Confederacies have been identified as a method of governance among indigenous peoples in North America both before and after contact with Europeans. The confederacies that will be considered here are the Blackfoot Confederacy, Council of the Three Fires, Creek Confederacy, Old North-West (Delaware) Confederacy, Huron-Wendat (Wyandot) Confederacy, Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) Confederacy, Seven Nations of Canada, Wabanaki Confederacy, and Wabash Confederacy.
Not every conceivable regrouping labeled as a confederacy is discussed here. For example, it is possible to find references to the Illini Confederation and the Neutral Confederacy. The Illini Confederation, however, is most likely to have been one large, segmented tribe rather than an example of distinct nations joined together (Fester, 2004). The Neutral Confederacy was also not truly a confederacy. The Neutrals were one nation, living in several villages along the western shore of Lake Ontario, Canada, and were an Iroquoian-speaking people who farmed the land much like the Huron and the Iroquois. They were given the name Neutral or Neutral Confederacy by the French because they chose to stay out of the Huron-Iroquois wars (Halton, 2004).
A confederacy can be defined as a league or agreement between two or more independent nations who unite for their mutual welfare and the furtherance of their common aims. A confederacy usually involves political connections by which a central government is created to govern the nations; however, each nation retains its sovereign powers for domestic purposes (Nolan and Nolan, 1990, 296).
Among indigenous peoples in North America, confederacies were not uncommon. Alliances developed primarily out of a need for mutual assistance and cooperation. Indigenous nations understood that there was strength in unity and that it was beneficial to have the support of other neighboring nations for trade and in times of difficulty and warfare. Although a number of confederacies were and are enduring, the general interpretation of a confederacy does not take into account the fact that membership was not always static and, in some cases, that alliances of a more temporary nature were formed as the need arose and dissolved when the need was no longer there. The issue of whether a temporary alliance constituted the creation of an entirely new confederacy or merely an extension of an already existing one has been often debated by historians, anthropologists, ethnologists, and even indigenous nations themselves and remains a question of interpretation.
The term "Blackfoot" is generally used in Canada and the term "Blackfeet" is used in the United States. However, as these people preceded the postcontact political entities, they remain connected, regardless of terminology or the existence of the forty-ninth parallel. "Blackfoot" is the term used in this article.
The Blackfoot Confederacy includes the Piikani/Peigan, North Piikani/Peigan, Kainai/Blood, and Siksika/Blackfoot nations. Until 1861, the confederacy also included the Gros Ventres (Samek, 1987, 11). While the original Blackfoot territory included present-day Alberta, Saskatchewan (Canada), and northern Montana (United States), the Blackfoot people eventually settled on reservations in Alberta and Montana (Samek, 1987, 12).
The member nations of the Blackfoot Confederacy shared a common culture and language and were known for their military prowess. They were a nomadic people who lived on the plains, hunting the vast buffalo herds. The member nations were also involved in the trade of buffalo robes, guns, and horses, sometimes trading as far as the northeastern coast of North America (MNSU, 2005).
The confederacy was at the height of its power in the middle of the nineteenth century when smallpox epidemics, the massacre of the buffalo herds, and battles with European settlers and gold prospectors began decimating the population and encroaching on Blackfoot territory. The Blackfoot continued to travel back and forth, as they always had, across what came to be the Canada–United States border. Samek believes that the signing of Treaty No. 7 with Canada created a separation within the Confederacy to a certain extent, since some people were now looking to the Canadian government to correct past wrongs, honor treaty provisions, and settle the question of territory, while others were looking to the United States government (Samek, 1987, 13–14).
In the United States, the American government entered into three treaty processes with some of the Blackfoot residing in Montana. The first treaty, in 1855, included other indigenous nations as well and resulted in the cession of large portions of Blackfoot territory for use by settlers. In 1865 and 1868, the U.S. government attempted to settle the land question, but both times, the U.S. Senate failed to ratify the treaties due to violence and fighting between Blackfoot and settlers. Many have questioned whether the indigenous nations really understood these "treaties" (essentially land cessions) and whether they knew that they were giving up their lands forever. It has been argued that the member nations of the Blackfoot Confederacy believed they were signing peace treaties (Samek, 1987, 15).
