Iroquois Culture In order to fully understand and appreciate a culture different from one's own, one must first have a grasp on ethnocentrism and how it can change thoughts and viewpoints. Ethnocentrism is a term used when someone is judging a culture's ethics or way of life based upon his or her own belief structure or cultural values. Granted, being ethnocentric is not necessarily something to be ashamed of; everyone does it as a part of human nature. What one must realize, however, is that it can change one's viewpoint to the point where another culture's practices may seem barbaric. Ethnocentrism cannot be avoided. One simply must be aware that it happens and reflect upon it when it does occur.
A few other problem areas occur when one uses particular concepts to address a culture, such as "development" and "advanced culture." In the case of Iroquois culture, U.S. citizens may be inclined to judge the Iroquois as an advanced culture, since they could farm the land and had a form of government structure between the cultures (keep in mind that the term Iroquois describes a group of tribes, not any particular one).
But one can see that the term "advanced culture" comes from an ethnocentric standpoint. One might also "label" as society as "developing," but development can be defined as progress toward a goal, a higher society. This is also a pitfall in anthropology, provided that one does not understand ethnocentrism. What must be realized is that the study of ancient cultures would be more objective if ethnocentrism did not exist. However, it would also be much harder to study and understand a culture if it could not be compared in some way to one's own.
The Iroquois culture and the corresponding timeline can be crudely divided into two periods: life before contact with European settlers, and life after contact. The term "crudely" is used because blame for events that occur is not to be placed on the settlers. This division is also made because life for the Iroquois changed drastically after European contact. Iroquois nations found themselves competing for the goods the settlers offered. The settlers also brought with them diseases that the Iroquois had never been exposed to. Consequently, many nations suffered enormous losses simply because their bodies did not have immunity to these new diseases. One could say the Iroquois were enlightened by this new interaction with the settlers, but at what cost? In some Iroquois villages, nearly half the population was lost to disease. Much of what the settlers had to offer the Iroquois were merely luxuries. They had survived for centuries without them.
The Iroquois were never a particularly peaceful culture from the settler's standpoint. The settlers defined peace as an absence of war, while the Iroquois believed war was needed as a way to keep peace. The government structure served more as a guideline than law. It was not an alliance between the cultures. Many small battles arose, mostly vengeful acts. The Iroquois firmly believed no death was accidental; someone had to be blamed. So the tribe would attack their enemy for vengeance. A little reflection on this idea, and one can see why the settlers thought of the Iroquois as a violent culture.
Rituals and Tradition were a large part of Iroquois society. Rituals and traditions have been shown throughout history to be a large part of what holds a society together. Many rituals and traditions in Iroquois culture revolved around death and the other side. While one moiety would be mourning a death in the group, another would make burial and ceremonial preparations. Moieties were divisions within a particular clan. Another tradition closely tied to this was the replacement of loved ones. The loved one was replaced by either another member of the clan, or someone captured from another Iroquois clan. The individual used to replace the loved one would inherit that loved one's identity; they would cease to be who they were before. This idea makes one question the importance of identity in Iroquois culture. Did they believe in a "soul?" This can lead to more confusion when one looks at the "death dances" the Iroquois held. In these ritualistic ceremonies, the deceased were believed to actually return to the tribe and dance alongside the clan.
The relationship between the Iroquois culture and the European settlers is an excellent example of what can go wrong when two substantially different cultures interact. It goes beyond the fact that European diseases had catastrophic effects on the Iroquois, and yet it can all be attributed to that fact. One could say that had the two cultures worked together more instead of trade and fight, they could have worked out the problems and lived next to each other peacefully. But on the other hand, the simple interaction between the two cultures was how the diseases were introduced to the Iroquois in the first place. Diseases and epidemics take time to overcome, and it seems that neither culture was truly aware of the ultimate consequences of their actions and interaction, or the delicacy and time required to make it work out for both sides.