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The History Of The Iroquois Confederation History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

The Iroquois Confederacy, also known as the Iroquois League was a northern American confederacy or alliance composed of five tribes in the 17th century. The Iroquois Confederation was known as the strongest confederation of the indigenous people. They were originally composed of five nations which were the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca Indians. Eventually, also to join the confederation were the Tuscarora tribe. These tribes inhabited in the New York State from north of the Hudson River to the St. Lawrence River. The Iroquois, second to none in organization, hunting, materials, and size were seen as a force to be reckoned with. When Europeans became acquainted with the Iroquois they were filled with wisdom and strength. They called them “The Romans of the New World.” [1] 

How were the Iroquois established?

Although uncertain, the origin of the word “Iroquois” seems to come from a combination of the Indian and French languages. Just like in today’s language many different words are formed every day. They called themselves Haudenosaunee, which meant “people of long houses”. This simply described the way the Iroquois lived. They lived in long houses, covered in bark, which contained up to 50 people. As the confederation grew they had envisioned to grow these houses as big as “300 miles long” [2] , with Mohawk guarding the East and the Seneca guarding the West doors.

Hiawatha is known as the founder of the Iroquois Confederation along with Deganawida was known as the Great Peacemaker and prophet. Hiawatha taught the tribes the art of living, the value and strength of true friendship and the advantages of preserved habitations. Possibly the most known event he was responsible was the event that occurred at Onondaga Lake. When a

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group of fierce warriors came down the lake on which they had been residing on, slaying anything in their path, Hiawatha called for the chief men of the five nations to form a league. A league for common good, a league to protect themselves and destroy the opposing enemy. This was the notable gathering of these tribes that united them. Hiawatha showed strength and courage during this meeting in which his daughter was killed by an enormous heron. He showed no emotion at all, and stayed strong for his men. Then went on to explain and preach to the chiefs and they’re men why they are a part of the confederation and why they are forming. That went something like this:

Unite, you five nations and have one common interests, and no foe shall disturb or subdue you. . . . Brothers, of we unite in this great bond, the Great Spirit will smile upon us, and we shall be free, prosperous and happy. But if we remain as we are we shall be subject to his frown. We shall be enslaved, ruined, perhaps annihilated. . . [3] 

He was a great and respected leader and is credited by all for founding and creating the greatest indigenous confederation, the Iroquois Confederation. Although nobody knows for sure when this confederation was truly started, many guess it was sometime in the 15th century. Just a day after, the confederation was formed and Hiawatha’s job was done. It is said that he then returned to his canoe and starting to float until you disappeared in mid-air. If Hiawatha had not believed in what he had and hadn’t taught the Iroquois how to live and fight, they would have been annihilated. The Iroquois remained untouchable for quite some time.

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What did each Nation contribute?

During Hiawatha’s speech to form the confederation he told each of the five nations why they were important to the confederation. The Mohawks, also known as the “People of the place of flint” were a tribe represented by a council of 9 chiefs. They were the farthest eastern tribe in the confederation. Hence, they were responsible for guarding the eastern door of the longhouses. They were originally called the Kanienkah tribe but after fighting the white men a few times they borrowed the name of the Mohawks because in the Indian language it means “eat living things” or “man-eater” [4] . They were ferocious fighters, and great hunters. It isn’t clear today if they would actually eat their enemies or not but there is much speculation that they did. However males did hunt rabbits, bear and dear. While the females gardened and grew crops such as corn and beans. The Mohawks were the first nation in the Iroquois Confederation “. . .because you are warlike and mighty.” [5] 

The Oneida’s were the second tribe in the Iroquois Confederation. Legend has it that the Oneida’s were being chased by an enemy on foot and they suddenly disappeared, so it’s said they turned to stone. So today, they refer to themselves as “The people of the standing stone.” Like the Mohawks they also consisted on 9 chiefs and only had three clans, the turtle, wolf, and the bear. The men hunted deer and elk, meanwhile the woman farmed and made soups. They were the second nation in the Iroquois Confederation “. . .because you always give wise counsel. [6] 

The Onondaga tribe settled in New York in 1654 and called themselves the “people on hills” because they built and created the longhouses on big hills. Unlike some of the other tribes

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in the confederation they practiced hospitality towards all people and did not believe in war. The first fourteen chiefs of the Iroquois Confederation were Onondaga. The symbols of white beads or totem poles in the Onondaga tribe represented peace and good luck. They were appointed the third nation of the Iroquois Confederation “. . .because you are greatly gifted in speech.” [7] 

The Cayuga tribe was the fourth nation of the Iroquois Confederation “. . . because you understand better the art of raising corn and beans, and making houses.” They are a tribe that is very resourceful. Could teach many how to build and how to grow crops to survive and for that they were needed in this confederacy. The tribe was known as the “Swamp People” because of the environment they had came from, and unlike the Mohawks and Oneida’s they were composed of 10 chiefs and four clans.

