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Food, clothing, and shelter are the 3 basic needs that people all over the world share, regardless of time period or culture.  In prehistoric times, each group of people explored the environment around them to find what they needed to make their lives safer and easier.  Today, most people buy what they need from stores or trade with one another.


A traditional outfit for a man or boy might include a ribbon shirt, breechcloth, leggings and sash. A traditional outfit for a woman or girl might include an overdress, skirt and leggings. These clothes are made from cloth or leather and usually include moccasins. Accessories such as silver or bead jewelry, barrettes, wampum, bolo ties and pendants can also be part of an outfit. Sometimes these accessories, especially those with clan animal symbols, are worn with everyday clothes too.

Have you ever worn a prairie skirt and bonnet to school? Suspenders and a top hat to church? Of course not! Even though your ancestors may have worn such things, you wear today’s styles. Haudenosaunee people today don’t dress like their ancestors either. For everyday, they wear jeans, sneakers, tee-shirts and baseball caps just like you and me!

What you choose to wear is an important part of your own identity. Today, most Haudenosaunee prefer to wear their own style designs rather than those of other Native nations. The choice of colors, pattern and beadwork on a person’s traditional outfit is individual. But, wearing such an outfit for a ceremony or other special event also unites the Haudenosaunee with one another.

For special occasions such as ceremonies, weddings, graduations, or powwows, Haudenosaunee may wear special outfits made in a traditional or older style. Haudenosaunee call these traditional clothes “outfits” and not “costumes.” A costume is what a person wears when they pretend to be something or someone else. When Haudenosaunee wear their traditional clothing, they are not pretending to be anything else – they are showing pride in being Haudenosaunee!

Early Haudenosaunee had no fabric of the sort that we have today. Their clothing was constructed from animal skins. Deer, moose, and elk were valued for their thick hides. Furs from beavers, bears, and wolves were needed for warmth. Basic pieces of clothing were moccasins, leggings, skirts for women, breechcloths for men, a wrap to cover the upper part of the body and fur robes for cold weather. Accessories were made of shell, bone, antler, clay, feathers, & other natural materials.

Cloth was introduced to the Haudenosaunee by European traders and quickly became an important trade item. At first, Haudenosaunee used the cloth to make their own style of clothing. By the 1700s, calico and flannel cloth became popular for men’s and women’s outfits. Finished items from Europe like military coats and linen shirts, glass beads and silver jewelry were also introduced. For the first time, Native clothing began to feature sleeves!

Before long, Haudenosaunee women and men began to adopt the styles of their European neighbors. Women were soon wearing knee length fancy petticoats and blouses. Others preferred broadcloth skirts and colorful calico overdresses decorated with ribbons and silver. Men chose flannel and broadcloth hunting shirts. Sometimes they even wore the fancy ruffled shirts sported by European men at that time.

Despite the popularity of the new styles, Haudenosaunee continued to preserve some of their own way of dressing. As late as the 1850’s men preferred old style leather leggings and even European style outfits were accessorized with porcupine quills, beads, fringe, and shell. By the 1900’s, most Haudenosaunee dressed in the same way as their European neighbors. Traditional clothing was reserved only for special occasions.

The parts of a traditional outfit are often very special. Sometimes they are created as a gift for an accomplishment like a graduation or an event like a baby’s naming ceremony. Sometimes parts of an outfit are handed down from one generation to the next. Often, making an outfit is something that a mother and daughter or aunt and niece may do together. Wearing a traditional outfit connects Haudenosaunee to their families, their communities, and relatives who may have passed on.

During this time a show style of dress was invented that combined styles from other Native American nations with Iroquois styles. Plains Indian clothing, accessories and designs became fashionable. Outfits were often made of tan and brown cloth to resemble leather. Shoulders, sleeves, pant legs and skirt bottoms were fringed. The large Plains style feather headdress also became quite popular.


In the past, the knowledge that each group had about their environment was special and was built up over thousands of years.  This knowledge was very important.  Not understanding how to construct the right sort of house or make the proper clothing for your environment could mean that you or a family member might not survive.  Styles of housing and clothing were different for each group and also distinguished one group from another.   

“Longhouse” means many things to the Haudenosaunee.A longhouse is the term used to describe traditional, long, bark-covered houses in which the Haudenosaunee lived before colonization. Each longhouse provided shelter for many people. The people who lived in a longhouse were closely related and belonged to a certain clan or were married to a woman belonging to that clan.  If the family grew in number, the longhouse could be extended and made longer.

A longhouse was built by making a framework of tree saplings over which large slabs of elm bark were attached.  A doorway was located at both ends of the longhouse.  Animal skins could be hung in the doorways to keep out the wind and the cold.  There were no windows. 

Sleeping platforms were built along both sides of the inside of the longhouse. People could hang skins as curtains for privacy. Platforms were also built above the sleeping areas for storage. Belongings could be stored under or over the sleeping platforms or hung from the rafters. There were fire pits for cooking, heat and light along the length of the interior of the longhouse. Openings in the roof above each fire pit allowed the smoke to escape.

The longhouse is also a metaphor, a visual symbol, for the social structure of the Haudenosaunee.  The symbolic longhouse has a doorway facing east and one facing west.  There are five smoke holes representing from east to west, the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and the Seneca Nations.  The floor of this symbolic longhouse is Mother Earth.  The roof is the sky.

The rafters represent the laws of The Great Law of Peace which is the Constitution of the Haudenosaunee.  This symbolic longhouse is a reminder that the five individual nations are related and bound together by the Iroquois Confederacy.  Sometimes, this longhouse is drawn on top of a map of what is now known as New York State in order to show the relationship of the traditional territory of each nation.

Today, the Haudenosaunee live in all kinds of buildings.  They live in apartment houses, farm houses, short houses, tall houses, cabins, modular homes, mobile homes, big houses and little houses. Some live away from the reservations in tall, city skyscrapers.

The Longhouse of today refers to a certain building in which the people attend meetings, ceremonies and social dances.

© 2014 Iroquois Indian Museum created with

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