The following is excerpted from a free online book, The Forgotten Founders, written by Bruce E. Johansen and made available to the public to help correct the insult to Native Americans–and the disservice done to the rest of us–by ignoring their contributions to the government established by the United States’ founding fathers.
WHEN THE IROQUOIS CONFEDERACY was formed, no Europeans were present with clocks and a system for telling time before and after the birth of Christ. Since ideas, unlike artifacts, cannot be carbon dated or otherwise fixed in unrecorded time, the exact date that the Senecas, Onondagas, Oneidas, Mohawks, and Cayugas stopped battling one another and formed a federal union will never be known. It is known, however, that around 1714 the Tuscaroras, a kindred Indian nation, moved northward from what is presently the Carolinas to become the sixth national member of the confederacy.
A wide range of estimates exist for the founding date of the confederacy. Iroquoian sources, using oral history and recollections of family ancestries (the traditional methods for marking time through history), have fixed the origin date at between 1000 and 1400 A.D.; Euro-American historians have tended to place the origin of the Iroquois league at about 1450.
By an Iroquois account, Cartier made his first appearance among the Iroquois during the life of the thirty-third presiding chief of the league. The presiding chief (Atotarho was the name of the office) held a lifetime appointment unless he was impeached for violating the Great Law of Peace. The Iroquois who use this method of tracing the league’s origin place the date at between 1000 and 1100. Arthur C. Parker, a Seneca, used Iroquoian recall of family lines and lifespans to estimate the founding date at 1390. Paul A. W. Wallace, a student of the Iroquois who has written extensively about them, estimated the founding date of the league at 1450. This is only a sample of the attempts that have been made to solve an unsolvable riddle.
At whatever date the confederacy was formed, it came at the end of several generations of bloody and divisive warfare between the five nations that joined the league. According to the Iroquois’ traditional account, the idea of a federal union was introduced through Deganwidah, a Huron who lived in what is now eastern Ontario. Deganwidah was unsuited himself to propose the idea not only because of his non-Iroquoian ancestry, but also because he stuttered so badly that he could scarcely talk. He would have had the utmost difficulty in presenting his idea to societies where oratory was prized. And writing, aside from the pictographs of the wampum belts, was not used.
Deganwidah, wandering from tribe to tribe trying to figure ways to realize his dream of ending war among them all, met Hiawatha, who agreed to speak for him. Hiawatha (a man far removed from Longfellow’s poetic creation) undertook long negotiations with leaders of the warring Indian nations and, in the end, produced a peace along the lines of Deganwidah’s vision.
This peace was procured, and maintained, through the constitution of the league, the Great Law of Peace (untranslated: Kaianerekowa). The story of the Great Law’s creation is no less rich in history and allegory than the stories of cultural origin handed down by European peoples, and is only briefly summarized here.
The Great Law of Peace was not written in English until about 1880 when Seth Newhouse, a Mohawk, transcribed it. By this time, many of the traditional sachems of the league, worried that the wampum belts that contained the Great Law’s provisions might be lost or stolen, sought a version written in English. One such translation was compiled by Arthur C. Parker. In recent years, the text of the Great Law has been published in several editions by Akwesasne Notes, a journal for “native and natural peoples” published on the Mohawk Nation. The substance of all these written translations is similar, although wording varies at some points.
The text of the Great Law begins with the planting of the Tree of the Great Peace; the great white pine — from its roots to its spreading branches — serves throughout the document as a metaphor for the unity of the league. The tree, and the principal council fire of the confederacy, were located on land of the Onondaga Nation, at the center of the confederacy, the present site of Syracuse, New York.
From the Tree of the Great Peace
Roots have spread out . . . one to the north, one to the west, one to the east and one to the south. These are the Great White Roots and their nature is peace and strength. If any man or any nation outside the Five Nations shall obey the laws of the Great Peace and shall make this known to the statesmen of the League, they may trace back the roots to the tree. If their minds are clean and they are obedient and promise to obey the wishes of the Council of the League, they shall be welcomed to take shelter beneath the Tree of the Long Leaves.
This opening provision complements the adoption laws of the confederacy, which contained no bars on the basis of race or national origin. Nor did the Great Law prohibit dual citizenship; several influential Anglo-Americans, emissaries from the Colonial governments, including William Johnson and Conrad Weiser, were given full citizenship in the confederacy. Both men took part in the deliberations of the Grand Council at Onondaga.