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Total population
approx. 125,000
(80,000 in the U.S., 45,000 in Canada)
Regions with significant populations
Northern Iroquoian (including Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, Tuscarora), English, French
Longhouse Religion, Karihwiio, Kanoh'hon'io, Kahni'kwi'io, Christianity, others

The Iroquois ( or ), also known as the Haudenosaunee ,[1] or the Six Nations, (the Five Nations and Five Nations of the Iroquois before 1722). Mohawk is the official language of Council, and in that language, they are known as Hotinonsionni; to the Senacas as Goano'ganoch'sa'jeh'seroni [2] or Ganonsyoni,[3] are a historically powerful and important northeast Native American confederacy known to the French as the "Iroquois League" and later as the "Iroquois Confederacy", and to the English as the "Five Nations" and later as the "Six Nations", comprising the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora Nations.

The Iroquois peoples have absorbed many others into their cultures by adoption and by offering shelter to displaced nations. There is the concept of "Orenda", meaning "spiritual force", which historically meant the adoption of other peoples, including war captives, to replace the loss of spiritual force by death. They are vibrant today in languages, cultures, independent governance, and political activism. In 2010, more than 45,000 enrolled Six Nations people lived in Canada, and about 80,000 in the United States.


  • Iroquois League 1
  • History 2
    • Formation of the League 2.1
    • Expansion 2.2
    • Beaver Wars 2.3
      • 1670–1701 2.3.1
    • French and Indian Wars 2.4
    • American Revolution 2.5
    • Post-war 2.6
    • In the West 2.7
  • Culture 3
    • Melting pot 3.1
    • Food 3.2
    • Traditional herbal medicine 3.3
    • Women in society 3.4
    • Spiritual beliefs 3.5
  • People 4
    • Name 4.1
    • Nations 4.2
    • Clans 4.3
    • Population history 4.4
    • Prominent individuals 4.5
  • Government 5
    • Wampum belts 5.1
    • Influence on the United States 5.2
  • International relations 6
    • Modern communities 6.1
  • See also 7
  • Notes 8
  • Footnotes 9
  • References 10
  • External links 11

Iroquois League

The original Iroquois League (as the French knew them) or Five Nations (as the British knew them), occupied large areas of present-day New York State and along the St. Lawrence River. It is composed of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca nations. In 1722 the Tuscarora tribe joined the League, having migrated from the Carolinas after being displaced by settlement. Also an Iroquoian-speaking people, it was accepted into what became the Six Nations.

Iroquois history goes back to its formation by the Peacemaker in the 15th century or earlier, bringing together five distinct nations in the southern Great Lakes area into "The Great League of Peace." [3] Each nation had a distinct language within the Iroquoian family, a territory, and a function within the League. Iroquois influence extended into Canada, westward into the Great Lakes and down both sides of the Allegheny mountains into Virginia and Kentucky.

The League is governed by a Grand Council, an assembly of fifty chiefs or sachems, each representing one of the clans of one of the nations.[4]

The Iroquois and most Iroquoian peoples have a matrilineal kinship system; descent passing through the maternal lines, and children are considered born into their mother's clan. Their clan mothers, or elder women of each clan, are highly respected. The women of a clan nominate the chief for life, and own the symbols of his office.

When Europeans first arrived in North America, the Haudenosaunee were based in what is now the northeastern United States, primarily in what is referred to today as upstate New York west of the Hudson River and through the Finger Lakes region, and into the St. Lawrence River area downstream to today's Montreal.[5]

French, Dutch and British colonists in both Canada and the Thirteen Colonies recognized a need to gain favor with the Iroquois people who occupied a significant portion of lands west of colonial settlements. Thus, for nearly 200 years the Iroquois were a powerful factor in North American colonial policy-making decisions. Alignment with Iroquois offered political and strategic advantages. The Iroquois remained a politically unique, undivided, large Native American polity up until the civil war between the settlers known as "the American Revolution." The Iroquois kept their treaty promises to the British Crown, and when it was defeated, many Iroquois had to abandon their lands in the Mohawk Valley and elsewhere and relocate in the northern lands retained by the British.

The Iroquois League has also been known as the Iroquois Confederacy. Modern scholars distinguish between the League and the Confederacy.[6][7][8] According to this interpretation of the scholars, the Iroquois League refers to the ceremonial and cultural institution embodied in the Grand Council, while the Iroquois Confederacy is the decentralized political and diplomatic entity that emerged in response to European colonization. According to that theory, "The League" still exists. The Confederacy dissolved after the defeat of the British and allied Iroquois nations in the American Revolutionary War.[6] After the defeat of the British and their Iroquois allies in the American Revolutionary War, many of the Iroquois migrated to Canada, abandoning their territory in New York to the United States, and those remaining in New York were required to live mostly on reservations. These were reduced in size as settlers appropriated more land. Today's Iroquois/Six Nations people do not make any distinction between "The League" and "the Confederacy" and use the terms interchangeably.

Other Iroquoian-speaking peoples had lived at various times along the St. Lawrence River, around the Great Lakes, and in the American Southeast, but they were not part of the Haudenosaunee. Some competed and warred with the Haudenosaunee.


Formation of the League

Iroquois painting of Tadodaho receiving two Mohawk chiefs
The Iroquois League was established prior to European contact. Most archaeologists and anthropologists believe that the League was formed sometime between about 1450 and 1600.[9][10] A few claims have been made for an earlier date.[note1 1]
"Meeting of Hiawatha and Deganawidah" by Sanford Plummer
One recent study argues that the League formed shortly after a solar eclipse on August 31, 1142, an occurrence apparently related to oral tradition about the League's origins.[11][12][13] Anthropologist Dean Snow argues that the archaeological evidence does not support a date earlier than 1450, and that recent claims for a much earlier date "may be for contemporary political purposes".[14] While these issues about precise dates are of interest to scholars, most Iroquois people are satisfied to say simply, "a long time ago."

