The Iroquois Confederacy

( – promoted by navajo)

In 1987, the United States Senate passed a resolution which acknowledged the contribution of the Iroquois Confederacy of Nations to the development of the United States Constitution. Furthermore, the resolution acknowledged the historical debt which the United States owes to the Iroquois Confederacy and to other Indian nations for the demonstration of enlightened, democratic principles of government.  

The Iroquois Confederacy, also known as the League of Five Nations and as the League of Six Nations, was formed in 1451. Deganawida, a Huron prophet, had a vision for bringing peace to the world and so he crossed the great lake in a stone canoe so that he could tell the people about his vision. However, there was a problem: Deganawida had a speech defect, a serious problem among Indian nations who held oratory in high esteem. Fortunately, he encountered the great Onondaga orator Hiawatha and convinced him to carry the message of peace to the Indian nations.

As a result of Hiawatha’s work, five autonomous Indian nations– the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk-met and buried the instruments of war. Over the hole into which they threw their hatchets, they planted a pine tree of peace. The Iroquois wampum belts recorded:

“I, Deganawida, and the union lords now uproot the tallest pine tree and into the cavity thereby made we cast all weapons of war. Into the depths of the earth, down into the deep underneath currents of water flowing to unknown regions we cast all the weapons of strife. We bury them from sight and we plant again the tree. Thus shall the Great Peace, Kayenarhekowa, be established.”

Ne Gayaneshagowa or the “Great Binding Law” became the constitution for the Haudenosounee or League of Five Nations. The new League was essentially a non-aggression pact among the five nations. The great law is based upon three great double doctrines or principles (six principles in all). The first principle stresses: (a) health of mind and body, and (b) peace among individuals and groups. The second principle stresses: (a) righteousness in conduct, including advocating this righteousness in thought and speech, and (b) equality in the adjustment of rights and obligations. The third principle stresses: (a) physical strength, power, and order, and (b) spiritual power (orenda).

The council for the League is based upon the concept of representational democracy. There were originally 50 offices filled from the member nations: 14 from the Onondaga, 10 from the Cayuga, 9 from the Oneida, 9 from the Mohawk, and 8 from the Seneca. The men who fill these offices are known as sachems.  

It was the women who first accepted the message of Deganawida,. Therefore the women had a great deal of authority. The sachems were to be selected by the clan mothers. Women also had the right to initiative, recall, and referendum.

Power in the League was seen as flowing upward, from the families to the council, rather than from the council to the families. With regard to the sachems, Deganawida is said to have advised the sachems that their skin should be seven thumbs thick so that no outrageous criticism or evil magic could pierce them.

At the meetings of the League, each of the delegates from the Five Nations sat at assigned places in accordance with their position in the confederacy. As firekeepers, the Onondaga would give the topic for discussion first to the Mohawk and Seneca. The Mohawk would then discuss the matter among themselves and then refer it to the Seneca. After discussing the issue, the Seneca would return the item to the Mohawk who would hand the item across the fire to the Younger Brothers. It would then be discussed by the Oneida and then by the Cayuga. The Oneida would then hand it back across the fire to the Mohawk who would announce the combined opinion to the Onondaga.

While speaking, the speaker would hold a wampum belt which would then be handed to the tribe being addressed. The wampum belt was a sacred substance and thus confirmed the earnest importance of a message. Without accompanying wampum, words were considered frivolous.

Traditionally, an issue would be introduced at the council on one day, but not discussed that day. At some later time it would be discussed. It is tradition that the issued be slept with prior to discussing. In practice, this allowed the sachems, who were men, to discuss the issue with their clan mothers. When they met again in council, they would speak words that reflected the wisdom of these clan mothers.

One important Iroquois custom was to document their words with wampum belts. All agreements were accompanied by wampum belts which symbolized the important points of the agreement. At later times, the belts would be brought out and “read” if the agreement needed to be discussed again.

In order to record what was said in council, the Sachem presiding over the meeting would have a handful of small sticks. A stick would be given to one of the Sachems present so that the person with the stick would be responsible for remembering what the speaker said.

In 1722, the Tuscarora petitioned the Iroquois Confederacy for membership and the League of Five Nation thus became the League of Six Nations.

During the 18th century, the English-speaking colonists were very aware of the Iroquois form of government. In 1744, representatives from the Iroquois League of Six Nations met with Pennsylvania government officials to discuss a number of matters of mutual concern. At this conference the Onondaga sachem Canassatego told the colonists, including Benjamin Franklin, that the colonies should form a confederacy similar to that of the League of Six Nations. Canassetego told  them:

“Our wise forefathers established union and amity between the Five Nations; this has made us formidable, this has given us great weight and authority with our neighboring Nations. We are a powerful Confederacy, and by your observing the same methods our wise forefathers have taken, you will acquire fresh strength and power.”

In 1751, Benjamin Franklin, in an attempt to encourage a union of the colonies, noted the success of the Iroquois League of Six Nations and suggested that this might be the governmental model for the colonies. Franklin wrote:

“It would be a very strange thing if Six Nations of ignorant savages should be capable of forming a scheme for such a union, and be able to execute it in such a manner, as that it has subsisted for ages, and appear indissoluble; and yet that a like union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English colonies, to whom it is more necessary and must be more advantageous, and whom cannot be supposed to want an equal understanding of their interests.”

Again in 1754, Benjamin Franklin pleaded with the American colonists to emulate the Iroquois and form a government based on representational democracy.

In 1775, as the war broke out between the American colonists and the English, the Iroquois again advised the colonists to form a union similar to their League. The Continental Congress later referred openly to the Iroquois ideas of government. In a letter to the Iroquois from the Congress signed by John Hancock:

“The Six Nations are a wise people. Let us harken to their council and teach our children to follow it.”

The Iroquois gave John Hancock the name of Karanduawn which means “Great Tree.”

In 1781, the United States adopted the Articles of Confederation which called for a weak central government and powerful states. Benjamin Franklin envisioned the new country’s structure as being modeled on that of the Iroquois League. In 1787 the U.S. Constitution was adopted which was loosely inspired by the Iroquois concept of representational democracy.