Great Law of Peace Brought Iroquois a More Perfect Union

“*I am Dekanawidah and with the Five Nations’ Confederate Lords I plant the Tree of Great Peace.*”x[1] So begins the Great Law of Peace, the constitution of the Iroquois Confederacy, a union of tribes centered south of Lake Ontario that thrived for 600 years up to the formation of the United States. The preamble of the Great Law of Peace goes on:

bq. I name the tree the Tree of the Great Long Leaves. Under the shade of this Tree of the Great Peace we spread the soft white feathery down of the globe thistle as seats for you, Adodarhoh, and your cousin Lords.

bq. … there beneath the shade of the spreading branches … shall you sit and watch the Council Fire of the Confederacy of the Five Nations, and all the affairs of the Five Nations shall be transacted at this place before you … by the Confederate Lords of the Five Nations.

bq. Roots have spread out from the Tree of the Great Peace, one to the north, one to the east, one to the south and one to the west. The name of these roots is The Great White Roots and their nature is Peace and Strength.

bq. If any man or any nation outside the Five Nations shall obey the laws of the Great Peace …, they may trace the Roots to the Tree and … they shall be welcomed to take shelter beneath the Tree of the Long Leaves.

bq. We place at the top of the Tree of the Long Leaves an Eagle who is able to see afar. If he sees in the distance any evil approaching or any danger threatening he will at once warn the people of the Confederacy.

The people of the five nations — the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca — handed the Great Law of Peace down through the generations by reading it aloud from wampum belts. They made the wampum belts with strings of beads formed from lake shells. The beads formed symbols and relations that conveyed meaning to the reader, and lit his memory so that he could tell the law fully and rightly. Knowledge of the Great Law of Peace lasted into the 20th century, when in 1915, Arthur C. Parker, Archaeologist of the State Museum in New York, wrote much of it down into the document we use here.
“_The Five Nations wampum belt_”:

The Iroquois were one of several tribal confederacies that lived up and down the eastern seaboard.x[2] The Founders and Framers of the United States knew their neighbors’ form of government — self-ruled nations united under a common law, where the authority to govern came from the people. And the Founders and Framers soon adopted that form — federal democracy. At the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, they gave a delegation of 21 Iroquois a floor of Independence Hall to stay in, and seats at the discussions about American independence and government.x[3] And the Onondaga leader gave John Hancock, the president of the congress, an Indian name — Great Tree. As the old tribal democracy lived its last days, the world’s first modern liberal democracy was born. Here are some features of the Iroquois Confederacy’s constitution that you might like to compare — for the better or worse — with those of your own national government:

h3. The Confederate Council

Government officials take an oath to uphold the constitution:

bq. When a candidate Lord (council member – QH) is to be installed he shall furnish four strings of [wampum] … Such will constitute the evidence of his pledge to the Confederate Lords that he will live according to the constitution of the Great Peace and exercise justice in all affairs. (Great Law of Peace article 28)

Two houses of the Confederate Council decide issues, and a third group ratifies — all unanimously:

bq. … when the Mohawk and Seneca Lords have unanimously agreed upon a question, they shall report their decision to the Cayuga and Oneida Lords who shall deliberate upon the question and report a unanimous decision to … The Firekeepers (Onondaga Lords – QH), who shall render a decision as they see fit in case of a disagreement by the two bodies, or confirm the decisions of the two bodies if they are identical. (10)

… the Firekeepers may veto a decision, but the veto can be overriden:

bq. If through any misunderstanding or obstinacy on the part of the Fire Keepers, they render a decision at variance with that of the Two Sides, the Two Sides shall reconsider the matter and if their decisions are jointly the same as before they shall report to the Fire Keepers who are then compelled to confirm their joint decision. (11)

