Iroquois family, he would be learning the culture from the ground up with the basis of what he learned through the torture; eventually revealing to him why he was taken captive in the first place: To replace a member of the recently deceased.





  1. Richter refers to this practice as a “mourning-war” repeatedly within his book, The Ordeal of the Longhouse.
  2. Richter, Longhouse, pg. 38.
  3. Richter, Longhouse, pg. 49, 41. The Iroquois used a peace of mind type deal. It may not be physical peace, but mental peace.
  4. Jesuit Relations, pg. 26; Longhouse, pg 66; Relations reports that the captive wore highly prized beaver skins and Wampum bead jewelry; while Longhouse reports that the captive was stripped of all clothing and outward signs of their former life.
  5. Richter, Longhouse, pg. 30-49.
  6. Richter, Longhouse, pg. 69. The 'altered state of conciousness' was seen as a pivital part of the captive's spirituality.
  7. Relations, pg. 46-57. The Frenchman recieved scarcely any food and was stripped of what little worldly goods he had.
  8. Richter, Longhouse, pg. 33.
  9. Relations, pg. 52, 53; Longhouse, pg. 33.
  10. Relations, pg. 39
  11. Relations, pg. 41
  12. Richter, Longhouse, pg. 41; Relations pg. 25-27
  13. Richter, Longhouse, pg. 36
  14. Richter, Longhouse, pg. 69; Relations, pg. 56
  15. Richter, Longhouse, pg. 70-71; Richter presents evidence of adopted captives becoming war chiefs, escaping Canadian captivity to warn their previous captors, and even becoming a headman of the Onondaga.




Richter, Daniel K. The Ordeal of the Longhouse. University of North Carolina Press; 1992.
Thwaites, Reuben, ed. The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents. Cleveland. The Burrows Brothers Company, 1798.






The Actual Torture


The actual torturing process went something like this (combined from both the Relations and Longhouse sources. And pre-European contact):


  1. The grieving family/lineage/woman would request a raid on a 'raid' for captives for the torturing process.
    • Usually the Iroquois men that participated in the raid were from the grieving family's lineage.
    • If larger raids were needed, then the family/lineage/woman prepared a feast for the village. Any man that ate from the feast volunteered himself for the raid.
    • If multiple towns would be arranged, the political leaders from each village met in the traditional manner and decided the proportion of the prisoners that would go to each town.

  2. The raiding party would attack a group/village of non-Iroquois people, whether the Iroquois were at peace with those peoples or not.

  3. The Iroquois would escort their captives as quickly and as far away as possible. Once the Iroquois considered themselves safe from being captured themselves, they stripped their captives. Occasionally they would mutilate the fingers and hands of the prisoner, beat them with clubs, or mildly slash them with knives.

  4. Women and children were usually, but not always, excluded from the events here on out until the adoption phase. And frequently, very, very frequently, the captive is asked to sing.
  5. Once returned or delivered to the Iroquois village, the prisoner was forced to go through a ganlet at the speed of the village's discretion.

  6. THe captives are thrown a grand feast and given many gifts to show that the village has power over him.

  7. After the feast, the captive is forced to sing and dance their way around a longhouse while those Iroquois who were nearby burned or whipped the captive.

  8. After song and dance, the captives were tied down, and then tortured more. Red hot hatchets were pressed against the body, embers and coals were rubbed onto the skin, cuts, wounds, etc.

  9. If the captive were to be put to death, a hatchet to the neck would do the job. But right before his last breath, he was scalped, and then hot sand from the fires was poured onto the exposed skull.

  10. If the captive was to live, the wounds were treated and s/he then became a member of the family that adopted them as an Iroquois.

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