Council of the Three Fires
Although not formally a confederacy, the Council of the Three Fires, composed of the Pottawatomis, Ottawas (Odawas), and Ojibways (Chippewas), conducted themselves as such and allied themselves for political and military purposes. The Pottawatomi chiefs were known as the Firekeepers and their central meeting place was generally at Michilimackinack (Union of Ontario Indians, 2004). This confederacy also maintained relations, during the 1600s and 1700s, with others such as the Iroquois Confederacy and the Sauk, Fox, Menominees, Hurons, Winnebagos, Sioux, and British and French Nations. Again, relations between nations were not always static and changes such as the rise of the fur trade brought competition and fighting to once friendly nations (Fester, 2004). By the mid-1700s, the Council of the Three Fires became the founding group for what Sir William Johnson called "the Western Lakes Confederacy," a union of Algonquin, Nippissing, Sauk, Fox, Menominees, Winnebagos, Crees, Hurons, and Toughkamiwons (Union of Ontario Indians, 2004).
While the original Three Fires territory was quite expansive and included large portions of the states of Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin (Potawatomi, Ottawa, and Chippewa) and the Province of Ontario, Canada (Ojibway/Chippewa), the Council of the Three Fires was severely handicapped by the U.S. government removal policies of the 1800s, as were many indigenous nations and confederacies. A large number of Pottawatomis were removed to Kansas and Oklahoma, while some sought refuge in the northern Wisconsin Territory and others settled with confederacy relatives in Ontario, Canada, specifically Walpole Island, Kettle Point, and Manitoulin Island (ITCMI, 2001). The remaining member nations of the Three Council Fires were forced to settle on small reservations in Michigan, Indiana, and Ontario.
The Creeks were one of the largest nations in the southern United States in terms of population and territory, residing in what is now present-day Georgia, Alabama, Florida, and South Carolina, and they were part of the cultural tradition identified by anthropologists as the Mound Builders. Confederacy territory by the end of the eighteenth century spanned approximately 62,130 square miles (Ethridge, 2003, 23), from the Oconee River in Georgia (the upper Creeks) to the Tombigbee River in Alabama (the lower Creeks), and included seventy-three towns for a total of about 15,000 to 20,000 people (Ethridge, 2003, 31).
When the Creeks joined together in a confederacy, their system of governance had changed significantly from that of the Mound Builders. European diseases and slave trading devastated the Creek population, and the surviving people, forever changed by their experience, allied themselves together as a means of protection and survival (Ethridge, 2003, 23–24).
Nevertheless some argue that the Creeks themselves did not constitute a homogeneous nation (Ethridge, 2003, 278, n. 1) and were not a true confederacy because they were not united with other distinct nations. There was no permanent central government for the Creek Confederacy, and the focus of Creek life was the village rather than the nation. Each Creek tribe lived in an independent village with its own political structure, and there was no obligation for a village to act in accordance with a decision from the national council. It is the union of these independent villages that is said to have constituted the Creek Confederacy (Muscogee [Creek] Nation, 2005). Interestingly, there was a common Creek language across the villages, in addition to a tribal village language. This common language was also known to the Chickasaws and the Choctaws (Golden Ink, 2005).
In 1814, the Creek signed a treaty with the United States in which they ceded approximately two-thirds of their land. Later cessions further reduced their territory and, between 1836 and 1837, over 20,000 Creeks were forcibly removed by the U.S. Army to Indian Territory (Oklahoma) (Muscogee [Creek] Nation, 2005).
Old Northwest Confederacy
The Old Northwest Confederacy, which is sometimes called the Delaware Confederacy, was composed of the Delawares, Wyandots, Chippewas, Ottawas, Pottawatomis, Shawnees, and Miamis. The Wyandots were elected as the Keepers of the Council Fire, where all matters of importance were discussed. It is interesting to note that the Chippewas, Ottawas, and Pottawatomis were also members of the Council of the Three Fires around the same time period, a fact that reveals the fluidity of relations between nations. The confederacy continued until the member nations were forcibly removed by the United States from the northeastern United States (the old northwest) to Indian Territory. The member nations continue to live on reservations in Kansas and Oklahoma to this day. Some Delaware moved north into Canada to avoid the removal. Their descendents continue to live on two small reserves in Moraviatown and Munsee, Ontario (Hahn, 2005). Eventually, around 1848, the Council Fire was rekindled and the Wyandots were again appointed as Keepers of the Council Fire (Hahn, 2005).
