‘Forgotten Founders’ Ch 2: The Pre-Columbian Republic


Richard Moore

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C H A P T E R     T W O 

The Pre-Columbian Republic

The chiefs of the League of Five Nations shall be mentors of the people for all time. The thickness of their skins shall be seven spans . . . their minds filled with a yearning for the welfare of the people of the League. . . .

The Great Law of Peace, Paragraph 24, 
Akwesasne Notes version, 1977 
Mohawk Nation, New York

When the Iroquois Confederacy was formed, no Europeans were present with clocks and a system for telling time before and after the birth of Christ. Since ideas, unlike artifacts, cannot be carbon dated or otherwise fixed in unrecorded time, the exact date that the Senecas, Onondagas, Oneidas, Mohawks, and Cayugas stopped battling one another and formed a federal union will never be known. It is known, however, that around 1714 the Tuscaroras, a kindred Indian nation, moved northward from what is presently the Carolinas to become the sixth national member of the confederacy.

          A wide range of estimates exist for the founding date of the confederacy. Iroquoian sources, using oral history and recollections of family ancestries (the traditional methods for marking time through history), have fixed the origin date at between 1000 and 1400 A.D.; Euro-American historians have tended to place the origin of the Iroquois league at about 1450.

          By an Iroquois account, Cartier made his first appearance among the Iroquois during the life of the thirty-third presiding chief of the league. The presiding chief (Atotarho was the name of the office) held a lifetime appointment unless he was impeached for violating the Great Law of Peace. The Iroquois who use this method of tracing the league’s origin place the date at between 1000 and 1100. Arthur C. Parker, a Seneca, used Iroquoian recall of family lines and lifespans to estimate the founding date at 1390. Paul A. W. Wallace, a student of the Iroquois who has written extensively about them, estimated the founding date of the league at 1450. This is only a sample of the attempts that have been made to solve an unsolvable riddle.

          At whatever date the confederacy was formed, it came at the end of several generations of bloody and divisive warfare between the five nations that joined the league. According to the Iroquois’ traditional account, the idea of a federal union was introduced through Deganwidah, a Huron who lived in what is now eastern Ontario. Deganwidah was unsuited himself to propose the idea not only because of his non-Iroquoian ancestry, but also because he stuttered so badly that he could scarcely talk. He would have had the utmost difficulty in presenting his idea to societies where oratory was prized. And writing, aside from the pictographs of the wampum belts, was not used.

          Deganwidah, wandering from tribe to tribe trying to figure ways to realize his dream of ending war among them all, met Hiawatha, who agreed to speak for him. Hiawatha (a man far removed from Longfellow’s poetic creation) undertook long negotiations with leaders of the warring Indian nations and, in the end, produced a peace along the lines of Deganwidah’s vision.

          This peace was procured, and maintained, through the constitution of the league, the Great Law of Peace (untranslated: Kaianerekowa). The story of the Great Law’s creation is no less rich in history and allegory than the stories of cultural origin handed down by European peoples, and is only briefly summarized here.

          The Great Law of Peace was not written in English until about 1880 when Seth Newhouse, a Mohawk, transcribed it. By this time, many of the traditional sachems of the league, worried that the wampum belts that contained the Great Law’s provisions might be lost or stolen, sought a version written in English. One such translation was compiled by Arthur C. Parker. In recent years, the text of the Great Law has been published in several editions by Akwesasne Notes, a journal for “native and natural peoples” published on the Mohawk Nation. The substance of all these written translations is similar, although wording varies at some points.

          The text of the Great Law begins with the planting of the Tree of the Great Peace; the great white pine — from its roots to its spreading branches — serves throughout the document as a metaphor for the unity of the league. The tree, and the principal council fire of the confederacy, were located on land of the Onondaga Nation, at the center of the confederacy, the present site of Syracuse, New York.

          From the Tree of the Great Peace

Roots have spread out . . . one to the north, one to the west, one to the east and one to the south. These are the Great White Roots and their nature is peace and strength. If any man or any nation outside the Five Nations shall obey the laws of the Great Peace and shall make this known to the statesmen of the League, they may trace back the roots to the tree. If their minds are clean and they are obedient and promise to obey the wishes of the Council of the League, they shall be welcomed to take shelter beneath the Tree of the Long Leaves.