The groups are further divided into smaller councils, which hand decisions up. While two sides discuss an issue, a judge watches to ensure that a decision follows the law:

bq. The Council of the Mohawk shall be divided into three parties … The third party is to listen only to the discussion of the first and second parties and if an error is made or the proceeding is irregular they are to call attention to it, and when the case is right and properly decided by the two parties they shall confirm the decision of the two parties … (5)

h3. Elections

Each nation of the Iroquois Confederacy is composed of the same clans, which are composed of families, which follow the female blood line:

bq. The lineal descent of the people of the Five Nations shall run in the female line. Women shall be considered the progenitors of the Nation. They shall own the land and the soil. Men and women shall follow the status of the mother. (44)

The women of certain families hold the titles to choose members of the Confederate Council, who serve for life:

bq. When a Lordship title becomes vacant through death or other cause (impeachment – QH), the Royaneh (title-holding – QH) women of the clan in which the title is hereditary shall hold a council and shall choose one from among their sons to fill the office made vacant. … (54)

… and the men, sister clans and council confirm the choice:

bq. If the choice is unanimous the name is referred to the men relatives of the clan. If they should disapprove [they] shall … select a candidate from among their own number. If then the men and women are unable to decide [between] the two …, then … the Confederate Lords in the Clan … shall decide … If the men and the women agree to a candidate his name shall be referred to the sister clans for confirmation. If the sister clans confirm the choice, they shall refer their action to their Confederate Lords who shall ratify the choice and present it to their cousin Lords, and if the cousin Lords confirm the name then the candidate shall be installed … (54)

A Lord must put the people’s welfare, and that of future generations, ahead of his own:

bq. “We now do crown you with the sacred emblem of the deer’s antlers, the emblem of your Lordship. You shall now become a mentor of the people of the Five Nations. The thickness of your skin shall be seven spans — which is to say that you shall be proof against anger, offensive actions and criticism. Your heart shall be filled with peace and good will and your mind filled with a yearning for the welfare of the people of the Confederacy. … In all of your deliberations in the Confederate Council, in your efforts at law making, in all your official acts, self interest shall be cast into oblivion. Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present but also … those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground — the unborn of the future Nation.” (28)

h3. Petitioning the Government

For each nation there is a War Chief (elected in the same way as a Lord), whose duty is to bring the people’s issues to that nation’s Lords:

bq. There shall be one War Chief for each Nation and their duties shall be to carry messages for their Lords and to take up the arms of war in case of emergency. … in case of an erroneous action by a Lord they shall receive the complaints of the people and convey the warnings of the women to him. The people who wish to convey messages to the Lords in the Confederate Council shall do so through the War Chief of their Nation. It shall ever be his duty to lay the cases, questions and propositions of the people before the Confederate Council. (37)

Any man can become a Pine Tree Chief — an advisor to the Confederate Council:

bq. Should any man of the Nation assist with special ability or show great interest in the affairs of the Nation, if he proves himself wise, honest and worthy of confidence, the Confederate Lords may elect him … and he may sit in the Confederate Council. He shall be proclaimed a ‘Pine Tree sprung up for the Nation’ …

… and title-holding women may also attend the Confederate Council:

bq. The Royaneh women … shall, should it be necessary, correct and admonish the holders of their titles [when those women] attend the Council … (52)

On a matter of great consequence, the Confederate Council must hear and follow the voice of the people:

bq. Whenever a … matter affects the entire body of the Five Nations, threatening their utter ruin, then the Lords of the Confederacy must submit the matter to the decision of their people [which] shall affect the decision of the Confederate Council. This decision shall be a confirmation of the voice of the people. (93)

Within each nation clan councils decide issues to be brought to the Confederate Council:

bq. The women of every clan of the Five Nations shall have a Council Fire ever burning in readiness for a council of the clan. When in their opinion it seems necessary for the interest of the people they shall hold a council and their decisions and recommendations shall be introduced before the Council of the Lords by the War Chief for its consideration. (95)

bq. ~ ~ ~

bq. The men of every clan of the Five Nations shall have a Council Fire ever burning … This council shall have the same rights as the council of the women. (94)

Clan councils may unite into a national council or a five-nation council.