According to tradition, the League was formed through the efforts of two men, Dekanawida, sometimes known as the Great Peacemaker, and Hiyonwantha, a name later appropriated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as "Hiawatha". They brought the Peacemaker's message, known as the Great Law of Peace, to the squabbling Iroquoian nations, who were fighting, raiding and feuding with one another as often as they fought other tribes. The nations who joined the League were those who still comprise it today: the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga and Seneca.

According to legend, an evil Onondaga chieftain named Tadodaho was the last converted to the ways of peace by The Great Peacemaker and Hiawatha. He was offered the position as the titular chair of the League's Council, representing the unity of all nations of the League. [15] This is said to have occurred at Onondaga Lake near present-day Syracuse, New York. The title Tadodaho is still used for the League's chair, the fiftieth chief who sits with the Onondaga in council.

With the formation of the League, the internal conflicts came to an end. The political cohesion of the Iroquois rapidly became one of the strongest forces in 17th- and 18th-century northeastern North America. The editors of American Heritage magazine suggest the Iroquois spokesmen were politically sophisticated, and as manipulative as many a modern politician.[16]

Traditional Iroquois longhouse

According to one theory of early Iroquois history, after becoming united in the League, the Iroquois invaded the Ohio River Valley in present-day Kentucky to seek additional hunting grounds. They say about 1200 Siouan-speaking tribepeople of the Ohio River valley, such as the Quapaw (Akansea) and Ofo (Mosopelea), out of the region; they migrated and settled west of the Mississippi River.[17] The explorer Robert La Salle in the 17th century identified the Mosopelea as among the Ohio Valley peoples defeated by the Iroquois in the early 1670s, during the Beaver Wars.[18] As has been noted above, there were peoples who spoke languages in the same linguistic family, but who were not part of the League.


In Reflections in Bullough's Pond, historian Diana Muir argues that the pre-contact Iroquois were an imperialist, expansionist culture whose cultivation of the corn/beans/squash agricultural complex enabled them to support a large population. They made war primarily against neighboring Algonquian peoples. Muir uses archaeological data to argue that the Iroquois expansion onto Algonquian lands was checked by the Algonquian adoption of agriculture. This enabled them to support their own populations large enough to have sufficient warriors to defend against the threat of Iroquois conquest.[19] The People of the Confederacy dispute whether any of this historical interpretation relates to the League of the Great Peace which is the foundation of their heritage.

Engraving based on a drawing by Champlain of his 1609 voyage. It depicts a battle between Iroquois and Algonquian tribes near Lake Champlain

The Iroquois may be the Kwedech described in the oral legends of the Mi'kmaq nation of Eastern Canada. These legends relate that the Mi'kmaq in the late pre-contact period had gradually driven their enemies – the Kwedech – westward across New Brunswick, and finally out of the Lower St. Lawrence River region. The Mi'kmaq named the last-conquered land Gespedeg or "last land," from which the French derived Gaspé. The "Kwedech" are generally considered to have been Iroquois, specifically the Mohawk; their expulsion from Gaspé by the Mi'kmaq has been estimated as occurring c. 1535–1600.[20]

Around 1535, Jacques Cartier reported Iroquoian-speaking groups on the Gaspé peninsula and along the St. Lawrence River. Archeologists and anthropologists have defined the St. Lawrence Iroquoians as a distinct and separate group (and possibly several discrete groups), living in the villages of Hochelaga and others nearby (near present-day Montreal), which had been visited by Cartier. By 1608, when Samuel de Champlain visited the area, that part of the St. Lawrence River valley had no settlements, but was controlled by the Mohawk as a hunting ground. On the Gaspé peninsula, Champlain encountered Algonquian-speaking groups. The precise identity of any of these groups is still debated.

The Iroquois became well known in the southern colonies in the 17th century by this time. After the first English settlement in Jamestown, Virginia (1607), numerous 17th-century accounts describe a powerful people known to the Powhatan Confederacy as the Massawomeck, and to the French as the Antouhonoron. They were said to come from the north, beyond the Susquehannock territory. Historians have often identified the Massawomeck / Antouhonoron as the Haudenosaunee. Other Iroquoian-language tribes included the Erie, who were destroyed by the Iroquois in 1654 over competition for the fur trade.[21]

Between 1665 and 1670, the Iroquois established seven villages on the northern shores of Lake Ontario in present-day Ontario, collectively known as the “Iroquois du Nord” villages. The villages were all abandoned by 1701.[22]

Over the years 1670–1710, the Five Nations achieved political dominance of much of Virginia west of the fall line and extending to the Ohio River valley in present-day West Virginia. As a result of the Beaver Wars, they pushed Siouan-speaking tribes out of the Ohio Valley and reserved the territory as a hunting ground by right of conquest. They continued to claim it until 1722, when they began selling land in the area to British allies.

Map of the New York tribes before European arrival:

Beaver Wars

Beginning in 1609, the League engaged in a decades-long series of wars, the so-called Beaver Wars, against the French, their Huron allies, and other neighboring tribes, including the Petun, Erie, and Susquehannock. Trying to control access to game for the lucrative fur trade, they put great pressure on the Algonquian peoples of the Atlantic coast (the Lenape or Delaware), the Anishinaabe peoples of the boreal Canadian Shield region, and not infrequently fought the English colonies as well. During the Beaver Wars, they were said to have defeated and assimilated the Huron (1649), Petun (1650) the Neutral Nation (1651),[23][24] Erie Tribe (1657), and Susquehannock (1680).[25] The traditional view is that these wars were a way to control the lucrative fur trade in order to access European goods on which they had become dependent.[26][27]

Recent scholarship has elaborated on this view, arguing that the Beaver Wars were an escalation of the "Mourning Wars," which were an integral part of early Iroquoian culture.[28] This view suggests that the Iroquois launched large-scale attacks against neighboring tribes in order to avenge or replace the massive number of deaths resulting from battles or smallpox epidemics.

