Questions to ask yourself:  

What was life like before the arrival of the Europeans?  Why do people fight? 


Share an image of war that you have seen in a film that moved you emotionally.

Explain how it made you feel?

Discuss the guiding question for a few of the conflicts discussed:  Why do people fight? 

Depending on when you are working on this unit, one might also ask the same questions about a conflict or all-out war going on in the news at the moment.

What you will be able to do:

To describe warfare amongst the indigenous groups.

To explain the fate of prisoners.


View a map of our area on a site like 

Discuss any known Indigenous peoples that you can see.  You might have to zoom in to your area.  

Discuss any known conflicts between the First Nations that you know already.  Discuss why the different areas might have conflicted with one another.  Think in terms of the types of terrains, access to resources, and also access to early European traders and even settlers.

Read a few of the documents dealing in particular with the Causes for War, and also  Collective Responses and Trade Relationships, War with Iroquois in the north, and other related topics.   What else did you learn about why people fought? 

Causes for War

Revenge was one of the causes for war:  "Iroquoian conflicts traditionally arose when the families of dead warriors demanded satisfaction. The conflicts could well smoulder quietly for a certain amount of time before erupting in a series of raids, attacks and counterattacks, all seeking revenge, with the last attack always justified by the previous one. In this way, a climate of virtually incessant hostility and violence was perpetrated between the various nations. Decisions to raise war parties could also be prompted by the dreams of chiefs or war priests, falsely called sorcerers by the white men."  (Source)

Another cause was a traditional suspicion of other cultures:  When considering Lowland Cree--Inuit warfare it was found that  "such conflict predates the arrival of European colonials," Though indeed, "a post-contact change in the patterns and sources of warfare [has] been identified in those contexts.  [...] From a Cree perspective, warfare had little to do with questions of territoriality.... the prime motives for warfare entailed mutual mistrust attributable to irreconcilable ethnic differences, as well as arising from Lowland Cree misfortunes born of post-contact ecological change attributed to Inuit sorcery.“  (Source

Copper Inuit archers at Armstrong Point, Northwest Territories, via  under by-sa.  See also video Tribute to Inuit Archery 

In other words, in some regions, climatic changes or perhaps a depletion of the land's resources may have caused tensions.  "Inuit expansion many hundreds of years ago along the shores of the bays, a movement perhaps precipitated by changing climatic conditions and a search for resources, may have been a primary cause of the prehistoric warfare.” (Source) 

This kind of reason partially resembles the way southern agricultural peoples, moving to new fertile lands might have entered into conflicts, though movement because of new trade relations was also a factor:  “Traditionally, the Mohawk were swidden (slash and burn) agriculturalists; moving villages from time to time to prevent soil erosion and exhaustion. In some instances, Mohawk settlements were relocated in order to give the whole nation a better vantage point in dealing with other native nations and Europeans. Often migrations were accompanied by military alliance, and in some cases by religious conversion. The Six Nations Confederacy fought different nations between the years of 1608 and 1667. At various times, the Huron, Algonquin, and Montagnais allied themselves with the French and were at war with the Haudenosaunee.” (Source) 

Source: Inuit Cree Reconciliation  (Note: Picture depicts a post-contact time period!)

League of Iroquois vs others:  Collective Responses and Trade Relationships

“In chapter 7, Dean R. Snow contends that precontact Iroquoian warfare was fueled in large part by the quest for revenge. In the sixteenth century, the League of the Iroquois was established as a collective response to intratribal hostilities. In the century that followed, the Iroquois sought trade relationships with various European colonial powers to exchange furs for guns. Such trade led to an increase in raiding activity by non-League nations during the course of the seventeenth century. Snow explains that such conflict heightened the demand for war captives and human trophies. This was in turn exacerbated by population losses arising from the epidemics of the time, coupled with the desire to acquire status goods and prestige items. In the eighteenth century, a surrogate for war and intertribal or intratribal conflict materialized as status and prestige could then be enhanced by the accumulation of monetary wealth and luxury goods. The rise and consolidation of power by European colonists eventually brought an end to intertribal warfare between the American Indian tribes and nations of the region.”

