With the United States turning 239, its citizens should remember the influence Native people have had on the country, as well as the impact the country has had on them. The Iroquois had a fascinating and developed system long before the colonial elite’s Declaration of Independence declared “all men are created equal” to gain support from the population.
The League of the Iroquois, also known as the Haudenosaunee, is a historic and ongoing organization of the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk, and Tuscarora tribes in Northeastern US and Ontario, Canada. The confederacy acts as a non-aggression pact that allies the tribes and forms a representative government between them. Many historians debate the extent of historical Iroquois influence on the US government system, but it’s agreed upon that the Iroquois have been a conspicuous part of American history. 19th century American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan described them in 1851 as having, “achieved for themselves a more remarkable civil organization and acquired a higher degree of influence than any race of Indian lineage, except those of Mexico and Peru.” The Iroquois Confederacy is a distinct, intriguing, and successful system like no other.
The tribes that make up the confederacy date back to at least 1000 CE. The five initial tribes (excluding the Tuscarora who were added in 1722) were established prior to their first European contact. Oral tradition teaches its formation as an agreement between leaders Hiawatha and The Great Peacemaker after a solar eclipse. The exact year is not known, with scholars arguing between 1142 and 1451 from the solar eclipses that occurred in those years.
Iroquois culture is matrilineal with children born into their mother’s clan. Greater respect and political power is given to female elders than any other group of the population, with a veto and impeachment system acting above chiefs. Iroquois culture was in many ways expansionist and imperialist, attempting to entirely assimilate enemies of the League, including Europeans.
While many cite the Iroquois’ “republics within a republic” form of government the Iroquois had as influential in the creation of the US system, all real power remained decentralized at the village and tribe level. The Grand Council has always consisted of 56 chiefs from the six nations. Most decisions are made at a local level from general consensus. As part of the matriarchy, Iroquois treaties and major changes at the Council level require consent from two-thirds of mothers. While League chiefs are men, they are elected and impeached by mothers. This political system is very different from the United States’, but there are similarities in the apparent intention of the Iroquois “Great Law of Peace” and the US Bill of Rights. In Forgotten Founders Bruce Johansen states it, “rested on assumptions foreign to the monarchies of Europe: it regarded leaders as servants of the people, rather than their masters. The Iroquois’ law and custom upheld freedom of expression in political and religious matters, and it forbade the unauthorized entry of homes. It provided for political participation by women and the relatively equitable distribution of wealth.” Each document proposes a rights-based moral belief system that trumps popular vote.
Iroquois society’s ability to maintain organization and consensus without a large state intrigued Communist Manifesto authors Karl Marx and Frederich Engels upon reading Lewis Henry Morgan’s Ancient Society. Engels described the Iroquois Confederacy:
“Everything runs smoothly without soldiers, gendarmes, or police, without nobles, kings, governors, prefects or judges; without prisons, without trials. All quarrels and disputes are settled by the whole body of those concerned. . . . The household is run communistically by a number of families; the land is tribal property, only the small gardens being temporarily assigned to the households — still, not a bit of our extensive and complicated machinery of administration is required. . . . There are no poor and needy. The communistic household and the gens know their responsibility toward the aged, the sick and the disabled in war. All are free and equal — including the women.”
The Iroquois occupied a large territory, and the French, Dutch, and British all recognized the importance of them. They traded fur with the Europeans and ultimately aligned themselves towards the British in 1677 with the Covenant Chain agreement, battling rival French-allied Huron and Algonquian people. Battles between the French and British involving the Iroquois continued until a 1701 peace treaty. Virginia renewed the Covenant Chain in 1721 and agreed to divide Virginia Colony and the Iroquois at the Blue Ridge, but as Europeans settled west of this line, Virginian officials said the treaty was only to keep Iroquois from trespassing east of the line. The Iroquois again battled for the British Crown against French forces in the French and Indian War. This lead the British government to restrict white settlements west of the Appalachian Mountains in 1763, though it proved unenforceable. The Iroquois sold the land between the Ohio and Tennessee rivers that they did not occupy in a creative political move to ease demand off of the land they did occupy in New York at a 1768 conference with the British.
