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Native American Society


The lakes of central New York state dot and nestle next to the Adirondacks. The lakes supported nearby forests that produced enough wild game and foliage to feed many, so it was on the banks of the Cayuga and Owasco lakes that the Cayuga tribe made its home. Fitting that Cayuga means "where the boats were taken out of the water."

The forests also provided enough bark and wood materials for the Cayuga to create the arched, multifamily long houses for dwelling. They would take parallel rows of small tree trunks, arc them and tie them together in the center of the arc. Then the skeletal structure would be covered with elm or other bark.

Though the lands were ripe for farming and neighboring tribes did so, the Cayuga chose to be hunter/gatherers instead. In the spring, they tapped maple trees for sap they turned into syrup and sugar, storing it troughs of bark for year-round use.

Deerskin was the source for dress - breechcloths for men and short deerskin shirts for women in summer, with moccasins and capes added for warmth in winter.

January marks a month of ceremony for the Cayuga, including one eight-day event in which the False Face Society engages in healings. The "false faces" are actually carved wooden masks that depict the spirits seen in life and in dreams. The masks contain medicine of their own, they must never be left alone in dark, confined spaces and are honored by having tobacco burned inside them as an offering. The members of the False Face Society who wear the masks are said to have special powers themselves.

The Cayuga joined with the Seneca, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk and Tuscarora as the junior member of the League of Six Nations, or Iroquois Confederacy. The Confederacy was formed sometime between 1400 and 1600, the brainchild of Deganawide, a Huron mystic, and Hiawatha, a disciple of Deganawide. Its intent was to unite neighboring tribes which would stop intertribal warring. Before the addition of the Cayuga to make six nations, the high chiefs of the original five decided on a set of laws and customs that would govern the Six Nations. This worked well until the turmoil of the Revolutionary War divided the tribes once again, and shortly after the end of the war thing were so bad a vote was taken and the harmonious council fires were extinguished.

During the 1600 and 1700s members of the Six Nations fought against the French to preserve the fur trade. All six member nations tried very hard to remain neutral during the Revolutionary War but eventually the British won them over and they fought against the Americans, who as a result burned Cayuga villages to the ground following the war.

By 1789 the new white government of New York wanted the Cayuga land and the Cayuga gone. The tribe was offered money in exchange for their land, so they signed a treaty and moved to the Seneca reservation already in place on the western side of the state, or to Canada. Though they upheld their end of the deal, the Cayuga were never paid for their lands. Nothing came with the signing of the treaty, not even an explanation. Later the state made two payments and then stopped paying on the grounds the Cayuga were living on another tribe's land or were out of the country in Canada.

To this day the tribe still petitions the state for due payment, and descendants of those originally owed live in New York and Canada.

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