The Iroquois Confederacy was an alliance of first five and then six First Nations in what is now the American northeast and southern Canada. Also known as the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (meaning “people of the long house”), the nations included Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and then Tuscarora.
Living there for many centuries, Iroquois culture and society was active by 1000 CE. The Confederacy has been dated back to as early as between 1570 and 1600. At it’s height, the society had a population of up to 12,000.
According to legend, the various tribes were constantly at war with each other until “The Great Peacemaker” arrived. With the help of Hiawatha, the chief of the Onondaga tribe, peace talks were initiated.
A council meeting was called and Hiawatha presented the “Great Law of Peace.” It united the warring nations and became a constitutional basis for the new alliance.
Each nation would keep their own leaders, but bigger issues affecting all would be debated and decided at a Grand Council of Chiefs.
What is fascinating is that many of the ideas of the Iroquois Confederacy are embedded within the modern American constitution. Among them are restrictions from holding more than one office, a process to remove or impeach leaders of the Confederacy, designating a balance of power between the Confederacy government and the nations of the alliance, a procedure for passing laws with checks and balances, and who has the power to declare war.
Often at war with the neighboring Huron and Mohican nations, the rivalries were intensified with the arrival of the British and French settlers. Tending to ally with the British, the Iroquois Confederacy eventually defeated the French backed Hurons, coming into direct conflict with the French territory of New France.
The Confederacy became divided at the outbreak of the American Revolution. The Oneida and Tuscarora sympathized with the American side while the other tribes assisted the British. The British allied Iroquois were defeated by a large American force in 1779. A treaty was eventually signed where some Iroquois nations stayed on reservations in New York State and others moved into Ontario, Canada, under British rule.
However, the political and cultural functioning of the Iroquois Confederacy remain in place to this day.