Monday, February 10, 2014

The Iroquois (I): The Haudenosaunee Confederacy

Location:   Upstate New York
Year:   12th Century (?) - Present

The Iroquois Confederacy (Haudenosaunee) is a united government of six (originally five) Native American nations who occupied most of upstate New York and parts of Pennsylvania and Quebec over the course of their long history. 

The name Iroquois is an Anglicized corruption of a French mispronunciation of an Algokian word meaning "the snakes," an insulting sobriquet applied to the Confederation as enemies of the Algonkian peoples. 

The Iroquois were, without a doubt, the most powerful and influential Native American group in what is now the United States. Unlike most of the aboriginal peoples of North America they did not give way in the face of European encroachment, but forced the European colonizing powers to negotiate with them. They also altered the patterns of European settlement by allying with one or another European nation-state during the expansion of North American colonization. 

At the height of their power, the Haudenosaunee controlled virtually all of New York State, areas of New England and Canada, and a vast area of the Midwest, whose native peoples were tributary to them.  

Their participatory form of democratic government was so vital and so effective that the Founders consulted with Iroquois politicians while creating the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution that underlie our representative form of democratic government. The living knowledge and experience of the Iroquois in maintaining a unified government over a large area with a diverse population was to prove critical in informing the American Experiment. 

The word "Haudenosaunee" means "People who live in a longhouse," and their conception of themselves as a group is as an extended family that dwells under one roof. In the Confederation, each tribe has certain rights and specific responsibilities. 

From east to west, the original Haudenosaunee tribes are the Mohawks ("The People of The Flint"), the Oneida ("The People of The Standing Stone"), the Onondaga  ("The People of The Hills"), the Cayuga ("The People of The Great Swamp"), and the Seneca ("The People of The Great Hill").  The Tuscarora ("The People Who Gather Hemp") were originally from the Carolinas, but when white settlement drove them off their lands, the Five Nations invited them to join the Confederation. In 1720, the Tuscarora settled in lands given to them by the Oneida and the Onondaga. The Mohawks are also known as "The People of The Eastern Door"; they guarded against invasion from the New England tribes. The Seneca, conversely, are "The People of The Western Door." 

The meeting of Deganawidah and Hiawatha

According to Iroquois  tradition, the Confederation was formed through the efforts of two men, Deganawida, an Onondaga, and Hiawatha, a Mohawk. They may have lived as early as 1050 AD. Seen as prophets by the Iroquois, they brought forth a message to the people, known as Gayanashagowa, the Great Law of Peace. This 117 article unwritten constitution still forms the basis of law in the Iroquois Confederacy. 

Beginning with the words, "We, the people, to form a union, to establish peace, equity, and order . . ." Gayanashagowa specifies certain universal rules binding all members, describes a joint system of communication and trade, assigns certain duties to certain tribes, and promotes peaceful interaction between the Six Nations.  



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