The Great Law is the founding constitution of the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy. It is an oral tradition, codified in a series of wampum belts now held by the Onondaga Nation. It defines the functions of the Grand Council and how the native nations can resolve disputes between themselves and maintain peace.
The Peace Maker travelled among the Iroquois for many years, spreading his message of peace, unity and the power of the good mind. Oral history says that it may have taken him forty some years to reach everyone. Born of a Huron woman who was still a virgin, the Peace Maker, grew rapidly and one day announced that he had to journey forth to deliver a message from the Creator. He selected a white stone canoe to carry him to the Iroquois as proof of the power of his message. But he was met with much skepticism and the men that he came across refused to listen to him. After Jikohnsaseh rejuvenated his spirit, he continued and was able to persuade fifty leaders to receive his message. He gathered them together and recited the passages of the Great Law of Peace. He assigned duties to each of the leaders. To honor the role of Jikohnsaseh, he selected women as the Clan Mothers, to lead the family clans and select the male chiefs.
Women were given the right to the chief’s titles and the power to remove dissident chiefs. Jikohnsaseh, by hearing of her actions, taught me to respect women and honor their role. Women are the connection to the earth and have the responsibility for the future of the nation. Men will want to fight. Women know the true price of war and must encourage the chiefs to seek a peaceful resolution.
The Peace Maker then established clans among the Haudenosaunee as a way to unite the Five Nations and as a form of social order. It is said that after he had assembled the leaders together around the Tree of Peace, he bestowed Chieftainship and clan affiliation on the fifty men who stood in a circle. He would assign clans based upon the order of animals that he saw that day. Some say that he sent each chief out into the woods and would report back on the first animal that they encountered, and that animal became their clan. A clan is a group of families that share a common female ancestry. Members of one clan are considered relatives and intermarriage in the same clan is forbidden. Clans are named after animals that have special assistance to the people – water (turtle, eel, beaver); land (bear, deer, wolf), sky (snipe, heron, hawk) Clanship identity is very important to the Haudenosaunee.
The Great Law is like a Great White Mat of Law upon which the Chiefs sit as they deliberate on the affairs of the nations. Burning before the assembled chiefs is the council fire, called “the great light,” that never dies as long as the people believe in the Great Law. The kindling the council fire, considered sacred in that it purifies the words of those assembled, obligates the Chiefs to speak the truth. Also holding a council only in the daylight is another cultural mechanism to assure clear thinking. Meeting held at night are considered inappropriate and meant for foster dissent.
The Chiefs were to use the power of their mind to reason, to figure out what was best for the welfare of the people. The three main principles of the Great Law of Peace are: Righteousness (Good News), Civil Authority (Power), and also Mind (Reason) and the welfare work.” We are to view the chiefs like a circle of standing trees, supporting the Tree of Peace that grows in the middle. They help to keep it from falling over. With each Chief was to be a helper, to keep the Chief standing tall.
Take the word Gaihwiyo, which has been translated in this document to mean righteousness. It’s meaning is more like a wholesome doctrine that is good to be heard, because it teaches ethical behavior and communal values. But it also denotes the idea of justice, of being right because of the customs, manners, beliefs and ritualistic summations of the past experiences of the people. It is putting words into action.
The hardest part of the Great Law is to understand the meaning of the concept of peace. Peace is not simply the absence of war. In the Iroquoian mind, peace is a state of mind. Power, which can easily be thought of as military strength, but more appropriately, it means that one heart, one mind, one head, and one body allowed the Confederacy to remain united in the face of many enemies. Certainly, historians have painted a picture of the Iroquois as cruel expansionists. Iroquois fighting power was legendary. So the question arises: how can the Great Law promote peace if one of the conditions is to have power over weaker nations? Power can be the united strength of the Confederacy, standing together, negotiating together. Unity of action allowed the Iroquois to enjoy great success in dealing with the warring colonial powers.
But there is also a different kind of power in the Iroquoian universe. Each individual has a base spiritual power. As you go through life as Haudenosaunee, experience different things, learn more, comprehend more and tap into other forms of spiritual power, your own spirit grows as well. The old timers called it orenda. Everyone is thought to have it to some degree. It effects how we do things. Good minds have strong orenda. So the ultimate power of the Great Law rests in how well the individual person develops their sense of self, but develops that sense in regard to the well-being of the others, in the clan, in the village, in the nation and in the Confederacy of the Six Nations.