The Huron Confederacy is thought to have originated in the 1600s. It consisted of five nations, known in the Huron language as the Attignawantans, Attigeenongnahacs, Arendaronons, Tahontaenrats, and the Ataronchronons. Although the Hurons dominated central and eastern Ontario and developed alliances with the Tobacco and Neutral nations, as well as with the neighboring Ojibways, the Huron Confederacy was in constant battle with the Iroquois Confederacy, to whom they eventually lost much of their territory. While principal, or peace, chiefs were chosen to tend to civil affairs and participate in the national and confederate councils, other chief titles existed for addressing specific issues. For example, war chiefs were responsible for defense in times of war (Sioui, 1999, 129–131).
The confederacy Council met several times a year and addressed issues of concern to all member nations, such as political developments, trade, important feasts, major expeditions for hunting, fishing, or trading, in addition to the replacement of chiefs who had passed on. The Councils also served to reinforce and renew ties among the nations (Sioui, 1999, 132). The Hurons eventually settled in Wendake, Quebec, Canada. Some Hurons who were removed by the United States settled on reservations in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Michigan.
The Iroquois Confederacy (Haudenosaunee or Rotinohshonni) is also referred to as the Five Nations Confederacy or the Six Nations Confederacy. This confederacy was originally composed of five nations: Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Senecas, and Cayugas. In the early eighteenth century, when the Tuscaroras were forced to leave their lands in North Carolina by settlers and the U.S. government, they became the sixth nation to join the confederacy.
The Iroquois Confederacy represents one of the more static confederacies in the sense that the five (and then six) nations remained members throughout its existence. This was in keeping with the general policy of the Iroquois Confederacy to adopt other people and sometimes entire nations that were smaller and weaker—the adoptees taking on the language and culture of the Iroquois, reflecting the dominance of the Iroquois Confederacy in the 1600s and 1700s.
There are similarities between the Huron and Iroquois Confederacies in that both were matrilineal societies that grouped individuals into clans. An individual's clan was inherited from the mother and all individuals within a clan were considered to be one large family. Certain clans (the Bear, Turtle, and Wolf Clans among the Iroquois) were found in all of the nations. This helped to unify the nations in the confederacy, because family members were present in each of the nations. Chiefs were selected by the clan mothers, and a chief could also be deposed by the women if he did not behave in an honorable, selfless manner.
Each nation selected its chiefs, as representatives of each clan, to govern its own internal matters. When the nations joined together to discuss issues affecting all nations, each would first come to a decision on the matter before submitting its views to the confederacy Council. At the Council, matters would be discussed, sometimes for several days, and there was a concerted effort to consider all views and arrive at a solution that was acceptable to all.
The Iroquois Confederacy continues to exist and function to this day, although, like most indigenous governments, U.S. and Canadian policies of removal or relocation, extermination, and assimilation have severely affected its ability to function as it did in the past.
Seven Nations of Canada
The Seven Nations of Canada, also sometimes referred to as the Seven Fires, represents an alliance between the Iroquois (including the Mohawks of Akwesasne, Kahnawake, Kanesatake, and the Onondagas of Oswegatchie), Hurons, Abenakis, and Anishnabes (Algonquin and Nippissing). The Seven Nations initially allied themselves with the French and had for the most part adopted the Catholic religion. However, during the American Revolution and the War of 1812, the Seven Nations of Canada were an important ally of Britain in the wars between that country and the United States.
Some have argued that the Seven Nations of Canada is not a true confederacy, in the sense that it was merely an extension of the Iroquois Confederacy, representing a group of individuals who branched off from the main Confederacy due to differing views and beliefs. An important point to keep in mind is that the Seven Nations of Canada were really seven communities joined together, rather than seven entire nations. Even within each community, individuals might consider themselves to be loyal to the Iroquois Confederacy, while others might consider themselves loyal to the Seven Nations. One explanation for this confusing designation is that the term Seven Nations of Canada was primarily a European designation that may have been applied more out of a need to impress on enemies the strength of their Native allies, rather than a recognition that each community of this alliance was a separate nation (Bonaparte, 1999).
