Six Nation Chiefs And Their Functions

The dignity of a chief comes to the holder through the principle of hereditary succession, confined to, and operating only with, certain families. In the cage of the death of one of these chiefs, the distinction and powers he enjoyed devolve upon his kinsman, though not necessarily upon the next of kin. The naming and appointing of a successor, and the adjudicating upon the point as to whether he fulfils the qualifications esteemed necessary to maintain the dignity of the chiefship, are confided to the oldest woman of the tribe, thus deprived by death of one of its heads. She has a certain latitude in choosing, and, so long as she respects in the selection of her appointee, the principle of kinship to the dead chief (whether this be proximate or remote is immaterial) her appointment is approved and confirmed.

The chiefs are looked upon as the heads or fathers of the tribe, and they rely, to a large extent, for their influence over the tribe, upon their wisdom, and eminence generally in qualities that excite or compel admiration or regard. In an earlier period of the history of the Indian communities, when their forests were astir with the demon of war, eligibility for the chiefship contemplated in the chief the conjoining of bravery with wisdom, and these were the keynote to his power over his people. He, by manifesting on occasion, these, desirable traits, had his followers’ confidence confirmed in his selection; upheld those followers’ and his own traditions; and often assured his tribe’s pre-eminence. The chief, in addition, by bringing these qualities to bear in any contact or treaty with a hostile tribe, compelled in a sense the recognition by his enemies of the prestige and power of his entire following. Hospitality was also considered a desirable trait in the chief, who, while habitually dispensing it himself, strove (having his endeavors distinctly seconded by the advocacy of the duty enforced in the kindly precepts of the old sages of the tribe) to dispose the minds of his followers to entertain a perception of the happy results which would flow to themselves by their being inured to its practice, the expanding of the heart, and the offering of a vent to the unselfish side of their nature.

If the chief do not, in the main, conserve the qualities that are deemed befitting in the holder of the chiefship; or if he originate any measure which finds popular disfavor, his power with the people declines.

A number of the chiefs have supplementary functions, conferred upon them by their brother dignitaries. There is, for example, one called the Forest-Ranger, whose place it is to interpose for the effectual prevention and checking of sales of timber to whites, by members of the different tribes; or removal by whites of timber from the Reserve, where a license, which suffers either to be done, has not been granted. In cases where an Indian meditates, in a spirit of lofty contempt for the license, any such illicit sale; or attempts to abet any such unlawful removal, this functionary has authority to frustrate both objects.

The chief who, at present, fulfils these duties has not been permitted to hold barren or dormant powers. In putting into effect that interference which his office exacts of him, he has been more than once terribly assaulted by whites, foiled in their plans, and exasperated by the agency that had stepped in for the baffling of their ill-formed designs. On one occasion, his death was all but brought about by a cruelly concerted attack upon him.

Certain other chiefs are called Fire-keepers, though their functions are not in any way suggested by their rather remarkable title. They are, however, very important persons, and I have already, in treating of the Indian’s meetings of Council, touched upon their duty. I believe the name Fire-keeper is retained from the circumstance that, in by-gone days, when the council was an open-air affair, the lighting of the fire was the initiatory step, and, taken in this way, therefore, the most important step, in the proceedings.

Another chief is called Marshal, and it is incumbent upon him to co-operate with the officers of the law in effecting the capture of any suspected criminal or criminals, who may lie concealed, or be harbored, on the Reserve. He is a duly qualified county constable, though his services are not often in request, as the Chief of Police in Brantford, whose place it is to direct the way in which crimes (committed, of course, in the city) shall be ferreted out, or their authors tracked, usually confides in his own staff to promote these desirable purposes, from the fact of their accountability to him being well defined, whereas the county constable yields no obedience to him.

Six Nations,

Mackenzie, J. B. A Treatise of the Six Nation Indians. Guardian Printing Office. 1882.

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