The Iroquois were the most powerful confederation in the Eastern Woodlands of the 15th Century. Consequently, they played a prominent role in the eventual development of both New France (Canada) and the Thirteen Colonies (United States). In terms of political development, the Iroquois had the most sophisticated political organization in North America; it was sophisticated because it placed an onus on cooperation rather than competition between members. Although I'd hesitate using the word "democratic" to describe the Iroquois, even by 21st Century standards the Iroquois' system of checks and balances was extraordinary.
For instance, each member-nation of the confederacy maintained its independence while submitting to a central power called the Great Council of Chiefs ("Sachem Council"). In essence, the Iroquois were effectively practicing in the 15th Century a form of Representative (Republican) Government. England did not develop anything as progressive as this for another 150 years, France took 300 years to get to this point, and (as of 2011) Russia arguably still hasn't done it. Present day America and Canada have both modeled their own political systems upon the Iroquoian model.
The Iroquois Confederation didn't just materialize out of nothing. There's a story behind its development, and it goes something like this: five nations were fighting one another in an endless cycle of violence. The constant warfare weakened all the nations making them collectively weaker and vulnerable to attack from the much hated Wyandot. For the sake of security the warring nations had to make peace and establish a central authority to prevent future outbreaks of war.
Enter Dekanahwidah and his disciple Hiawatha (and cue the theme music from the movie Rocky).
Like all peoples, the Iroquois had an abundance of myths and beliefs passed on through their oral traditions. In particular, the story of Dekanahwidah provides an explanation as to how and why the confederacy came to be: according to the myth, a Huron named Dekanahwidah approached the five nations to put an end to the violence. (Ever since I came across this story I've been trying to work out for the life of me why a Huron would seek to help his Iroquoian enemy. Maybe it's a Canadian thing and everyone just decided to "be nice and polite.")
Anyhow, Dekanahwidah had all the credentials that a savior should have: firstly, he was born of a virgin; and secondly, he paddled a fancy stone canoe. After a hard day's work paddling his stone canoe [at the bottom of the St. Lawrence], he went to visit the Onondaga to deliver a message of peace and co-operation [or maybe to order one of those fancy wooden canoes that actually float]. To make a long myth short, a political alliance between all of the warring Iroquois nations was established shortly thereafter.
To commemorate the creation of the alliance the Tree of Peace was planted (somewhere that everyone seems to have conveniently forgotten). Whether or not Dekanahwidah was a real person or not we can only guess; however, the creation of the Five Nations is an established historical fact. And according to this same story, Dekanahwidah was responsible for bringing the Great Law to the Iroquois.
France and the Five Nations:
Politically speaking, the Iroquois achieved essentially the same degree of influence in North America that France had in Europe. Both nations were comparatively more populous than their neighbors and both were in some respect bullies. The Iroquois were the "Broad Street Bullies" of the Eastern Woodlands. To that effect the Five Nations dominated territory equivalent to half the size of Europe, they initiated war after war with their neighbors, and they scared the begeezus out of New France.
The Ganiengehaka were by far the most feared of the Five Nations. You know this particular nation by a different name—the Mohawk. These guys had a nasty reputation for eating their enemies. The Huron, etc. called the Ganiengehaka mowak which means "eaters of men." The Mowak nickname was pronounced "Mohawk" by illiterate Europeans (and the name has stuck ever since).
Iroquoian society was remarkably well-organized and progressive; its greatest strength was integration: everyone had a role and enjoyed some form of decision-making power. Women, in particular, enjoyed real power as they were responsible for appointing and removing chiefs (sachems) to the Grand Council. In a sense, the Iroquois lived in perhaps the first truly representative democracy in the history of the world.
Prior to contact with European fur traders, Iroquoian women (matriarchs) played an important role in government. They maintained a balance of power by preventing the males from dominating; and this balance minimized corruption and prevented unsuitable people from acquiring power. However, the balance of power was undermined when European fur traders openly questioned the manhood of Iroquoian men. The Europeans themselves came from a patriarchal society, a society that was by and large divisive, competitive and based upon the strength of the "dominant male." Although the existing Iroquoian approach to sharing authority was more equitable than the European in all respects, the pride of the men of the Five Nations got the better of them. They unwisely ended the political influence of their women.
The introduction of male supremacy was one of the many factors ultimately contributing to the decline of the Five Nations. The sharing of decision-making (executive) created social cohesion and balance within Iroquois society. Patriarchy destroyed that cohesion. And once women were pushed aside there was no one to stop ambitious and selfish leaders from reaching positions of power. By the time of the American Revolution (1770s), the United States encountered and destroyed a much weakened Iroquois through a genocidal war of conquest.
The Beothuk First Nation lived on the island of Newfoundland and the coast of Labrador. This nation had the misfortune of being the first indigenous group to have prolonged contact with Europeans. The first encounter took place around 1,000 AD with the Vikings. The Norse attempted to establish permanent settlements on Vinland (Newfoundland). However, when the Vikings refused to trade iron weapons to the local Beothuk war erupted between the two peoples. Thereafter, the Vikings abandoned settlement of the New World altogether.
Europeans returned—this time the English—by the early 17th Century. Wisely the Beothuk did not trust the English anymore than the Norwegians. Many Beothuk were captured by slave traders and hauled away to Europe. Once the Beothuk (and indigenous North Americans in general) demonstrated their unsuitability for slavery (they quickly died of exposure to disease while in Europe) they were hunted for sport by English colonists.
Since there weren't enough Beothuk to force the English out, they responded by building their settlements in the remote interior of Newfoundland. This alleviated the situation for a while; however, the English occupied the best places for fishing and hunting. Inevitably, the two civilizations were bound to clash again and clash they did: by the early 1800s there were fewer than 20 Beothuk left alive. The last remaining survivor was a woman who called herself Shawnadithit.
In 1823, Shawnadithit (shown at left), and her mother and sister, were found on the verge of starvation by English trappers. The trappers rescued the three women and took them to St. John's. After recovering the women were returned to Exploits Bay where they had originally been found. Shortly thereafter, Shawnadithit's mother and sister died of tuberculosis. Alone and unsure of what else to do, she walked back to the English colony. She was taken in as a nurse-maid by John Peyton and renamed "Nancy".
An amateur ethnologist and anthropologist, William Cormack founded the "Beothuk Institution" in an attempt to educate the world about the dying Beothuk culture. By the time he established his institution (October 2, 1827) the people he intended to study had all but vanished; that is, until he heard of Shawnadithit.
Cormack had Shawnadithit brought to him so she could supply him with first hand information about the culture, history, and society of the "Red Indians of Newfoundland." By the time Shawnadithit arrived at Cormack's she was already dying of tuberculosis. In a race against time, Cormack attempted to teach her English. However, her English was so bad that she would've made Evgeni Malkin sound like William Shakespeare in comparison. So with no alternative Cormack was forced to rely on her simple drawings to put together the history of the Beothuk.
The good feeling quickly faded away as the Beothuk began to wonder if it had not been a mistake to let Buchan go. The Beothuk decided to leave but before going they killed the two Englishmen. Perhaps in Beothuk culture the killing of guests could be considered as a gesture of good will? If this was the case, the English were indeed quite culturally insensitive. Needless to say, the English certainly didn't share the Beothuk's outlook and the mutual hostility resumed. Approximately nine years after the incident, Newfoundland's new governor offered a substantial reward to anyone who could bag a "Red Indian" dead or alive.