The Iroquois also known as the Haudenosaunee, the Five Nations and Five Nations of the Iroquois (Six Nations after 1722) or calling themselves the Ganonsyoni, are a surviving and historically powerful important Native American people who formed the Iroquois Confederacy, a league of five (later six) distinct nations. French, Dutch and British colonists in both Canada and the Thirteen Colonies wanted to curry favor with the Iroquois; for nearly 200 years considerations of the Iroquois were a powerful factor in North American colonial policy-making decisions. There power was diminished after the Revolutionary War, when they sided with the British. After the defeat of the British most migrated to Canada and their descendants live there. In 1995, more than 50,000 enrolled Six Nations people lived in Canada, and about 30,000 in the United States.When Europeans first arrived in North America, the Haudenosaunee were based in what is now the northeastern United States, primarily in what is referred to today as upstate New York west of the Hudson River and through the Finger Lakes region.
Each nation had a distinct territory and function within the League. Iroquois influence extended into Canada, westward into the Great Lakes and down both sides of the Allegheny mountains into Virginia and Kentucky. To reduce conflict, they came together in an association known today as the Iroquois League, which in their language was known as the League of Peace and Power. The League is embodied in the Grand Council, an assembly of fifty hereditary sachems.
The Great Law of Peace
Under the Iroquois Constitution, known as the Great Binding Law or Great Law of Peace, each nation elected delegates, or sachems, who dealt with internal affairs. The Confederacy’s Grand Council met to discuss matters of common concern, such as war, peace, and treaty-making. Though the Council could not interfere with the internal affairs of each tribe, unity for mutual defense was a central concept. The oral tradition of the Great Law uses the imagery of a bundle of five arrows tied together to symbolize the complete union of the nations and the unbroken strength that such unity imparts.
The Great Law also provided that policies would be thoroughly debated. First the Mohawks and Senecas, or Older Brothers, debated, and when they reached consensus, the Oneida and Cayuga, or Younger Brothers, debated. If the two “houses” disagreed, the Onondaga could cast the deciding vote. If the two houses agreed, the Onondaga would implement the unanimous decision, unless they disagreed with the decision and referred the matter back to the Council. If the Council again agreed upon their decision, the Onondaga were overruled. With its two houses and the veto power of a quasi-executive branch, this system was similar to the bicameral legislature and executive branch later found in our state and federal governments.
Benjamin Franklin and the Albany Plan
When an Indian interpreter and old friend of Benjamin Franklin’s brought him the official transcript of the proceedings, Franklin immediately published the account. Seven years later, he wrote a letter to James Parker, his New York City printing partner, on the importance of gaining and preserving the friendship of the Iroquois Indians. By the time Franklin wrote his letter to Parker, the American colonists had developed significant diplomatic and trading relations with American Indian societies, and for most of the 18th century, they had relatively friendly relations with the Iroquois, whose territory comprised a large part of what is now New York State. Today many historians believe that Iroquoian ideas of unity, federalism, and balance of power directly influenced the United States’ system of government. Among the founding fathers, Franklin may best illustrate the influence the Iroquois had on Americans. Franklin, who had a thriving printing business in Philadelphia, started printing small books containing proceedings of Indian treaty councils in 1736. They were the first distinctive forms of indigenous American literature and sold quite well, and he continued publishing such accounts until 1762.
In 1744, envoys from Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia met in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, with delegates, or sachems, of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Indians. During the discussions, the Iroquois leader Canassatego advocated the federal union of the American colonies, exhorting the colonists:
Our wise forefathers established a union and amity between the [original] Five Nations. This has made us formidable. This has given us great weight and authority with our neighboring Nations. We are a powerful Confederacy and by your observing the same methods our wise forefathers have taken you will acquire much strength and power; therefore, whatever befalls you, do not fall out with one another.
When an Indian interpreter and old friend of Benjamin Franklin’s brought him the official transcript of the proceedings, Franklin immediately published the account. Seven years later, he wrote a letter to James Parker, his New York City printing partner, on the importance of gaining and preserving the friendship of the Iroquois Indians.
Franklin carried the Iroquois concept of unity to Albany in 1754, where he presented his plan of union loosely patterned after the Iroquois Confederation. His “Short hints toward a scheme for uniting the northern colonies,” his Albany Plan proposed that each colony could govern its internal affairs and that a Grand Council consisting of a different number of representatives from each colony would provide for mutual defense. This proposed council closely resembled the Grand Council of the Iroquois nations. During the debates over the plan for union, Franklin pointed to the strength of the Iroquois Confederacy and stressed the fact that the individual nations of the Confederacy maintained internal sovereignty, managing their own internal affairs, without interference from the Grand Council. Arguing for a union of the colonies, he mused:
It would be a very strange Thing, if six Nations of Ignorant Savages should be capable of forming a Scheme for such an 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.