The last nation appointed to the Iroquois Confederation at this time was the Seneca tribe. The Seneca tribe was the largest of the 5 nations. They were heavily tattooed and well known for their hair, which was always shaved in a mohawk. These Indians were well known for their warfare and were great conquerors. Even more scarce, they were given guns by the Dutch colonists which made them even stronger than all the other tribes. They also heavily relied on agriculture for food, although their hunting skills were uncanny. They were highly influenced by a great leader, mentor and defender by the name of Red Coat. “It is another’s fault if he be ungrateful; “but it is mine if I do not give” [8] Appointed the fifth nation by Hiawatha “. . . because of your superior cunning in hunting.”

Each nation brought different characters and traits to the table that Deganawida and Hiawatha had seen from the beginning. They knew that it would be like a puzzle piece and if

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every tribe contributed they could be free of slavery and free to do what they wanted. They would not need to trade, they could be an independent confederation that others had to lean on for supplies and goods. Everything worked to perfection and the federation was going well until they met the white man.

Even the Titanic Sinks

Although the Iroquois Federation was seen as a strong federation they did not stick together. Without absolute reasoning and facts to exactly why the federation split, they did, and it was a huge part of the American Revolution. The splitting of the federation was huge for both the British and the Americans. From a military point of view the federation consisted of 10,000 well trained, and forceful Indians. But with the Indians already having allied with the British and depending on the British for trade, Americans knew that without being able to give them more they would not side with the Americans over the British.

Both sides tried to get the Indians into the war but the federacy continued to stay neutral. So in 1775 the Treaty of Albany arose. It stated that the Indians wouldn’t let the Americans nor the British soldiers to pass through their country, and in return they assured that the Indians would not be invaded. Instead of the Albany treaty preserving Indian territory it actually sparked the involvement of the confederacy in the Revolutionary War. The Indians wanted their land to be preserved, not to be taken by settlers which the British respected but the Americans wouldn’t. This confused the Indians and made them curious as to what the Americans were really after.

The distrust and lack of effort to assure the Indians land led to the division of the Iroquois Confederation. The British asked them to join the war against the rebels and the confederation

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split. The Mohawk, Seneca, Cayuga, and Onondaga sided with the British and the Tuscorora and Oneida sided with the Americans. Most of the confederation sided with the Indians because they were scared of the invasion of the Americans on their land and property, they simply did not trust the Americans. Not to mention the British Crown, in which Britain promised to assure Indian land claims. However the Tuscorora and Oneida tribe decided to split and go with the Americans and for what reason? The Tuscorora Indians were the closest to the Americans, so maybe they chose to side with them because geographically it made sense. However, the Oneida tribe was the furthest from the Americans, so in some sense they were more protected than all of the tribes, either way, this was the split of the Iroquois Confederation. After the war many of the Indians migrated to Canada to live on the lands they had provided for them. Also after the war came the Canandiagua Treaty of 1794, which created peace between the Six Nations and the United States.

My Conclusion

The Indians were taken advantage of. Americans and the British learned a lot from the indigenous people and all they wanted in return was the respect of what they rightfully owned in the first place. The Iroquois Confederation was such a great foundation that people had to force to split apart when it was not even their war. Composed of great warriors, builders, farmers, doctors, and builders this confederacy had it all. A strong, well-rounded government you could say that didn’t mind helping others, but did not want war unless they were disrespected and forced to. For me to listen and read about how great these people were hits home. I chose this topic because I am part Native American. Now I have the urge to find out exactly what type of

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Iroquois and Algonquin I am.”Know that we are eager to share our gifts, in the name of love. Kindness is a language the deaf can hear and the dumb can understand.” [9] A quote that was so true about most of the Indians. They always would share and help, and no matter what the culture, deaf or dumb, you could understand their kindness.

End Notes


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