Principles of the Iroquois Government

No one has attended to the operations of the Iroquois government and polity, as they are developed in their councils and meetings for general consultation and action, without perceiving a degree of intricacy in its workings, which it is difficult to grasp. Or rather, the obscurity may be said to grow out of the little time and the imperfect opportunities which casual observes have to devote to the object.

For, maturely considered, there is no inherent difficulty in the way. It seems clear that they came together as independent tribes, who, at an early age, had all proceeded from the same parental stock, but who, after an indefinite period of fighting and wars, became, convinced of the short-sightedness of such a course, and fell on the plan of a confederation which should produce general action, and yet leave the several members free, both in their internal polity, and in the exercise of most of their co-tribal powers. It was clearly a con federation for common purposes of defense and offense, and not a perfect union. Each tribe, or more properly speaking, canton, was still governed by its own chiefs, civil and military. They came together in general councils, by sachems, exercising the power of delegates.

These delegates or sages came in their hereditary or elective character, as the case might be, or as the customs and laws of the tribe in its popular character had decided. But their voices were, in all cases, either prompted by prior expressions of the warriors and wise men, or were to be ratified by these known powers. However in vested with authority they but spoke the popular will. The relative power of the cantons is denoted, and appears as a question that was already settled, at the first formal general council for the purpose of confederating. For we there see precisely the same tribal representation, which has obtained ever after and still prevails; that is to say, the Mohawks, the Oneidas, the Onondagas, and the Cayugas, had each one chief, and the Senecas two, making six supreme dignitaries or state counselors. That their powers were merely advisory and interlocutory, and that they aimed to come to harmonious results, by the mere interchange of opinion, without any formal or solemn vote, is evident, from all that we know, or can gather from their still existing institutions. There appeared to have been no penalties no forfeiture of rights no binding or coercive power, to be visited on tribes or chiefs beyond that of Opinion. Popular disapproval was the Iroquois penalty here and elsewhere. It is equally clear, how ever, that a single negative voice or opinion, was of the highest efficacy. A unanimous decision, not a decision, on the majority principle, was required. The latter was a refinement, and an advance in polity, which they had not certainly reached, although they seem inclined now to follow it; and herein we may perceive the great power and efficacy of their old decisions. These decisions were, in their effects, clothed with all the power of the most full popular will. For what each of the senatorial chiefs or delegates, and all the cantons, pronounced proper, there was no one, in a patriarchal community, to lisp a word against.

So little power was abstracted from each tribe, and conceded to the federative council as a fixed government, that it seems not without scrutiny, that we can perceive there is any. This is, however, certain. One of the six primary sachems was selected to preside over the general councils. His power was, however, exclusively of a civil character, and extended but little beyond that of a moderator, but he was a moderator for life, or during the time he retained the right and full use of his faculties, or until just cause of dissatisfaction should bring the question of a successor before the council. This head officer, had also authority to light the council fire, that is to say, he could send messengers, and was if so desired, bound to send messengers to assemble the general council. The act, and the symbol of the act were both in his hands. He summoned the chiefs, and actually lit the sacred fire, at whose blaze their pipes were lighted. Thus limited, and having no other administrative power, but to appoint his own Har-yar-do-ah, aid or pipe-bearer, and messengers, he enjoyed his executive dignity; but had little more power when the sessions were closed, than belonged to every leading chief of the component tribes. He was himself bound to respect the messages of the tribal chiefs, and receive the runners who were sent to him from the frontiers with news, and he thus performed merely and exactly the will of each tribe, thus expressed. He was never in advance of the popular will. The whole hereditary machinery was made subservient to this. And he was limited to the performance of these slender, and popular duties. He might, it is true, if a man of eloquence, talents or bravery, be also the ruling civil chief of his tribe, and furthermore 3 its war captain in the field. And such is known to have actually been the character and standing of Atotarho, the first presiding chief in their federative councils. He was a man of energy and high renown. And such was the estimation in which he was held in his life time, and the popular veneration for his character after death, that as above denoted, his name became the distinctive title for the office. Thus much is preserved by tradition and the office and title of the Atotarho as presiding sachem, is not yet extinct, although the tribes have no longer wars to prosecute, or foreign embassadors to reply to.