The three Mohawk chiefs and one Mahican chief that visited London and met with Queen Anne in 1710 to seal their alliance with the crown.
In 1988, the US Congress resolved to recognize influence from the Iroquois as the Constitution celebrated its 200th anniversary. In a letter to James Parker in 1751, Benjamin Franklin wrote, that, “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 yet that a like union should be impracticable for ten or a Dozen English Colonies.” This is often cited by supporters of the influence theory.
However, historian Francis Jennings believes Franklin was using “ignorant savages” for purely promotional and sensationalist purposes. In The Great Law and the Longhouse: A Political History of the Iroquois Confederacy, William Fenton states, “Like much of what else is advanced today as politically correct, this spurious doctrine represents invented tradition”.
Anthropologist Dean Snow agrees, arguing “…such claims muddle and denigrate the subtle and remarkable features of Iroquois government. The two forms of government are distinctive and individually remarkable in conception,” in response to beliefs of direct influence.
The American Revolution divided, displaced, and weakened the confederacy. The Oneida and Tuscarora tribes sided with the rebellion due to Samuel Kirkland, a revolutionist Presbyterian missionary that lived with and influenced them, while the remaining tribes respected their alliance with the crown. Battles in the Revolutionary War were detrimental to the Iroquois, with the failed attack on Fort Stanwix in 1777 prompting an American counter-offensive in 1779 that burned 32 Iroquoian towns. The 1783 Treaty of Paris made no provisions for the Iroquois, who were now divided between the US and British Canada. Many people left New York for Ontario, and others were required to live on reservations with the millions of acres previously declared their’s ceded.
The US government is likely not a direct derivative of the Iroquois Confederacy. However, the truth of it having communistic, decentralized, and matriarchal aspects developed entirely without European contact is perhaps more impressive than the American Revolution and Constitution designed to benefit and keep the elite political class in power. Today, 125,000 Iroquoian people live in the US and Canada. Iroquoian people displaced by the revolution were granted land on the Grand River in British Canada. US Indian Termination policies towards Iroquoian tribes continued through the 1960s, with multiple attempts to remove the official tribe status and assimilate people into taxpaying US citizens, removing land rights, federal protections, and causing cultural genocide. The Oneida, as part of the Emigrant Indians of New York, lost their status in 1954, but regained it in 1964 after lengthy litigation. Another member of the Emigrant Indians of New York, the Brothertown Indians, continue to fight to regain tribe recognition. The final 2012 Bureau of Indian Affairs decision declared an 1839 act that grants Brothertown Indians US citizenship means they’ll need congressional action to regain tribal status. Congress has not yet put any legislation to a vote. President Nixon’s Special Message to the Congress on Indian Affairs on July, 1970 curtailed attempts to end the Seneca tribe.
Featured image: left: Seneca chief Red Jacket speaking to crowd, right: current Iroquois Confederacy flag
- Flag of the Iroquois Confederacy, Hiawatha Belt
John Mix Stanley [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Morgan, L. H. (1877). Ancient society; or, researches in the lines of human progress from savagery, through barbarism to civilization. H. Holt.
Graymont, B. (1972). The Iroquois in the American Revolution. Syracuse University Press.
Johansen, B. E. (1982). Forgotten founders: Benjamin Franklin, the Iroquois, and the rationale for the American Revolution. Harvard Common Press.
Snow, D. R. (1999). The great law and the longhouse: A political history of the iroquois confederacy. American Anthropologist, 101(1), 192-193. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/198067619?accountid=415
Abler, T. S. (2000). Iroquois policy and iroquois culture: Two histories and an anthropological ethnohistory. Ethnohistory, 47(2), 483-491. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/209751782?accountid=415
Fenton, Willam N. The Great Law and the Long-house: A Political History of the Iroquois Confederacy. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.
Snow, Dean R. The Iroquois. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1996.
The League of the Iroquois. (n.d.). Retrieved March 31, 2015, from https://www.mpm.edu/wirp/ICW-155.html