Some eastern woodlands nations formed confederacies, or alliances. The members worked to help each other. They also fought together against enemies.
Five of the Iroquois nations got along very well. They were the Mohawk, the Oneida, the Onondaga, the Cayuga, and the Seneca. They lived near each other in what is now New York State. Before Europeans came to North America, they had formed the Iroquois League. They did it to have more peace among themselves. Their system was so good, it inspired the framers of the U.S. Constitution. Benjamin Franklin wrote that the new country could learn a lot from the Iroquois League.
▲ The Iroquois called themselves the Haudenosaunee. That means “people building a longhouse.” To them, the Iroquois League was like a symbolic longhouse. And it was a political home for the five nations. You could say this longhouse was about 240 miles long. It ran from what is now Albany, New York, to Buffalo, New York. It included five council fires.
▲ In the early 1700s, European settlers were taking over land. They were pushing the Tuscarora nation of the Carolinas out of its area. Tuscarora leaders asked to join the Iroquois League. The league agreed, so the whole nation moved north. In 1722, the Iroquois League became six nations.
The Iroquois Trail was a path. It was wide enough for one person to walk. It ran from one end of the league to the other. It was like the center aisle of the Great Longhouse. A good runner could go 50 miles a day on it. Runners took messages between the leaders of the nations. Traders also used this path. So did people visiting relatives. These days, the New York State Thruway goes on the same path. ▼
▲ The Grand Council was the ruling body of the Iroquois League. It was made up of people from each nation. They met once a year. They would talk about issues and set laws. A woman named Jigonhsasee had helped Deganawida convince all five nations to join together. So he said women should choose the chiefs who went to the Grand Council. A clan’s head woman talked with other women in the clan. Then she chose the chief. If a chief didn’t do well, the clan mother could replace him.
▲ Each nation in the league had a specific job. The Onondaga lived in an area between the others. They were the “fire keepers,” so the Grand Council met in their territory every year. They debated with care. As the “Big Brothers,” the Seneca and the Mohawk would talk first. Then the “Little Brothers,” the Cayuga and Oneida, spoke. If the groups disagreed, the Onondaga had the deciding vote.
The Iroquois told many stories about Hiawatha. Some said he was an Onondaga who was adopted by the Mohawk. When he was young, he was very violent. One day, Hiawatha had a vision. He saw the peaceful face of Deganawida. Right away, he stopped being violent. He started following Deganawida. Hiawatha was a great speaker. He helped share Deganawida’s message with other Iroquois nations. He convinced the Oneida, Cayuga, and Mohawk to join the league. Legend says he also saw that shell beads could be woven into belts. The belts could help people recall events and agreements. So you could say he invented wampum. The Hiawatha wampum belt honors the founding of the Iroquois League. The main image shows the Tree of Peace in Onondaga territory. The four squares show the other league members. The lines between them show their peaceful connection.
In 1855, the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote “The Song of Hiawatha.” His poem is not about the Iroquois leader.