bq. All the Clan council fires of a nation or of the Five Nations may unite into one general council fire, or delegates from all the council fires may be appointed to unite in a general council for discussing the interests of the people. (96)

The people have the right to a voice at council:

bq. The people shall have the right to make appointments and to delegate their power to others of their number. When their council shall have come to a conclusion on any matter, their decision shall be reported to the Council of the Nation or to the Confederate Council (as the case may require) by the War Chief or the War Chiefs. (96.)

h3. Rights of the People

Each person has the right to make contracts:

bq. Any of the people of the Five Nations may use wampum as the record of a pledge, contract or an agreement entered into and the same shall be binding as soon as shell strings shall have been exchanged by both parties. (23)

… and the right to privacy:

bq. A certain sign shall be known to all the people of the Five Nations which shall denote that the owner or occupant of a house is absent. A stick or pole in a slanting or leaning position shall be the sign. Every person not entitled to enter the house by right of living within it upon seeing such a sign shall not approach the house either by day or by night but shall keep as far away as his business will permit. (107)

The Great Law of Peace ensures religious freedom to each nation:

bq. The rites and festivals of each nation shall remain undisturbed and shall continue as before because they were given by the people of old times as useful and necessary for the good of men. (99)

h3. A More Perfect Union

The Great Law of Peace calls for periodic renewal of the union, and it has never been dissolved:

bq. Every five years the Five Nations Confederate Lords and the people shall assemble together and shall ask one another if their minds are still in the same spirit of unity for the Great Binding Law and if any of the Five Nations shall not pledge continuance and steadfastness to the pledge of unity then the Great Binding Law shall dissolve. (55)

The Great Law of Peace discourages aristocracy by mixing the clans:

bq. People of the Five Nations members of a certain clan shall recognize every other member of that clan, irrespective of the Nation, as relatives. Men and women, therefore, members of the same clan are forbidden to marry. (43)

… and allows adoption between families and nations:

bq. Should any member of the Five Nations, a family or person belonging to a foreign nation submit a proposal for adoption into a clan …, he or they shall furnish a string of shells … as a pledge to the clan into which he or they wish to be adopted. The Lords of the nation shall then consider the proposal and submit a decision. (68)

bq. Any member of the Five Nations who through esteem or other feeling wishes to adopt an individual, a family or number of families may offer adoption to him or them and if accepted the matter shall be brought to the attention of the Lords [who] must confirm adoption. (69)

bq. … “Now you of our nation, be informed that such a person … [has buried] their birth nation’s name … in the depths of the earth. Henceforth let no one of our nation ever mention the original name or nation of their birth. …” (70)

It allows for emigration:

bq. When any person or family belonging to the Five Nations desires to abandon their birth nation and the territory of the Five Nations, … the Confederate Council of the Five Nations shall take cognizance of it. (71)

… and immigration (which the Tuscarora did around 1715 to become the sixth nation):

bq. When any alien nation or individual is admitted into the Five Nations the admission shall be understood only to be a temporary one. Should the person or nation create loss, do wrong or cause suffering of any kind to endanger the peace of the Confederacy, the Confederate Lords shall order one of their war chiefs to reprimand him or them and if a similar offence is again committed the offending party or parties shall be expelled from the territory of the Five United Nations. (74)

bq. When a member of an alien nation comes to the territory of the Five Nations and seeks refuge and permanent residence, the Lords of the Nation to which he comes shall extend hospitality and make him a member of the nation. Then shall he be accorded equal rights and privileges in all matters except [he shall not be chosen for Council]. (75)

The Great Law of Peace restricts lobbying:

bq. No individual or foreign nation interested in a case, question or proposition shall have any voice in the Confederate Council except to answer a question put to him or them by the speaker for the Lords. (15)

bq. …

bq. … It shall be a serious wrong for anyone to lead a Lord into trivial affairs, for the people must ever hold their Lords high in estimation out of respect to their honorable positions. (27)

