What is the Iroquois Confederacy?



The Iroquois Confederacy was a remarkable fact in history. It was com posed of five large families, each having the dignified title of a nation. These nations were named respectively, Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas. They were subdivided into smaller families or tribes, each having its symbol-coat-of-arms-such as the bear, the wolf, the eagle, the heron the beaver, the deer, the turkey or the tortoise. They occupied a belt of country extending across the present State of New York from the Hudson River to Lake Erie, south of the Adirondack range of great hills, and north of the Kaatsbergs, or, as they are commonly called, the Catskill Mountains.

When Europeans became acquainted with the nations of this league and the form of their government, they were filled with admiration because of its wisdom and strength. They called these nations "The Romans of the New World," because they seemed to have many things in common with that ancient people, especially in military affairs. As in old Rome the soldiers were honored above all other citizens, so they were among the Iroquois; and the warriors, under their chiefs, were all-powerful in public affairs. Whatever was done in the civil councils of the separate nations, or of the confederacy, was subjected to review by the soldiery, who had the right to call councils whenever they pleased, and approve or disapprove public measures. And so careful were the civil authorities to pay deference to the warriors that general answers to questions of state policy were postponed until the opinions of the soldiers might be known. Therefore, in nearly every such council, decisions were made by unanimous consent.

As each of the confederated nations was divided into several tribes, there were thirty or forty sachems in the league. These had inferior officers under them, answering to our magistrates in towns; and so the civil power of the government was quite widely distributed. There was not a man who gained his office otherwise than by his own merits, and he held it only during good behavior. Any unworthy action was attended by dismissal from office and the penalty of public scorn. They, as well as the military leaders, accepted no salary, and gave away any perquisites of their offices in time of peace and their share of plunder in time of war. There was no bribery nor corruption in office, for they had not learned these arts of civilization. They felt themselves amply rewarded by the confidence and esteem of the people. Chosen by the voice of universal suffrage, and feeling the responsibilities which that trust imposed upon them, their department was as dignified as their position.

Each canton or nation was a distinct republic, entirely independent of the others in what may be termed the domestic concerns of the state; but each was bound to others of the league by ties of honor and of general interest. Each had an equal voice in the General Council or Congress of the league, and each possessed a sort of veto or prohibitory power, which was a guaranty against a central despotism. The powers and duties of the chief magistrate of the Confederacy were similar to those imposed upon the President of the United States. He had authority to "light the great Council Fire"-to assemble the General Congress-by sending a messenger to the sachem of each nation, calling him to a meeting. With his own hand he kindled a blaze around which the representatives gathered and each lighted his pipe. He had a cabinet of six councillors of state, whose powers were only advisory. In the Council, he was only the moderator or presiding officer. He had no power to control, directly, military affairs, nor interfere with the internal policy of the several states of the league. There was really no coercive or compulsory power lodged anywhere, that could act upon a state or individual, excepting that of despotic public opinion. There was a third party in the government, who exercised great influence. These were the matrons or elderly women, who had a right to sit in the councils and there exercise a negative or veto power on the subject of a declaration of war, or to propose or demand a cessation of hostilities. Theirs was a highly conservative power. They were pre-eminently the peace-makers of the league, for their personal happiness depended upon peaceful pursuits. They modestly refrained from making speeches in the legislature, but they furnished materials for masculine orators, and so wielded a potent influence. And so it was that in that notable confederacy of barbarians, formed long before their contact with Europeans, woman was man's co-worker in legislation-a thing unheard of in civilized nations. It was a government the nearest to a pure democracy, and yet highly aristocratic-a government of the best of the people-that the world has ever seen. It had all of the essential elements of our form of government.

I have said that the soldiers of the league controlled the legislators. The military leaders, like the Sachems, derived their authority from the people, who recognized and rewarded their ability as warriors. They held the relations to the civil heads of the nations, similar to that of Roman generals to Emperors, whom they elevated to and deposed from office. The army was composed wholly of volunteers, for there was no power to conscribe men. Every able-bodied man was bound, by custom, to do military duty, and he who shirked it incurred everlasting disgrace. The ranks of the army were, therefore, always full. The war-dance and the assemblages for amusement were the recruiting stations, for there the veteran warriors, painted and decorated, recounted their brave deeds in wild songs, as they danced around great fires, singly or in a ring formed by clasped hands. These stirring war-songs inspired the young men with desires to emulate their example and win the honors of war. Sometimes young men-mere lads-seated among the women as spectators, inspired by these songs, would spring to their feet, and rushing out into the magic circle in a complete frenzy, would seize each other by the hand and dance and yell around the blazing pile, to the delight of the old warriors. Such was the method of "beating up for recruits" among all the barbarian nations of North America. In the perfect freedom of this voluntary system, lay the amazing strength of the league, for every servant of the state was an inspired and willing one. And so much did the people of this league reverence the inalienable rights of man, that they never made a fellow-man a serf or slave-not even their captives in war.

