The Iroquois
Confederacy
The Romans of the New World
1570-1784
Long before the arrival of the Europeans,
the First Nations peoples had evolved
societies that operated on principles and
assumptions quite different from those
prevailing in sixteenth- and seventeenthcentury Europe.
Background

Founded in the 16th century in what is
now central New York State, the original
confederacy consisted of five tribes—the
Mohawk, Onondaga, Cayuga, Oneida, and
Seneca—and was known as the Five
Nations, or the League of Five Nations.
After the Tuscarora joined in 1722, the
confederacy became known to the English
as the Six Nations and was recognized as
such at Albany, N.Y. (1722).

More Background

Tradition credits the formation of the
confederacy, between 1570 and 1600, to
Dekanawidah, born a Huron, who is said
to have persuaded Hiawatha, an
Onondaga living among Mohawks, to
abandon cannibalism and advance "peace,
civil authority, righteousness, and the
great law" as sanctions for confederation.

The Iroquois Confederacy, possessed an
"inclusive" character that stood in stark
contrast to the hierarchical decisionmaking processes popular in Europe.
The Confederacy's decision-making
processes were governed by a
"constitution," the "Great Law," which
possessed many of the attributes
found in twentieth century
constitutions.

The Great Law
Identified the rights of citizens, delineated the
parameters of the powers of leaders, formalized
societal decision-making processes, and
prescribed the conduct of foreign affairs.
 Provisions within the Great Law encouraged
public participation in societal decision making.

– There were provisions for referenda, recalls of
leaders, and publicly-sponsored initiatives.
The Great Law (cont’d)

Decision making in the Confederacy was
not solely a male prerogative as in Europe.
Women possessed influence and rights
enabling them to have a meaningful and
critical role in the selection of leaders.
Although members of the Grand Council
were male, most had to be nominated by
women of their extended family.
The Great Law (cont’d)

Leadership was accountable to a degree not
paralleled in Europe at that time.
– The Great Law insisted that Chiefs had to be tolerant
and attentive to criticisms from members of their
nation.
– Individuals, both male or female, could bring
complaints against a chief to the Council.
– The Council could remove the chief if it was deemed
that he was not acting in the best interest of his
people, or not obeying the rules of the Great Law.
The Great Law (cont’d)

The sovereignty of each of the member nations
of the Confederacy was addressed in specific
provisions of the Great Law.
– A complex system of checks and balances ensured
that all member nations would participate in the
Confederacy's paramount decision-making body, the
Grand Council.
– Measures, such as a declarations of war, could only be
enacted by the Grand Council with the approval of the
representatives of all five nations. The representatives
could convey the decision of their nation to the
Council only after a lengthy debate within their
respective nations.
What were the chief
characteristics of the
Iroquoian Peoples ?
The Iroquois call themselves Haudenosaunee meaning "people of the
longhouse."
They lived in and around the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Lowlands.
Characteristics of the
Iroquoians
Iroquois villages were generally fortified and large. The distinctive,
communal longhouses of the different clans could be over 200' in
length and were built over a framework covered with elm bark.
The Iroquois had a matriarchal social structure meaning the women
owned all property and determined kinship. After marriage, a man
moved into his wife's longhouse, and their children became members
of her clan.
They were sedentary, which means they had a way of life that
involved living in a permanent community. Their villages were
permanent in that they were moved only for military defensive
purposes or when the soil became depleted (about every fifteen to
twenty years).
Characteristics of the
Iroquoians (cont’d)
Agriculture provided most of the Iroquois diet. Corn, beans, and
squash were known as "deohako" or "life supporters."
The women owned and tended the fields under the supervision of the
clan mother. Men usually left the village in the fall for the annual
hunt and returned about midwinter. In the spring the men fished.
Like the Algonquians, the Iroquoian religion was based on the
worship of a great spirit who had power over the lives of all living
things.