The “Speck Iroquois Collection” in The University Museum

By: Elisabeth Tooker

Originally Published in 1987

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Among the objects of Iroquois manufacture in The Univer­sity Museum are a number collected by Frank G. Speck, some given to the Museum by Samuel Fernberger, and a larger number given by Samuel W. Pennypacker, some of which he may have col­lected himself. These objects reflect Speck’s interests, most particularly his research on the religious rites of the Cayuga Sour Springs Longhouse on the Six Nations Reserve in Onta­rio, Canada. For this reason, they might be called the “Speck Iroquois collection.”

Speck and the Museum

Speck was an avid collector and trader in Indian artifacts (see box). However, he col­lected few items specifically for the Museum and almost none of these were Iroquois. The reason undoubt­edly was a conflict between Speck and George Byron Gordon, then director of the Museum, that resulted in 1911 in the termination of Speck’s connection with the Museum. Thereafter Speck devoted his ener­gies within the University to building a separate Department of Anthro­pology. Lacking a depository at The University Museum, Speck turned to other institutions and to individuals as a substitute. Important among the latter was Pennypacker, a former student of Speck’s, who later bequeathed to the Museum a number of objects (including Iro­quois ones) he had obtained through Speck’s offices.

It was through their ceremonials and ritual objects that Speck sought to understand and represent the Iroquois. Consequently, utilitarian objects such as bowls and baskets (the Iroquois are fine basket makers) are lacking or underrepresented in the collection. Such as are repre­sented (see ladle in Fig. 2) are of the sort that might be used in preparing the “feast” of a ceremony. There are few examples of clothing and orna­ments, or weapons (war clubs, tomahawks, bows and arrows).

Speck’s Research

Speck took up the systematic study of Cayuga ceremonial­ism in 1931. It was an interest that developed out of his previous research among eastern Indians, and the specific questions he hoped to answer were those also suggested by this earlier work. He had, for example, worked among the Iro­quoian-speaking Cherokee in the South, and the question of cultural resemblances between them and their northern linguistic relatives could not have been far from his mind. He had also done research among the Delaware, some of whom had taken up residence on the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario on lands granted to the Iroquois by the Crown after the American Revolution. In studying Cayuga ceremonial prac­tice, he wished to compare the infor­mation gained to that he had earlier obtained on the Algonquian-speak­ing Delaware. As a young man, he had carried out studies (particularly of material culture) of the Hurons of Lorette. This was a remnant Huron group who had moved to a location near Quebec City after the defeat of the Iroquoian-speaking Hurons at the hands of the Iroquois in the mid-17th century. He had also done a little field work among the Oka Iroquois, a group that moved to Canada in the latter part of the 17th century. He was, then, no stran­ger to Iroquoian studies in 1931, and, in fact, had witnessed some of the dances on earlier visits to the Six Nations.

The great Iroquois ceremonial of Midwinter or New Year’s conven­iently falls in the latter part of January or early part of February—about the time of college semester break. It was probably this circum­stance that permitted Speck to wit­ness the ceremony in whole or part during the years 1933-36 and 1944- 45. On these and other field trips to Six Nations, he also had extensive conversations with his major col­laborator, the noted Cayuga ritualist Alexander General. The results were published in 1949 by the University of Pennsylvania Press in a book entitled Midwinter Rites of the Cayuga Long House.

Iroquois Ceremonialism

Iroquois ritual is built out of songs, dances (both “sacred” and “social”), games (including importantly the Bowl Game, a kind of dice game), and speeches. (Some speeches are addressed to human beings and some to what Speck terms “spirit forces”—a number of these are accompanied by a tobacco invocation, i.e., the burning of to­bacco.) Typically, each ceremonial (in Midwinter, each day’s ritual) begins with a Thanksgiving Speech which returns thanks to the beings on this earth and above. There fol­low the dances (and games) appro­priate to that particular occasion, then a shorter, closing Thanksgiving Speech and the distribution of the feast (most importantly a soup) to those attending.

