February 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 2
Their friends and foes agree on one thing: the extraordinary influence they exerted on American history, an influence out of all proportion to their numbers. At no time, not even when they were winning the series of military victories which gave them control of a realm roughly the size of the old Roman Empire, did they have a population of more than 15,000 men, women and children. Yet they not only established their so-called Great Peace throughout the woods of eastern North America, but they held two mighty European empires in check until well on in the Eighteenth Century. During the French and Indian War, when the population of the English colonies was about eighty times that of the Iroquois, we sought—and received—their protection.
There were many Iroquois-speaking peoples—the Hurons or Wyandots, for instance, the Cherokees, the Eries, the Susquehannocks. But it was to another group of Iroquoian tribes that the French applied the name “Iroquois”: the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas. These were the so-called Five Nations, who became known as the Six Nations after the Tuscaroras from North Carolina had joined them.
They called themselves people of the “Long House,” from their characteristic lodging—a timber and bark building, perhaps a hundred feet in length, with tiers of bunks along the sides and fireplaces down the middle—to describe a political union in which each nation preserved the essentials of its sovereignty although a common roof sheltered them all.
When the English colonies came to know them, the Five Nations were seated in northern New York, between the lower Mohawk River and the Genesee. For some time before 1600, the Mohawks and Onondagas seem to have been on the St. Lawrence River, where Jacques Cartier found them on his second voyage in 1535. It is thought that the Iroquois as a whole came originally from the Southwest; but it is unsafe, at the present stage of archaeological research, to speculate on their movements. It is sufficient to know that in historic times their habitat was the Mohawk Valley and the Finger Lakes.
They were a people of mixed race. Their custom of adopting prisoners of war precluded any attempt to preserve a pure blood stream. The Senecas are said to have had, at one time, more aliens than natives in their population. How, then, did the Iroquois come to have their distinctive traits?
There were many contributing causes, the principal ones being found in their political and social pattern. Although the Five Nations did not have the external trappings of a great civilization—stone buildings, a written literature, scientific laboratories, schools of painting and music—they did have a highly developed political organization: a confederacy of which John Collier wrote recently in Indians of the Americas , “I think no institutional achievement of mankind exceeds it in either wisdom or intelligence.”
In setting up this confederacy, they were impelled by the inexorable necessity: to unite or perish. Five hundred and more years ago, they were in great peril. They were taking a drubbing from their Algonkian neighbors, and at the same time they were feuding disastrously among themselves. It was their good fortune to discover at this time a man of genius, who brought the Five Nations together in a confederacy that ensured internal peace and offered the hope that, if other nations joined them, peace might be extended in an ever-widening circle. After his death, the Indians so revered his memory that they built a vast legend about him, a legend that has itself been one of the main causes for the continuing success of the structure he founded.
According to this legend, the Great Spirit, seeing man in danger of destroying himself with wars, sent to earth a prophet, Deganawidah, to show the nations how to organize for peace. He was born among the Hurons on the north shore of Lake Ontario. While still a young man, hearing rumors of the wars that were destroying the Iroquois peoples on the south side of the lake, he developed his doctrine of Peace and Power. He believed that it was not enough for men to renounce war as an instrument of national policy; it was also necessary to gather as many nations as he could enlist, organize them under a common law, and support that law with military force.
When he reached manhood, he crossed Lake Ontario to the country of the Onondagas, in the neighborhood of modern Syracuse. The Onondagas, at that time, were governed by a tyrant, Atotarho, whose mind was warped, whose body (as the legend describes him) had seven crooks in it, and whose head was covered with snakes instead of hair. Nearby lived a man who, under the influence of Atotarho, had sunk to the lowest level which the Indian mind could conceive. He was a cannibal!