In 1628, the Mohawk defeated the Mahican to gain a monopoly in the fur trade with the Dutch at Fort Orange, New Netherland. The Mohawk would not allow northern native peoples to trade with the Dutch. In 1645, a tentative peace was forged between the Iroquois and the Huron, Algonquin, and French.

In 1646, Jesuit missionaries at Sainte-Marie among the Hurons went as envoys to the Mohawk lands to protect the fragile peace of the time. Mohawk attitudes toward the peace soured while the Jesuits were traveling, and their warriors attacked the party en route. The missionaries were taken to the village of Ossernenon (near present-day Auriesville, New York), where the moderate Turtle and Wolf clans recommended setting the priests free.

Angered, members of the Bear clan killed Jean de Lalande and Isaac Jogues on October 18, 1646. The Catholic Church has commemorated the two French priests as among the eight North American Martyrs. In 1649 during the Beaver Wars, the Iroquois used recently purchased Dutch guns to attack the Huron, who were allied with the French. These attacks, primarily against the Huron towns of Taenhatentaron (St. Ignace) and St. Louis in Michigan, were the final battles that effectively destroyed the Huron Confederacy.[29] From 1651 to 1652, the Iroquois attacked the Susquehannocks, located to the south in present-day Pennsylvania, without sustained success.

In the early 17th century, the Iroquois Confederacy was at the height of its power, with a total population of about 12,000 people.[30] In 1653 the Onondaga Nation extended a peace invitation to New France. An expedition of Jesuits, led by Simon Le Moyne, established Sainte Marie de Ganentaa in 1656 in their territory. The Jesuits were forced to abandon the mission by 1658 as hostilities resumed, possibly because of the sudden death of 500 native people from an epidemic of smallpox, a European infectious disease to which they had no immunity.

From 1658 to 1663, the Iroquois were at war with the Susquehannock and their Lenape and Province of Maryland allies. In 1663, a large Iroquois invasion force was defeated at the Susquehannock main fort. In 1663, the Iroquois were at war with the Sokoki tribe of the upper Connecticut River. Smallpox struck again; and through the effects of disease, famine and war, the Iroquois were threatened by extermination. In 1664, an Oneida party struck at allies of the Susquehannock on Chesapeake Bay.

In 1665, three of the Five Nations made peace with the French. The following year, the Canadian Governor sent the Carignan regiment under Marquis de Tracy to confront the Mohawk and the Oneida. The Mohawk avoided battle, but the French burned their villages and crops. In 1667, the remaining two Iroquois Nations signed a peace treaty with the French and agreed to allow their missionaries to visit their villages. This treaty lasted for 17 years.


Iroquois conquests 1638–1711

Around 1670, the Iroquois drove the Siouan-speaking Mannahoac tribe out of the northern Virginia Piedmont region. They began to claim ownership of the territory by right of conquest. In 1672, the Iroquois were defeated by a war party of Susquehannock. The Iroquois appealed to the French for support and asked Governor Frontenac to assist them against the Susquehannock.

"It would be a shame for him to allow his children to be crushed, as they saw themselves to be ... they not having the means of going to attack their fort, which was very strong, nor even of defending themselves if the others came to attack them in their villages."[31]

Some old histories state that the Iroquois defeated the Susquehannock during this time period. As no record of a defeat has been found, historians have concluded that no defeat occurred.[31] In 1677, the Iroquois adopted the majority of the Iroquoian-speaking Susquehannock into their nation.[32]

By 1677, the Iroquois formed an alliance with the English through an agreement known as the Covenant Chain. Together they battled to a standstill the French, who were allied with the Huron. These Iroquoian people had been a traditional and historic foe of the Confederacy. The Iroquois colonized the northern shore of Lake Ontario and sent raiding parties westward all the way to Illinois Country. The tribes of Illinois were eventually defeated, not by the Iroquois, but by the Potawatomis.

In 1679, the Susquehannock, with Iroquois help, attacked Maryland's Piscataway and Mattawoman allies. Peace was not reached until 1685.

Map showing dates Iroquois claims relinquished, 1701-1796. Note: In the 1701 Nanfan Treaty, the 5 Nations abandoned their nominal claims to "beaver hunting" lands north of the Ohio in favor of England; however, these areas were still de facto controlled by other tribes allied with France.

In 1684, the Iroquois invaded Virginia and Illinois territory again and unsuccessfully attacked French outposts in the latter. Trying to reduce warfare in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, later that year the Virginia Colony agreed in a conference at Albany to recognize the Iroquois' right to use the North-South path, known as the Great Warpath, running east of the Blue Ridge, provided they did not intrude on the English settlements east of the fall line.

In 1687, sachems from the Onondaga council fire, who came under a flag of truce. Denonville recaptured the fort for New France and seized, chained, and shipped the 50 Iroquois chiefs to Marseilles, France, to be used as galley slaves.

He ravaged the land of the Seneca, landing a French armada at Irondequoit Bay, striking straight into the seat of Seneca power, and destroying many of its villages. Fleeing before the attack, the Seneca moved further west, east and south down the Susquehanna River. Although great damage was done to the Seneca home land, the Seneca’s military might was not appreciably weakened. The Confederacy and the Seneca developed an alliance with the English who were settling in the east. The destruction of the Seneca land infuriated the members of the Iroquois Confederacy. On August 4, 1689, they retaliated by burning to the ground Lachine, a small town adjacent to Montreal. Fifteen hundred Iroquois warriors had been harassing Montreal defenses for many months prior to that.