Source:  North American Indigenous Warfare and Ritual Violence | UAPress 

An illustration of European and indigenous fur traders in North America, 1777 . Public Domain. 

THE GREAT DISPERSION, 1648-1653, Historical alas of Canada. Vol. I. Plate 351, via The Role of the Dutch in the Iroquois Wars by Peter Lowensteyn 

War with Iroquois in the north, even into Cree territory

“Long ago when Naataweuch [Iroquois] were still killing Cree people, a Naataweuch canoe must have tipped over near Kaa Iinuukanuuch. That’s where they found bones.

They probably thought it was safe to go down, but their canoe must have tipped and they drowned.”

- George Cannashish

To destroy the economy of New France, Naataweuch warriors attacked tribes friendly with the French. By the 1660s, their raids had extended into the Nemaska-Mistissini-Waswanipi area. Iroquoian pottery made before the raids, however, has been found along the Eastmain River. This suggests that not all contact was hostile.““

Source:  Archived here.

A hunter-family of Cree at York Fort, Manitoba, 1821. Archives Canada at Online MIKAN no. 2835784  

Explore further:

Read through additional documents related the Nature of War in Indigenous Societies, Different styles of warfare, Iroquois war practices as described by Jesuits, and other related topics.

Using a mapping technology to map out which tribes and nations were in conflict, and add some of the key information from these texts into the points or areas on the map.

Present what you mapped to your classmates.  Include an explanation of why war would have  been fought in the way it was during those times.

The Nature of War in Indigenous Societies

“War played a pivotal role in the lives of all pre-Columbian North American peoples. The best way for young men to win the respect and admiration of other warriors and attract the attention of women was to distinguish themselves in battle. [However, unlike in many European militaries,] Warriors were not subject to rigid discipline. They decided on their own whether they wanted to wage war and could stop at any time if they so desired. [...]

Most males became warriors. At a very young age, boys began practising with bows and arrows, spears and slings. They practised hand-to-hand combat and learned to move furtively, to camouflage themselves and terrify the enemy with whoops and cries. In case of hostilities, bands of a greater or lesser size were formed, then divided into squads of five or six men. The warriors who were generally recognized as the bravest were selected as war chieftains, constituting a sort of general staff. They met to discuss and draw up plans for the campaign. Before the battle, they devised a basic strategy, establishing the positions of warriors in the field and the tactics to follow.”  (Source)

"Among the Iroquoian nations in the northeast, ‘mourning wars’ were practiced. Such conflicts involved raiding with the intent to capture prisoners, who were then adopted by bereaved families to replace family members who had died prematurely due to illness or war."  (Source)  

Different styles of warfare: North vs South for Eastern Woodlands peoples

“In chapter 9, George R. Milner demonstrates that Eastern Woodlands war and conflict varied over time and space and was affected by the sociopolitical milieu in which it was manifest. ... Archaic hunter-gatherers of the region fought one another with considerable frequency. [A slowdown of conflicts occurred when agricultural practices started to emerge, then there was]  ..a dramatic resurgence in armed conflict after that hiatus among the competing tribes and chiefdoms of the region. At the same time, the southern portion of the Eastern Woodlands was characterized by well-organized chiefdoms capable of mounting large-scale attacks. By contrast, in the northern portion of the Eastern Woodlands, combat was often instigated or directed by tribal headmen who conducted themselves in presumably less formally organized and certainly lower-intensity military engagements.”

Source: North American Indigenous Warfare and Ritual Violence | UAPress 

 Screen shot from 3:53 / 7:00 Iroquoian armor part 3: Thoughts on the back shield. 

Iroquois war practices as described by Jesuits

Texts drawn from Biography of Isaac Jogues .... “Isaac was tortured by the Iroquois but forgave his tormentors and returned to preach only to die a martyr.”  ... “On the fifth day of their journey, Aug. 8, two Iroquois runners met them announcing that at a day's distance there were encamped on an island two hundred Mohawks, who were on the warpath. The Hurons knew what this signified. Indians on the warpath believe that success depends upon torture of prisoners. They also believe that by inflicting pain on others they nerve themselves to acts of bravery.”

