Mourning Wars

The Iroquois

The Iroquois (also known as the Haudenosaunee) were a Confederation of Native American tribes which had formed in the Northeastern part of the modern day United States. They held their own against European influences leading up to the American Revolution and were able to successfully (for the most part) navigate relations with the French, the British and the American Colonies. Back in college, I studied the Iroquois briefly and I remember reading about a concept called “Mourning Wars.” The term has stuck with me as one of the most interesting concepts I can recall from studying history.

The Iroquois were known for their “Mourning Wars," which will be the focus of this topic. A brief explanation of the concept goes something like this: If an Iroquois tribe member died or was killed in battle, the family would often replace them with a captured member of another Native American tribe. In order to make this happen, Iroquois warriors would have to go and kidnap individuals from other tribes. So if your aunt was killed when another tribe raided your village, you would seek to replace her and this is a literal replacement. Another woman (most likely resembling your late aunt) would be captured from another tribe and then would be adopted into your family. She would take over the role of your aunt in the family and would fulfill her previous work within society. If the newly adopted member fulfilled her new role and was compliant, then things tended to go pretty smoothly and she would be accepted as a replacement. If this woman did not adapt to her new role quickly, or even worse, she pushed back against it, she could be executed. While that’s a relatively simple explanation of the concept, there was much more to the ritual adoption.

European Warfare vs. Mourning Wars

Before going into more detail about the “Mourning Wars,” it’s worth providing a little background on how warfare amongst the Iroquois was different from the warfare we are conditioned to learning about from history. Typically, U.S. students learn about Westernized warfare. This is the idea of too large powers battling it out at a location, most likely lining up and trying to demolish each other. Armies were willing to sacrifice a good proportion of their soldiers in order to achieve victory. We can even point to things like sieges where huge portions of an army would be expected to perish. For Western powers, this was possible because they often had larger populations that allowed for this type of sacrifice without disrupting their culture and population. Furthermore, Western wars were usually fought over land and resources so you needed to remove your enemy from the land. Lastly, European powers had ingrained a culture of “glory” within their soldiers. In many western cultures, dying on the battlefield was a proud death and it was an honor to sacrifice one’s life for his country.

The Iroquois, contrary to Western powers, did not have the luxury of expendable members of the tribes. They had much smaller numbers than the European powers and these numbers got significantly smaller after the Europeans brought smallpox and other diseases into the Americas. There was no such honor in dying on the battlefield in Iroquois culture. Honor came from being a great warrior and great warriors were smart enough to realize how to not die on the battlefield. In fact, historians have documented that warriors killed on the battlefield would most likely not be buried in community cemeteries. Their death would result in them becoming angry ghosts in the afterlife, therefore their bodies would not be brought home. So, most Iroquois battles were fought as surprise attacks and ambushes. Warriors went out of their way to take as little risk as possible. Europeans noted that large numbers of warriors could be turned away from battle if a few of them were killed while attacking. Lastly, the Iroquois weren’t interested in seeing any of their men killed, but during “Mourning Wars,” they didn’t even try to kill the enemy. A few enemy casualties were ok, but the whole goal of these attacks was to capture other Native Americans that could be adopted into their tribe… or in some cases ritually tortured or ritually killed. Mourning Wars were often bloodless affairs.

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The Mourning Wars

According to the Iroquois, losing a family member affected the entire family. The family believed they would lose spiritual strength if they did not replace their lost member. In the essence of a maternalistic society, it was the clan mothers who would put forth the request for warriors to go and find a replacement for a lost member of the tribe. If they summoned warriors and the warriors did not commit to the “Mourning War” then those men could be branded as cowards, which had lasting effects, such as never being able to get married. 

So, the men would gear up and would ambush a neighboring tribe, capturing as many individuals as they could and then bring the captives back home. The captives would be stripped, often tortured or burned to test their will, and then the tribe would determine if they would be adopted into the tribe or ritually killed. In some cases, captives might be made to run a gauntlet. Tribe members would line up across from each other brandishing sticks or clubs and would strike blows to the captives as they ran through the line. If a captive fell, they might be killed. For any captives chosen to be adopted, they would quickly assume the role of the deceased person they were replacing. This maintained the delicate balance of the tribe and society.

Ritual Killings

Not all of the captives were adopted. Some were killed and possibly even tortured before their death. Why kill them? Historians have suggested that some prisoners were killed for a few different reasons. It may have been as simple as no one wanted to adopt a certain prisoner. The prisoner may have appeared too weak. Or perhaps the prisoners were killed due to rage or revenge if their tribe had been the one to kill an Iroquois. Furthermore, the ritual torturing that took place was a way to show young Iroquois how to carry themselves through life. Those who were tortured and did not cry out or show pain were revered, perhaps even cannibalized in the belief that by eating them, the Iroquois could gain their strength (although this theory is also shot down by other historians). Regardless, the moral for those who watched the torturing and killing was “remain strong.”


While the violence, kidnapping and killing shouldn’t be remembered fondly, there are some positives from these “Mourning Wars.” Besides the fact that this was an interesting concept from history, it did show some positive aspects of the human spirit. The idea that one tribe could adopt members of another into their home and family in almost immediate fashion must have taken a very open society. Plus, there are records of both young and old captives who grew to associate with their capturers as their true family. All-in-all the “Mourning Wars” saw their greatest use as a desperate attempt by the Iroquois to maintain their manpower so that they could compete against the Europeans. Unfortunately, the Iroquois power dwindled after disease ran rampant through the tribes and also after the members of the Confederacy were split over who to align with in the American Revolution.

This was a brief excerpt regarding “Mourning Wars” you can read more about the wars and the Iroquois here: