The flag of the Iroquois Confederacy

The Great Law Of Peace

What society might look like

Is it possible to have a more equal and free society? The road to tyranny is often paved with good intentions. So can this question be asked at all? Or do we lack a vision as to how things can be? Perhaps there is a society that can show us the way. In the year 1142 five North American tribes, Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, and Seneca, formed a league that came to known as the Haudenosaunee, Iroquois or Five Nations. In 1722 a sixth tribe, Tuscarora, joined and this league became known as Six Nations. The constitution of the league is known as The Great Law Of Peace.

The impact of the league on world history is considerable. The Haudenosaunee came up with the idea of equality and liberty for all. They may not have been the first but they influenced the European colonists settling in the United States as well as important 18th century European thinkers. As a consequence freedom, equality and brotherhood became the motto of the French Revolution. Freedom and equality are still amongst the most important values people believe that societies should be based.1

The formation of the league

According to legend three people made this happen. They were Dekanawida, known as the Great Peacemaker, Ayenwatha also known as Hiawatha, and Jigonhsasee, known as the Mother of Nations, whose home was open to everyone. The league was proposed to make an end to the constant warfare between the neighbouring tribes. The warrior leader Tododaho of the Onondaga kept on opposing the idea.

Deganawidah then took a single arrow and asked Tododaho to break it, which he did easily. Then he bundled together five arrows and asked Tododaho to break them too. He couldn’t. In the same way, Deganawidah prophesied, the Five Nations, each weak on its own, would fall unless they joined forces. Soon after Deganawidah’s warning, a solar eclipse occurred. The shaken Tododaho then agreed to the alliance.

The Haudenosaunee absorbed other peoples into their cultures as a result of warfare, adoption of captives and offering shelter to displaced peoples. During the American Revolution two tribes sided with the revolutionaries while the others remained loyal to Great Britain. The tribes were forced to take sides. They needed the favours of the winning party for disease had reduced their populations. After the war, the league was re-established.

The principles of the league

The Great Law Of Peace consists of 117 codicils that deal with the affairs between the Six Nations. The league is based on the consent of the peoples that are part of the league. When issues come up that need to be decided upon, the male chiefs or sachems of the clans are summoned to gather at the council fire in the territory of Onondaga.

The league aims for consensus. Decisions require large majorities of both the clan mothers and the sachems. This puts pressure on individual members of both groups not to impede decision making with insignificant objections or frivolous considerations. Referendums are held on matters of great importance.

Women have considerable influence. They are entitled to the land and its produce. The clan mothers deal with the internal affairs of their tribe. The clan mothers elect the sachems of their tribe and can remove them from office. Hence, the sachems heed the advice of their female relatives.

Influence

Compared to the despotic European societies of the 17th and 18th centuries, the Haudenosaunee was a liberal form of government. In the first two centuries of European colonisation there was no clear border between natives and newcomers. The two societies mingled and Europeans could see from close by how the natives lived. The North American natives had a level of personal freedom unknown in Europe.1

As for the Haudenosaunee, the colonial administrator Cadwallader Colden declared in 1749 that they had such absolute notions of liberty that they allow no kind of superiority of one over another and banish all servitude from their territories. Colden had been an adoptee of the Mohawks. Other Europeans complained that the natives do not know what it is to obey and think that everyone has the right to his own opinion.

Social equality was as important as personal liberty to the North American natives. They were appalled by the European division into social classes. The French adventurer Louis Armand de Lom d’Arce, Baron of Lahontan, lived in French Canada between 1683 and 1694, noted that the natives he visited could not understand why one man should have more than another and why the rich should have more respect than the poor.

Some early colonists preferred to live with the natives. The leaders of Jamestown tried to persuade natives to become like Europeans. That didn’t happen. Many English joined the locals despite threats of dire punishment. The same thing happened in New England. Puritan leaders were horrified when some members of a rival English settlement began living with the local tribes. As Franklin lamented in 1753:

When an Indian child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and makes one Indian ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return. [But] when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived a while among them, though ransomed by their friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a short time they become disgusted with our manner of life … and take the first good opportunity of escaping again into the woods, when there is no reclaiming them.

usseal
United States Seal

The European colonists had to adapt or they stood to lose their people to the native tribes. And so American society became more free and equal than societies in Europe. The European philosophers of the 18th century took their ideas of freedom from the native Americans and this eventually led to the French Revolution. Freedom and equality have now become the basic principles of democratic nations.

The ideals of liberty and limited government influenced the United States Constitution. The ideals of equality and consensus however did not. The US Seal features a bald eagle holding thirteen arrows bound together representing the thirteen founding states reminiscent of the bald eagle and the five arrows from the legend of the Five Nations.

Featured image: The flag of the Iroquois Confederacy. Mont Clair State University website (Montclair.edu).

1. New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (2005). Charles C. Mann. Knopf. [link]

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