… and allows for change with amendments:

bq. If the conditions which shall arise at any future time call for an addition to or change of this law, the case shall be carefully considered and if a new beam seems necessary or beneficial, the proposed change shall be voted upon and if adopted it shall be called, “Added to the Rafters”. (16)

… and lists nine national holidays:

bq. The recognized festivals of Thanksgiving shall be the Midwinter Thanksgiving, the Maple … Thanksgiving, the Raspberry Thanksgiving, the Strawberry Thanksgiving, the Cornplanting Thanksgiving, the Corn Hoeing Thanksgiving, the Little Festival of Green Corn, the Great Festival of Ripe Corn and the complete Thanksgiving for the Harvest.

h3. Peace & War

The Iroquois Confederacy was founded on peace:

bq. I, Dekanawida, and the Union Lords, now uproot the tallest pine tree and into the cavity thereby made we cast all weapons of war. Into the depths of the earth, down into the deep underearth currents of water flowing to unknown regions we cast all the weapons of strife. We bury them from sight and we plant again the tree. (65)

The Great Law of Peace notes that all men are created equal and are entitled to their land:

bq. The soil of the earth from one end of the land to the other is the property of the people who inhabit it.

bq. …

bq. The Great Creator has made us of the one blood and of the same soil he made us and as only different tongues constitute different nations he established different hunting grounds and territories and made boundary lines between them. (73)

The power to declare war rests with the Confederate Council:

bq. When the Confederate Council of the Five Nations has for its object the establishment of the Great Peace among the people of an outside nation and that nation refuses to accept the Great Peace, then by such refusal they bring a declaration of war upon themselves … Then shall the Five Nations seek to establish the Great Peace by a conquest of the rebellious nation. (80)

… but talks must first occur:

bq. When the proposition to establish the Great Peace is made to a foreign nation it shall be done in mutual council. The foreign nation is to be persuaded by reason and urged to come into the Great Peace. If the Five Nations fail to obtain the consent of the nation at the first council a second council shall be held and upon a second failure a third council shall be held and this third council shall end the peaceful methods of persuasion. At the third council the War Chief of the Five nations shall address the Chief of the foreign nation and request him three times to accept the Great Peace. If refusal steadfastly follows the War Chief shall let the bunch of white lake shells drop from his outstretched hand to the ground and shall bound quickly forward and club the offending chief to death. War shall thereby be declared and the War Chief shall have his warriors at his back to meet any emergency. War must continue until the contest is won by the Five Nations. (88)

… and any nation at any time can accept the Great Peace and live peacefully with the Iroquois Confederacy:

bq. Whenever a foreign nation is conquered or has by their own will accepted the Great Peace their own system of internal government may continue, but they must cease all warfare against other nations.

One of the Confederate Council seats also carries the role of commander-in-chief:

bq. Skanawatih shall be vested with a double office, duty and with double authority. One-half of his being shall hold the Lordship title and the other half shall hold the title of War Chief. In the event of war he shall notify the five War Chiefs of the Confederacy and command them to prepare for war and have their men ready at the appointed time and place for engagement with the enemy of the Great Peace. (79)

h3. Impeachment

A citizen may ask for correction of an official’s errant behavior:

bq. If either a nephew or a niece see an irregularity in the performance of the functions of the Great Peace and its laws, in the Confederate Council or in the conferring of Lordship titles in an improper way, through their War Chief they may demand that such actions become subject to correction and that the matter conform to the ways prescribed by the laws of the Great Peace. (98)

… after which the case goes to the general council of women, then to the men:

bq. This string of wampum vests the people with the right to correct their erring Lords. In case a part or all the Lords pursue a course not vouched for by the people and heed not the third warning of their women relatives, then the matter shall be taken to the General Council of the women of the Five Nations. If the Lords notified and warned three times fail to heed, then the case falls into the hands of the men of the Five Nations.