But how, it may be asked, is a government so purely popular, and so simple and essentially advisory in its character, to be reconciled with the laws of hereditary desent, fixed by the establishment of heraldic devices, and bringing its proportion of weak and incompetent minds into office, and with the actual power it exercised, and the fame it acquired? To answer this question, and to show how the aristocratic and democratic principles were made to harmonize, in the Iroquois government, it will be necessary to go back, and examine the law of desent among the tribes, together with the curious and intricate principles of the Totemic Bond.

Nothing is more fully under the cognizance of observers of the manners and customs of this people, than the fact of the entire mass of a canton or tribe s being separated into distinct clans, each of which is distinguished by the name and device of some quadruped, bird, or other object in the animal kingdom. This device is called, among the Algonquins, (where the same separation into families or clans, exists,) Totem, and we shall employ the term here, as being already well known to writers. But while the Algonquins have made no other use of it, but to trace consanguinity, or at least, remote affinities of families, and while they have also separated into wild independencies and tribes, who have assumed new tribal names, and wandered and crossed each other s track and boundaries in a thousand ways, the Iroquois have turned it to account by assuming it as the very basis of their political and tribal bond. How far fixity of territorial possession and proximity of location may have favored or led to the establishment of this new bond, need not be inquired into here, but, while we express no opinion favorable to the remote antiquity of their residence in the north, it must be evident that this tie would have lost all its binding force if the Alleghanies, the Great Lakes, or any other very wide geographical areas, had been interposed between them, and thus interrupted frequent and full intercourse and united action. A government wholly verbal, must be conceded to have required this proximity and nearness of access. The Senecas may be selected as an example of the influence of the Totemic bond. This canton is still the most numerous of the existing Iroquois tribes. By the recent census, the results of which accompany these papers, they number over two thousand four hundred souls. This population is, theoretically, separated into eight clans or original families, who are distinguished respectively by the totems of the wolf, the bear, the turtle, the deer, the beaver, the falcon, the crane and the plover. Theory at this time, founded doubtless an actual consanguinity in their inceptive age, makes these clans brothers. It is contrary to their usages that near kindred should intermarry, and the ancient rule interdicts all intermarriage between persons of the same clan. They must marry into a clan whose totem is different from their own. A wolf or turtle male cannot marry a wolf or turtle female. There is an interdict of consanguinity. By this custom the purity of blood is preserved, while the tie of relationship between the clans themselves is strengthened or enlarged.

But by far the most singular principle connected with totems, the sign manual of alliance, is the limitation of descent exclusively to the line of the female. Owing to this prohibition, a chieftain s son cannot succeed him in office, but in case of his death, the right of descent being in the chief s mother, he would be succeeded not by one of his male children, but by his brother 1 or failing in this, by the son of his sister, or by some direct, however remote, descendant of the maternal line. Thus he might be succeeded by his own grand son, by a daughter, but not by a son. It is in this way that the line of chieftainships is continually deflected or refreshed, and family dynasties broken up.

While the law of descent is fully recognized, the free will of the female to choose a husband, from any of the other seven clans, excluding only her own, is made to govern and determine the distribution of political power, and to fix the political character of the tribe. Another peculiarity may be here stated. The son of a chief’s daughter is necessarily destined to inherit the honors of the chieftainship yet the validity of the claim must, on his reaching the proper age, be submitted to and recognized by a council of the whole canton. If approved, a day is appointed for the recognition, and he is formally installed into office. Incapacity is always, however, without exception, recognized as a valid objection to the approval of the council.