The Wabanaki Confederacy grouped together several Algonquian nations, namely the Mi'kmaq, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot nations. These nations lived along the eastern seaboard in what is now the state of Maine and the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland (Leavitt and Francis, 1990, 1).
The confederacy broadened its ranks in the mideighteenth century (Leavitt and Francis, 1990, 12) by bringing in other nations and communities. Although Speck seems to suggest that this created a confederacy all of its own, it would appear that this was rather just an extension of the original Wabanaki Confederacy. In either case, the Wabanakis extended their ranks to include the Ottawas (who acted as an advisory body) and the Mohawks of Kahnawake and Kanesatake. At one time, according to Speck, the capital of the Wabanaki Confederacy was at Kahnawake (Leavitt and Francis, 1990, 12).
Speck also argues that the presence and influence of the Mohawks and of the Iroquois Confederacy generally is reflected in the similarities in the system of governance and that the Wabanaki modeled their system of government on the existing Iroquois system (Leavitt and Francis, 1990, 12). In addition, Speck suggests that the Wabanaki Confederacy was more or less a regrouping of Christianized tribes acting under the influence of the Mohawks " . . . who found themselves recasting in their own way under new conditions the old original principles of the Iroquois League" (Leavitt and Francis, 1990, 12).
Interestingly, Speck indicates that while the "eastern members" of the confederacy (the four main member nations) continue to speak of the existence of the Wabanaki Confederacy, the "western members" (namely the Mohawks of Kahnawake and Kanesatake and the Ottawas) seem to have all but forgotten their participation in the Wabanaki Confederacy (Leavitt and Francis, 1990, 14–15). Although the reasons for this remain unclear, it would appear that ties with the western members seem to have been ruptured in the late 1800s (Leavitt and Francis, 1990, 15). The alliances between member nations of the Wabanaki Confederacy continue to be respected to this day.
Compared to other alliances, the Wabash Confederacy was fairly short-lived. It is said to have existed between 1785 and 1795. This confederacy included the Hurons, Shawnees, Council of the Three Fires, Delawares, Miamis, and the Six Nations of the Grand River, Kickapoo, and Kaskaskia. The Wabash Confederacy was a purely military alliance for the purpose of fighting in the so-called "Indian wars" of the United States. The informal alliances that had existed among these nations since the French colonial era were renewed with vigor during the American Revolution (Mississippi Biographies and History, 2005).
By virtue of the Treaty of Paris (1783), the United States government acquired control of the land east of the Mississippi and south of the Great Lakes. The indigenous nations living in these areas, however, were not included in the discussions. The nations, joined together in the Wabash Confederacy, wanted to deal with the United States as a collectivity, rather than individually (Mississippi Biographies and History, 2005).
The Battle of Fallen Timbers, on August 20, 1794, is said to have brought an end to the Wabash Confederacy and victory to the United States for control of the disputed territory. In 1795, confederacy members signed the Treaty of Greenville, which had the effect of ceding much of present-day Ohio to the United States. One young man who refused to sign the treaty was a Shawnee named Tecumseh. He would later become known for renewing Indian resistance (Mississippi Biographies and History, 2005).
Many of the confederacies described here continue to exist, albeit in a somewhat modified form. As the European presence grew in North America, indigenous nations were forced to adapt their traditional structures and procedures. As North America became more and more settled, the need for military prowess and power declined. Government policies across North America forced indigenous nations to perform traditional ceremonies and conduct political discussions in secret. Entire nations were relocated far from their traditional territories, and children were taken from their parents and placed in schools where they were severely punished for speaking their own languages and trying to carry on their cultures. The Bureau of Indian Affairs in the United States and the Department of Indian Affairs in Canada ensured that government policies were carried out and that indigenous people would remain on the small parcels of land allocated to them. It is not surprising, therefore, that contact with Europeans took a heavy toll on the system of governance identified as confederacies. Nevertheless, the continued existence of several of the confederacies described here reflects the tenacity and adaptability of indigenous governments.
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