Deganawidah went to this man’s cabin, climbed to the bark roof, and looked through the smokehole, seeing below him a large kettle suspended over the fire. When the cannibal came in, cut up the dead body of a man he had brought, and put it into the pot, Deganawidah lay still to see what happened. Alter a time the man came to the kettle and looked in to see if the water was boiling. There he saw a face looking up at him, calm, strong, benevolent. It was, of course, Deganawidah’s face reflected from above, but the man supposed it to be his own, and the thought troubled him. “This is not the face of one who kills his fellow men,” he said.
Thus he was moved with a desire to live in accordance with the new vision. He emptied the kettle. Then Deganawidah came down from the roof and expounded his Good News of Peace and Power. The man “took hold of the message,” as the legend informs us, and offered himself as a disciple to Deganawidah, who straightaway named him Hiawatha , which means, He Who Combs. “For,” said Deganawidah, “you shall comb the snakes out of Atotarho’s hair.”
The two men parted, Deganawidah going east to the land of the Mohawks, while Hiawatha remained to work among his own people, the Onondagas. Atotarho, however, was too much for him and drove him away. He rejoined Deganawidah among the Mohawks, who had taken hold of the Message of Peace and Power and were preparing to set out and persuade other nations to do the same. The Oneidas and Cayugas were easily persuaded; the Senecas, not until Deganawidah put the sun out and brought darkness upon the land. (This part of the legend is corroborating evidence for dating the founding of the Iroquois Confederacy some time about the middle of the Fifteenth Century. There was an eclipse in the Genesee region in 1451.)
Deganawidah and Hiawatha returned for a showdown with Atotarho. Backed by the warriors of the Mohawks, Oneidas, Cayugas, and Senecas, they confronted the dictator in his “bulrush swale” on the shore of Onondaga Lake with power sufficient to make peace seem more attractive than war even to a born tyrant. Hiawatha combed the snakes out of Atotarho’s hair.
After that Deganawidah planted the Tree of Peace on the shore of Onondaga Lake. On its summit he placed the Eagle that Sees Afar, symbol of military preparedness. Then he gave to his people the wise savings which have been treasured ever since as the Constitution of the Confederacy.
This legend, preserved for centuries by oral tradition and first written down by Seth Newhouse on the Six Nations Reserve in Canada in 1885, is not an idle tale. It virtually constituted the Iroquois Bible. Its poetry enlightened and inspired them. Its wise sayings guided them. This piece of “oral literature” was one of the main sources of the Confederacy’s strength.
There were, of course, other sources. During the Seventeenth Century, for instance, the Five Nations had in common a strong economic motive, as the late George T. Hunt has shown in The Wars of the Iroquois to capture some share, as middlemen, of the beaver trade (their country having been by this time almost denuded of beaver) on which they depended for their guns and other necessary trade goods.
Another source of strength lay in the excellent military position they occupied, along the fringe of mountains flanking Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence trade route, and at the head of the great rivers Susquehanna, Delaware, and Hudson. Their Confederacy gave them peace among themselves and defense against their enemies. Their strength was severely tested by the coming of the white men in “winged canoes” from across the sea. During the Seventeenth Century France formed around them a dangerous ring of enemies. It was to be their supreme military achievement to break France’s chain of Indian allies in a series of brilliant campaigns. They defeated and dispersed the Huron nation in 1649, the Erie in 1654, the Susquehannock in 1675. The lands of these and many other peoples passed under Iroquois control.
Their rule was not oppressive. Each nation governed itself, relinquishing only the right to make war without the sanction of the Iroquois federal council. Tribute in wampum or deerskins was sent to Onondaga, the capital, in token aknowledgement of their position under the Tree of Peace. The Onondaga Council exerted no despotic control.
Well-routed trails extended the Iroquois Peace (with Power) over a vast area. Ambassadors traveled them, with gifts of deerskin and wampum, to adjust intertribal disputes. War parties sped over them to chastise aliens who infringed on Five Nations territories. The mere passage of these armed bands through the lands of their “nephews” was sufficient reminder of the Power that upheld the Great Peace.
