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Famous Seneca chief of the Iroquois league, Red Jacket, political negotiator and critic of European religion, speaking to crowd

Iroquois League: The Ancient and Powerful Union of Six Nations


The Iroquois, known also as the Haudenosaunee (which means People Building a Long House), were a powerful and important Native American confederacy located in the northeastern part of North America. During the colonial period, this confederacy was known to the French as the ‘Iroquois League’, and later as the ‘Iroquois Confederacy’. On the other hand, they were known to the English as the ‘Five Nations’, and, after 1722, as the ‘Six Nations’. The six nations that make up the Iroquois League are the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora (as the sixth nation of this confederacy), which are tribes that are linguistically related.

Warfare and violence between tribes

The Iroquois tribes are said to have occupied the area around modern day New York, and had developed from the local cultures dating back to the 11 th century A.D. Inter-group aggression seems to have arisen between this period and approximately 1400 AD, perhaps due to increasing competition for resources as a result of rising population densities. It has been claimed that many archaeological sites from this period show signs of warfare and violence. This image of a period of continuous warfare between the Iroquois tribes is also reflected in Iroquois oral tradition.   

Engraving based on a drawing by Champlain of his 1609 voyage. It depicts a battle between Iroquois and Algonquian tribes near Lake Champlain

Engraving based on a drawing by Champlain of his 1609 voyage. It depicts a battle between Iroquois and Algonquian tribes near Lake Champlain (public domain)

One strategy that was employed in order to survive through these harsh times was for smaller tribes to cooperate so as to increase their chances of survival. Thus, smaller villages coalesced into much larger palisaded villages, which increased the security of the individual villages involved. It has been suggested that such a strategy was the precursor to the formation of the Iroquois League.

Deganawida, the Great Peacemaker

According to Iroquois oral tradition, the period of violence was finally ended by a man known as the Great Peacemaker, who is said to have come from the north. The spiritual name of the Great Peacemaker is said to be Deganawida, which means ‘Two Rivers Flowing Together’. This name, however, is rarely mentioned aloud, out of respect for him. It was the Great Peacemaker, along with the Mohawk chief, Hiawatha (meaning ‘He Who Combs’), who brought the message of peace of the chief of the five Iroquois tribes.

Meeting of Hiawatha and Deganawida by Sanford Plummer

Meeting of Hiawatha and Deganawida by Sanford Plummer (public domain)

According to one legend, Hiawatha was originally a cannibal from the Onondaga tribe. Once, the Great Peacemaker was watching the cannibal through a hole in the roof whilst he was preparing to cook his latest victim. The cannibal, seeing the Great Peacemaker’s face reflected in the pot, thought that that was his own image. He was struck by the realisation that such a beautiful face was incompatible with the horrendous practice of cannibalism. He immediately gave up cannibalism, and went out to dispose of the corpse. When he returned to his lodge, he encountered the Great Peacemaker, and became his disciple.

Todadaho accepts peace

The Great Peacemaker’s new disciple was then sent to confront his chief, Todadaho and remove the snakes from his hair (for it is said that Todadaho’s hair contained a tangle of snakes). As a result of this deed, the Great Peacemaker’s disciple became known as Hiawatha. Todadaho is said to have been the last of the five chiefs to accept the message of the Great Peacemaker.

Iroquois painting of Tadodaho receiving two Mohawk chiefs

Iroquois painting of Tadodaho receiving two Mohawk chiefs (public domain)

The council of the chiefs

When the task of bringing peace was accomplished, the laws and customs of the newly-formed confederacy had to be established. This was achieved by a council of fifty chiefs who were elected by the clan mothers (the five Iroquois nations were matrilineal, matrilocal societies). Additionally, the Confederacy chiefs would meet annually to restate these laws and customs (now known as the Book of the Great Law), as well as to settle any conflicts that may have occurred during the past year.

The relations between each member group and between the League as a unit and outsiders were also determined by this Council. The individual League members, however, were allowed to act freely when dealing with outsiders on their own, so long as the interests of the entire League were kept. When a decision is to be made by the Council, the issue would first be discussed amongst the Mohawk, and then amongst the Seneca, both of whom are called ‘Door-keepers’, as they are the eastern and western-most groups of the League. The issue would next be discussed amongst the Oneida, and then amongst the Caguyga, known together as the ‘Younger Brothers’. Finally, the issue would be discussed amongst the Onondaga, the ‘Fire-keepers’. Decisions had to be unanimous, and the fact that each chief had the power to veto an issue is said to have helped ensure the equality of each chief and his opinion.

Chiefs of the Six Nations, 1871

Chiefs of the Six Nations, 1871 (public domain)

The power of the Iroquois League

Due to their unity, the Iroquois League became a great power in northeastern North America. The North American fur trade during the 16 th century, for instance, saw the Iroquois League embarking on successful campaigns to subjugate or disperse neighbouring groups in order to obtain furs to trade with Europeans. Yet, it was also contact with Europeans that fragmented the Iroquois League. During the American Revolution, for example, the League members failed to agree on which side to support. As no unanimous agreement was achieved, each group was free to support whichever side they wanted. Of the six Iroquois groups, only the Oneida supported the American cause. Whilst the Oneida were rewarded for their assistance, the other groups were subjected to punitive raids by the victors.

Iroquois engaging in trade with Europeans, 1722

Iroquois engaging in trade with Europeans, 1722 (public domain)

It has often been said that the Iroquois League was the inspiration behind the United States Constitution, and that the League has sometimes been called the ‘Oldest Living Participatory Democracy on Earth’. In a 1751 letter written by Benjamin Franklin to James Parker, the former had this to say about the Iroquois League, 

“It would be a strange thing if Six Nations of ignorant savages should be capable of forming a scheme for such a union, and be able to execute it in such a manner as that it has subsisted ages and appears indissoluble; and yet that a like union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English colonies, to whom it is more necessary and must be more advantageous, and who cannot be supposed to want an equal understanding of their interests.”    

Featured image: Famous Seneca chief of the Iroquois league, Red Jacket, political negotiator and critic of European religion, speaking to crowd (public domain).

By Ḏḥwty


Fadden, J. K., 2015. The Six Nations: Oldest Living Participatory Democracy on Earth. [Online]
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Franklin, B., 1751. Benjamin Franklin on the Iroquois League, in a letter to James Parker, 1751. [Online]
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Hall, L., 2015. Iroquois confederacy. [Online]
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Ramsden, P. G., 2015. Haudenosaunee (Iroquois). [Online]
Available at:, 2015. The League of the Iroquois. [Online]
Available at:, 2015. Legendary Native American Figures: The Great Peacemaker. [Online]
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Morgain's picture

I woud like to have read more about the matrarchs which I did read years ago. This artcle is only about the men. One interesting aspect is Mathilda Gage (paleface woman) who was a major 19thC feminist. She became an Iroquois matriarch and their councils inspired her femnism.

Shan Morgain

Tracing my husband's family tree. I hope to find more information on Alexander White, 1842-1914, buried in St Regis Falls NY.

dhwty's picture


Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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