They finally exhausted and defeated Denonville and his forces. His tenure was followed by the return of Frontenac, who succeeded Denonville as Governor for the next nine years (1689–1698). Frontenac had been arranging a new plan of attack to lessen the effects of the Iroquois in North America. Realizing the danger of continuing to hold the sachems, he located the 13 surviving leaders of the 50 originally taken and returned with them to New France in October 1689.

In 1696 Frontenac decided to take the field against the Iroquois, although at this time he was seventy-six years of age. On July 6 he left Lachine at the head of a considerable force for the village of the Onondagas, where he arrived a month later. With support from the French, the

  • Iroquois Indian Museum
  • Canadian Genealogy (The Iroquois)

External links

  • Carpenter, Roger M. (2004). The Renewed, the Destroyed, and the Remade: The Three Thought Worlds of the Iroquois and the Huron, 1609-1650
  • Fenton, William N. (1998). The Great Law and the Longhouse: A Political History of the Iroquois Confederacy. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-3003-2.
  • Jennings, Francis. (1984). The Ambiguous Iroquois Empire: the Covenant Chain Confederation of Indian Tribes with English Colonies from Its Beginnings to the Lancaster Treaty of 1744. New York: Norton. ISBN 0-393-01719-2.
  • Barbara Graymont (1972). The Iroquois in the American Revolution (1st Paperback Edition ed.). version of Syracuse University Press, Syracuse,NY 13244-5160. pp. 361 (only 353 in online version).  
  • Graymont, Barbara (2005). The Iroquois. Chelsea House Publishers.  
  • Hauptman, Laurence M. (2008). Seven Generations of Iroquois Leadership: The Six Nations Since 1800 (Iroquois and Their Neighbors) excerpt and text search
  • Jennings, Francis, ed. (1985). The History and Culture of Iroquois Diplomacy: An Interdisciplinary Guide to the Treaties of the Six Nations and Their League, Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press. ISBN 0-8156-2650-9.
  • Jones, Eric E. (2010). "Population History of the Onondaga and Oneida Iroquois, A.D. 1500-1700," American Antiquity 75(2): 387–407
  • Jordan, Kurt A. (2013). "Incorporation and Colonization: Postcolumbian Iroquois Satellite Communities and Processes of Indigenous Autonomy". American Athropologist 115 (1). 
  • Mann, Charles C. (2005). 1491 New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 978-1-4000-4006-3.
  • Parmenter, Jon. (2010). The Edge of the Woods: Iroquoia, 1534-1701
  • Preston, David L. (2009). The Texture of Contact: European and Indian Settler Communities on the Frontiers of Iroquoia, 1667-1783 (The Iroquoians and Their World) excerpt and text search
  • Richter, Daniel K. (1992). The Ordeal of the Longhouse: The Peoples of the Iroquois League in the Era of European Colonization, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 0-8078-2060-1.
  • Richter, Daniel K., and James H. Merrell, eds. (2003). Beyond the Covenant Chain: the Iroquois and Their Neighbors in Indian North America, 1600–1800. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press. ISBN 0-271-02299-X.
  • Santiemma, Adriano. (1999). "'Towards a Monocultural Future through a Multicultural Perspective. The Iroquois Case", in: Canadian Issues XXI.
  • Shannon, Timothy J. (2008). Iroquois Diplomacy on the Early American Frontier. New York: Viking. ISBN 978-0-670-01897-0.
  • Snow, Dean R. (1994). The Iroquois. Oxford, UK and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell. ISBN 1-55786-225-7.
  • Tooker, Elisabeth, ed. (1985/1986). An Iroquois Source Book. 3 volumes. New York: Garland. ISBN 0-8240-5877-1.


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  70. ^ a b c Tooker E (1990). "The United States Constitution and the Iroquois League". In Clifton JA. The Invented Indian: Cultural Fictions and Government Policies. New Brunswick, N.J., U.S.A: Transaction Publishers. pp. 107–128.  
  71. ^ "Indian Country Today Media". Retrieved 2011-02-27. 
  72. ^ The Economist, July 24, 2010.
  73. ^ MacAskill, Ewen (2010-07-15). "Iroquois lacrosse team cleared to travel by America – then blocked by Britain". The Guardian. 
  74. ^ Samantha, Gross (July 14, 2010). "UK won't let Iroquois lacrosse team go to tourney". Yahoo News. Associated Press. 
  75. ^ Kaplan, Thomas (July 16, 2010). "Iroquois Defeated by Passport Dispute". New York Times. 
  76. ^ "Iroquois spend $1.5 million to upgrade passports : News". 2010-07-19. Retrieved 2011-02-27. 
  77. ^ Morgan, Thomas D. "Native Americans in World War II." Excerpted from Army History: The Professional Bulletin of Army History, No. 35 (Fall 1995), pp. 22-27. Retrieved 17 April 2013.


  1. ^ a b Barbara Graymont (1972). The Iroquois in the American Revolution (1st Paperback Edition ed.). Syracuse University Press. pp. 14–15.  


See also

Iroquois in Buffalo, New York, 1914

Modern communities

The Grand Council of the Iroquois Confederacy declared war on Germany in 1917 during World War I and again in 1942 in World War II.[77]

The Iroquois Nationals are considered a country-level organization in international lacrosse competition. It is the only international sport in which the Iroquois tribes field a team.