The Midwinter ceremonial, the longest of all Iroquois ceremonies, is a particularly advantageous event from which to view Iroquois ritual as a whole. Both ending and begin­ning the ceremonial year, it incor­porates a number of ceremonies held at other times in the Longhouse. For example, the Our-Life-Support­er dances (at the Sour Springs Long-house, comprising the series Feather Dance, Women’s Dance, Standing Quiver Dance, Corn Dance, Bean Dance, and Squash Dance) consti­tute the principal rite of the Sour Springs Raspberry, Green Bean, and Harvest ceremonies. This rite is also part of the longer Green Corn cere­mony, which includes in addition performance of the Four Sacred Rituals—Feather Dance, Thanks­giving Dance, Rite of Personal Chant, and Bowl Game. All these rites also figure prominently in Mid­winter.

Through the rites of dream re­newal, the Midwinter ceremonial also includes some rites of the so-called medicine societies. During Midwinter all dreams should be renewed. These include dreams that indicated a particular dance or game would cure, as well as those that indicated a Medicine Society rite would.

Certain other rites are unique to Midwinter. The ashes-stirring rite on the opening days is an example, as is the lengthy tobacco invocation to the Creator.

Ceremonial Paraphernalia

There is in Iroquois ritual little visual symbolism and little manipulation of sacred objects. The Longhouse is as bare of sacred visual symbols as a Quaker meeting house. All that is required are benches along the walls on which people may sit, some movable benches for musicians, and two wood-burning stoves or fireplaces. “Indian” costume may be worn for certain dances, but is not essential. Rattles and drums (“singing tools”; Figs. 3, 4) are essential to the per­formance of certain songs and dances, but in and of themselves are not sacred.

The most obvious exceptions to this lack of attention to sacred ob­jects are the masks. These are of two types: those made of wood and those made of corn husks. The latter (usually now of braided corn husks) are worn by members of the Corn Husk medicine society in their ritu­als (Figs. 5, 8). Members of the False Face Society wear masks carved of wood, most often with horsehair, and tin circles around the eyes (Fig. 1). A few masks figure in the rituals of other societies, such as the Pig mask in the Medicine Men’s Society (Fig. 8). Some others, such as the Beggar masks worn by chil­dren on their tobacco-collecting rounds during Midwinter, have no sacred connotations, although they may over the years come to be regarded as having curing power. Maskettes (small masks a few inches in size) are also made as a kind of token for the guessing of the correct dream in the Dream Guessing Rite (Figs. 7, 8).

Eagle Dances for Speck

In January of 1950, Speck went to the Allegany Seneca reserva­tion in western New York State for the purpose of witnessing the Midwinter ceremonial scheduled to begin in the Coldspring Longhouse there on January 22. That day he collapsed. The Indians, much con­cerned about his health, decided to hold an Eagle Dance to restore him. The previous year, not long after Speck had gotten out of the hospital (he had a myocardial condition), the Indians communicated to him that they wished to know about his recent dreams in order to determine which ceremony might be per­formed to help him recover. Paying attention to his dreams, Speck re­membered one in which a few eagle-like beings had appeared. The Sene­cas took this as evidence that the Eagle Dance should be performed. It was. In January of 1950, after the Midwinter ceremony had been con­cluded, another Eagle Dance was given. Speck was sufficiently re­stored to return to Philadelphia. He died a week later.


Fenton, William N.
“Another Eagle Dance for Gahehdagowa (F.C.S.).” Primitive Man 22:60-64.
The False Faces of the Iroquois. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.

Hallowell, A. Irving
“Frank Couldsmith Speck, 1881-1950.” American Anthropologist 53:67-87.

Speck, Frank C.
The Iroquois: A Study in Cultural Evolution. Cranbrook Institute of Science Bulletin 23. Bloomfield Hills, Ml.
“How the Dew Eagle Society of the Allegany Seneca Cured Gahehdagowa (F.G.S.).” Primitive Man 22:39-59.
Midwinter Rites of the Cayuga Long House. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Tooker, Elisabeth
The Iroquois Ceremonial of Midwinter. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.

Cite This Article

Tooker, Elisabeth. "The “Speck Iroquois Collection” in The University Museum." Expedition Magazine 29, no. 1 (March, 1987): -. Accessed February 24, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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