Just what the legal status was of this or that nation which had come to sit with them under the Tree of Peace, mattered little to the Iroquois. Allies, adoptees (“on the cradle board”), dependencies (“nephews”), protectorates-in one way or another they were all “props to the Long House.” The status, in fact, was constantly changing. Some outside tribes, like the Tuscaroras and Nanticokes, came in and were adopted into the League. Others broke away. The Ohio Delawares were perpetually asserting their independence. To the Iroquois, the dependence or independence of Delawares who dwelt in territories where the Tree of Peace cast its shade, was a mere quibble. Diplomatic control of the region by the Iroquois was a fact which no change of Delaware title could alter.
By and large the people who came under the Iroquois aegis were pleased with their position and proud of it. The Shawnees—a fiercely independent people—when they came up from the Southwest into Pennsylvania, first asked the Six Nations for permission. When Count Zinzendorf tried to convert Kakawatcheky, the Shawnee Chief, the old man said he would take his cue from the Six Nations and become a Christian when they did.
Deganawidah had instructed his people to welcome aliens who sought shelter under the Tree of Peace. The Iroquois had a proud record of help given to displaced persons. During the Eighteenth Century, the Tuscaroras, Conors, Nanticokes, and Tuteloes, driven out of their homes, were made welcome and assigned territories in the Six Nations country.
It may seem strange to learn that they conducted a well-oiganized refugee service. Letters and reports of October, 1766, from Friedenshutten (a Moravian Indian mission established near Wyalusing on the North Branch of the Susquehanna) say that two chiefs had arrived with messages from the Six Nations, confirmed by strings of wampum. Having been informed, as they said, by messenger that a number of destitute Tuscaroras were coming up from North Carolina, the Six Nations now requested the Indians at Wyalusing to prepare food for them and send ten canoes down to the next town below them on the river to bring up their sick and aged. Fifty were to be brought up by water; the remaining fifty would go overland by the Lackawanna Path to the Big Bend. Some Nanticokes from below Philadelphia and some Delawares from New Jersey were also to be expected a little later. The Friedensh“fctten Indians cooked, built cabins, dispatched canoes, and looked after their visitors royally when they arrived. It was not by terror that the Six Nations kept the peace throughout their territories, but by a genuine concern for the people under their care.
But what about the Delawares as “women”? Did not the Iroquois humiliate them with this title? It is true that the Delawares were technically called “women” in the Iroquois system, but it is not true that the term was originally intended as an insult. The Iroquois word used for “woman,” as applied to the Delawares, was a ceremonial term, gantowisas , denoting, as it appears, a certain stage of adoption in the Confederacy. When the late Chief Joseph Montour of the Delawares accepted a seat in the Onondaga Council (behind the Cayugas, who sponsored him), he acknowledged, as representative of his people, that he was a “woman.” But he recognized the term as one of honor, “like queen,” as he wrote to me. The Great Law of the Iroquois spread what was on the whole a good influence through the woods, and was well received by most of the Indians who were its beneficiaries.
This is not to deny that the Iroquois were terrible in war. We are told by William N. Fenton that the Naskapi of distant Labrador still use the word “Iroquois” to frighten children. It was not, however, their cruelty—they were less cruel than some other nations, the Ottawa and Huron, for instance—that made them so formidable, but their organization, their team play, their warriors’ tactical training.
Their warriors were trained to move fast on main trails until near their objective, and then to fan out through the woods to win the advantage of surprise. An observer has said that an Iroquois war party could move for hours through the forest, each man on his own, a hundred yards from, and out of sight of, his nearest support, and yet that at the appointed time every unit and every man would be in place and ready for the final assault. In 1679 a force of 1,500 warriors, in retaliation for Denonville’s invasion of their country and his destruction of 1,200,000 bushels of their corn, moved with such circumspection and perfect timing into the heart of the Montreal district that they caught the French completely off guard, immobilizing their garrisons and demoralizing the settlements for days.
In explaining the causes of Iroquois strength, while their founding legend, economic need, geographical position and the training they gave their youth, are all important, deeper sources are to be found in their government and social pattern.
