North-South-East-West: American Indians and the Natural World

Sovereign People: Ancestry in the Land

Pipe TomahawkThe 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 ashes.

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

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