American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Haudenosaunee Confederacy, Political System

At no time were Native people in America more influential in the politics of Europe than during the middle of the eighteenth century, and at that time no confederacy was more influential than that of the Haudenosaunee. The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy, sometimes known as the League of the Iroquois, controlled the only relatively level land route between the English colonies and French settlements ringing the Saint Lawrence Valley; the Confederacy maintained alliances with virtually every Indian nation bordering on its clusters of settlements. In this context, as France and Britain wrestled for hegemony in North America, some of the people who would do the most to shape the new United States, Benjamin Franklin the most prominent among them, cut their diplomatic teeth maintaining alliances with the Iroquois and their Native allies. Thus, in the service of British interest, future revolutionaries such as Franklin were absorbing the Native ideas they would later use to counterpoise British tyranny in the colonies.

Peace among the formerly antagonistic Haudenosaunee nations was procured and maintained through the Great Law of Peace (Kaianerekowa), which was passed from generation to generation by the use of wampum, a form of written communication that outlined a complex system of checks and balances between nations and genders. A complete oral recitation of the Great Law can take several days; encapsulated versions of it have been translated into English for more than 100 years, and they provide one reason why the Iroquois are cited so often today in debates regarding the origins of United States fundamental law. While many other Native confederacies existed along the borders of the British colonies, most of the specific provisions of their governments have been lost.

To understand the provisions of the Great Law, one must understand the symbols it uses to represent the Confederacy. One was the traditional long-house. The Confederacy itself was likened to a long-house, with the Mohawks guarding the "eastern door," the Senecas at the "western door," and the Onondagas tending the ceremonial council fire in the middle. The primary national symbol of the Haudenosaunees was the Great White Pine, which serves throughout the Great Law as a metaphor for the Confederacy. Its branches shelter the people of the nations, and its roots spread to the four directions, inviting other peoples, regardless of race or nationality, to take shelter under the tree. The Haudenosaunees recognized no bars to dual citizenship; in fact, many influential figures in the English colonies and early United States were adopted into Iroquois nations.

Each of the five nations maintained its own council, whose leaders were nominated for qualities of "good mind" by the clan mothers of families holding hereditary rights to office titles. The Grand Council at Onondaga, drawn from the individual national councils, also could nominate sachems outside the hereditary structure, based on merit alone. These sachems, called pine tree chiefs, were said to have sprung from the body of the people as the symbolic Great White Pine springs from the earth.

Rights, duties, and qualifications of sachems were explicitly outlined, and the women could remove (or impeach) a sachem who was found guilty of any of a number of abuses of office, from missing meetings to murder. An erring chief was summoned to face charges by the war chiefs, who acted in peacetime as the peoples' eyes and ears in the council, somewhat as the role of the communication media was envisaged by Thomas Jefferson and other founders of the United States. A sachem was given three warnings, and then removed from the council if he did not mend his ways. A sachem guilty of murder lost not only his title, but also deprived his entire family of its right to representation. The women relatives holding the rights to the office were "buried" and the title transferred to a sister family.

The Great Law stipulated that leaders' skins must be seven spans thick to withstand the criticism of their constituents. The law pointed out that sachems should take pains not to become angry when people scrutinized their conduct in governmental affairs. Such a point of view pervades the writings of Jefferson and Franklin, although it was not fully codified into U.S. law until the Supreme Court decision New York Times v. Sullivan (1964) made it virtually impossible for public officials to sue successfully for libel. Sachems were neither allowed to name their own successors nor carry their titles to the grave. The Great Law provided a ceremony to remove the title from a dying chief. The Great Law also provided for the removal from office of sachems who could no longer adequately function in office, a measure remarkably similar to a constitutional amendment adopted in the United States during the late twentieth century providing for the removal of an incapacitated president. The Great Law also included provisions guaranteeing freedom of religion and the right of redress before the Grand Council, and it forbade the unauthorized entry of homes—all measures that sound familiar to U.S. citizens through the Bill of Rights.

The Iroquois Confederacy is fundamentally a kinship state. The Iroquois are bound together by a clan and chieftain system that is buttressed by a similar linguistic base. However, the League of the Iroquois is much more than just a kinship state. Through the hearth, which consisted of a mother and her children, women played a profound role in Iroquois political life. Each hearth was part of a wider group called an otiianer, and two or more otiianers constituted a clan. The word otiianer refers to the female heirs to the chieftainship titles of the League; the fifty authorized names for the chiefs of the Iroquois passed through the female side of the otiianer. The otiianer women selected one of the males within their group to fill a vacated seat in the League.

Such a matrilineal system was headed by a "clan mother." All the sons and daughters of a clan were related through uterine families that lived far apart. In this system, a husband went to live with his wife's family, and their children became members of the mother's clan by right of birth. Through practicing matrilineal descent, the Iroquois formed cohesive political groups that had little to do with where people lived or from what village the hearths originated.

