Aztecs and Iroquais cannibal customs
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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窶"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窶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窶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窶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窶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窶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 g