The flag of the Iroquois Confederacy

The Great Law Of Peace

What society could look like

Can we have a free and equal society? The road to tyranny is paved with good intentions. So can this question be asked at all? Or do we lack vision? Perhaps examples can show us the way. In 1142, five North American tribes, Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, and Seneca, formed a league known as the Haudenosaunee, Iroquois or Five Nations. In 1722 a sixth tribe, Tuscarora, joined. Their constitution is known as The Great Law Of Peace.

The impact of the league on world history is considerable. Unlike Europeans, the Haudenosaunee had equality and liberty for all. This degree of equality is not uncommon in tribal societies. The Haudenosaunee influenced the European colonists settling in the United States and 18th-century European thinkers. Freedom, equality and brotherhood became the motto of the French Revolution and are still amongst the values many people believe societies should be based on.1

The formation of the league

Legend has it that three people made it all happen, Dekanawida, known as the Great Peacemaker, Ayenwatha, also called Hiawatha and Jigonhsasee, the Mother of Nations, whose home was open to everyone. They proposed the league to end 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 with ease. Then he bundled five arrows together and asked Tododaho to break them too. He could not. Deganawidah prophesied that the Five Nations, each weak on its own, would fall unless they joined forces. Soon after Deganawidah’s warning, a solar eclipse occurred, and the shaken Tododaho agreed to the alliance.

The Haudenosaunee absorbed other peoples because of warfare, adoption of captives and offering shelter to displaced peoples. During the American Revolution, two tribes sided with the revolutionaries. The others remained loyal to Great Britain. The tribes had to take sides. They needed the favours of the winning party as diseases had reduced their populations. After the revolution, 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. Major decisions require the consent of the people who are part of the league. When issues come up, the male chiefs or sachems of the clans come together 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. It puts pressure on individual members of both groups not to impede decision making with insignificant objections or frivolous considerations. Matters of great importance are decided in referendums.

Women have considerable influence and are entitled to the land and its produce. The clan mothers deal with the internal affairs of their tribe. They 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. Europeans could see from close by how the natives lived. They had a degree of personal freedom common to tribal peoples but unseen 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. Louis Armand de Lom d’Arce, Baron of Lahontan, was a French adventurer who lived in Canada between 1683 and 1694. He noted that the natives he visited could not understand why one man should have more than another and why the rich deserve more respect than the poor.

Some early colonists preferred to live with the natives. The leaders of Jamestown tried to persuade the natives to become like Europeans. That did not happen. Instead, 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

European colonists had to adapt. Otherwise, they could lose their people to the native tribes. It may have helped make American society more free and equal than societies in Europe. The European philosophers of the 18th century took their ideas of freedom from the native Americans. It eventually led to the French Revolution. Freedom and equality are now basic principles of democratic nations.

The ideals of liberty and limited government influenced the United States Constitution. Equality and consensus 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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