Some eastern woodlands nations joined together in confederacies. A confederacy is an alliance, and its members work together for common interests. They fight together against common enemies.
Five of the Iroquois nations had a very special relationship. They were the Mohawk, the Oneida, the Onondaga, the Cayuga, and the Seneca. They lived near one another in what is now New York State. Well before Europeans came to North America, they organized the Iroquois League. The goal was to promote peace among themselves. Their system of government was so good, it inspired the framers of the U.S. Constitution. Benjamin Franklin wrote that the new United States could learn a lot about political unity from the Iroquois League.
▲ The Iroquois called themselves the Haudenosaunee, or “people building a longhouse.” They saw the Iroquois League as a symbolic longhouse. It was like a political home for the five nations. This longhouse was about 240 miles long. It ran from what is now Albany, New York, to Buffalo, New York, through five council fires.
▲ In the early 1700s, the Tuscarora nation of the Carolinas was being pushed out of its territory by European settlers. Tuscarora leaders asked to join the Iroquois League. They were accepted, and the whole nation moved north. So, in 1722, the five nations of the Iroquois League became six.
The Iroquois Trail was a real path, not a symbol. It was wide enough for one person, and it ran from one end of the league to the other. Some saw it as the center aisle of the Great Longhouse. A good runner could travel 50 miles a day on it. He might be carrying messages among the leaders of the five nations. Traders and people visiting relatives also used the Trail. Today, the New York State Thruway follows the same path. ▼
▲ The Grand Council was the ruling body of the Iroquois League. It had representatives from each nation and met yearly to debate issues. Because a woman, Jigonhsasee, had helped Deganawida convince the nations to form the league, he said women should appoint the Grand Council chiefs. A clan’s head woman talked with other women in the clan. Then she chose the chief. If he didn’t do well, the clan mother could remove him.
▲ Each nation had a specific role in the league. The Onondaga, being centrally located, were the “fire keepers,” so the Grand Council met in their territory every year. The members debated with care. As the “Big Brothers,” the Seneca and the Mohawk would debate first. Then the “Little Brothers,” the Cayuga and Oneida, debated. If the groups disagreed on an issue, the Onondaga cast the deciding vote.
The Iroquois oral tradition includes stories about Hiawatha. Some legends say he was an Onondaga who was adopted by the Mohawk. When he was young, he was violent and harmed others. One day, Hiawatha saw the peaceful face of Deganawida in a vision. Right away, he regretted his violent ways and started following Deganawida. As a great speaker, Hiawatha was able to share Deganawida’s message with other Iroquois nations. He convinced the Oneida, Cayuga, and Mohawk to join the league. Legend says Hiawatha realized that shell beads could be woven into belts. The belts could help people recall events and remember agreements. You could say he invented wampum. The Hiawatha wampum belt honors the founding of the Iroquois League. The central image shows the Tree of Peace in Onondaga territory. The four squares depict the other members of the league. The lines show that they are all connected in peace.
In 1855, the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote “The Song of Hiawatha.” The poem has nothing to do with the Iroquois leader.