One of these was the importance of women in the Iroquois political system. Women appointed the civil chiefs, women governed the family. Descent was reckoned in the female line, not in the male line. Woman’s position in society was central.
Also, the family was the basis of Iroquois government: the Iroquois ohwachira or “maternal family.” The maternal family was composed of a woman with all her children, male and female, and as many of her descendants as had come down through the female line. It included her daughter’s progeny but not her son’s. Her son’s children belonged to another ohwachira , that of his wife.
The titles held by the chiefs in council belonged each to a certain ohwachira . Women held the key to Iroquois government because it was the women’s council of an ohwachira , headed by the chief matron (who had a good deal of independent power: her wishes were seldom disputed), that chose the chief. When a chief died, the matron of the family holding his title nominated his successor. The chief’s council had the right to reject the nomination, but in that case they merely referred the matter to the women again for further consideration.
The chiefs served on three levels of government: clan, tribe or nation, and confederacy. The clan was composed of one or more maternal families; the nation, of three or more clans; and the confederacy, of the original Five Nations with such others as had been adopted and given permission to speak with the voice of one of the original five.
The governing council was an oligarchy, being composed of hereditary chiefs; but the power that worked through it was democratic. Iroquois government was close to the people. When the people wanted something, power worked upward from them in a continuous stream, through the maternal family to the clantribal-confederacy chiefs. Power worked down again, for effective action, through the same channels. Suppose some young hot-head was gathering a band of warriors to make a raid on the Catawbas at the very time when peace negotiations with this ancient enemy were being undertaken by the Onondaga Council. It would be in the national interest to restrain the young hot-heads. Suppose, too, that the advice of the council chiefs had been rejected. The matter was urgent. How could the raid be prevented? The chiefs would approach the matrons who had appointed them. A mother could forbid her son’s going on the warpath. There were other channels of influence, but this was a main one.
Great was the power wielded by Iroquois women. They might hide their faces when strangers appeared. They might work in the fields and carry the wood and the water; that was their part in a fair division of labor. They recognized no lord and master. Women owned the lodge and its equipment. They owned the land of the clan. They had the sole right of adopting aliens. They had the power of life and death over prisoners. They held the titles of chiefships. They sometimes acted as vice-regents in the absence of regular male chiefs. That is why we hear of so many Iroquois “queens,” like Queen Esther at Tioga.
Yet the ultimate source of Iroquois strength lies still deeper. The Iroquois were a gregarious people. Their regular occupations—hunting, diplomacy, war, for the men; agriculture, family, politics, for the women—left them plenty of leisure for amusement. They enjoyed games. They loved dancing.
Their home lives were, for the most part, happy. They were fond of their children, seldom punishing and never spanking them. Ducking served the purpose, but it was resorted to only in extreme cases. Marriages were arranged by the mothers of bride and groom. Though divorce could be had, by either party, for the asking, most marriages were permanent.
Early travelers have written of the harmony that prevailed in most Indian towns. The Iroquois understood the art of getting along with one another. Conrad Weiser says that one could live among them for thirty years and never see two Indians, except when in liquor, quarrel. He found them better followers of the Golden Rule than most professing Christians.
How did the Iroquois come to be like that? They were certainly not lacking in spirit. They enjoyed competition. Why were they, then, in home and village life, so much less contentious than whites?
All through the highly organized social and political life of the Iroquois ran a principle of duality, like that of the sexes, and along with it the principle of reciprocity and mutual obligation. It is found in the family and in the government.
I once asked an Iroquois friend how long he thought the Six Nations could endure the disruptive forces exerted upon them in the United States and Canada. He replied, “The Six Nations will never die.” Their strength consisted, and it still consists, not in numbers, not in voting power, but in the “moral faith,” to borrow a phrase from Lewis Morgan’s League of the Iroquois , which unites them: a faith inspired by Deganawidah and the founding legend, nourished not only by past victories but also by defeats, in the belief—as their prophet, Handsome Lake, long ago taught them—that the loser gains by the act of sacrifice.