          This opening provision complements the adoption laws of the confederacy, which contained no bars on the basis of race or national origin. Nor did the Great Law prohibit dual citizenship; several influential Anglo-Americans, emissaries from the Colonial governments, including William Johnson and Conrad Weiser, were given full citizenship in the confederacy. Both men took part in the deliberations of the Grand Council at Onondaga.

          Following paragraphs three and four, which outlined procedural matters such as the calling of meetings and maintenance of the council fire, the Great Law began to outline a complex system of checks and balances on the power of each nation against that of the others. The Great Law ensured that no measure (such as a declaration of war) would be enacted by the Council of the League without the consent of all five represented nations, each of which would first debate the question internally:

The council of the Mohawks shall be divided into three parties . . . the first party shall listen only to the discussion of the second and third parties and if an error is made, or the proceeding irregular, they are to call attention to it, and when the case is right and properly decided by the two parties, they shall confirm the decision and refer the case to the Seneca statesmen for their decision. When the Seneca statesmen have decided in accord with the Mohawk statesmen, the case or question shall be referred to the Cayuga and Oneida statesmen on the opposite side of the house.

          After a question had been debated by the Mohawks, Senecas, Oneidas, and Cayugas on both sides of the “house,” it was passed to the Onondagas, the firekeepers, for their decision. The Great Law provided that every Onondaga statesman or his deputy be present in council and that all agree with the majority “without unwarrantable dissent.” Decisions, when made, had to be unanimous. If Atotarho, or other chiefs among the Onondaga delegation were absent, the council could only decide on matters of small importance.

          If the decision of the “older brothers” (Senecas and Mohawks) disagreed with that of the “younger brothers” (Cayugas and Oneidas), the Onondagas were charged with breaking the tie. If the four nations agreed, the Onondagas were instructed by the Great Law to confirm the decision. The Onondagas could, however, refuse to confirm a decision given them by the other four nations, and send it back for reconsideration. If the four nations rendered the same decision again, the Onondagas had no other course but to confirm it. This decision-making process somewhat resembled that of a two-house congress in one body, with the “older brothers” and “younger brothers” each comprising a side of the house. The Onondagas filled something of an executive role, with a veto that could be overriden by the older and younger brothers in concert.[1]

          Paragraph 14 of the Great Law provided that the speaker for any particular meeting of the council would be elected by acclamation from either the Mohawks, Senecas, or Onondagas. The Great Law also provided for changes to the Great Law, by way of amendment:

If the conditions which arise at any future time call for an addition to or a change of this law, the case shall be carefully considered and if a new beam seems necessary or beneficial, the proposed change shall be decided upon and, if adopted, shall be called “added to the rafters.”

          The next major section of the Great Law concerned the rights, duties, and qualifications of statesmen. The chiefs who sat on the council were elected in two ways. Traditionally, they were nominated by the women of each extended family holding title (in the form of special wampum strings) to a chiefship. Increasingly during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, chiefs were elected outside this hereditary structure on the basis of their leadership qualities.

          In order to keep his office, a chief had to abide by several rules, most of which were written into the Great Law. A chief could not, for example, refuse to attend meetings of the council. After one warning by the women who had nominated him, a chief who continued to ignore council meetings was removed.

          More seriously, a chief could be removed from the council if it became “apparent . . . [that he] . . . has not in mind the welfare of the people, or [if he] disobeys the rules of the Great Law. . . .” Complaints about the conduct of chiefs could be brought before the council by “the men and women of the league, or both acting jointly,” and communicated to the accused through the war chiefs who, in peacetime, often acted as the peoples’ monitors on the other chiefs in council. An erring chief, after three warnings, would be removed by the war chiefs if complaints continued and the erring chief did not mend his ways.

          One of the most serious offenses of which a chief could be accused was murder. The sanctions against this crime may have been made as stringent as they were because blood feuds were a major problem before Deganwidah united the Iroquois.

