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Native American Maps (and Ideas) that Shaped the Nation

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Territories of the People of the Long House in 1720. Map: Henry Louis Morgan. Geography and Map Division. 

Kelly Bilz, a 2020 librarian in residence in the Geography and Map Division, wrote a short piece on this map for the Library of Congress Magazine‘s May/June issue. It’s been expanded significantly here by Jalondra Jackson, an intern in the Office of Communications. 

The United States is built over the already existing identities and place names of Native Americans who lived in North America for thousands of years before European settlers arrived, a fact borne out by scanning the modern map of the nation.

From Alabama to Alaska, from Mississippi to Massachusetts, about half of all state names are taken directly or indirectly from Native American cultures and languages, including Oklahoma, Kentucky, Utah, Missouri, Michigan and North and South Dakota.

These historical fingerprints are a good thing to remember during Native American Heritage Month because, as the Library’s collections document, the influence of Native Americans on the nation’s identity goes much deeper.

Let’s take the map above as an example.

It looks like an early rendering of New York (named for the British Duke of York and Albany), but is actually the territory of the indigenous Haudenosaunee, also known as the Iroquois Confederacy or Six Nations, as it existed in 1720. The Haudenosaunee (Ho-de-no-SHOW-nee) nations had been founded on the territory of what is now New York centuries earlier.

The map’s full title is “Map of Ho-De-No-Sau-Nee-Ga: Or The Territories Of The People Of The Long House.” It shows the “names of their villages, lakes, rivers, streams & ancient localities, and the courses of their principal trails.”

Haudenosaunee  is the word for the wood and bark houses that extended families, or clans, lived in. The houses mostly ranged from 80 to 120 feet long, with interior rooms connected by a central hallway. (“Iroquois” is of French origin, and not how the Haudenosaunee generally refer to themselves.)

The Long House at the Seneca Arts and Culture Center. Photo: Courtesy of Michael Galban.

The original nations of the confederacy were the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca, with the Tuscarora added later.

But it was the Haudenosaunee’s constitution, the Great Law of Peace, that proved far more influential on life in America. Benjamin Franklin, one of the nation’s Founding Fathers, was intrigued by how the Great Law balanced power among local and regional interests and among different tribes.

In the early 1750s — more than three decades before the U.S. Constitution was written — Franklin was painfully aware how united French forces routinely exploited the differences among the fledgling British Colonies. He saw in the Haudenosaunee constitution a path for his own people.

“It would be very strange,” Franklin wrote to a friend in 1751, “if six nations of ignorant savages should be capable of forming a scheme for such a union, and be able to execute it in such a manner as that it has subsisted for ages, and appears indissoluble, and yet that a like union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen colonies, to whom it is more necessary and must be more advantageous.”

Gratuitous insults aside, Franklin incorporated those ideas in his plans for a new government in the Americas; the Great Law is often cited as one of the inspirations for the Constitution’s balancing of powers.

The map, meanwhile, was made by the famed anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan. Born in 1818 in Rochester, New York, Morgan was a lawyer and state senator but is far more lastingly known as a founder of scientific anthropology.

Like Franklin, he was fascinated with the Haudenosaunee. He spent so much time with them that the largest nation among them, the Seneca, informally adopted him. While in his early 20s, Morgan founded the “Grand Order of the Iroquois,” a semi-secret fraternal society. The group would dress in Haudenosaunee regalia and chant their war cries as part of their ceremonies.

Such studies led to his first book, “The League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee, or Iroquois,” in 1851. The book documents the language, fabrics and a map of the nations, and is regarded as a classic in its field.

Group of Iroquois people, lined up in snow, posing for a group picture
Iroquois Indians, posing for a panoramic group photo, about 1914. Photo: William A. Drennan. Prints and Photographs Division.

Morgan’s map, says Michael Galban, curator of the Seneca Arts and Culture Center in Victor, New York, was “his impression” of tribal boundaries, giving a false appearance of sharply delineated borders. Boundaries were in reality much more fluid, but Morgan’s map is acknowledged to be generally accurate, he said, even down to its trails and paths.

Today, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy still  operates, maintaining their original traditions, beliefs and values through their own government — which, as Ben Franklin could tell you, had some profound ideas.

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Comments (2)

  1. I did a dna on my son and daughter my son has 25 % ameri can indian gene, my daughtere who looks like me has 22 % american indian genes. question? Are herer and benifi9te what so ever that they may be intitiled to?

    • Hello Mr. Szhack,

      This is not expert legal or genealogical advice, but each tribal nation has its own standards of membership. Here’s a link to the National Congress of American Indians; they’d be able to help.

      All best,

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