Seven centuries before Confederation, there was the Haudenosaunee Confederacy

The confederacy of six First Nations has worked for hundreds of years to create and sustain the common good — through a process in which “everyone has a voice”
By Shelby Lisk - Published on Oct 18, 2019
The white pine is symbol of the unity of the six nations that make up the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. (Wikimedia Commons)

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“We have governed ourselves, as Haudenosaunee people or Iroquoian people, since August 31, 1142,” says David Newhouse, an Onondaga member of the Six Nations of the Grand River and chair of the Chanie Wenjack School for Indigenous Studies, at Trent University. “That was the date of the first meeting of the confederacy.”

The Haudenosaunee Confederacy — called the Iroquois Confederacy by the French and the League of Five Nations by the British — brought together the Mohawk, Onondaga, Seneca, Cayuga, and Oneida after a period of war between the nations. Tuscarora Nation joined in 1722.

According to oral tradition, the confederacy was formed by a Huron man who convinced the nations to put down their weapons and bury them under a tree, later known as the Great Tree of Peace, planted at the Onondaga Nation. Among the nations, this man came to be known as the Peacemaker.

“He created a council that consists of representatives from each of the five nations,” says Newhouse. “There was a series of 50 representatives, 50 chiefs who came together in council to talk about events, issues that affected all of them, and they attempted to create a common good. They worked according to a document called the Gayanashagowa, which in English translates to the ‘Great Law of Peace.’”

The criteria for becoming a chief in the confederacy, according to the Great Law of Peace, include patience, honesty, thick skin, tenderness, and the ability to deliberate calmly and to be a mentor and spiritual guide. A chief must also be a member of the longhouse and a fluent speaker of one of the nation’s languages.

An 1885 English translation of the law, by farmer and Onondaga chief Seth Newhouse (David’s great-grandfather), states that “their hearts shall be full of peace and good will and their minds filled with a yearning for the welfare of the people of the Confederacy.”

In Haudenosaunee tradition, women select leaders, identifying promising young men who could become chiefs and young women who could become clan mothers and then mentoring them in the language and customs. “The great law is problematic, in one sense,” Newhouse says, “in that women cannot become chiefs … when we think in the 21st-century feminist lens, then it doesn’t fit.”

Consensus plays a vital role in Haudenosaunee governance. The women in the clan agree on whom to put forth, and then the men are given a chance to voice any concerns. If those concerns are found to be valid, the women decide together on another candidate. Once the clan is in agreement, they consult with their nation. Only then is he condoled by the confederacy.

“Everyone has a voice in our process,” says Kanonhsyonne Jan Hill, associate vice-principal of Indigenous initiatives and reconciliation at Queen’s University and “seat warming” clan mother in the Turtle Clan of the longhouse at Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory. “When we meet as women, all the women have a voice, and when we stand that man up in front of the men, all the men have a voice from youngest to oldest — everyone.”

Newhouse says the Canadian government imposed the elected band council system on the Six Nations of the Grand River community in 1924.

“The government called in the RCMP and locked the council-house door and forced elections,” Newhouse says. “That removed the chiefs from any position of governance authority at Six Nations, and Canada would only deal with the elected council. They didn’t stop the confederacy from existing, but they didn’t have any power in the Canadian governance system.”

The imposition of the European electoral process came through a piece of 1869 legislation called “An Act for the gradual enfranchisement of Indians,” which stated that “the Governor may order that the Chiefs of any tribe, band or body of Indians shall be elected by the male members of each Indian Settlement of the full age of twenty-one years.”

The Indian Act later laid out requirements for the composition of the band council: “[it] shall consist of one chief, and one councillor for every one hundred members of the band, but the number of councillors shall not be less than two nor more than twelve and no band shall have more than one chief.”

“The longhouse people” — such as those who occupy the Haudenosaunee Confederacy council — “are the signatories to any agreements and treaties, not the band council,” says Hill. “Basically, what the longhouse has said is that the band council is an arm of the Canadian government, and they’re in place to administer the policies and the funding that comes from Indian Affairs, but they can’t go against Indian Affairs policies.”

The 50 spots that make up the council consist of nine chiefs from the Mohawks, nine from the Oneida, 14 from the Onondaga, 10 from the Cayuga, and eight from the Seneca. Just 37 of those positions are currently filled.

“The biggest reason is that we can’t identify men with the qualities and qualifications,” Hill says. “We just have to find people who are willing to do the work, who are of good quality and good character.”

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