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Masaryk University

Faculty of Arts
Department of English
and American Studies

English Language and Literature

Monika Šimkaninová

Iroquois Confederacy and American Democracy
Bachelor’s Diploma Thesis
Supervisor: Jeffrey Alan Vanderziel, B.A.

I declare that I have worked on this thesis independently,
using only the primary and secondary sources listed in the bibliography.



I would like to thank my thesis supervisor Jeffrey A. Vanderziel, B.A. for his insightful comments, valuable advice and patience

Table of Contents
Chapter One

Introduction 5

Chapter Two

The Iroquois Nations 7

Chapter Three

The Iroquois Government 12

Chapter Four

Iroquoian influence and American democracy 24

Chapter Five

Conclusion 41

Bibliography 43

Summary 47

Resumé 48



American political history has been going through some revolutionary changes in the last three decades. It has been widely believed that the American government, based on principles of freedom, equality and liberty, was created by white men in powdered wigs, dissatisfied with the status quo of their current situation and looking for a new alternative for monarchial governmental structure found in Europe. In the late 1980s two scholars, Dr. Donald A. Grinde and Bruce E. Johansen presented a new standpoint on the subject of evolution of American government, stating that when conducting research on the intellectual origins of the U.S. Constitution and the American political history, one must not exclude the indigenous element.

Since the birth of the United States of America, Native Americans have been an inseparable part of its development. Most influential of all indigenous peoples of North America were the Iroquois who played a crucial role in shaping the ideas of democracy and the fundamental rights in minds of the Founding Fathers. The Iroquois Confederacy, as a system of government, represented everything the United States’ founders aimed to achieve. Unfortunately, the Iroquois contributions have been long overlooked or dismissed by many respective scholars, historians and ethnologists.

This thesis proposes an analysis of the Iroquoian influential element behind the formation of the United States and the founders’ perspective of democracy. Due to its still controversial nature, several different sources offering contrastive viewpoints on the subject were thoroughly consulted and examined as a precaution against subjectivity.

The first chapter of the thesis will provide general information on the five (later six) nations of the Iroquois that originally formed the legendary League of the Five (Six) Nations.

The second chapter will deal with the origin and organization of the Iroquois Confederacy. The myth behind its establishment, the date of its foundation, and more importantly, the governmental and social structure of the League, with an examination of the Iroquois Constitution will be provided, in order to secure sufficient knowledge for further research. It is essential to understand the Iroquois system of government and the people’s view of themselves as a part of nature for a full apprehension of the Iroquoian impact on the colonists.

Third chapter will be dedicated to the historical background of the Anglo-Iroquois relations that led to the intellectual exchange of ideas and beliefs. Close cooperation between the English settlers and the Iroquois Confederacy was ensured during treaty councils, which were attended by historical figures such as Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson. The primary focus of this chapter will be, however, directed toward an analysis of the Iroquois influence thesis. Since there is not a definite answer for the long-term dispute, whether the Founding Fathers derived the United States from a model of the Iroquois Confederacy and its constitution, or not, the chapter analyzes works of several scholars standing on opposite sides of the debate. For every pro-Iroquois piece of evidence, there is a counterargument questioning its reliability and credibility, and also offering an alternative viewpoint on the same evidence.


The Iroquois nations

The term “Iroquois” designates several Native American nations living to a close proximity to one another, bound by a very unique and specific governmental system. Prior to European contact, five nations (later six) came together to cease warfare and establish peace between themselves. The system of government came to be known as the Iroquois Confederacy, the League of the Five Nations (or Six) or the League of the Haudenosaunee, name depending on the period it was researched. It was originally comprised of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca nation.

How the name Iroquois originated is quite ambiguous. It all depends on the analyzed sources and evidence, along with the points of view taken into consideration. Some argue that the name is a French variation formed from the Indian terms hiro (meaning ‘I have spoken’) and koué (an exclamation), possibly referring to their extraordinary speaking skills. (Hall) However, Horatio Hale argues that “what is decisive is the fact that Champlain had learned the name from his Indian allies before he or any other Frenchman, so far as is known, had ever seen an Iroquois. It is probable that the origin of the word is to be sought in the Huron language.” (171) General opinion, according to encyclopedia Britannica, suggests that the name most likely originated from a French derivation of an Algonquian word “Irinakhoiw” by adding the French suffix –ois. The meaning “rattlesnakes” supports this by reflecting the enemy relationship between the Algonquian speaking nations and the Iroquois. (Hall) Another explanations suggests that it may be a French adaptation of an Algonquian word ierokwa (meaning “they who smoke”), since the Iroquois were known for their cultivation of tobacco. (Hale 172)