While the colonies and the Crown were not ready for a colonial union and the Albany Plan was not ratified, Franklin gained recognition as an advocate of colonial union and a place in history as an originator of the federalist system of government. Several Iroquois leaders had attended the Congress, convened at an Albany courthouse, to cement an alliance with the Iroquois against the French and to devise a plan for a union of the colonies. An aging Mohawk sachem called Hendrick received a special invitation from the acting governor of New York, James de Lancey, to attend the Congress and to provide information on the structure of the Iroquois government. After Hendrick spoke, DeLancey responded, “I hope that by this present Union, we shall grow up to a great height and be as powerful and famous as you were of old.”
In an essay four decades later expressing unabashed admiration for the Iroquois, Franklin wrote: “Savages we call them, because their manners differ from ours, which we think the Perfection of Civility; they think the same of theirs.”
In 1775, treaty commissioners from the Continental Congress met with the chiefs of the Six Nations “to inform you of the advice that was given about thirty years ago, by your wise forefathers.” While independence was debated by the Continental Congress, the visiting Iroquois chiefs were formally invited to attend. In 1787, John Rutledge, a member of the Constitutional Convention and chair of the drafting committee, used the structure of the Iroquois Confederacy as support for the proposition that political power comes from “we, the people,” an idea later expressed in the preamble to the Constitution.
Bill Moyers: Do you subscribe to the opinion that some of what we call founding fathers were affected directly by what Indians were doing and thinking in the shaping of government?
Oren Lyons: Oh yes. They were impacted very directly. When the Wampanoags met the Pilgrims, there was a great leader by the name of Massasoit. And Massasoit saw to it that there was peace between the two. And now, we see it as our grandfathers talked to Benjamin Franklin and talked to those people and explained--
Bill Moyers: they talked to Franklin?
Oren Lyons: They did talk to Franklin. They explained very directly, in this meeting in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1744--
Bill Moyers: Franklin was there?
Oren Lyons: Franklin was taking, recording. He was the recording secretary at the time. He was quite a young man, and of course they were talking to, I think it was the Governor of Delaware, New York and Pennsylvania at the time.
Bill Moyers: The chiefs were?
Oren Lyons: The Six Nation chiefs were talking and they advised them then to join in a union like the Hau de no sau nee. Be like us they said because, `There's a great power in being together of one mind and we have unity,' as the Peacemaker bound those arrows.
When he [was] illustrating to the chiefs, he took one arrow. He said, `This is a nation.' And he snapped the arrow. Then he took the five nations and five arrows and he bound it with the sinew of the deer. Then he said, `You can't break this unity.' He says, `This is your symbol, unity. You must be united. You must be of one mind.'
Bill Moyers: Is there any indication that Ben Franklin was influenced by what he heard and recorded?
Oren Lyons: I think there's a lot of evidence. One of the things that he did -- he's the one that was listening. The three, the three politicians, shall we say, were not listening. But Benjamin Franklin was, I would say, the visionary. He saw the nation. He saw a free nation. He said, "Why, if these," I think the quote was something like, "if this group of ignorant savages can build something that looks indissoluble," he says, "why can we not, who have all of the same needs, do the same?" More or less.
He called a meeting in 1754 in Albany, New York, called the Albany Plan of Union. At that time he had asked the chiefs of Six Nations and other Indians to come forward and talk about the process of governance and the process of representation in government and the process of the peaceful transference of power from one generation to the next: two houses, a discussion, power of people in the hands of the people.
All of this really intrigued him. Of course, the King of England wasn't too happy with all of this and put a stop to it rather quickly. But it was on its way.
On the eve of the Revolution, in 1775, delegates from the Continental Congress met with the Six Nation chiefs and said, at the time, that, `Your grandfathers advised us in 1744 in Lancaster to make a union such as yours. And now we're going to take your advice and we're going to plant a Tree of Peace in Philadelphia that will reach to the sky and people can come under it.'
They used our metaphors . . . and the chiefs said, `That's wonderful, good. We like to hear that.' And they said, `We want neutrality in the coming war.' Then . . . the chiefs said, `It's a fight between a father and son. We love you both and we know you both and we agree that we should be neutral.'
So a treaty was struck then, in 1776, in Fort Pitt and . . . delegates from the Continental Congress came and brought a great belt, a Peace Belt with 13 diamonds in it. And not the diamonds that you wear on your finger, but a design of 13 diamonds representing the 13 colonies. This belt was taken by the Six Nations and they agreed to this peace, which is really expunged from your history.