The oldest daughter of the head of a clan sometimes succeeded her mother at her death upon the judgment of the clan. All authority sprang from the people of the various clans that made up a nation. The women who headed these clans appointed the male delegates and deputies who spoke for the clans at tribal meetings. After consultation within the clan, issues and questions were formulated and subsequently debated in council.

Iroquois political philosophy was rooted in the concept that all life is unified spiritually with the natural environment and other forces surrounding people. The Iroquois believed that the spiritual power of one person is limited, but, when combined with other individuals in a hearth, otiianer, or clan, spiritual power is enhanced. Whenever a person died either by natural causes or force, through murder or war, the "public" power was diminished. To maintain the strength of the group, the dead were replaced either by natural increase or by adopting captives of war. This practice of keeping clans at full strength through natural increase or adoption ensured the power and durability of the matrilineal system as well as the kinship state.

Child rearing was an important way to instill political philosophy in the youth of the Iroquois. The ideal Iroquois personality was a person who was loyal to the group but who was also independent and autonomous. Iroquois people were trained to enter a society that was egalitarian with power more equally distributed between male and female, and between young and old, than in Euro-American society. European society emphasized dominance and command structures, whereas Iroquois society was interested in collaborative behavior.

Because Iroquois society prized competence in a protector and provider more than material wealth, Iroquois children were educated to think for themselves and yet also provide for others. The Iroquois did not respect people who cowed to authority and who were submissive. Iroquois culture could be loosely called a "shame culture" because the emphasis was on honor and duty, while European culture was more guilt-oriented, since the emphasis was on an authoritarian hierarchy and advancement through the acquisition of property, status, and material possessions.

With this approach to authority, Iroquois society had none of Europe's elaborate mechanisms to control and direct the lives of the citizenry. Instead of formal instruments of authority, the Iroquois governed behavior by instilling a sense of pride and connectedness to the group through common rituals. Ostracism and shame were the punishments for transgressions until transgressors had atoned for their actions and demonstrated that they had undergone a purification process.

To sanctify and support Haudenosaunee society, the Great Law of Peace outlined the ways the that councils could function within the Iroquois nations. The origins of the League of the Iroquois arise out of the desire to resolve the problem of the blood feud. Before the founding of the League, blood revenge caused strife. Whenever clans were reduced by murder or kidnapping, relatives were bound by clan law to avenge the death or abduction of their relatives. This resulted in endless recriminations among clans. As long as justice and the control of violence resided in the clans, there was no hope of peace and goodwill.

In establishing the Conferderacy, the Iroquois built in checks and balances through the processes of consensus, removal, and public opinion. The Iroquois strictly adhered to the notion of federalism. The hereditary ("hereditary" in the Iroquois sense because the clan mothers "inherited the right" to appoint and remove peace chiefs of the Confederacy) Iroquois sachems were interested only in external matters such as war, peace, and treaty-making. The Grand Council could not interfere with the internal affairs of the tribe. Each tribe had its own sachems, but their power was limited in that they could deal only with their tribe's relations with other tribes and had no say in matters that were traditionally the concern of the clan.

The procedure for debate in the Grand Council begins with the Mohawks and Senecas (the Mohawks, Senecas, and Onondagas are called the "elder brothers"). After being debated by the Keepers of the Eastern Door (Mohawks) and the Keepers of the Western Door (Senecas), the question is then thrown across the fire to the Oneida and Cayuga statesmen (the "younger brothers") for discussion in much the same manner. Once consensus is achieved among the Oneidas and the Cayugas, the discussion is then given back to the Senecas and Mohawks for confirmation. Next the question is laid before the Onondagas for their decision.

At this stage, the Onondagas have a power similar to judicial review: They can raise objections to the proposed measure if it is believed inconsistent with the Great Law. Essentially, the legislature can rewrite the proposed law on the spot so that it can be in accord with the constitution of the Iroquois. When the Onondagas reach consensus, the tadodaho gives the decision to the honowireton (an Onondaga chief who presides over debates between the delegations) to confirm the decision if it is unanimously agreed on by all of the Onondaga sachems. Finally, the honowireton or tadodaho gives the decision of the Onondagas to the Mohawks and the Senecas so that the policy may be announced to the Grand Council as its will.

This process reflects the emphasis of the League on checks and balances, public debate, and consensus. The overall intent of such a parliamentary procedure is to encourage unity at each step. This legislative process is similar to the mechanisms of the Albany Plan of Union, the Articles of Confederation, and the U.S. Constitution.