If a chief of the League of Five Nations should commit murder, the other chiefs of the nation shall assemble at the place where the corpse lies and prepare to depose the criminal chief. If it is impossible to meet at the scene of the crime the chiefs shall discuss the matter at the next council of their nation and request their war chief to depose the chief guilty of the crime, to “bury” his women relatives and to transfer the chieftanship title to a sister family.

The reference to burial was figurative; the law provided that a chief guilty of murder would not only lose his own title, but deprive his entire extended family of the right to be represented on the council. In addition, a chief guilty of murder was banished from the confederacy.

          Certain physical and mental defects, such as idiocy, blindness, deafness, dumbness, or impotency could also cause a chief’s dismissal from office, although the Great Law provided that “in cases of extreme necessity,” the chief could continue to exercise his rights in council.

          While holding membership on the confederate council, the Great Law provided that a chief should be tolerant and attentive to constituent criticism:

The chiefs of the League of Five Nations shall be mentors of the people for all time. The thickness of their skins shall be seven spans, which is to say that they shall be proof against anger, offensive action and criticism. Their hearts shall be full of peace and good will and their minds filled with a yearning for the welfare of the people of the League. With endless patience, they shall carry out their duty. Their firmness shall be tempered with a tenderness for their people. Neither anger nor fury shall find lodging in their minds and all their words and actions shall be marked by calm deliberation.

          Paragraph 35 of the Great Law outlined provisions for election of “pine-tree chiefs” — those who held membership in the council because of their special abilities, rather than the hereditary titles of their extended families. The name “pine-tree chief” was given to such individuals because they were said to have sprung, like the Great White Pine under which the council met. While the pine sprang from the earth, the pine-tree chiefs sprang from the body of the people. The nomination to the council came directly from the chiefs sitting on it.

          A pine-tree chief could not be officially deposed, as could the hereditary chiefs, for violating the Great Law. If such a chief lost the confidence of the people, however, the Great Law told them to “be deaf to his voice and his advice.” Like other civil chiefs, the pine-tree chiefs could not name their successors; nor could they carry their titles to the grave. The Great Law provided a ceremony for removing the title from a dying chief.

          One war chief from each of the five represented nations also sat on the confederate council along with the hereditary and pine-tree chiefs. These chiefs were elected from the eligible sons of the female families holding title to the head chieftainship in each of the five nations. The war chiefs in peacetime acted as the peoples’ eyes and ears in the council, carrying messages to and from the council and constituents. In wartime, these chiefs raised fighting forces, a task that often took no small amount of eloquence, since there was no enforced draft, and warriors had to be convinced that a cause was worth fighting for. It was also the duty of the war chief to lay questions of the people (other societies might call them petitions) before the Council of the League. War chiefs, like civil chiefs, could be recalled from office if they violated the Great Law’s standards of leadership.

          To prevent factions within the confederacy, Deganwidah and his confederates built into it a system of clans that overlapped each nations’ political boundaries. The clans bore such names as Great Bear, Turtle, Deer Pigeon, Hawk, and Wild Potatoes. Each member of a particular clan recognized as a relative others of the same clan, even if they lived in different nations of the league. The clan structure and the system of checks and balances kept one nation from seeking to dominate others and helped to insure that consensus would arise from decisions of the council. Checks and balances were evident between the sexes, as well. Although the members of the Grand Council were men, most of them had been nominated by the women of their respective extended families. Women also were considered to be the allocators of resources, and descent was matrilineal.

          Surely the first reference to a “United Nations” in American history occurred in paragraph 61 of the Great Law. A concept of national self-determination is expressed in paragraph 84, which allowed conquered non-Iroquoian nations, or those which peacefully accepted the Great Law, to continue their own system of internal government as long as it refrained from making war on other nations. Paragraph 98 confirmed the people’s right to seek redress from the Grand Council through their respective war chiefs. Paragraph 99 guaranteed freedom of religion. Paragraph 107 denied entry to the home by those not authorized to do so by its occupants.