The Onondaga Nation spent $1.5 million on a subsequent upgrade to passports designed to meet 21st century international security requirements.[76]

More recently, passports have been issued since 1997.[72] Before 2001 these were accepted by various nations for international travel, but with increased security concerns across the world since the September 11 attacks this is no longer the case.[73] The Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team was allowed by the U.S. to travel on their own passports to an international lacrosse tournament in England after the personal intervention of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on July 14, 2010, after previously being refused. But, the British government refused to recognize the Iroquois passports and denied the team members entry into the United Kingdom.[74][75]

The Haudenosaunee government has issued passports since 1923, when Haudenosaunee authorities issued a passport to Cayuga statesman Deskaheh (Levi General) to travel to the League of Nations headquarters.[71]

International relations

Tooker concludes, "...there is virtually no evidence that the framers borrowed from the Iroquois." She thinks the myth resulted from a claim made by the Iroquois linguist and ethnographer J.N.B. Hewitt, which was exaggerated and misunderstood after his death in 1937.[70]

Historic evidence suggests that chiefs of different tribes were permitted representation in the Iroquois League council, and the leadership positions were hereditary. The council did not practice representative government and had no elections. Deceased chiefs’s successors were selected by the most senior woman within the hereditary lineage in consultation with other women in the clan. Decision making occurred through lengthy discussion and decisions were unanimous, with topics discussed being introduced by a single tribe.[70]

Tooker, a Temple University professor of anthropology and an authority on the culture and history of the Northern Iroquois, believes the "influence" thesis is myth rather than fact. She does not think that the Iroquois League was a democratic culture; such a conclusion is not supported within historical literature. The relationship between the Iroquois League and the Constitution is based on a portion of a letter written by Benjamin Franklin and a speech by the Iroquois chief Canasatego in 1744. Tooker concluded that the documents cited indicate that groups of Iroquois and white settlers realized the advantages of a confederation, but she thinks there is little evidence to support the idea that 18th century colonists were knowledgeable regarding the Iroquois system of governance.[70]

The anthropologist Dean Snow stated that though Franklin's Albany Plan may have drawn inspiration from the Iroquois League, there is little evidence that either the Plan or the Constitution drew substantially from this source. He argues that "...such claims muddle and denigrate the subtle and remarkable features of Iroquois government. The two forms of government are distinctive and individually remarkable in conception."[69]

Scholars such as Jack N. Rakove and Elizabeth Tooker challenge the thesis. Stanford University historian Rakove writes, "The voluminous records we have for the constitutional debates of the late 1780s contain no significant references to the Iroquois" and notes that there are ample European precedents to the democratic institutions of the United States.[67] Historian Francis Jennings noted that supporters of the thesis frequently cite the following statement by Benjamin Franklin: "It would be a very strange thing, if six Nations of ignorant savages should be capable of forming a Scheme for such a Union … and yet that a like union should be impracticable for ten or a Dozen English Colonies," but he disagrees that it establishes influence. Rather, he thinks Franklin was promoting union against the "ignorant savages" and called the idea "absurd".[68]

Historians in the 20th century have suggested the Iroquois system of government influenced the development of the Articles of Confederation or United States Constitution. Consensus has not been reached on how influential the Iroquois model was to the development of the United States' documents.[62] The influence thesis has been discussed by historians such as Donald Grinde[63] and Bruce Johansen.[64] In 1988, the United States Congress passed a resolution to recognize the influence of the Iroquois League upon the Constitution and Bill of Rights.[65] In 1987, Cornell University held a conference on the link between the Iroquois' government and the U.S. Constitution.[66]

Influence on the United States

The Hiawatha belt is the national belt of the Iroquois and is represented in the Iroquois Confederacy flag. The belt has four squares and a tree in the middle which represents the original five nations of the Iroquois. Going from left to right the squares represent the Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida and Mohawk. The Onondaga are represented by an eastern white pine which represents the Tree of Peace. Traditionally the Onondaga are the peace keepers of the confederacy. The placement of the nations on the belt represents the actually geographical distribution of the six nations over their shared territory, with the Seneca in the far west and the Mohawk in the far east of Iroquois territory.[61]

"The Covenant Belt" which was presented to the Iroquois at the signing of the Canandaigua Treaty. The belt has a design of thirteen human figures representing symbolically the Thirteen Colonies of the United States. The house and the two figures directly next to the house represent the Iroquois people and the symbolic longhouse. The figure on the left of the house represent the Seneca Nation who are the symbolic guardians of the western door (western edge of Iroquois territory) and the figure to the right of the house represents the Mohawk who are the keepers of the eastern door (eastern edge of Iroquois territory).[61]

Wampum was primarily used to make wampum belts by the Iroquois. Wampum belts are used to signify the importance of a specific message being presented. Treaty making often involved wampum belts to signify the importance of the treaty. A famous example is "The Two Row Wampum" or "Guesuenta" meaning 'it brightens our minds' which was originally presented to the Dutch settlers, and then French, representing a canoe and a sailboat, moving side by side along the river of life, not interfering with the others course. All non-Native settlers are, by associations, members of this treaty.

The term "wampum" refers to beads made from purple and white mollusk shells. Species used to make wampum include the highly prized quahog clam (Mercenaria mercenaria) which produces the famous purple colored beads. For white colored beads the shells from the channeled whelk (Busycon canaliculatum), knobbed whelk (Busycon carica), lightning whelk (Busycon sinistrum), and snow whelk (Busycon Laeostomum) are used.[61]

Haudenosaunee [59] It represents the original five nations that were united by the Peacemaker and Hiawatha. The tree symbol in the center represents an Eastern White Pine, the needles of which are clustered in groups of five.[60]
Chiefs of the Six Nations explaining their wampum belts to Horatio Hale, 1871

Wampum belts

Councils of the mothers of each tribe were held separately from the men's councils. The women used men as runners to send word of their decisions to concerned parties, or a woman could appear at the men's council as an orator, presenting the view of the women. Women often took the initiative in suggesting legislation.[56]