The rights of the Iroquois citizenry are protected by portions of the Great Law, which states that, whenever an especially important matter is presented before the League Council threatening their utter ruin, the chiefs of the League must submit the matter to the decision of their people. The people of the League also can initiate impeachment proceedings and treason charges, and they can alert the Council to public opinion on a specific matter. The Iroquois people also have the power to remove sachems of the League's Council.

Upon the death or removal of a Confederacy chief, the title of the chief reverts to the women in his clan. The women protect this title and determine who will assume the position of chief. As in the power of removal, the women have the first priority in the installation of a new chief. When a position is vacant, the esteemed women of a clan gather and nominate a male member to be chief. Next, the men of the clan give their approval. After this process, the nomination is then forwarded to the Council of the League where the new chief is installed.

Public opinion is of great importance in the League of the Iroquois. Iroquois can have a direct say in the formulation of government policy even if the sachems choose to ignore the will of the people. The Great Law of Peace provides that the people can propose their own laws even when leaders fail to do so. The Great Law states that if the necessity arises to change the law, the case shall be considered and, if the new beam seems beneficial, the change, if adopted, shall be called "Added to the Rafters." This provision resembles those for popular initiative in several states of the United States, as well as the mechanism by which the federal and many state constitutions may be amended.

Through the expression of public opinion and debate, the Great Law gives the Haudenosaunee people basic rights in a distinctive and representative governmental framework. The Great Law solved disputes by giving all parties an equal hearing. The Grand Council often functioned like a think tank. Above all, political thought was the activity that went on underneath the Great Tree. For the Iroquois, the more thinkers that were beneath the tree, the better. This process is in marked contrast to European hierarchical political and educational traditions.

The League of the Iroquois a family-oriented government whose Constitution has a fixed corpus of laws that is concerned with mutual defense. Through the elimination of the clan blood feud, the state was given exclusive control over legally sanctioned violence. This process brought peace through a fundamental social contract. The Iroquois are not inclined to give much power to authorities because of the basic psychological attitudes instilled in Iroquois people. Thus, unity, peace, and brotherhood are balanced against the natural rights of all people and the necessity of sharing resources equitably. Unity for mutual defense is an abiding concept in the League. The Iroquois image of unity is a bundle of five arrows tied together to symbolize the complete union of the nations and the unbroken strength that such a unity portrays (Section 57 of the Great Law of the Iroquois). With the strength of many comes peace for future generations.

The Iroquois League accords prestige to the peace chiefs and thus seeks to reduce conflict between war and peace chiefs and the generations. The middle-aged peace chiefs are the firekeepers, encircled by warriors and providers, by women, and finally by the public at large. Although individual nations have unequal representation, this is irrelevant since each tribe votes as one. At the level of the village, the tribe, and the Grand Council, consensus devices are used to obtain unanimity and to report up and down the governmental structure. The League is not able to centralize power in matters other than mutual defense, but it is effective in diminishing friction among the Five Nations. The kinship state with its imagery of a longhouse spread afar is clearly comprehended by the Iroquois people. Iroquois power rests on the consent of the governed and is not coercive in areas of military service, taxation, and police powers. To the colonial Americans chafing under British authority, such a government and attitude toward freedom was a powerful ideal that could be used in resisting British sovereignty and tyranny.

Bruce E. Johansen

Further Reading
Fenton, William Nelson. 1998. The Great Law and the Longhouse: A Political History of the Iroquois Confederacy. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.; Gibson, John Arthur. 1992. "Concerning the League: The Iroquois League Tradition as Dictated in Onondaga." In Algonquian and Iroquoian Linguistics Memoir No. 9. Compiled by Hanni Woodbury, Reg Henry, and Harry Webster. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press.; Graymont, Barbara. 1972. The Iroquois in the American Revolution. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.; Grinde, Donald A., Jr., and Bruce E. Johansen. 1991. Exemplar of Liberty: Native America and the Evolution of Democracy. Los Angeles, CA: UCLA American Indian Studies Center.; Jacobs, Wilbur R. 1949. "Wampum, the Protocol of Indian Diplomacy." William and Mary Quarterly Third Series, 4, no. 3 (October): 596–604.; Mann, Barbara A., and Jerry L. Fields. 1997. "A Sign in the Sky: Dating the League of the Haudenosaunee." American Indian Culture and Research Journal 21, no. 2: 105–163.; Parker, Arthur C. 1916. The Constitution of the Five Nations. Albany: New York State Museum.; Tooker, Elisabeth. 1978. "The League of the Iroquois: Its History, Politics, and Ritual." In Handbook of the North American Indians. Vol. 15: Northeast, 418–441. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.; Trigger, Bruce G., and Wilcomb E. Washburn, eds. 1996. The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.; Wallace, Paul A. W. 1946. The White Roots of Peace. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

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