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1.1 The Five Nations 4

The term Iroquoian is like the word European: an umbrella term describing a conglomerate of people. The word "Iroquoian" can be used to refer to nations dwelling in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence area; whereas for our purposes here we will only apply this term to the Five Nations, e.g. Mohawk, Onondaga, Seneca, Oneida, and Cayuga.


The Five Nations (also known as the Iroquois Confederacy) became known as the Six Nations in the latter part of the 18th Century. The sixth nation added was the Tuscarora. The Iroquois adopted them in an attempt to boost their population and military power to counter the growing American threat.

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.


Dekanahwidah & the Iroquois Confederacy 5

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.")

Iroquoian Confederacy over time...

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.


Click here to watch the "Great Law" movie from the Historica web site.

France and the Five Nations:
A Comparison of Governments


a). Before the Europeans arrived the Iroquois had developed a semi-democratic political system.

b). The "Iroquois Confederacy" was an inclusive political system that promoted unity amongst its members.

c). The confederacy was governed by an unwritten constitution called the "Great Law." Everyone, i.e. chiefs, matriarchs, warriors, etc. were all treated equally under the law.

a). In France, only the wealthy and powerful had any decision-making power.

b). The Catholic Church and the king were the most powerful people in France and would not share power. French society was stratified along rigid class lines.

c). The king of France was the law. In many respects, he made the rules up as he went along (but was at times limited by tradition).

d). France would not have a constitution until the French Revolution in 1789 (and they wouldn't even bother paying any attention to it for another 25 years or so).

The Great Law of the Five Nations

  • The Great Law was an unwritten set of rules that encouraged public participation in decision-making
  • Referendums were held, leaders were recalled if they proved to be incapable (or corrupt)
  • Decision-making was not made only by males in Iroquoian society. Women possessed influence and rights enabling them to have a meaningful and critical role in the selection and removal of leaders
  • Chiefs had to be tolerant and attentive to suggestions made by members of the tribe because if the people were unhappy the chief could be removed from power
  • Individuals (male and female) could bring complaints against a chief to the "Great Council of Chiefs"
  • This council could remove a chief if it was decided that he was not acting in the best interests of his people or not obeying the rules of the Great Law

Which system was better?

In a democracy, a constitution (especially a written one) is absolutely necessary. People need to know their rights; they need to know what their government can and cannot do; and people need to know what their obligations are as members of society. Written constitutions provide stability and allow authority in society to be based upon the principle of the rule of law.

Constitutions place laws into writing so that they cannot be changed (easily). A constitution is the basis of law in a society in which power is shared.

If the king is allowed to both make and enforce the law, the law will be enforced based upon arbitrary standards, I.e. He bases his decision as judge on whether or not he likes you instead of on evidence or the guiding principles of reason, etc. For instance, if the king does not like your religion, then he has the power to outlaw it (and you). If the king changes his mind then he has the power to change the law he has made. His opinions are the law (and laws based on one man's opinion are a poor standard for any enlightened society).

If we compare the political organization of the Five Nations and France based on democratic standards, the Five Nations are definitely more sophisticated:

  • Five Nations leadership was elected
  • Leadership was directly accountable to people other than themselves
  • Power was shared between men and women
  • Society was stable and orderly because everyone, I.e. Sachems, elders, mothers, sons, brothers, daughters, etc. were treated equally under the law

Click here to view and/or print a copy of the "France and the Five Nations" chart found above.

Iroquois Influence & Execution Rituals

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.

Whenever Iroquoian warriors captured a prisoner, they killed him over a very long time through ritualized torture. Women and children were treated with much more compassion than the males, in that, the Iroquois would either adopt them or kill them outright. Execution rituals tended to end with the eating of the prisoner's heart. I can hear Homer Simpson now, "Mmmmm, heart." *drool*

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).

Authority & its Breakdown in the Five Nations 6

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.


The Ancient Greeks were the first to experiment with democracy. However, back in 600 BCE the word demokratia was a wonderfully ambiguous term: it did not literally mean "rule by the many" as most people think nowadays but "people power."

Who were the people that controlled power in Athens during the time of the great "democrat" Solon? Soldiers: only men who had completed the required military training could vote or make decisions. Every other citizen was excluded from the decision-making process.

One of the things that makes Iroquoian Society so remarkable is that those who ended up in positions of power did so by having first proven their abilities and trustworthiness as a leader and servant of the people. You were not entitled to office because of the class you were born into or because your daddy "knew the right people." The sachems were entirely accountable to the people.

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 7

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.


Shawnadithit & a Little Beothuk History

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.

A Little Beothuk History

In 1810, the governor of Newfoundland attempted to make friendly contact with the Beothuk. He sent Captain David Buchan to establish friendly relations with the natives. Despite their legendary shyness and fear of the whites, Buchan somehow managed to find a Beothuk hunting party and have a good visit. The initial meeting went quite smoothly. The English and Beothuk, through gestures, managed to make an agreement to meet again. As a gesture of good will, Buchan left two of his buddies with the hunters while he returned to the settlement in order to bring back things to trade.

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.