The women traditionally held real power, particularly the power to veto treaties or declarations of war.[56] The members of the Grand Council of Sachems were chosen by the mothers of each clan. If any leader failed to comply with the wishes of the women of his tribe and the Great Law of Peace, the mother of his clan could demote him, a process called "knocking off the horns". The deer antlers, emblem of leadership, were removed from his headgear, thus returning him to private life.[56][58]

Unanimity in public acts was essential to the Council. In 1855, Minnie Myrtle observed that no Iroquois treaty was binding unless it was ratified by 75% of the male voters and 75% of the mothers of the nation.[56] In revising Council laws and customs, a consent of two-thirds of the mothers was required.[56] The need for a double supermajority to make major changes made the Confederacy a de facto consensus government.[57]

. A central government that develops policy and implements it for the people at large is not the Iroquois model of government. consensus According to this view, Iroquois political and diplomatic decisions are made on the local level, and are based on assessments of community [8][7][6] When anthropologist

  • 14 Onondaga
  • 10 Cayuga
  •   9 Oneida
  •   9 Mohawk
  •   8 Seneca
  •   6 Tuscarora

The Grand Council of the Iroquois League is an assembly of 56 Hoyenah (chiefs) or Sachems, a number that has never changed. Today, the seats on the Council are distributed among the Six Nations as follows:

Mohawk leader John Smoke Johnson (right) with John Tutela and Young Warner, two other Six Nations War of 1812 veterans. Photo: July 1882


Prominent individuals

"Joseph Brant" painted by the American artist Gilbert Stuart.
Seneca chief Cornplanter.
Famous Seneca chief, Red Jacket, political negotiator and critic of European religion, speaking to crowd.

In the 2000 United States census, 80,822 people identified as having Iroquois ethnicity (which is similar to identifying as European), with 45,217 claiming only Iroquois ancestry. In the 2010 Census, 81,002 persons identified as Iroquois, and 42,461 as Iroquois only.[55]

That year, tribal registrations among the Six Nations in the United States numbered about 30,000 in total, with the majority of 17,566 in New York. The remainder were more than 10,000 Oneida in Wisconsin, and about 2200 Seneca-Cayuga in Oklahoma.[54] As the nations individually determine their rules for membership or citizenship, they report the official numbers. (Some traditional members of the nations refuse to be counted.)[54] There is no federally recognized Iroquois nation or tribe, nor are any Native Americans enrolled as Iroquois.

According to data compiled in 1995 by Doug George-Kanentiio, a total of 51,255 Six Nations people lived in Canada. These included 15,631 Mohawk in Quebec; 14,051 Mohawk in Ontario; 3,970 Oneida in Ontario; and a total of 17,603 of the Six Nations at the Grand River Reserve in Ontario.[54]

Population history

Current clans
Seneca Cayuga Onondaga Tuscarora Oneida Mohawk
Wolf (Hoñnat‘haiioñ'n‘) Wolf Wolf (Hothahi:ionih) Wolf (Θkwarì•nę) Wolf (Thayú:ni) Wolf (Okwáho)
Bear (Hodidjioiñi’'g’) Bear Bear (Ohgwai:ih) Bear (Uhčíhręˀ) Bear (Ohkwá:li) Bear (Ohkwá:ri)
Turtle (Hadiniǎ‘'děñ‘) Turtle Turtle (Hanya'dëñh) Turtle (Ráˀkwihs) Turtle (A'no:wál) Turtle (A'nó:wara)
Sandpiper (Hodi'ne`si'iu') Sandpiper Snipe (Odihnesi:ioh) Sandpiper (Tawístawis)
Deer (Hadinioñ'gwaiiu') Deer (De'odijinaindönda') Deer (Kà?wí:ñu)
Beaver (Hodigěn’'gegā’) Beaver (Hona'gaia'gih) Beaver (Rakinęhá•ha•ˀ)
Heron Heron Heron
Hawk Hawk (Degaiadahkwa')
Eel (Ohgönde:na') Eel (Akunęhukwatíha•ˀ)

Within each of the six nations, people belonged to a number of matrilineal clans. The number of clans varies by nation, currently from three to eight, with a total of nine different clan names.


English word Iroquoian words Meaning 17th/18th century location
Mohawk Kanien'kehá:ka "People of the Great Flint" Mohawk River
Oneida Onayotekaono "People of the Standing Stone" Oneida Lake
Onondaga Onöñda'gega' "People of the Hills" Onondaga Lake
Cayuga Guyohkohnyoh "People of the Great Swamp" Cayuga Lake
Seneca Onondaga "People of the Great Hill" Seneca Lake and Genesee River
Tuscarora1 Ska-Ruh-Reh "Hemp Gatherers"[53] From North Carolina2

1 Not one of the original Five Nations; joined 1720.
2 Settled between the Oneida and Onondaga.

Iroquois Five Nations c. 1650
Iroquois Six Nations c. 1720

The first five nations listed below formed the original Five Nations (listed from east to west, as they were oriented to the sunrise); the Tuscarora became the sixth nation in 1720.