Source: Isaac Jogues: Missionary and Martyr - Torture 

Bibliothèque et Archives Nationales du Québec / 52327/2507 via  BRÉBEUF, JEAN DE (Échon) – Volume I (1000-1700) – Dictionary of Canadian Biography 

Investigate notions of torture and prisoners.

Read through the documents related to the second learning intention on prisoners:  i.e. To explain the fate of prisoners!

In a short essay explain answers to these sub-questions:

Were warfare practices of Indigenous peoples generally different from Europeans, and how?  

Were they different between different First Nations?

Why was the importance and the fate of prisoners?

Adoption of prisoners, slavery, torture, death

One custom, amongst Mohawk nations, for example, was when a captive combatant was not killed that he was "given as a slave to one of the families who had lost a son on the warpath. The owner had the right of life and death over his slave. Within the village confines, no one else had the right to strike or kill him.”  (Source).  

Indeed, the right of life and death of the mourning families also include the right to torture the captive.  And it is precisely this personal and even familial distribution of death and torture that gave them the reputation of being barbarians in European eyes. (Source  That being said, it was only one option for the family to torture prisoners.  Indeed, the notion of using the prisoner as a slave was likely a more common practice, since that person would be needed in the community as a replacement for the warrior who died.


"Photo: The Mohawk Warriors. Here are represented some of the customs of the famous Mohawk Indians, noted for their ferocious warfare. A war party has returned with two Mohican prisoners, one of whom has thrown down his burden and is about to be killed. With folded arms he awaits his fate when a clan matron coming up from the village holds forth the ransom wampum, saving his life for a family adoption. "

Text and image source:  History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925 — The Mohawk Warriors  Image presumed in Public Domain

Captives tied for sleeping. While certainly uncomfortable, the elaborate restraints were designed to immobilize, rather than torture, the prisoners. From Joseph-François Lafitau, “Moeurs des Sauvages Amériquains,” 1724. via Bound by Tradition: Prisoner Restraints in the Captive Experience

Wendat and Haudenosaunee:  Of prisoners and clans

A certain number of Wendats remained in Huronia [after the Iroquois wars with them].  They didn’t follow the group that settled in the Island of Orleans.  Instead, they did what often happened during wars:  they sought refuge with the other nations, some of whom were also dispersed after the aftermath of conflicts with the Iroquois; i.e. among the Tionnontatés, the Neutrals, the Eries, and some possibly with the Petuns. 


Tahontaenrat and Arendarhonon who had been living with the Neutrals were at least on their way to the safe havens along the St. Lawrence on May 1651, but we’re still unsure how many made it because, again, that main group relocated amongst another group, the Senecas themselves. 


Jean Francois Lozier also made another important observation concerning clans and groups within the Wendat nation, a point often lacking in the Jesuits’  archives that the refugee Wendat population was a heterogeneous group.  He goes on to reveal there were eight to twelve clans recorded in “Old Wendake” alone, which included the Deer, Turtle, Wolf, Bear, Snake, Porcupine and Hawk the most prominent.

Allied politically though they were, the individual members of the Wendat confederacy nations were also people who shared experiences with other nations, even family ties.   

Éric Pouliot-Thisdale sourcing Lozier

A Few Video Suggestions 

A few videos we have found that could work to go over certain aspects of Indigenous warfare.  

Some segments could be useful for certain practices in warfare, while others contain details about relations between tribes and nations.  

Please be cautious.  Some older videos might reflect a dated perspective, and some images are violent and not suited to younger students.   Also note that "Ató:ken" video is in French, provided by Éric-Miguel Leduc, a contributor to our feature section on The Kanien’ké:ha in the St. Lawrence

Documentary on the History of the Iroquois

Iroquois, A Tribe Who Resisted The French

Ató:ken - La guerre haudenosaunee.

Series armour in an Iroquoian context

Our Main Document Collection

Our main teacher document collection of curated online resources is also available.  Please visit all sources to view larger images and to access more information within the intended context of those external sources.  Click to open our working collection in a separate window.

Origins to 1608 -- (#5) Indigenous peoples & Colonization (Warfare and fate of prisoners) copy

See also available RECITUS tasks and document collections:

Indigenous territory before the arrival of Europeans  Go to site

The Society of the Iroquoians  Go to site

The Algonquian Society  Go to site