The Iroquois Confederacy

I’m going to talk today about the Iroquois Confederacy. They were rocking the unified group of independent “States” before the English settlers made that cool.

Oops! Not that Confederacy. (banjo music falls silent.)

What do most people think when they hear the words “Native American?” Do they think peace loving hippie? Brutish savage? Which is it guys? Is it a cartoon Pocahontas talking to animals and trees or are they blood thirsty barbarians?

This guy does NOT talk to animated forest animals.

Well, (and this may be surprising) but your public schools don’t actually teach what the Native Americans were really like. For one thing, they were so varied that what was okay in one nation, might be totally evil (or as the Marines say, “frowned upon.”) in another nation. When the European explorers first arrived and met their new neighbors with housewarming presents such as a jar of strawberry preserves, freshly baked bread and smallpox, they found that the Indian cultures there were large, sophisticated, lived in walled cities with pyramid-like temples, farms and vast trading networks. Their culture and religion of the Mississippi valley area was remarkably similar to the Aztecs and Mayans and many believe that the Mezo-Americans started colonies along the shores of the Gulf of Mexico and their culture spread out into the continent. That was in the 1500’s. It took a while for the Europeans to start colonizing, but when they did in the 1600’s, they found a strangely vacant, empty and free of Indians land. The cities were mostly desolate and the thriving civilizations were gone. Instead, you had scattered tribes with perhaps a loose organization among them. What happened? Well, the strawberry preserves probably went over fairly well, but the smallpox didn’t. It must have been like a scene from 28 Days Later where the Rage virus spreads and kills everyone. This plaque wiped them out so horribly that it destroyed their entire civilization. No wonder the Europeans just waltzed right in.

Thanks Colombus! At least we know what happened to the Roanoke Colony.


"My word! These natives sure do dress funny! Let's take all this land they're not using."

So, imagine if the Mongols happened to arrive just after the fall of Rome and a serious plague. They’d have found scattered, sometimes isolated settlements, few people and only hints of government. Well, there was one exception, the Iroquois League.
The League was started by two men, Hiawatha and Deganawida. Deganawida was a prophet, a spiritual leader and great peacemaker. Hiawatha was the charismatic mouth piece. They were saddened by all the fighting between the tribes and nations and figured that there had to be a better way. So, they began to go from tribe to tribe, telling them all of a peaceful way to work together. One by one they began to convert the tribes and their league began to grow. Eventually their league would comprise of five nations: Seneca, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, and Mohawk.
So, what was this Iroquois confederacy like?

Where they like this?


Or were they like this?

It turns out, they weren’t wearing tie-dyed shirts and protesting Vietnam. They were actually imperialistic in aim and aggressively expansionist. Because they had wide scale farming and great organization, they were able to push back their enemies, the Algonquin and they in turn pushed out other tribes. For example, the Lakota, (Sioux) the quintessential plains Indians, once lived in the forests of the Great Lakes, but due to the pushing of the Iroquois, they were evicted and left on the Great Plains.  But eventually, the Algonquin took up farming as well and like a good “real time strategy” game, they managed their resources, built peasants and barracks and were able to make enough warriors to hold the Iroquois back.

Satellite image of the Iroquois preparing for war.

They had a senate of fifty delegates that was formed of elected officials from each nation. The 50th was a spiritual leader and was elected from all the nations. Rumor has it that the Founding Fathers of America used the Iroquois Confederacy as a good and recent example of how to keep a bunch of different groups from splitting up like an 80’s rock band. Decisions had to be made by 75% of the senate and a council of women could veto those decisions. Most decisions were on the local level and more democratic than we have today.

Yeah, they started in Upstate New York. Perhaps their destiny was manifest?

Then along came the French and Indian war (Seven Years War in Europe, kinda how we have soccer and they have football.) The Iroquois sided with the English. As thanks for their help, the British outlawed colonization west of Virginia…yeah, the colonists sort of ignored it and continued spreading.

Of course the Iroquois didn't just sit back. They were not warriors to be trifled with.

During the American Revolution, the League couldn’t decide who to support and split in a civil war. The League was broken up and never fully recovered. The remnants went up into Canada, near Ontario. A similar fate would await the Cherokee during the American Civil War.
One thing the Confederacy and Rome had in common was that they both quickly assimilated conquered people into their culture. They strengthened their people and brought in new ideas and ways of life.
The Iroquois women held political power and genealogy was traced through the mother’s line, not the father’s. There was also a council of elder women that could vote to remove a chief and place a new on in his place. (that’s kinda a good idea. Hmm…)

Unfortunately, this sums up settlers vs Native relations for the next few hundred years.

The League is still around and alive and even have their own passports. They were a complicated and sophisticated government that seemed to work really well for a long time.


3 comments on “The Iroquois Confederacy

  1. This is interesting. If you ever need a guest columnist, my specialty is African American history, especially Northern Louisiana Creole (not many people know about them) and slave owning free people of color. I’m a cracker descendant of the Louisiana Creoles. LOL!

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