Oneida and Cayuga join the Iroquois Confederacy

“The Oneida and Cayuga,” says Gallatin, “are said to have been compelled to join [the confederacy.] Those two tribes were the younger and the three others the older members.” Zinzendorf, speaking of the Iroquois, says “the Oneidas and Cayuga are their children.”–Indian tribes of North America.

“By the early French writers, the Mohawks and Oneidas were styled the lower or inferior Iroquois; while the Onondagas, Cayuga and Seneca, were denominated the upper or superior Iroquois, because they were located near the sources of the St. Lawrence. The Mohawks, who are commonly supposed to be the first nation in the confederacy and were considered the most warlike people in the land, were also styled elder brothers of the other nations, and so esteemed themselves. To [them] was always accorded the high consideration of furnishing the war captain, or ‘Tekarahogea,’ of the confederacy, which distinguished title was retained with them till the year 1814, when the celebrated Hoa-ho-a-quah, an Onondaga, was chosen in general council at Buffalo to fill that important station.

The political and social organizations of the Iroquois though simple in their structure were effective in their operation. They were calculated to violate as little as might be the high regard this people had for individual liberty, which they required should be the largest, consistent with the general welfare. The method by which they secured efficiency without imposing undue restraint was as unique as it was simple and happy. No light tie could hold to the harmonious development of a common interest so fierce and barbarous a people as these. The problem was eminently worthy of the genius which solved it; for while it held them inflexibly, yet unrestrainedly, to all matters relating to their federate existence, it secured the utmost elasticity and freedom in their tribal and national relations. The entire control of all civil matters affecting the common interest was vested in a national council of about fifty sachems, though in some instances as many as eighty, chosen at first from the wisest men in their several nations, and afterwards hereditary in their families. All met as equals, but a peculiar dignity was ever attached to the Atotarho of the Onondagas. All the nations were represented and each had one vote in the council. This general council was held by common consent in the principal village of the Onondagas, the central nation. 1 Thither, if the matter under consideration was of deep and general interest, not the sachems alone, but the greater part of the population, gathered; and while the sachems deliberated in the council-house, the chiefs and old men, the warriors, and often the women, were holding their respective councils apart, and their opinions, laid by their deputies before the council of sachems, were never without influence on its decisions. All questions of tribal, national and federal polity were discussed and decided in councils. They had no written constitution, and no attempt was made to coerce a nation or individual. The authority of these sachems was measured by the estimate the people put upon their wisdom and integrity; and the execution of Parkman’s Jesuits. of their plans rested upon the voluntary acquiescence of those whom they represented. But the Iroquois were actuated by a high regard for personal and national honor, which ever sufficed to impress them with a deep sense of duty. Women were excluded from the deliberations of the councils.

A marked feature of the Iroquois civil polity was that which made the concurrence of all the nations necessary before any measure could be adopted. To secure this unanimity the most persuasive powers of reason and eloquence were constantly employed. Their speakers studied euphony in the selection and arrangement of their words, and their discourses were made highly impressive, if not always eloquent and convincing, by the use of graceful attitudes and gestures. In this severe school were trained those orators, whose efforts have challenged favorable comparison with the best in civilized nations, and reflected not less renown on the federation than its bravest warriors. 2

Parkman, in his work on the Jesuits, says:

“The ease and frequency with which a requisition seemingly so difficult was fulfilled afford a striking illustration of Indian nature,–on one side so stubborn, tenacious and impracticable; on the other so pliant and acquiescent. An explanation of this harmony is to be found also in an intense spirit of nationality: for never since the days of Sparta were individual life and national life more completely fused into one. 3

“There was a class of men among the Iroquois always put forward on public occasions to speak the mind of the nation or defend its interests. Nearly all of them were of the number of the subordinate chiefs. Nature and training had fitted them for public speaking, and they were deeply versed in the history and traditions of the league. They were in fact professed orators, high in honor and influence among the people. To a huge stock of conventional metaphors, the use of which required nothing but practice, they often added an astute intellect, an astonishing memory, and an eloquence which deserved the name.

“In one particular, the training of these savage politicians was never surpassed. They had no art of writing to record events, or preserve the stipulations of treaties. Memory, therefore, was tasked to the utmost, and developed to an extraordinary degree. They had various devices for aiding it, such as bundles of sticks, and that system of signs, emblems, and rude pictures, which they shared with other tribes. Their famous wampum belts were so many mnemonic signs, each standing for some act, speech, treaty, or clause of a treaty. These represented the public archives, and were divided among various custodians, each charged with the memory and interpretation of those assigned to him. The meaning of the belts was from time to time expounded in the councils. In conferences with them nothing more astonished the French, Dutch and English officials than the precision with which, before replying to their addresses, the Indian orators repeated them point by point.”Citations:

  1. Loskiel gives us a description of the Onondaga council house in 1745, from the pen of Gottlieb Spangenberg, a Bishop of the United Brethren, who spent several weeks at Onondaga in that year. “The council-house,” he says, “was built of bark. On each side six seats were placed, each containing six persons. No one was admitted besides the members of the council, except a few, who were particularly honored. If one rose to speak, all the rest sat in profound silence, smoking their pipes. The speaker uttered his words in a singing tone, always rising a few notes at the close of each sentence. Whatever was pleasing to the council, was confirmed by all with the word Nee, or Yes. And at the end of each speech, the whole company joined in applauding the speaker by calling Hoho. At noon, two men entered, bearing a large kettle filled with meat, upon a pole across their shoulders, which was first presented to the guests. A large wooden ladle, as broad and deep as a common bowl, hung with a hook to the side of the kettle, with which every one might at once help himself to as much as he could eat. When the guests had eaten their fill, they begged the counselors to do the same. The whole was conducted in a very decent manner. Indeed now and then one or the other would lie flat upon his back to rest himself, and sometimes they would stop, joke and laugh heartily.”–History of the Mission of the United Brethren
    among the Indians of North America.–Loskiel.[]
  2. “An erect and commanding figure, with a blanket thrown loosely over the shoulder, his naked arm raised, and addressing, in impassioned strains, a group of similar persons sitting upon the ground around him, would, to use the illustration of an early historian of this State, give no faint picture of Rome in her early days.”–Smith’s History of N. Y.
    DeWitt Clinton says of the speech of Garangula to the French General De la Barre, “I believe it impossible to find in all the effusions of ancient or modern oratory a speech more appropriate or convincing. Under the veil of respectful profession it conveys the most biting irony, and while it abounds with rich and splendid imagery, it contains the most solid reasoning. I place it in the same rank as the celebrated speech of Logan.”[]
  3. The history of the Iroquois, however, furnishes numerous exceptions to this rule. During the French and Indian wars with the English-American Colonies, it often became difficult to secure unity of action in favor of the latter, and in 1755 it was entirely defeated. In 1763, Sir Wm. Johnson did not class the Seneca among the “friendly tribes;” and in 1775, the English were obliged to resort to tribal alliances in view of the determination of the council in favor of neutrality.[]

Smith, James H. History of Chenango and Madison Counties, New York. Syracuse, NY: D. Mason & Co. 1880.

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