There have been several written versions of the Great Law, called Gawyehnehshehgowa. Today, no one version is preferred over the other and many traditional leaders feel that none of the written versions have all of the known oral history included. In examining the written versions the following common elements of the story of the Great Law of Peace become evident:
1) The Birth and Growth of the Peacemaker
A boy is born to the virgin daughter of a Huron woman. Ashamed and depressed, the grandmother tries to destroy the baby three times, until she is told in a dream that the boy is destined to bring forth a good message from the Creator. He grows rapidly and is honest, generous and peaceful.
2) The Journey to the Mohawks
The Peacemaker leaves in a white stone canoe for the land of the Mohawks where he finds war, killing, destruction and cannibalism. He announces that he is there to deliver a message from the Creator that war must cease.
3) Jikonsahseh Accepts the Message
The Mother of Nations takes in the weary Peacemaker and feeds him. He explains the principles of Peace, Righteousness and Power and the concept of the longhouse as a metaphor for the Great Law. She accepts the message, and in doing so, women are given priority in the League as Clan Mothers.
4) Ayenwatha Converts to Peace
Looking into the smoke hole of a house, the Peacemaker sees a man carrying a human body to the cooking fire. About to eat the flesh, the man appears into the pot but sees the face of the Peacemaker and is magically transformed. The Peacemaker teaches him to bury the body and eat deer meat instead. The antlers of the deer will be symbols of authority. The former cannibal, Ayenwatha, accepts the message of peace.
5) Peacemaker proves himself to the Mohawks
To prove his power, the Peacemaker sat in a tall tree that was chopped down into a deep ravine but emerged unharmed. The Mohawk chiefs accept the message.
6) The Confrontation with Tododaho
An evil and deadly wizard of the Onondaga with a twisted body and snakes for hair, blocked the path to peace. Tododaho made it so that the chiefs could not gather, making the waterways tip over their canoes.
7) Ayenwatha”’s Daughters are killed
A witch, Osinoh, transformed into an owl and killed the daughters, casting Ayenwatha into a deep depression.
8) Ayenwatha Leaves Onondaga
He left his home at Onondaga and became lost in his sorrow. He “split the sky” heading southward.
9) Ayenwatha invents wampum
Using either twigs, bird quills or shell beads, Ayenwatha makes strings of wampum that he hangs across a suspended wooden pole in an attempt to sooth himself.
10) Ayenwatha institutes protocols
He visits a Mohawk community and is given a honored seat as a chief. He teaches them to make a signal fire at the edge of the clearing to announce the arrival of a peaceful visitor, how to make wampum, and how to use the wampum strings to deliver messages. He leaves to continue his search for consolation.
11) The Peacemaker Condoles Ayenwatha
Using 8 of the 13 wampum strings made by Ayenwatha, the Peacemaker removes the pain and suffering of Ayenwatha and restores his mind so they can bring forth the message of the Creator. The Peacemaker decides that wampum will be used to carry that message.
12) Emissaries seek out Tododaho
The Peacemaker sends transformed animals – crows, bears, deer – to locate Tododaho.
13) The Cayuga, Oneida and Seneca Join
The two messengers visit the various nations as well as several visits with Tododaho. The other nations accepts the message. Tododaho still refuses.
14) Hai Hai – The Peace Hymn
With the combined power of all the assembled leaders who had accepted the message, the two messengers lead a procession, singing a magic song to soothe Tododaho. The song thanked the League, the Great Peace, the Honored Ancestors, the warriors, the women, and the families. Tododaho shouted his objection as the procession approached his encampment.
15) Tododaho is Transformed
With all of the other chiefs assembled, the Peacemaker promised to give Tododaho a central position in the Confederacy and to make Onondaga the capital for the Grand Council. He finally accepted the message and the messengers combed the snakes from his hair, straightened his body and dressed him properly. Tododaho became a man of peace.