… who purge the official, one way or the other:

bq. Should it happen that the Lords refuse to heed the third warning, then two courses are open: either the men may decide in their council to depose the Lord or Lords or to club them to death with war clubs.

bq. …

bq. Should the men in their council adopt the second course, the War Chief shall order his men to enter the council, to take positions beside the Lords, sitting between them wherever possible. [Then] the War Chief holding in his outstretched hand a bunch of black wampum strings shall say to the erring Lords: “So now, Lords of the Five United Nations, harken to these last words from your men. … Since you are determined to resist and to withhold justice from your people there is only one course for us to adopt.” At this point the War Chief shall let drop the bunch of black wampum and the men shall spring to their feet and club the erring Lords to death. Any erring Lord may submit before the War Chief lets fall the black wampum. Then his execution is withheld. (59)

“The Onondaga leader gave John Hancock, the president of the Second Continental Congress, an Indian name — Great Tree. Illustration by John Kahionhes Fadden.”:

h3. Sources

fn1. “‘The Constitution of the Iroquois Confederacy’ as written by Arthur C. Parker, with introduction by Gerald Murphy”:

fn2. “‘Exemplar of Liberty: Native America and the Evolution of Democracy’ By Donald A. Grinde, Jr., Rupert Costo Professor of American Indian History, University of California at Riverside, and Bruce E. Johansen, Associate Professor of Communication University of Nebraska at Omaha; Chapter 2”:

bq. All along the Seaboard, Indian nations had formed confederacies by the time they encountered European immigrants, from the Seminoles in what is now Florida (Crevecouer called them “a federated republic”), to the Cherokees and Choctaws in the Carolinas, to the Iroquois and their allies, the Hurons in the Saint Lawrence Valley, and the Penacook federation of New England, among many others. Wallace found that “Ethnic confederacies were common among all the Indian tribes of the Northeast.

fn3. “ibid, Chapter 8”:

bq. In the midst of this debate on government and independence, twenty-one Iroquois Indians came to meet with the Continental Congress in May of 1776. At the Albany Conference of 1775, the Iroquois had expressed concern about the nature of the executive in the Continental Congress. For over a month, the Iroquois would observe the operations of the Continental Congress and its president, John Hancock, as they lodged on the second floor of the Pennsylvania State House (later called Independence Hall), just above the chambers of the Continental Congress. On May 27, 1776, Richard Henry Lee reported that the American army had a parade of two to three thousand men to impress the Iroquois with the strength of the United States. “4 tribes of the Six Nations” viewed the parade, and Lee hoped “to secure the friendship of these people.” Newspaper accounts stated that Generals Washington, Gates and Mifflin, “the Members of Congress . . . and . . . the Indians . . . on business with the Congress” reviewed the troops.

bq. On June 11, 1776 while the question of independence was being debated, the visiting Iroquois chiefs were formally invited into the meeting hall of the Continental Congress. There a speech was delivered, in which they were addressed as “Brothers” and told of the delegates’ wish that the “friendship” between them would “continue as long as the sun shall shine” and the “waters run.” The speech also expressed the hope that the new Americans and the Iroquois act “as one people, and have but one heart.” After this speech, an Onondaga chief requested permission to give Hancock an Indian name. The Congress graciously consented, and so the president was renamed “Karanduawn, or the Great Tree.” With the Iroquois chiefs inside the halls of Congress on the eve of American Independence, the impact of Iroquois ideas on the founders is unmistakable. History is indebted to Charles Thomson, an adopted Delaware, whose knowledge of and respect for American Indians is reflected in the attention that he gave to this ceremony in the records of the Continental Congress.

* * *
“By Quinn Hungeski”: – Posted at “G.N.N.”: & “”:

5 comments for “Great Law of Peace Brought Iroquois a More Perfect Union

  1. June 18, 2009 at 11:51 pm

    great post. Too few folks commented!

  2. June 19, 2009 at 12:20 am

    Thanks, canbyte — glad to see that someone’s reading.

  3. September 16, 2010 at 1:08 pm

    Hmmmm….. Why was I not taught this in school?

  4. November 3, 2010 at 7:40 pm

    Here is an interesting book with many stories not taught in school: “A People’s History of the United States”:

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