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Iroquois Tribes


Iroquois Tribes

Haudenosaunee Indian Dancer at Iroquois Village, New York State Fair 2010

Courtesy Dave Pape

The Iroquois people are indigenous to the northeast region of what is now the United States and parts of Canada. The name--like many Native American tribal names--is not a name the people knew themselves by, but a French word applied to them and is likely an insult. In fact, the Iroquois are not even a tribe in a singular sense, but a confederation of several different tribal nations that include the Seneca, Oneida, Onondaga, Mohawk, Cayuga and the Tuscarora (who didn't become part of the union until the early 1700's and were originally from what is now North Carolina). The name Haudenosaunee (pronounced "ho-dun-oh-SHO-nee") is the name the people use for themselves, and translates as "the People of the Longhouse."

Ancient History of the Confederacy

According to the book The Encyclopedia of the Haudenosaunee, conventional written European and American history tells of the "league" having been formed in response to European invasion in the mid-fifteenth or mid-sixteenth century, but the "Keepers" (oral traditionalists) of the Haudenosaunee maintain that the league is far older than that and that it was formed as a result of internal Iroquois pressure. Oral traditions maintain that the roots of the union date back between 1,000 and 3,000 years.

Epochs of the Haudenosaunee

Haudenosaunee history falls into three epochs spanning this 1,000 to 3,000 year period: Creation (the first epoch), the Great Law of Peace (second epoch), and Handsome Lake (third and present epoch). Different versions of the origin story (called "Keepings") exist, with sometimes profound variations; however, Haudenosaunee do not distinguish between "correct" or "incorrect" versions as all are considered valid. To do so would be considered censorship, and censorship is a European concept not recognized by Haudenosaunee.

The Great Law of Peace and the Formation of the United States

The primary unifying force of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy is the Great Law of Peace, or "Kaianerekowa." It is an ancient manifesto which describes the proper way for humans to live together, and was likely developed as a response to a time of ongoing war between the nations. Scholarly research confirms that the Founding Fathers of the US (Benjamin Franklin especially) were deeply influenced by the Iroquois Confederacy (also known as the Six Nations) and the Great Law of Peace in their crafting of the US Constitution. In 1987, in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution, Congress passed Senate Concurrent Resolution 76 which "acknowledge[s] the Contribution of the Iroquois Confederacy of Nations to the Development of the US Constitution…"


All of the Iroquois tribes are based on a clan system and are considered matrilineal. Clan membership is passed through the mother. Clans include turtle, beaver, eel, deer, wolf, bear, hawk, heron and snipe. Clan Mothers are central in how tribal matters are handled, including matters of war and other political concerns. They choose the chiefs and keep them in check by making them accountable to their duties, and can remove them if necessary.

Today's Iroquois

If you were to meet someone of Iroquois ancestry today they would be unlikely to say they were "Iroquois," so in that sense it's somewhat of an outdated term. They are more likely to use the term "Six Nations," Haudenosaunee, or tell you which of the Six Nations they are from. As sovereign tribal nations the Haudensaunee continue to maintain government-to-government relations with the United States; however, most of the land mass that was the ancestral territories has been lost to American and state domination. In some cases, such as the the Mohawk Nation, the reservation straddles the Canadian/American border and encompasses multiple federal, state and local jurisdictions, making the governing process extremely complicated.

Land claims to regain territory are ongoing, as with the Cayuga who are still fighting to reclaim 64,000 acres of land wrongfully taken from them by the State of New York. In the case of the landless Cayuga, tribal members reside among the Senecas.
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