North-South-East-West: American Indians and the Natural World
Sovereign People: Ancestry in the Land
The Iroquois Confederacy
The Iroquois Confederacy was a sophisticated political and social
system. It united the territories of the five nations in a
symbolic longhouse that stretched across
the present-day state of New York.
The original five nations of the Confederacy were divided into two
groups: the Elders, consisting
of the Mohawk, the Onondaga, and the Seneca; and the Younger, the
Oneida and the Cayuga. Despite this distinction, all decisions of
the Confederacy had to be unanimous.
The decision-making process mirrored the creation
of peace among the Iroquois. The Onondaga
introduced a topic and offered it to the Mohawk for consideration.
When a decision was reached, they passed it to the Seneca. A joint
decision was announced to the groups across the fire for deliberation.
When these groups reached an agreement, they reported to the Onondaga Council
Leader. If he agreed, the decision was unanimous. If not, the
negotiation process began again with the Mohawk. If unanimity
were impossible, the matter was set aside and the fire covered with
At the conclusion of a session, the acts of the council were recorded
in the belts of wampum that chronicle events of significance.
To this day, Iroquois law remains unchanged. It continues to guide
the Grand Council of the People of the Longhouse and has influenced nations
outside of the Confederacy as well. The structure of the Iroquois Confederacy inspired the
American Colonists' development of the U.S. government.
Image: Pipe Tomahawk
Northeastern United States, ca. 1811
The pipe tomahawk is an ingenious combination of weapon and smoking pipe, developed
by Euro-Americans for trade with Native people. Iroquois men traded furs for these
popular tomahawks. Ornate examples were presented at treaty signings as diplomatic
gifts to Indian leaders, who carried them as a sign of their prestige.
Unidentified wood, pewter, brass; L 51.0 x W 2.5 x H 16.5 cm; 23102-1199, gift of
John A. Beck