There is no positive proof as to the time when the Iroquois Confederacy was formed. It was probably at the beginning of the fifteenth century, or about a hundred year before Columbus crossed the Atlantic Ocean. When Europeans found it, it was powerful and aggressive. Like old Rome, the state was constantly increasing in area and population, by conquests and annexations. Had the discovery of America by Europeans been deferred a century longer, no doubt that republic would have embraced the continent; for the FIVE NATIONS, as the league was called, had already extended their conquests from the great lakes on our northern border almost to the Gulf of Mexico, and were the terror of all the other Indian tribes east and west of them. In unity was found their strength. For a time even the French in Canada, who had taught them the use of fire-arms, maintained a doubtful struggle against them. "Our wise forefathers," said one of their leading sachems to commissioners of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia, in 1744, "established unity and amity among the Five Nations. This has made us formidable. This has given us great weight with our neighboring nations. We are a powerful confederacy; and by observing the same methods our wise forefathers have taken, you will acquire fresh strength and power. Therefore I counsel you, whatever may befall you, not to fall out with each other."

Like every other unlettered nation whose history is unrecorded in books, and whose origin is obscure, the Iroquois have colored their traditions of the beginning of the league with the hues of the supernatural or miraculous. Their story is only another form of the old story-older than the ages of history and as widespread as the race. It has come floating down the stream of time from Central Asia-the home of the true Hindu-the Eden-the Paradise-the garden-which produced the root of the languages and the germs of the religion and laws of Europe and of the Caucasians of this continent. That teeming East is the mother of those historic myths in which figure, in divine grandeur, the founders of nations. Among these is Hi-a-wat-ha, the founder of the Iroquois Confederacy. Their traditions tell us that this personage, whom, in later years, they revered as the incarnation of wisdom, came from his serene dwelling in the skies, and took up his abode with the Onondagas, then the most favored of the Five Nations of the great Iroquois family, living within the domain of the present State of New York. The Onondagas occupied a central position, the Mohawks and Oneidas being east of them, and the Cayugas and Senecas west of them. Hi-a-wat-ha taught them the art of good living; the value and strength of mutual friendship and good-will, and the advantages of having fixed habitations and the cultivation of the earth. He was yet among them when a band of fierce warriors came down like an icy blast from the land north of the great lakes, slaying everything human in their path. He advised these related nations to call a council of their wise men for the purpose of forming a league for the common good, to oppose the destructive enemy. His advice was approved and immediately acted upon. The chief men of the Five Nations, followed by their women and children, gathered in great numbers on the banks of the Onondaga Lake. To the representatives of each nation was assigned a particular position in that council, with an appropriate title.

That was a notable gathering of gayly-decked Indians at the dividing line between the woods and the waters. There the grave and dignified Mohawk of the east, met the fierce and fiery Seneca of the west, and all waited in silence for the presence of Hi-a-wat-ha, who appeared on the lake in a mysterious canoe with a beautiful and gentle maiden, his daughter. He landed on the pebbly shore, and as he and his sweet child ascended the bank, a strange sound was heard in the air-like a wind rushing by. In the far distant sky a white speck was seen, which grew larger and larger as it approached, in rapid descent, toward the spot where the great multitude stood. It assumed the shape of a monster bird. As it was evident that it was about to fall upon the council ground, the people fled in terror, all but Hi-a-wat-ha and his daughter. "Stand still, my child," he said, "it is cowardly to fly from any danger. The decrees of the Great Spirit may not be averted by flight." He had just ceased speaking, when the bird, an enormous white heron, with extended wings, fell upon the maiden and crushed her to the earth. Its fall was so violent, that its beak and head were buried in the ground, and the bird and the maiden both perished. Hi-a-wat-ha, though so suddenly and awfully bereaved, showed no signs of emotion. Not a muscle was moved by the calamity. He calmy beckoned to the warriors, who came forward and plucked the beautiful white plumes of the dead heron, and each placing one on his head, wore it as a commemorative decoration. Thenceforth, for many generations, it was the custom of the braves of the Five Nations to wear a white heron-plume on their heads when going out on the war-path, or as a national insignia and memento of the origin of the league.