  • French transliteration of irinakhoiw, a Huron (Wyandot) name for the Haudenosaunee. They used a derogatory term, meaning "black snakes" or "real adders".
  • French linguists, such as Henriette Walter, and anthropologists, such as Dean Snow, support the following explanation. Prior to French colonization, Basque fishermen had traded with the Algonquins along the Atlantic coast, who were historic enemies of the Haudenosaunee. The above scholars think "Iroquois" was derived from a Basque expression, hilokoa, meaning the "killer people". Because there is no "L" sound in the Algonquian languages of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence region, the tribes used the name Hirokoa for the Haudenosaunee. They used this in the pidgin language for communicating with the Basque. The later French colonists transliterated the word according to their own phonetic rules and arrived at "Iroquois".[52]

The French colonists referred to the Haudenosaunee as Iroquois, derived from terms used by the Algonquian-speaking tribes they first encountered along the Atlantic Coast.[51] The name has two possible origins, both deriving from Algonquian-speaking tribes, with whom the Haudenosaunee historically competed; they were enemies:

Traditionally, Kanien:kéhaka (Mohawk) are the guardians of the eastern door, as they are located in the east closest to the Hudson, and the Seneca are the guardians of the western door of the "tribal longhouse", the territory they controlled in present-day New York. Onoñda'gega' (Onondaga), whose homeland is in the center of Haudenosaunee territory, are keepers of the League's (both literal and figurative) central flame.

The Iroquois call themselves the Haudenosaunee, which means "People of the Longhouse", or more accurately, "They Are Building a Long House". According to their tradition, The Great Peacemaker introduced the name at the time of the formation of the League. It implies that the nations of the League should live together as families in the same longhouse.[51]

Historians and anthropologists have estimated the Iroquois League was formed at dates ranging from 1450 to 1600. Iroquois tradition follows the earlier date, and they believe the League was formed by two men, both adopted into the Mohawk nation. Deganawida was a Huron adopted by the Mohawk. Hiawatha, his spokesman, was an Onondaga who was also adopted by the Mohawk.

As noted by Barbara Graymont in her 1972 work on the Iroquois, they referred to their League as Ganonsyoni, meaning "The Lodge Extended Lengthwise", that is, a lodge that is "spread out far". It referred to their lodges or longhouses, the traditional dwellings, and their total territory of the Five Nations.[3][note1 1]



The Iroquois believe that the spirits change the seasons. Key festivals coincided with the major events of the agricultural calendar, including a harvest festival of thanksgiving. The Great Peacemaker (Deganawida) was their prophet. After the arrival of the Europeans, many Iroquois became Christians, among them Kateri Tekakwitha, a young woman of Mohawk-Algonquin parents. Traditional spirituality was revived to some extent in the second half of the 18th century by the teachings of the Haudenosaunee prophet Handsome Lake.[50]

Spiritual beliefs

The children of the marriage belong to their mother's clan and gain their social status through hers. Her brothers are important teachers and mentors to the children, especially introducing boys to men's roles and societies. The clans are matrilineal, that is, clan ties are traced through the mother's line. If a couple separated, the woman traditionally kept the children.[49] The chief of a clan can be removed at any time by a council of the women elders of that clan. The chief's sister was responsible for nominating his successor.[49]

When Americans and Canadians of European descent began to study Iroquois customs in the 18th and 19th centuries, they learned that the people had a matrilineal system: women held property and hereditary leadership passed through their lines. They held dwellings, horses and farmed land, and a woman's property before marriage stayed in her possession without being mixed with that of her husband. They had separate roles but real power in the nations. The work of a woman's hands was hers to do with as she saw fit. At marriage, a young couple lived in the longhouse of the wife's family. A woman choosing to divorce a shiftless or otherwise unsatisfactory husband was able to ask him to leave the dwelling and take his possessions with him.[48]

The Iroquois are a Mother Clan system, which is gender equal. No person is entitled to 'own' land, but it is believed that the Creator appointed women as stewards of the land. Traditionally, the Clan Mothers appoint leaders, as they have raised children and are therefore held to a higher regard. By the same token, if a leader does not prove sound, becomes corrupt or does not listen to the people, the Clan Mothers have the power to strip him of his leadership.

Women in society

Plants traditionally used by the Iroquois include Agrimonia gryposepala, which was to treat diarrhea,[46] and interrupted fern, used for blood and venereal diseases and conditions.[47] Cone flower (Echinacea), an immune system booster and treatment for respiratory disease was also known and used.

Traditional herbal medicine

The Iroquois hunt mostly deer but also other game such as wild turkey and migratory birds. Muskrat and beaver are hunted during the winter. Fishing has also been a significant source of food because the Iroquois are located near the St. Lawrence River. They fished salmon, trout, bass, perch and whitefish until the St. Lawrence became too polluted by industry. In the spring the Iroquois netted, and in the winter fishing holes were made in the ice.[45]

Member of the False Face Society

Gathering is the traditional job of the women and children. Wild roots, greens, berries and nuts were gathered in the summer. During spring, sap is tapped from the maple trees and boiled into maple syrup, and herbs are gathered for medicine.

The Iroquois are a mix of horticulturalists, farmers, fishers, gatherers and hunters, though their main diet traditionally has come from farming. The main crops they cultivated are corn, beans and squash, which were called the three sisters and are considered special gifts from the Creator. These crops are grown strategically. The cornstalks grow, the bean plants climb the stalks, and the squash grow beneath, inhibiting weeds and keeping the soil moist under the shade of their broad leaves. In this combination, the soil remained fertile for several decades. The food was stored during the winter, and it lasted for two to three years. When the soil eventually lost its fertility, the Haudenosaunee migrated.


The Iroquois League traditions allowed for the dead to be symbolically replaced through captives taken in "mourning wars," the blood feuds and vendettas that were an essential aspect of Iroquois culture.[43] As a way of expediting the mourning process, raids were conducted to take vengeance and seize captives. Captives were generally adopted directly by the grieving family to replace the member(s) who had been lost. This process not only allowed the Iroquois to maintain their own numbers, but also to disperse and assimilate their enemies. The adoption of conquered peoples, especially during the period of the Beaver Wars (1609-1701), meant that the Iroquois League was composed largely of naturalized members of other tribes. [44] They also adopted European captives, as did the Catholic Mohawk in settlements outside Montreal. This tradition of adoption and assimilation was common to native people of the northeast but was quite different from European settlers' notions of combat.