Ironically, none of the above mentioned names were actually used by the Iroquois. Morgan states: “The various names given to them at different periods were entirely accidental, none of them being designations by which they ever recognized themselves.” They called themselves Haudenosaunee (pronounced Ho-dé-no-sau-nee), which more or less translates as People of the Long House. (48) The meaning, if taken literally, refers to the Iroquois actual way of dwelling. Haudenosaunee lived in large long houses that may have contained up to fifty people. On the other hand, if the meaning is taken metaphorically, the long house signifies the League itself, as a united political system with each nation living under one roof as a family in peace and tranquility. As Morgan explains:

It was in itself the perfect similitude of the Iroquois social and political organization. To an Iroquois the League was not like a Long House. It was a Long House, extending from the Hudson to the Genesee, in which around five fires the five tribes gathered. (Morgan 301)

The homeland of the Iroquois varied over the course of time, from the earliest period before formation of the League, through the era of their utmost sovereignty, up to the present day territory. For my purposes, the most significant time period is the end of the sixteenth to the mid seventeenth century, as it became known to the European settlers after the first colonial encounter. At that time the Iroquois occupied the land in upstate New York, stretching from “the Hudson to Lake Erie.” (Morgan 36)

Easternmost of the Six Nations were the Mohawks, who resided in the area of the Mohawk River, and “covered Lake George and Lake Champlain”. (Hale 9) Their position in the League, referring again to the Long House metaphor, was to guard the eastern side of the alliance, hence their title “Keepers of the Eastern Door”. Simply put, anyone approaching the Iroquois League from the east needed to be introduced by the Mohawk before entering. (Engstrom 8) Otherwise they were seen as an enemy. The Mohawks referred to themselves as Ga-ne-ga-ha-ga1, which translates as People of the Flint. The name designates a sort of weaponry (flint arrows)2 they were being known for.

Around the lake Oneida lay the territory of the Oneida Nation. They distinguished themselves as O-na-yoté-ka, translated as People of the Stone. As Morgan points out, in Seneca dialect, the name refers to a specific stone, known as granite. Therefore, their name can be interpreted as “Granite People”. (49)

In the middle territory of the League resided the Onondagas. “…, the imperious Onondagas, the central …, the ruling nation of the League, possessed the two lakes of Onondaga and Skeneateles …, the Oswego River, to its issue into Lake Ontario.” (Hale 9) They inhabited the land of what is now central New York. Due to their location, their role in the League was to assemble the Grand Council, whenever an issue appeared that needed to be dealt with by all of the five (six) nations, and also keep the fire of the Council burning, hence their title “Keepers of the Fire”. The name Onondaga or O-nun-dá-ga-o-no translates as People on the Hills and as Morgan suggests, it was most likely a reference to the location of their principal village which was situated on top of a hill overlooking the Onondaga valley. (Morgan 49)

The Cayuga nation neighbored with the Seneca from the west and the Onondaga from the east, occupying the area around Cayuga Lake. They named themselves by describing their homeland, being the People of the Great Swamp (Engstrom 9) or the People at the mucky land, referring to the filthy and damp area around Cayuga Lake. (Morgan 49)

At the western end of the League, around Lake Seneca and Canandaigua, lay the homeland of the most populous nation, the Seneca. Since the Mohawk guarded the eastern door, the role of the Seneca was, as the westernmost nation, to protect the western door from any potential enemy. They were known as the “Keepers of the western door of Haudenosaunee”. (Engstrom 7) In their own language they called themselves Nun-da-wá-o-no, meaning People of the Great Hill. Supposedly it was a reference to the oldest Seneca village located on a hill facing Lake Canandaigua. (Morgan 48)

Tuscarora was the last nation to join the Iroquois League, as a measure to stop an ongoing warfare against the white settlers and their massive losses of lives. Although the exact date when the most of the surviving Tuscarora joined the Iroquois League is uncertain, it was presumably between the years 1715 and 1722. Their original homeland was in Virginia and North Carolina, along the Neuse and Roanoke Rivers. (Freeman) After they migrated to New York, they settled between Oneida and Onondaga nations. Tuscarora call themselves Dus-ga-ó-weh3, meaning Hemp gatherers or People of the Long Shirt referring to their original style and material of clothing from their time in North Carolina. (Engstrom 9)