Had this law of descent prevailed among the Jews, whose customs have been so often appealed to, in connection with our red race, neither David nor Solomon would ever have sat on the throne. It would be easy, did the purposes of this paper require it, to show by other references the futility of the proofs, derived from the supposed coincidence of customs, which have been brought forward with so much learning, and so little of the true spirit of research, to prove the descent of the American aborigines from that ancient and peculiar people. But if theorists have failed on this ground, what shall we say of that course of reasoning which lays much stress on the most slender evidences of nativity, in the instance of the great Mohawk sachem, to prove the superior chances of recurring talent in the line of hereditary descent, and the legitimacy of his actual claims to the chieftainship, on the score of paternal right? 2 Vide Appendix C., notes at Oneida Castle.

What was true of the totemic organization of the Senecas, was equally so of the Mohawks, and of each of the other cantons. Each canton consisted, like the Senecas, of the clans of the wolf, bear, turtle, beaver, deer, falcon, plover and crane. But each of these clans were increments of re-organizations of one of the eight original clans. They were brothers, and appealed to their respective totems as a proof of original consanguinity. They were entitled to the same rites of hospitality, in the lodges of their affiliated totems abroad, that they were entitled to at home. The affiliated mark on the lodge was a sufficient welcome of entrance and temporary abode. It results, therefore, that there were but eight original family clans, estimating at the maximum number existing in six cantonal departments, or tribes, and that the entire six tribes were bound together politically by these eight family ties. As a matter of course, each clan was not equally numerous in each tribe. This would depend on accidental circumstances and natural laws; but it is an argument in favor of the antiquity of the people, or the confederacy, that each of the tribes had organized in each of the respective clans. For we cannot suppose that at first there was a systematic, far less, an equal division of the clans, or that their original separation into separate tribes, or cantons, was the result of a considerate formal public act. This would be to reverse the ordinary progress of tribes and nations who, in early ages, separate from circumstances and causes wholly casual, such as the ambition or feuds of chiefs, the desire of finding better places to live, easier means of subsistence, &c.

In the condition of a people, living in a government so purely patriarchal, following game for a subsistence, and making wars to en large or defend their hunting grounds, the oldest and most respected man of his clan or totem, would necessarily be its sachem or political head. We must assume that to be a fixed and settled principle of their simple constitution and verbal laws, which appears, from all we know, to have been so. Letters, they had none, and their traditions on this head are to be gleaned from scattered and broken sources, which do not always coincide.

If each clan had its leading sachem or chief, there were eight principal chiefs in each canton. Consequently, when the confederacy consisted of five cantons, there were forty Rakowanas, 3 or head chiefs. These were the recognized leaders and magistrates in the villages but in effect, in a community thus constituted, each Rakowana or ruling chief of a clan, has a number of aids, Mishinawas 4 and minor officials, who were also regarded as semi-sachems, or chiefs. This number is always indefinite and fluctuating, but may be supposed to be, in relation to the ruling Rakowana, as at least five to one.

This would give to each canton forty inferior chiefs, and to the five cantons, two hundred, denoting a distribution of power and civil organization, which acting in union must have been very efficacious; and the more so, when we consider that all their political movements were entirely of a popular cast, and carried with them the voice of every man in the canton.

This appears to have been the standing civil organization; but it was entirely independent of the military system. War chiefs appear ever to have derived their authority from courage and capacity in war, and to have risen up as they were required in each canton. The Tekarahogea, or war captain, founded his rights and powers in the Indian camp, on former triumphs and present capacity; but the office does not appear to have been a general one recognized by their constitution. All males were bound to render military service by cus tom and opinion, but by nothing else. Disgrace and cowardice were the penalties, but they were penalties more binding than oaths or bonds among civilized communities, and always kept their ranks full. All war parties were, of course, volunteers. It seems that all able-bodied males over fourteen were esteemed capable of taking the war path; the early development of martial power being considered of all traits the most honorable. No title was more honored than that of Roskeahragehte, 3 or Warrior.