On removing the body of the bird, no traces of Hi-a-wat-ha's daughter could be found. The disconsolate father was moody for awhile, and the people waited in respectful silence until he aroused himself and proceeded to the discharge of his grave duties. He was placed himself at the head of the council and guided its action. He was seated on a mossy stone, and was clad in a wolf-skin mantle and a tunic of soft furs that hung from his waist. His arms and legs were bare, and without ornaments, and on his feet were rich moccasins. On his head was a cap formed of a band of soft deer-skin, covered with the small plumage of many colored birds. From this arose a stately pile of feathers of every sort, from those of the white heron and the gray eagle to the smaller ones of the golden oriole and the flaming scarlet taniger. Near him were seated the chief warriors and councillors of the tribes, who joined in the brief debates and listened with profound attention to the words of wisdom that fell from the lips of Hi-a-wat-ha. After listening to the discussion, he arose and addressed the people by nations, saying, as he pointed toward the heads of each:

"You (the Mohawks) who are sitting under the shadow of The Great Tree whose roots sink deep into the earth, and whose branches spread wide around, shall be the first nation, nearest the rising of the sun, because you are warlike and mighty.

"You (Oneidas) who recline your bodies against The Everlasting Stone, emblem of wisdom, that cannot be moved, shall be the second nation, because you always give wise counsel.

"You (the Onondagas) who have your habitation at the foot of The Great Hills, and are overshadowed by their crags, shall be the third nation, because you are all greatly gifted in speech.

"You (the Cayugas) the people who live in The Open Country, and possess much wisdom, shall be the fourth nation, because you understand better the art of raising corn and beans, and making houses.

"You (the Senecas) whose dwelling is in The Dark Forest nearer the setting sun, and whose home is everywhere, shall be the fifth nation, because of your superior cunning in hunting.

"Unite, you five nations and have one common interest, and no foe shall disturb or subdue you. You, the people, who are as the feeble bushes, and you who are a fishing people (addressing some who had come from the Delawares, and from the sea-shore), may place yourselves under our protection, and we will defend you. And you of the South and West may do the same-we will protect. We earnestly desire the alliance and friendship of you all. Brothers, of we unite in this great bond, the Great Spirit will smile upon us, and we shall be free, prosperous and happy. But if we remain as we are we shall be subject to his frown. We shall be enslaved, ruined, perhaps annihilated. We may perish under the war-storm, and our names be no longer remembered by good men, nor repeated in the dance and song. Brothers, these are the words of Hi-a-wat-ha. I have said it. I am done."

The confederation was formed the next day. Then Hi-a-wat-ha's mission to the Iroquois was ended. He gave them more wise advice, and then announced his intention to return to his divine habitation. Whilst the multitude stood in silence and awe, he went down to the water's edge and entered his mysterious canoe. Suddenly the air was filled with delicious music, like the warbling of innumerable birds, that charmed the senses of the wondering people. Slowly the canoe and its precious burden arose in the air, higher and higher, until it was lost in the blue depths to the vision of eager eyes gazing after it until it vanished. Hi-a-wat-ha had returned to the region of the Blessed.

Atatarho, a chief of the Onondagas, and eminent for his wisdom and valor, was chosen President or Grand Sachem of the League. A delegation of the Mohawks were sent to offer him the honor. They found him seated in grim solitude in the dark recesses of a swamp, smoking his pipe, with drinking vessels around him made of the skulls of his enemies, as were those of the old barbarian Northmen centuries before Lief came to Vineland. The delegation could not go near his person, for he was clothed with hissing serpents, emblems of wisdom. The Mohawks stood at a distance under the branches of a tamarac, whilst their leader approached nearer and announced their errand. Atatarho arose, and with dignity accepted the office. The serpents were transformed into a mantle of bear's skin' and following the delegation, the president of the league went to the council and there declared that he would do the will of the sages and warriors of the confederated nations. From that time the Iroquois Confederacy was invincible until the white man came and, by craft and power, paralyzed its strengths and finally destroyed it.





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