League of the Iroquois/Haudenosaunee

“To the Iroquois, by common consent, has been assigned the highest position among the Indian races of the continent living in the hunter state. In legislation, in eloquence, in fortitude and in military sagacity they had no equals.” (Morgan 51-52) Without any doubt the Iroquois League was one of the most unique and impressive governmental units in the history. Its evolved, forward thinking and sense of democracy surpassed any at that time existing government. Its complex political and social structure ensured their resistance against any outside forces, making the Iroquois League “the oldest living participatory democracy on earth”. (Exemplars of Liberty Introduction)

There are unfortunately many uncertainties regarding the founding of the League, its exact date and structure. The Haudenosaunee kept only oral records of the important events, or recorded them using memory devices called wampum belts. These were not, however, chronological, not to mention practically unreadable for any European without the help of Natives, leaving the European ethnologists and historians a great space for their imagination and own interpretation of the alliance itself. “The dean of the Iroquois”, as William A. Starna addressed William N. Fenton in his essay “Retrospecting the Origins of the League of the Iroquois”, said: “As a young man I thought I would really be able to authenticate the League of the Iroquois and end up with some answers. As I’ve grown older, I’ve realized there are no answers; there are only probabilities.” (qtd. in Starna 279)

Various sources, regarding the exact founding date of the League, offer different theories based upon archeological findings, astronomical events or oral and written records. One must take into account the time when and under what circumstances was a source recorded and also who was it recorded by. Most sources agree that the League was founded sometime between thirteenth and fifteenth centuries AD. Another important question that presents itself is, whether the alliance was established prior to any European contact, or was an immediate reaction to the colonization.

The first ever recorded source of the League’s beginnings was written down by a Moravian missionary Johann Christopher Pyrlaeus (1713-1785). (Starna 280) His records unveiled what was a great mystery to many European scholars. He stated: “The alliance or the confederacy of the Five Nations was established, as near as can be conjectured, one age (or the length of a man’s life) before the white people (the Dutch) came into the country.” (qtd. in Starna 283) According to Blanchard, the Dutch explored the area around the Hudson River in 1609. (7) If we presume that “the length of a man’s life” would be approximately fifty years, the establishing date of the League would be around AD 1550. Unfortunately, one cannot specify a span of a man’s life with definite accuracy.

Lewis H. Morgan, on the other hand, sets the foundation of the League one hundred and fifty years before the French came in 1609, establishing the alliance in AD 1459. (qtd. in Hewitt 61) Despite all the available sources, the general assumption is that the Iroquois League was formed in the late fifteenth century.

However, Barbara Mann and Jerry Fields, two scholars who focused their research on solar eclipses, do not share this opinion. Based upon their findings, the League was established well over three hundred years before the general estimate. “…many experts date the formation of the Confederacy to the year 1451, at the time of another solar eclipse. Mann and Fields contend that the 1451 eclipse was total, but that its shadow fell over Pennsylvania”. Their conclusion was: “The only eclipse that meets all requisite conditions -- an afternoon occurrence over Gonandaga that darkened the sky -- is the eclipse of 1142.” (“Dating the Iroquois Confederacy”)

Although, most of the scholars tried to mark the exact year of the foundation of the alliance, Robert D. Kuhn and Martha L. Sempowski raise in their essay “A New Approach to Dating the League of the Iroquois” an interesting point, noting that the establishment of the Confederacy was a gradual process with the nations joining one by one. As would be later explained, each nation had time to consider the conditions of joining the League, which would prolong the actual formation.

One thing remains clear, the League of the Iroquois existed well before the earliest contact with the European settlers, making the popular European assumption that Natives were primitive savages, completely false.

The transmission of principal sources of Iroquoian traditions and history were by oral tradition alone. Being passed down from generation to generation, they slowly turned into myths. One of the most significant being was the myth of the origin of the League of the Five Nations4.

Initially all nations of the League were alienated. The vindictiveness, hatred and the constant warfare with the neighboring nations lasted for long periods of time. Interesting fact to note is that it was not for material reasons at all, but to avenge their fallen fathers, brothers and sons. The blood feuds naturally weakened each nation, until the Peacemaker stepped in and proposed an alliance that would benefit all.

