Cultures in America

The Iroquois League


   Many Native American tribes or nations formed loose defensive confederations which held together briefly or for a long time. The Iroquois, a confederation of first five and then six Native American nations in the northeastern United States, however, formed what was an anomalous confederation that would form much of the basis for the American invention of government. This was a powerful confederation of sovereign nations held together by a constitution that based itself on the structure of the confederation and its decision-making apparatus rather than on the charisma or power of individuals. This would then become the model that the framers of the Consitution would turn to in designing a nation that was, in theory, a set of sovereign nations: the United States.

   Sometime between 1570 and 1600, Dekanawidah, a Huron living among the Seneca, worked out a treaty of alliance with Hiawatha, an Onandaga living among the Mohawk. This alliance would included three other nations, so that the Iroquois League at its foundation included the Seneca, the Mohawk, the Cayuga, the Oneida, and the Onondaga. In 1722, the League was joined by the Tuscarora. Originally occupying only northern New York, the League would expand by alliance and conquest to control an area from southern Canada to Kentucky north to south, and Eastern Pennsylvania to Ohio east to west. During the American Revolution, the League split apart; the Oneida and Tuscarora sided with the Americans, while the others allied themselves with Britain. The United States took revenge in 1779 which resulted in the Second Treaty of Fort Stanwix (1784) which officially disbanded the League.


Native American Anthology
Iroquois Constitution
   The League was unique in that it was extraordinarily well-planned and defined than any other Native American confederacy. It was based on a constitution which thoroughly outlined the methods for choosing leaders and conducting business. Its more salient aspects include a decision-making apparatus for making decisions among the various nations, its stress on ceremony, ritual, and structure over individual leadership, and its provisions for secession and inclusion of Native American nations.


   Each of the nations was to send three Lords to the meeting-place among the Onandaga; two of these Lords could speak while the third could only speak to indicate procedural mistakes. Decisions would be made in the following way. The Mohawk and Seneca Lords would have to unanimously agree on a course of action. They sent this decisions to the Oneida and Cayuga Lords, who would also have to unanimously agree on this decision. If they didn't agree on it, they would forge their own decision which would also require unanimity. This alternative decision would be sent back to the Seneca and the Mohawk for their approval. The process would continue until both sets of nations agreed on a single principle. At that point, the decision would be sent to the Onandaga, who were called the "Fire-Keepers," since the maintained the meeting-place. If they agreed to the course of action, it would then be taken. If they refused it, they would return their own decision to the four nations who would then forge a new decision. Once those four nations agreed unanimously, the decision was officially made.

   It was this procedure, which required absolute unanimity, which separated the Iroquois League from others, for no single individual could dominate the proceedings. It was the structure of the proceeding itself that produced decisions.

   Finally, the League was considered open-ended. Any nation could be thrown out of the League, any nation could secede, and any nation could join provided they agreed to the constitution.

   It is perfectly obvious how the framers of the Constitution of the United States borrowed from the Iroquois League. The two houses of Congress are based on the Roman model of the Senate and the plebeian Assembly, but added to this model is the give-and-take between the two houses in the effort to enforce common consent between the two houses which is borrowed from the Iroquois Constitution. The veto power of the president clearly derives from the function of the Onandaga Lords as Fire-Keepers, and the open-endedness of the League is reproduced in the open-endedness of the Constitution: any state can join, any state can secede, and, potentially, any state can be withdrawn from the nation.

Richard Hooker





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@1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 2-6-98