          The Great Law was not wholly unwritten before its transcription into English during the late nineteenth century. Its provisions were recorded on wampum belts that were used during council meetings whenever disputes arose over procedure, or over the provisions of the law itself. Wampum was also used to record many other important events, such as contracts and other agreements. A contemporary source credits the belts with use “to assist the memory.”[2]

          “When a subject is of very great importance the belt is very wide and so on — if a Mohawk makes a promise to another, he gives him one of these belts — his word is irrevocable & they do not consider anything a greater reproach [than a] . . . word not binding,” the same source recorded. Contrary to popular assumption many Indian cultures, the Iroquois among them, used some forms of written communication. These forms were only rarely appreciated by eighteenth-century Euro-American observers.

          In addition to its use as an archive (usually kept by senior sachems), wampum also served as a medium of exchange. It had a definite value among the Iroquois and other Indians in relation to deerskins, beaver pelts, and (after extensive contact with Euro-Americans) British coins. Fashioned from conch and clam shells in the shape of beads, wampum was sewn into intricate patterns on hides. Each design had a different meaning, and understanding of the designs’ meaning was indispensable to the conduct of Iroquoian diplomacy, as it was the lingua franca for conduct between nations (Indian to Indian and Indian to European) in North America for more than a century.

          To do diplomatic business with the Iroquois, the British and French envoys had to learn how wampum was used. When the occasion called for giving, they should expect to get a string (often called a “strand” in treaty accounts) or a belt of wampum. A strand — beads strung on yard-long leather strips tied at one end — signified agreement on items of small importance, but still worth noting. Belts, often six feet long and up to two feet wide, were reserved for important items. The Iroquois dealt with the English and French only under their own diplomatic code, a way of reminding the Europeans that they were guests on the Indians’ continent, which they called “Turtle Island.” Euro-American diplomats who came to council without a sufficient supply of wampum strands and belts to give, or one who failed to understand the message of one or more belts, could make or break alliances at a time when the Iroquois’ powerful confederacy and its Indian allies constituted the balance of power between the English and French in North America.

          On a continent still very lightly settled with Europeans — islands of settlement in a sea of Indian nations — it behooved diplomatic suitors to know the difference between a peace and a war belt. It also helped to have Indian allies as guides through what Europeans regarded as a limitless and trackless wilderness. Without Indian help (on both sides) the Colonial wars in North America might have taken a great deal longer than they did. Without Indian guides, the armies would have had a much harder time finding one another, except by accident.

          During the 1730s and 1740s, the British Crown decided that if it was to stem the French advance down the western side of the Appalachians, alliance with the Iroquois was imperative. The French advance south from the Saint Lawrence Valley and north from Louisiana threatened to hem the English between the mountains and the Atlantic. And so the peace belt went out in a diplomatic offensive that would end in France’s defeat two decades later.

          To win the Iroquois, the British envoys had to deal with the Iroquois on their own terms, as distasteful as this may have been to some of the more effete diplomats. They would find themselves sitting cross-legged around council fires many miles from the coastal cities, which Indian sachems refused to visit except on the most compelling business, fearing disease and the temptations of alcohol, as well as possible attacks by settlers along the way.

          In order to cement the alliance, the British sent Colonial envoys who usually reported directly to the various provincial governors, one of whom was Benjamin Franklin, to the frontier and beyond. This decision helped win North America for the British — but only for a time. In the end, it still cost them the continent, or at least the better part of it. The Colonial delegates passed more than wampum over the council fires of the treaty summits. They also came home with an appetite for something that many proper colonials, and most proper British subjects, found little short of heresy. They returned with a taste for natural rights — life, liberty, and happiness — that they saw operating on the other side of the frontier. These observations would help mold the political life of the colonies, and much of the world, in the years to come. 

  1. The Tuscaroras had no voting rights after they joined the confederacy during the early eighteenth century.

  2. New York State Library Ms. #13350-51, reprinted in Charles M. Johnston, ea., The Valley of the Six Nations: A Collection of Documents on Indian Lands of the Great River (Toronto. The University of Toronto Press, 1964), pp. 28-29. Note that the wampum belts, used in this fashion, served as a set of symbols used to retain and convey meaning. Like the Aztecs (who kept tax records and other written materials), the Iroquois were not illiterate. Written communication evolved to fit specialized needs, and its utilization was restricted to a minority, not unlike the use of writing in Europe before the invention of the printing press.