Iroquois Confederation

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Iroquois Confederation

Type of Government

The Iroquois Confederation was founded in the late sixteenth century and originally consisted of five tribes: the Cayuga, Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, and Seneca. In the early eighteenth century the Tuscarora tribe from North Carolina joined the confederation; thereafter, the tribes collectively became known as the Six Nations. The confederation was a representative democracy run by a Grand Council made up of representatives from each of the tribes. The Iroquois communities were organized into matrilineal clans (that is, family groups based on the maternal line of descent), and chiefs could be removed by the women of the tribe.


The members of the confederation were called the Iroquois, but this word was derived from an Algonquin word for “rattlesnakes” and was considered derogatory. Members preferred to designate their individual tribes or to refer to themselves as the Haudenosaunee (People of the Long House). The long house, the living unit, contained a matrilineal clan of many families, but the Iroquois also thought of their nation as a long house, with the Mohawk guarding the eastern end of the long house and the Seneca the western end.

During the sixteenth century the prophet Deganawidah (fl. 1550–1600) persuaded Hiawatha (fl. c. 1570), an Onondaga who became a Mohawk war chief, to bring a message of peace to the tribes, which were warring against one another. When the five tribes gathered, they agreed to peace and created a constitution that was called the Gayanshagowa (Great Law of Peace). The constitution was orally transmitted, but some details were preserved in wampum (strings of bead used as a memory aid). The tribes, or nations, stopped fighting among themselves and became a united force in eastern North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, eventually occupying a region extending from Hudson River to the Illinois River and from the Ottawa River to the Tennessee River. Around 1650 the Iroquois advanced into Ohio, scattering the Algonquin. The ensuing struggles were called the Beaver Wars, as the Iroquois sought land for hunting and trapping. They entered the fur trade first with the Dutch and then with the British. A number of Mohawk and Onondaga converted to Catholicism and worked with the French, but for most Iroquois the French remained a bitter enemy.

Government Structure

The Iroquois Confederation was governed by a Grand Council of fifty chiefs: the Onondaga sent fourteen chiefs to the council, the Cayuga, ten, the Oneida and Mohawk, nine each, and the Seneca, eight. The Tuscarora were nonvoting members. The council met in a long house in the centrally located Onondaga. The council members were elected and expected to behave honorably; if their conduct was not wholly proper, the women of the tribe could replace him with one of their choosing. The confederation recognized no single leader, and decisions were made by consensus. While deference was paid to elders in the tribes, all decisions were unanimous.

In the legislative process, a matter traditionally came before the council and was sent to the Mohawk and Seneca chiefs, known as the older brothers, for deliberation. They in turn passed it to the younger brothers, the Cayuga and Oneida, for further discussion. Then the matter was passed to the Onondaga chiefs, known as the Keepers of the Fire. If there was a consensus, the Onondaga made the matter law. If one of the chiefs refused, the other chiefs could not pass it into law. Even though an elaborate system of checks and balances guaranteed the health of the confederation, fighting among the tribes was not uncommon.

Major Events

During their expansion in seventeenth century, the Iroquois defeated other Iroquois peoples: in the west, the Neutral, the Erie, and the Tobacco; in the north, the Huron; and in the South, the Susquehannock. By virtue of their social and political organization, excellence in battle, and early acquisition of firearms, the Iroquois were extremely powerful, though they numbered only sixteen thousand at the end of the seventeenth century.

When the French and Indian War (1754–1763) erupted, the Iroquois allied themselves with the British against their traditional enemy, the French, who were assisted by another enemy, the Algonquin. During the American Revolution (1775–1783) the Tuscarora and Oneida sided with the colonists, whereas the Mohawk, Seneca, Cayuga, and Onondaga sided with the British. In 1783, shortly after the war ended, the Mohawk captain Joseph Brant (1742–1807) and a band of two thousand followers were driven out of New York and into southern Ontario. Because of their service and loyalty to Britain, they were given a sizable land grant on the Grand River in Ontario that is now known as the Six Nations Reserve.

Following the French and Indian War, the British issued the Proclamation of 1763, which prevented the colonists from settling in Iroquois territory. Five years later, after being pressured by white settlers and fur traders, British officials called the Iroquois to meet at Fort Stanwix (modern-day Rome, New York) in 1768. The Iroquois agreed to cede some of the land that was originally covered under the 1763 proclamation. In 1784 the newly established U.S. government negotiated another treaty with the confederation, in which the Iroquois agreed to give up land in Pennsylvania, New York, and Kentucky. At their height in the mid-1700s, the Iroquois held nearly twenty-four million acres of prime land rich in resources; in the twenty-first century they retain just a fraction of this land.

Twentieth-first Century

In the 2000 census forty-five thousand represented themselves as Iroquois, and thirty-six thousand as part Iroquois; in Canada nearly twenty-one thousand identified themselves as Iroquois. Many Iroquois live in cities rather than on reservations. Most Iroquois are Christian, though some follow the teachings of Handsome Lake, an eighteenth-century prophet who was influenced by Quaker teachings. The site of the traditional council fire is contested; some feel it belongs at the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario, whereas others think it belongs in Onondaga in New York.

Fenton, William N. The Great Law and the Longhouse: A Political History of the Iroquois Confederacy. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.

Richter, Daniel K. The Ordeal of the Longhouse: The Peoples of the Iroquois League in the Era of European Colonization. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.

Richter, Daniel K., and James H. Merrell, eds. Beyond the Covenant Chain: The Iroquois and Their Neighbors in Indian North America, 1600–1800. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003.