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The League of the Iroquois


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The League of the Iroquois refers to the well known historic confederacy of the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk in New York State. The League was characterized by a non-aggression pact between the five tribes, recognition of shared concerns, and structures for decision-making and leadership which brought together representatives from the five groups. To some extent, the structure and operation of the League of the Iroquois as a form of representative government is thought to have influenced the creation of the United States government system. Today, the Confederacy (also called the Six Nations Iroquois) continues to function and has grown from the original five tribes to include the Tuscarora tribe, which joined the League in the 1700s.

Since the League (also called the Iroquois Confederacy) was first described in print in the mid-eighteenth century by a Moravian missionary, much discussion has focused on its age and origins. While it is apparent that the League was in existence when Jesuits first visited the Canadian Huron in the 1630s, opinions differ about how long the League has been in existence. The point of these discussions has been to determine whether the League was formed as a result of contact with Europeans or the whether it is-as the Iroquois themselves claim-of pre-contact Native origin.

Archaeological and Cultural Background

The Iroquois tribes have long occupied New York, developing from resident archaeological cultures dating back at least to A.D. 1000. In the period between then and approximately A.D. 1400, inter-group aggression rose, probably based on increasing competition for resources in light of rising population densities. Many archaeological sites for this period show evidence of warfare and violence, presumably between neighboring groups. At the same time, smaller villages coalesced into much larger palisaded villages, possibly as part of a non-aggression pact of the type characteristic of the League of the Iroquois.

Historically, the Five Nations of the Iroquois were matrilineal, matrilocal societies. This strong matrilineality was thought to stem from the importance of female work groups and female control of land through the clans. Clan mothers also strongly influenced the selection of the chiefs who represented the people in League deliberations, and maintained control over many decisions, especially those which would send men to war. Where the clan mothers felt that war was unjustified, they could chose to withhold food supplies and other support from the men, thus effectively preventing war.

Iroquois social organization consisted of a series of embedded units. Each "tribe" was composed of two moieties; each moiety was composed of one or more exogamous clans; each clan of two or more lineages; and lineages composed of a number of families. The clans functioned as social structures to crosscut other segments of society (family, lineage, etc.) and solidify the bonds of the group. Among the Iroquois, the clans probably served to tie the smaller villages together during prehistoric village amalgamations by the construction of ways of talking about and working out shared ancestry. As Iroquois scholar William Fenton once said, "The clan is the cement that binds the tribe." However, when individuals were hurt or killed by members of another clan, the relatives of the victims were obliged to seek revenge on the perpetrators, and in early Iroquois society, this cycle of revenge-the blood feuds-escalated to the point of unending intertribal raiding and warfare.

As mentioned above, the clans controlled agricultural lands, had specific religious and ceremonial duties and were the focus of the blood feuds that figured so strongly in pre-League Iroquois history. After the inception of the League, and probably even before, one of the major duties of the clans were to elect representatives to a council of chiefs. The clan was also the focal point of Iroquois inter-tribal interaction, especially hospitality. Members of one village or tribe visiting another could expect to be fed, clothed and housed by members of the same clan.

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Tradition, Structure, and Function

According to Iroquois oral tradition, there was a long period of ongoing warfare between all of the Iroquois groups before the formation of the League. Constant raiding resulted in deaths, which led to reciprocal raiding and revenge by members of the injured clan, escalating into a cycle of constant fighting. Into this climate of aggression came a man named Deganawida-said to have been an "outsider" and possibly an Ottawa-bringing a message of peace for the Iroquois.

Joined by the Mohawk chief Hiawatha, Deganawida (also known as the Peacemaker) carried the message of peace to the chiefs of the five tribes, trying to convince them of the wisdom of ceasing their infighting with the goal of making the five Iroquois tribes "one mind, one heart, one law." Once accomplished, a council of fifty chiefs elected by the clan mothers assembled to state the laws and customs of the newly formed Confederacy. Every year the Confederacy chiefs meet to restate these laws and customs, now called the Book of the Great Law, and to settle their differences. As a judicial body, the Council was created to determine relations between member groups and between the Confederacy as a unit and others, including the United States Government. In their relations with other peoples, the individual Iroquois groups were free to act in their own interest but were expected to keep the interests of the entire League foremost in their minds.