16) The Circle of Chiefs
The messengers established the chieftainships as the protectors of peace. They were given instruction about what it takes to be a good chief. They announced the roll call of chiefs by nation and clan. The protocols for selecting chiefs, operating the council, and the role of the Clan Mothers was described. Warnings of the future were given. Deer antlers were placed on the heads of the chiefs, a wing fan to sweep dirt away from the council fire, and a pole to flick creatures away from the fire. The League was completed.
17) The Cultural Metaphors
The Peacemaker established the symbols of the Great Law. The longhouse has five fireplaces but one family. Wampum will record the messages. The Tree of Peace was planted in the center of the circle of chiefs. An eagle was placed on top to watch out for enemies. The White Roots of Peace stretched out across the land. The weapons of war were buried under the Tree. A meal of beaver tail was shared. Five arrows were bound together. The council fire was kindled and the smoke pierced the sky. These are all symbols of power that comes from the unity of peace.
18) The Protection of the League
Laws for adoption, emigration and rights of individuals and nations were established to allow those who seek peace to join. Warring nations would be given three warning they would be subdued.
19) The Condolence Ceremony
The same procedure used on Ayenwatha will be used when a chief dies in order to console the mourners and reaffirm life. This Requickening Address will maintain the stability and mental health of the Chiefs and the Confederacy.
20) The Peacemaker Departs
The message delivered and the Confederacy completed, the Peacemaker leaves but announces that in a future time of strife he will return. He also asked that his name not be used except in special cases.
The Three Principles of the Great Law
The Great Law brings together three inter-related concepts, that if properly implemented would assure peace among the member nations of the Confederacy. Together these principles make up the underlying beliefs that will unite humans.
First is the Concept of Righteousness:
In order to keep violence from interfering in the stability of the community, the people, clans, Chiefs, Clan Mothers and the entire nation must treat each other fairly. Such conduct will assure that political and social justice is maintained. Each individual must have a strong sense of justice, must treat people as equals and must enjoy equal protection under the Great Law. People must be willing to enforce a civil government to oversee that righteousness is enjoyed by all; must shape their own personal conduct so as not to foster resentment or hatred; and must be willing to use the power of reasonable thinking to overcome problems and arrive a mutually beneficial resolution.
The Second Concept is Health:
Health means that the soundness of mind, body and spirit will create a strong individual. Health is also the peacefulness that results when a strong mind uses its rational power to promote well-being between peoples, between nations.
The Third is the Concept of Power:
The laws of the Great Law provide authority, tradition and stability if properly respected in thought and action. Power comes from the united actions of the people operating under one law, with one mind, one heart, and one body. Such power can assure that justice and healthfulness continue. People and nations need to exercise just enough power to maintain the peace and well-being of the members of the Confederacy.
Who are the Chiefs of the Confederacy?
The titles of the Confederacy Chiefs (Hoyaneh) are as follows:
Mohawk nation has nine chiefs:
1) Between two worlds – Turtle Clan
2) He combs his hair – Turtle Clan
3) Words of equal height – Turtle Clan
4) Tree branches out – Wolf Clan
5) Our life sustainers – Wolf Clan
6) The principle eagle – Wolf Clan
7) His Horns are dragging – Bear Clan
8) He puts on rattles – Bear Clan
9) Big branch – Bear Clan
Oneida Nation has nine Chiefs:
10) He carries a fawn – Wolf Clan
11) Standing ear of corn – Wolf Clan
12) Valley – Wolf Clan
13) His house is long – Turtle Clan
14) His voice appears – Turtle Clan
15) He swallows the body – Turtle Clan
16) His ears are ready to hear – Bear Clan
17) He speaks slow – Bear Clan
18) He’s got him in the clouds – Bear Clan
Onondaga nation has fourteen Chiefs:
19) He’s tangled up – Bear Clan
20) Along the river bank – Beaver Clan
21) He looks at something closely – Beaver Clan
22) He has a sour throat – Snipe Clan
23) Close to the edge – Turtle Clan
24) Split body – Turtle Clan
25) He buries evil – Wolf Clan
26) Something hanging – Deer Clan
27) He spills out – Deer Clan
28) He was made to do it – Turtle Clan
29) He sticks it – Bear Clan
30) He sees them from afar – Deer Clan
31) He looks after them – Turtle Clan
32) On the other side of the marshes – Turtle Clan
Cayuga Nation has ten Chiefs:
33) He spots it quickly – Deer Clan
34) Coming of the arrow –
35) It’s battered
36) He has a long intestine
37) It overlaps
38) It pierces the sky
39) It’s cold on both sides
40) Something hollow, leading out to one end
41) He works his way in
42) The 10th one is missing
Seneca nation has eight chiefs:
43) Handsome Lake
44) Skies are level
45) He has a large forehead
46) Something to do with an arrow
47) He leans, but does not fall
48) Hangs on to it
49) It’s tangled
50) The door is open
Tuscarora Chief titles are not part of those defined by the Great Law, and the Tuscarora Nation is represented in the Grand Council by the Younger Brothers – the Oneida and Cayuga Nation chiefs.