According to the Dekanawidah epic of the Iroquois5, in a Huron town resided a mother with her virgin daughter. The virgin peculiarly conceived a child and fell into a deep sleep. Her dream revealed that her son, who she should name Dekanawidah, will be of great importance, ending the violent conflicts among nations south of Lake Ontario. After the birth, the virgin’s mother tried to drown the baby thinking the newborn will cause the downfall of their nation. However, the child could not be drowned. He grew up to be a strong individual, setting out on a journey to fulfill his destiny. Traveling to the Mohawk country, he persuaded the nation of his “rightful power to establish the Great Peace”. (Parker 15) Meanwhile farther southwards, the Onondaga nation was being tortured by a powerful and dreaded chief Adordahoh. The legend describes him as a monster with living snakes instead of hair, crooked body and cannibalistic tendencies that had supernatural powers, and could destroy any enemy, but could not be destroyed himself. “His subtlety and artifices had acquired for him the reputation of a wizard.” (Hale 20) Onondagas failed on several occasions to stop Adordahoh. Therefore a council was summoned by a well respected man, Hiawatha, to discuss ways how to get rid of him. Based on a “great dreamer’s” vision, Hiawatha should become a wanderer and meet a savior from the north in the Mohawk country who would stop the ongoing bloodshed. In order to make Hiawatha leave his home, the Ohsinoh shaman killed each of his seven daughters. Now as nothing was keeping him home, he left for his quest to meet the Peacemaker. After traveling from village to village, he finally, with the help of others, reached the one, where Dekanawidah resided. The Peacemaker helped heal Hiawatha’s grieving heart and clear his troubled mind. Afterwards he addressed Hiawatha saying:

My junior brother, your mind being cleared and you being competent to judge, we now shall make our laws and when all are made we shall call the organization we have formed the Great Peace. It shall be the power to abolish war and robbery between brothers and bring peace and quietness. (Parker 24)

One by one, Dekanawidah and Hiawatha sent messengers with the proposed plan of confederacy to Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and lastly Seneca nations. Each one was given time to carefully examine the plan. Ultimately all nations joined the Confederacy, the Seneca being the last nation to agree due to their previous internal problems. Their next order of business was to find Adordahoh and turn him back into his original human form. With singing the Hymn of Peace Dekanawidah and Hiawatha successfully healed Adordahoh’s mind and body. (Parker 14-26) “We have now redeemed Tha-do-da-ho’.6 Everything will now prosper in a natural and peaceful manner. It is now our duty to work, first, to secure to the nations peace and tranquility.”(Hewitt 140) As a symbolic gesture of ceasing the warfare and uniting the nations, Dekanawidah planted a tall pine tree in the land of Onondaga, giving it the name the Great Tree of Peace. Axes and hatchets were buried under its roots to symbolize ending of wars. Its leaves offered protection to anyone willing to obey the Iroquois Great Law of Peace. On the top of the tree sat an eagle watching over the newly united land, warning its people against incoming enemy. And so the League was born.

The Great Law of Peace, The Great Binding Law or in Iroquoian Gayanashagowa are all different names for the constitution of the Iroquois League. Simply put, it is a summarization of the primary functions of the alliance with its rules and policies. In a sense it is a guide for the peoples to know how to live individually, but at the same time collectively with one another. (Bedford, Workman 26) The wisdom of the constitution was until fairly recently passed down either orally, or in forms of wampum belts7. Each wampum belt represented a specific rule or right. (Parker 13) The most significant, in relation to the Iroquois League, is the Hiawatha wampum belt which served as a depiction of unity and partnership among nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. (Converse 345)

According to William N. Fenton the constitution is divided into three parts: the myth of Dekanawidah, the legend of the conversion of local chiefs to the cause of peace, and the principles of the League – its structure and rituals. (qtd. in Crawford 354)

The first section is related to the end of the Dekanawidah epic, planting the pine tree as a symbol of established peace, and appointing every nation its function as a member of the League. Three men, Adodarhoh, Hononwirehtonh and Skanawatih, were given the title of Fire Keepers to watch over the Council Fire and assemble the Council when necessary (apart from the assigned dates). It also specified how the nations should behave to other approaching nations who wanted to join the Confederacy and live under the Great Tree of Peace. “If any man or any nation outside the Five Nations shall obey the laws of the Great Peace …, they shall be welcomed to take shelter beneath the Tree of the Long Leaves.” (Parker 30)

The second part is focused on the rights and obligations of the Lords.8 The hereditary title of sachemship came with a strict set of rules, regarding how a sachem should behave and the protocol he should follow during the Grand Council. Next important section is concerned with the position of women in the Iroquois society, since they possessed the hereditary privileges of their clan. In the Constitution are also included phrases which should be said in specific moments, such as during the Grand Council or when directly addressing Lords or War Chiefs. Essentially it is a step-by-step guide of what one should do in various possible situations.