Iroquois oral traditions state that when Hiawatha first used strings of wampum to symbolize the founding and organization of the League, he used small freshwater shells washed up on the shores of a lake, which he pierced and strung to create mnemonic devices that could be used to accompany the recitation of the Book of the Great Law. Wampum beads and belts made of strung wampum were important symbols of the League of the Iroquois and symbolized and accompanied all important diplomatic messages, tribal agreements, and treaties.

In Confederate Council decision-making, an issue is discussed first among the Mohawk, then passed to the Seneca, both called "Door-keepers" for their roles as eastern and western-most groups of the League. The issue is then passed to the Oneida and then to the Cayuga, together called the Younger Brothers, and then to the Onondaga, the Fire-keepers. League decisions must be unanimous and the fact that any one of the chiefs can veto an issue helps to ensure the equality of each chief and his opinion.

As a peace league, the Confederacy guaranteed peace within the Five Nations. This did not, of course, prevent the Iroquois from warring on other groups but simply directed aggression to groups outside the Confederacy. Other native groups were encouraged to join the Confederacy, as the Tuscarora did in the early eighteenth century.

The structure and organization of the League and the Confederate Council was based on that of the component social institutions, especially the tribe and the moiety. In doing so, the structure of the League was based on the primary structure of the clans and moieties to one another. As mentioned before, Iroquois social organization consisted of a series of embedded units, as did the League. For instance, members of one moiety would refer to one another as "brothers" while calling members of the opposite moiety "cousin." Within the League the Older Brothers-the Seneca, Mohawk and Onondaga-also called each other brother and addressed the Oneida and the Cayuga as cousin. All social organizations of the Iroquois had an important duality, while political structures revolved around a scheme of three parts. Within a single tribe, for example the Seneca, one might have six clans divided into two moieties:

Turtle Hawk
Wolf Little Snipe
Bear Great Snipe

However, in Seneca tribal council, these six clans were divided into three groups:

Turtle and Hawk
Little Snipe and Bear
Wolf and Great Snipe

Together the Turtle Chief and Little Snipe chief acted as moderators. A reflection of this organization can be seen in the Confederacy's council plan:

In general, the political units call one another by the same names as the constituent social units within the tribe, basically brother or cousin.

Though the Confederate Council was composed entirely of men, it is important to remember that all power was "loaned" by the women. On the death of a Confederate chief, the women of the family or lineage that held the right to elect that office met and selected a candidate who was then considered and approved by the chiefs of that moiety in the tribe; then by the opposite moiety. Once passed by his tribe, the individual could go on to be approved by the members of his Council moiety (either Older brothers or Younger Brothers) and then by the opposite side. As a symbol of their office, Confederate chiefs wore traditional headdresses (the gustoweh) with a pair of deer antlers attached. Since he represented a much larger group of people (his relatives), the work and reputations of confederate chiefs were closely watched and-if found wanting-they would be warned repeatedly and, if necessary "de-horned" by the Council itself.

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The Age of the League of the Iroquois

Traditional accounts of the League vary in regard to its age, most suggesting that the League was founded several generations before the coming of Whites. Many anthropologists, relying on variable calculations of generation length or on archaeological tests, have suggested that although the Peacemaker legend may be old, the League itself is probably the result of the stresses of the Contact period and the need for the Iroquois to present a unified front to Euroamericans. Other anthropologists have suggested that the league was founded sometime between A.D. 1400 and 1600.

Other information, which is part of the greater body of oral tradition surrounding the foundation of the League, suggests that during the ten to twelve year period when Deganawida and Hiawatha worked to convince the Five Nations to accept the Great Peace, a total eclipse occurred. Two different traditions, one Mohawk and one Seneca, state that it was this event which convinced them to accept the Great Peace. A total solar eclipse, visible in the Northeast, occurred in late June, A.D. 1451.

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