The Iroquois Confederacy

The Iroquois are a group of American Indians located in the northeast region of the United States and Canada. The word “Iroquois” is a French word, derived from a Huron Indian meaning “black snakes.” They are also known as the Six Nations by the English and “Haudenosaunee” by themselves. Haudenosaunee means “People building an extended house” or “People of the Longhouse.”

According to oral history, five nations banded together over 1,000 years ago to form a union. The five nations were the Mohawk, Cayuga, Seneca, Oneida and Onondaga. In 1722, the Tuscarora joined the union making the confederacy Six Nations. A Council of Chiefs is the governing authority, however. the majority of the Six Nations function under the Great Law of Peace, which promotes peace, power and righteousness. The Iroquois confederacy established that each nation should handle their own affairs. Each nation has representation on the Council. The Great Law is a unique representational form of government, with the people in the clans having say in what information is passed upward. Historically, the Iroquois were ruled by 50 council members. It has been reported that Benjamin Franklin used many aspects of the Iroquois system in the development of the government of the United States. 

The Iroquois are considered a matriarchal society because descent is passed through the mother, rather than the father. Both men and women have equal roles in the social, political and economic life of the community.

The balance of the gender roles makes the society unique. For example, children of either sex are affiliated with their mother’s clan.

For the Iroquois, the clan is the basic unit of social organization. Members of one clan are considered relatives and intermarriage in the same clan is forbidden. Each clan is led by a Clan Mother. The responsibilities of the Clan Mother include the naming of all those in the clan, as well as the selection of the male candidate for Chief, which the rest of the Clan must approve. She can however remove that same chief if he fails in his duties.

The Iroquois lived in villages with long wooden buildings called “longhouses.” Families would live together in the structures with extended family members. The Haudenosaunee viewed the concept of the longhouse like six families living under one roof, with each nation representing a family. The Iroquois Nations could be described as similar to a large longhouse that extends from where the sun rises in the east, to where it sets in the west. the earth is the floor of this longhouse and the sky is considered the roof. In this great longhouse, the Mohawk nation are the keeper of the eastern door. The Seneca is the keeper of the western door. The Onondagas in the middle are the keepers of the central fire. Together these three are referred to as the elder brothers and they represent half of the longhouse families. The Cayuga, Oneida, and Tuscarora nations are the younger brothers and they represent the other families that complete the house.

Children were valued and respected by Haudenosaunee people. The children received much love and attention from the family members in the long house. During this time, the women owned the longhouses and the land. Today, longhouses still exist on some Haudenosaunee reservations and are used for ceremonial purposes. The Haudenosaunee grew a variety of vegetables, such as corn, beans, and squash. Hunting and fishing contributed to part of the food they ate. They also grew tobacco that was used for ceremonial and medicinal purposes. The men and boys usually hunted for deer, bear and small mammals. Although much hunting was accomplished by bow and arrow, many men also used snares, traps and guns.


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