The last part deals with the Confederacy as a governmental unit. It explains the structural organization of the alliance, the election and suspension of Lords and Chiefs, followed by the individual rights of the nations within the League, as well as the rights of outside nations. Last but not least, rituals of the Five (Six) Nations are presented with a description of the ritual, followed by instructions on how one should behave on certain occasions (funeral, religious ceremonies etc.). (Parker 41-60)

The unity of the League of the Iroquois that every nation pledged their allegiance to is what made it resistant to destructive outside forces. It was doubtless for their evolved constitution and set of rules. However, how did the League function in reality? How did the individual nations resolve their mutual issues but still maintained their independency? And most importantly, what made the League uniquely democratic that it became the primal model of governmental system for the settlers?

As was stated above, the League consisted of Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca nation, later joined by Tuscaroras. Each nation was an independent unit with its own rules, concerning the people of the particular nation. Nonetheless, if an issue involving every nation needed to be dealt with, the Grand Council was assembled. This role belonged to the Onondaga Lords who apart from assembling and dispersing the council, and keeping the fire of the Council burning, kept records of the councils. (Parker 32) Ultimately the Onondaga Lords administered the whole gathering, from its start to its end, guiding the direction the Council was headed towards.

The Grand Council supposedly consisted of fifty sachems (Blanchard 11), although the precise number is again a reason for debate. Many sources counted fifty lords, but as Morgan states that there were only forty-eight sachems, seeing that Hiawatha and Dekanawidah’s places in the Council remained empty, after they deceased, as a sign of respect. (Morgan 215) The number of seats each nation occupied in the Council was uneven. The nation with the most sachems was the Onondagas with fourteen seats, followed by the Cayuga with ten sachems. Both the Mohawk and the Oneida nation had nine, leaving the Seneca eight sachems. According to the Iroquois legend, the number of assigned Lords was decided by Dekanawidah when the League was originally established and first Grand Council was held. (Hewitt 145) He, together with the clan mothers, appointed each sachem by placing deer antlers on their head. “Their titles would be hereditary, held by the head women of the clans.” (Favor 35) In other words, the Lords were appointed and dismissed by their clan mothers who held the political power within the clan. Interestingly, only men were considered for the title. The democratic aspect of the sachemship allowed any sachem, incompetent to fulfill his duties or abusing his position, to be dismissed. The required qualities for the position were honor, wisdom, modesty and honesty. (Parker 38)

Apart from the forty-eight sachems that represented the clans, five War Chiefs were appointed, one for every nation. “The War Chiefs shall be selected from the eligible sons of the female families holding the head Lordship titles.” (Parker 41) The quick assumption would suggest that War Chief’s primary duty was, in case of war, to lead an army. On the contrary, they primarily served as assistants to Lords, passing messages between the council Lords, receive complaints and observe the councils. (Parker 41) However, they did command and look after League’s warriors, and fought if necessary.

As for the frequency of assembling the Grand Council, Blanchard states it took place once a year, most probably some time in fall, unless a problem appeared that needed immediate attention. As the immutable law of the Iroquois says, the pending issue would be presented to the Keepers of the Fire, who then would decide if the matter required attention of the Grand Council or concerned only the involved parties. (Parker 31) In addition, every five years the question of renewal of the Confederacy was revalued, where each nation was given the opportunity to reexamine their decision to be part of the alliance. The reason behind this was cleverly explained by an Oneida spokesperson to a European: “You may say that Love & Affection may be strong in Absence as when present but we say not….Nothing more revives and enlivens affection than frequent Conferences.”9

When the Grand Council was declared open, it took place in the Onondaga country, as it was geographically the middle nation and since the Onondaga Lords were the coordinators of the council itself. Every issue was at first presented to the Mohawk and Seneca Lords for deliberation. If they unanimously agreed, the issue was then passed onto the Cayuga and Oneida Lords. They also had time to deliberate and come up with a unanimous agreement. Their decision was given back to the Mohawk Lords who would then announce it to the Onondaga Lords. If both decisions were identical, they were given back to the Mohawk Lords who announced it in front of the Grand Council. If the decisions varied, they were revised until a solution was found, or if unanimous agreement still could not be found, it was set aside and burnt in the Council Fire. (Parker 33)

One can look at the Council as political organization with two individual political units, Elder Brothers represented by Mohawk and Seneca nations, hence their primary right to analyze the matter. The Oneida and Cayuga nation, joined later by Tuscarora nation, were regarded as Younger Brothers. (Crawford 358) Despite the distinction, as Morgan points out, their position within the Council was in no way diminished. “They may have secured for the senior nations increased respect, but they involved no idea of dependence in the junior, or inequality in civil rights.” (Morgan 92)

After joining the Confederacy, the Tuscarora nation was admitted as equal and independent, except they could not be represented in the Grant Council. Their issues were dealt with through the Oneida sachems who served as their sponsors. (Crawford 359)

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