The Iroquios Council

The Chippewa, however, furnished an exception to this rule. With them the son of a chief had a legal right to succeed his father.

The rule, though binding, was very elastic, and capable of stretching to the farthest limits of the tribe–each tribe being allowed to select its chief from among its own members. Almost invariably the chief was succeeded by a near relative, always on the female side; but if these were manifestly unfit, his successor was chosen at a council of the tribe from among remoter kindred, in which case he was nominated by the matron of the late chief’s household. 1 In any event the choice was never adverse to the popular inclination. 2 The new chief was inducted into office by a formal council of the sachems of the league; and on assuming its duties he dropped his own name and substituted that which, since the formation of the league, had belonged to his especial chieftainship. 2 The chief was required to be a skillful hunter, if not the best in his tribe, and liberal with his game. He must also be a good physician, and able to advise and assist the sick in every circumstance. It was his duty to take care of orphans, to harbor strangers, and to keep order in the town. But he, like the sachem, had no power of compulsion; and like him, also, must keep up his reputation by a prudent, courteous and winning behavior. 3

The tribes were by no means equal in numbers, influence and honor, says Parkman. So marked were the distinctions among them that Colden and other early writers recognized only the three most prominent,–those of the Tortoise, Bear and Wolf. They were eminently social in their habits; and without any law, other than that of common usage, or means of enforcing justice, these rude, uncultured barbarians lived together, in communities aggregating thousands, with a harmony which civilization might envy.

Says Parkman:–

“Though vain, arrogant, boastful and vindictive, the Indian bore abuse and sarcasm with an astonishing patience. Though greedy and grasping, he was lavish without stint, and would give away his all to soothe the moans of a departed relative, gain influence and applause, or ingratiate himself with his neighbors. In his dread of public opinion he rivaled some of his civilized successors.

“All Indians, and especially these populous and stationary tribes, had their code of courtesy, whose requirements were rigid and exact; nor might any infringe it without the ban of public censure. Indian nature, inflexible and unmalleable, was peculiarly under the control of custom. Established usage took the place of law–was in fact, a sort of common law, with no tribunal to expound or enforce it.  All were prompt to aid each other in distress, and a neighborly spirit was often exhibited among them. When a young woman was permanently married, the other women of the village supplied her with firewood for the year, each contributing an armful. When one or more families were without shelter, the men of the village joined in building them a house. In return, the recipients of the favor gave a feast, if they could; if not, their thanks were sufficient. Among the Iroquois and Hurons, and doubtless among the kindred tribes, there were marked distinctions of noble and base, prosperous and poor; yet while there was food in the village, the meanest and poorest need not suffer.

“The following testimony concerning Indian charity and hospitality is from Ragueneau: ‘As often as we have seen tribes broken up, towns destroyed, and the people driven to flight, we have seen them to the number of seven or eight hundred persons, received with open arms by charitable hosts, who gladly gave them aid, and even distributed among them a part of the lands already planted, that they might have the means of living.’ ” Relation, 1650, 28. want. He had but to enter the nearest house, and seat himself by the fire, when, without a word on either side, food was placed before him by the women.

“Contrary to the received opinion, these Indians, like others of their race, when living in communities, were of a very social disposition. Besides their incessant dances and feasts, great and small, they were continually visiting, spending most of their time in their neighbors’ houses, chatting, joking, bantering one another with witticisms, sharp, broad, and in no sense delicate, yet always taken in good part. Every village had its adepts in these wordy tournaments, while the shrill laugh of young squaws, untaught to blush, echoed each hardy jest and rough sarcasm.”

There was another council, says the same author, between which and that of the subordinate chiefs the line of demarcation seems not to have been very definite. In its character it was essentially popular, but popular in the best sense, and one which can find its application only in a small community. Any man took part in it whose age and experience qualified him to do so. It was merely the gathered wisdom of the nation. The Jesuit Lafitau, familiar with the Iroquois at the height of their prosperity, compares it with the Roman Senate, and defines it as the central and controlling power, so far, at least, as the separate nations were concerned. He thus describes it: “It is a greasy assemblage, sitting sur leur derriere, crouched like apes, their knees as high as their ears, or lying, some on their bellies, some on their backs, each with a pipe in his mouth, discussing affairs of state with as much coolness and gravity as the Spanish Junta or the Grand Council of Venice.”

The young warriors also had their councils; so, too, had the women; and the opinions and wishes of each were represented by means of deputies in this council of old men, as well as the grand confederate council of the sachems. The government of this unique republic resided wholly in councils; by which all questions were settled, all regulations established–social, political, military and religious. The war-path, the chase, the council-fire, in these was the life of the Iroquois; and it is difficult to say to which he was most devoted.

In this blending of individual, tribal, national and federal interests lies the secret of the immense power wielded by the Iroquois–a power which successfully resisted for a century and a half the hostile efforts of the French; which made them for nearly a century (from 1664 to 1763,) an immovable wedge between the contending French and English Colonies in America, alike feared and courted by both; and enabled them to exterminate or effectually subdue neighboring tribes with whom they had long waged war with varying success.Citations:

  1. Lafitau.[]
  2. Parkman.[][]
  3. Loskiel.[]

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

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