Melting pot

Stone pipe (19th-century engraving)


Many Iroquois (mostly Mohawk) and Iroquois-descended Métis people living in Lower Canada (primarily at Kahnawake) took employment with the Montreal-based North West Company during its existence from 1779 to 1821 and became voyageurs or free traders working in the North American fur trade as far west as the Rocky Mountains. They are known to have settled in the area around Jasper's House[38] (and possibly as far west as the Finlay River[39] and north as far as the Pouce Coupe and Dunvegan areas,[40] where they founded new Aboriginal communities which have persisted to the present day claiming either First Nations or Métis identity and indigenous rights. The Michel Band, Mountain Métis,[41] and Aseniwuche Winewak Nation of Canada[42] in Alberta and the Kelly Lake community in British Columbia all claim Iroquois ancestry.

In the West

Captain Joseph Brant and a group of Iroquois left New York to settle in the Province of Quebec (present-day Ontario). To partially replace the lands they had lost in the Mohawk Valley and elsewhere because of their alliance with the Crown, they were given a large land grant on the Grand River, at Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation. Brant's crossing of the river gave the original name to the area: Brant's ford. By 1847, European settlers began to settle nearby and named the village Brantford. The original Mohawk settlement was on the south edge of the present-day city at a location still favorable for launching and landing canoes. In the 1830s many additional Onondaga, Oneida, Seneca, Cayuga, and Tuscarora relocated into the Indian Territory, the Province of Upper Canada and Wisconsin.

After the Revolutionary war, the ancient central fireplace of the League was reestablished at Buffalo Creek. By 1811, Methodists and Episcopalian missionaries established missions to assist the Oneida and Onondaga in western New York. However, white settlers continued to move into the area. By 1821, a group of Oneida led by Eleazar Williams, son of a Mohawk woman, went to Wisconsin to buy land from the Menominee and Ho-Chunk and thus move their people further westward.[37]


The Mohawk war chief Sullivan Campaign, led by Col. Daniel Brodhead and General John Sullivan, against the Iroquois nations to "not merely overrun, but destroy," the British-Indian alliance. They burned many Iroquois villages and stores throughout western New York; refugees moved north to Canada. By the end of the war, few houses and barns in the valley had survived the warfare.

During the American Revolution, the Iroquois first tried to stay neutral. Pressed to join one side or the other, the Tuscarora and the Oneida sided with the colonists, while the Mohawk, Seneca, Onondaga and Cayuga remained loyal to Great Britain, with whom they had stronger relationships. It was the first political split among the Six Nations. Joseph Louis Cook offered his services to the United States and received a Congressional commission as a Lieutenant Colonel- the highest rank held by any Native American during the war.[36]

Lithograph of the Mohawk war and political leader Thayendanegea or Joseph Brant

American Revolution

After the war, to protect their alliance, the British government issued the Royal Proclamation of 1763, forbidding white settlements beyond the Appalachian Mountains. Colonists largely ignored the order, and the British had insufficient soldiers to enforce it. The Iroquois agreed to adjust the line again at the Treaty of Fort Stanwix (1768), whereby they sold the British Crown all their remaining claim to the lands between the Ohio and Tennessee rivers.

During the Kahnawake) and French ambushed a Mohawk-led British column.

In 1721 and 1722, Lt. Governor Alexander Spotswood of Virginia concluded a new Treaty at Albany with the Iroquois, renewing the Covenant Chain and agreeing to recognize the Blue Ridge as the demarcation between Virginia Colony and the Iroquois. But, as European settlers began to move beyond the Blue Ridge and into the Shenandoah Valley in the 1730s, the Iroquois objected. Virginia officials told them that the demarcation was to prevent the Iroquois from trespassing east of the Blue Ridge, but it did not prevent English from expanding west. Tensions increased over the next decades, and the Iroquois were on the verge of going to war with the Virginia Colony. In 1743, Governor Gooch paid them the sum of 100 pounds sterling for any settled land in the Valley that was claimed by the Iroquois. The following year at the Treaty of Lancaster, the Iroquois sold Virginia all their remaining claims in the Shenandoah Valley for 200 pounds in gold.[35]

Iroquois engaging in trade with Europeans, 1722

In the first quarter of the 18th century, the Iroquoian-speaking Tuscarora fled north from the pressure of British colonization of North Carolina and inter-tribal warfare; they had been subject to having captives sold into Indian slavery. They petitioned to become the sixth nation of the Iroquois Confederacy. This was a non-voting position, but they gained the protection of the Haudenosaunee.

The four "Mohawk Kings" who travelled to London in 1710.

After the 1701 peace treaty with the French, the Iroquois remained mostly neutral. During Queen Anne's War (North American part of the War of the Spanish Succession), they were involved in planned attacks against the French. Peter Schuyler, mayor of Albany, arranged for three Mohawk chiefs and a Mahican chief (known incorrectly as the Four Mohawk Kings) to travel to London in 1710 to meet with Queen Anne in an effort to seal an alliance with the British. Queen Anne was so impressed by her visitors that she commissioned their portraits by court painter John Verelst. The portraits are believed to be the earliest surviving oil portraits of Aboriginal peoples taken from life.[34]

French and Indian Wars

During King William's War (North American part of the War of the Grand Alliance), the Iroquois were allied with the English. In July 1701, they concluded the "Nanfan Treaty", deeding the English a large tract north of the Ohio River. The Iroquois claimed to have conquered this territory 80 years earlier. France did not recognize the validity of the treaty, as it had some actual presence in the territory at that time and the English virtually none. Meanwhile, the Iroquois were negotiating peace with the French; together they signed the Great Peace of Montreal that same year.


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