There was no baggage to encumber the march of an Iroquois army. The decision of Alexander and the policy of Bonaparte were alike unnecessary here. Each Iroquois warrior supplied and carried his own arms and provisions. He joined the war dance, the analogous term for enlistment, for the particular expedition in hand. If it failed, or another force was required, other captains called for other volunteers, and sung their war songs to inflame the ardor of the young. Taunts and irony of the deepest character were, on these occasions, flung at the character of the enemy. The war chief lifted his tomahawk as if actually engaged in combat, and in imagination he stamped his enemy under foot, while he symbolically tore off his scalp, and uttered his sharp Sasakwon, 4 or war whoop,

If it be inquired why this people, with so comparatively small a population, carried their wars to such an extent, and acquired, probably in no great time, so wide a sway and power over the other tribes of the continent, the reply will appear, in a great measure, in this efficient war organization. It may be said that other tribes had the same principles. But these eastern and western tribes had feeble or divided counsels. Each tribe was a sovereignty by itself, and their powers were tasked by home wars, without attempts at remote conquest. There is nothing to denote that the number of war chiefs was ever settled or fixed. Time and chance determined this, as we observe it in the Algonquin and other American stocks. Fixity, in the number of the civil chiefs, was indeed rather a theory than an actuality, and the number must have been perpetually fluctuating according to obvious circumstances.

But while the theory of the Iroquois government thus distributed its powers between two classes of chiefs, one of which ruled in the council, and the other in the field, there was a third power of con trolling influence in both, which respected, it is true, this ancient theory, but which annulled, confirmed, originated, or set aside all other power. I allude to the popular will as exercised by the warriors. Whatever was proposed had to come under the voice of the armed men, who had the free right, at all times, to assemble in council, and put their approval or veto on every measure. Practically considered, a purer democracy, perhaps, never existed. The chiefs themselves had no power in advance of public sentiment, or else it was their policy, as we see it at this day, to express no such power, but rather to keep in abeyance of, or be the mere agents of the popular will. In all negotiations such absolute power is disclaimed by them. Acting on principles of the highest diplomacy, they invariably defer general answers, until a reference can be had to the warriors or men. They risk nothing by taking grounds in doubtful positions in advance, and the consequence is that the results of most Indian councils are unanimous.

There was yet a reserved power in the Iroquois councils which deserves to be mentioned. I allude to the power of the matrons. This was an acknowledged power of a conservative character, which might, at all times, be brought into requisition, whenever policy required it. And it exists today as incontestably as it did centuries ago. They were entrusted with the power to propose a cessation of arms. They were literally peacemakers. A proposition from the matrons to drop the war club could be made without compromitting the character of the tribe for bravery; and accordingly, we find, in the ancient organization, that there was a male functionary, an acknowledged speaker, who was called the representative or messenger of the matrons. These matrons sat in council, but it must needs have been seldom that a female possessed the kind of eloquence suit able to public assemblies; and beyond this there was a sentiment of respect due to the female class, which led the tribes, at their general organization, to create this office.

Councils, so organized so perpetually and truly swayed by popular will, gave the greatest scope for eloquence. Eloquence, in the aborigines, takes the place entirely of books and letters. It is the only means of acting on the multitude, and we find that it was, from the earliest times, strenuously and successfully cultivated by the Iroquois. By far the best and most abundant specimens of native eloquence we possess are from this stock. And their history is replete in proofs that they employed it, not only in their internal affairs and negotiations, but in teaching to appreciate their rights and the principles of their government.Citations:

  1. Thus Hendrick, who fell at the battle of Lake George, in 1755, was succeeded, in the Mohawk canton, by his brother Abraham, and not by his son.[]
  2. This remark is not made to depreciate the literary merits of the esteemed and lamented author of the Life of Brant, but as being simply due to the cause of truth. Few men have better earned the respect and remembrance of the public than William L. Stone, whose whole life was an example of what energy and talents can achieve. It was not, indeed, to be expected that the incessant duties of the diurnal press should permit historical scrutiny into a matter, very obscure in itself, and of which the details are only to be gleaned after laborious search at remote points.[]
  3. Mohawk.[][]
  4. Algonquin.[][]


Schoolcraft, Henry Rowe. Notes on the Iroquois: Or, Contributions to American History, Antiquities, and General Ethnology. E. H. Pease & Company. 1847.

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