However, there are Chieftainship titles for the Tuscarora Nation to use internally. The following titles were in use among the Tuscarora at Grand River at the beginning of this century.
1) Turtle Clan – “Climbing the Mountain People”
Sakwari’cra (Sacharissa) – “The spear trailer”
Nihawenna’a – “His voice is small”
Hotiokwawaken’ – “He holds or grasps the multitude”
2) Bear Clan – “Broken Off Tail People”
Nakaien’ten – meaning unknown
Utakwatena – “The bear cub”
Ionentchanennaken – “It’s forepaw pressed against it’s breast”
3) Wolf Clan
Naiokawe’a – meaning unknown
Neiotchak’don – “It is bent”
4) Snipe (Plover or Killdeer) Clan – “Clean Sand People”
Karondawa’ken – “One is holding the tree”
Thanadak’hwa – meaning unknown
5) Beaver Clan – “People of the Stream”
Karihen’tia – “It goes along teaching”
Nihnoka’wa – “He annoits the hide”
Nakahenwa’chen – “It is twenty canoes”
How Does the Grand Council Work?
The Great Law provides a framework for the governance of each community. There are common practices and principles under which the individual national councils operate. The principle duties of the Council is to maintain peace, protect the territory and to provide for the long-term welfare of the people. In order to achieve this, the government of the Haudenosaunee is based upon special political concepts:
The government must be a representational form of government.
The voice of the people comes through their clan. Clan meetings allow everyone in that clan an opportunity to have their voice heard. When the clan comes to a consensus on any matter, the Clan Mother informs the clan chief of the will of the people. The Chief carries that decision with him to the national Council of Chiefs. In their deliberations, the Chiefs therefore are to represent the decision, feelings and desires of their own clan. When the national Council of Chiefs comes to a consensus, they would then carry that decision forward to the Grand Council. In this way, the men, women, children and elders of every clan have input to the decision-making process.
Equality of all Chiefs
All of the fifty chiefs have the same level of authority. There is not a political hierarchy. It is said that all of the Chiefs are of the same height, meaning they are equals.
There must be a balance of powers between member nations
The Grand Council has its own checks and balances in that the Younger and Elder Brothers discuss matters separately, then compare their conclusions. No one nation of chief can dominate. The women watch the proceedings very carefully and assure that all proper attention is paid. The Clan Mothers can inform the Chiefs of any mistake they see being made in order to assure that the decisions are consistent with the workings of the Great Law
Consensus, not majority rule
The Chiefs do not vote on matters, but discuss them from all perspectives. Each option must be considered. Consensus requires thoughtful analysis and sensitive negotiation. Different points of view must reach a compromise that is acceptable to all. While this requires more deliberation, it eliminates a dissenting minority because no decision is made unless all sides agree.
Decision-making takes time
The Onondagas, Mohawks, and Senecas are called the Elder Brothers. The Onondagas sit at the east end of the longhouse. Only one matter is considered at a time. Only the Council Chiefs speak and each side would select a speaker for the day. The procedure for reaching a consensus on any matter is as follows:
1) The Onondaga, as the Firekeepers, decide whether an issue was suitable for debate in the Grand Council.
2) The Mohawks and Senecas, as the Elder Brothers, sit on the north side and introduce the issues to be addressed to the assembled Grand Council. Once an agreement was reached by the Elder Brothers, they present the issue to the other side, the Younger Brothers.
3) The Oneidas, Cayugas, and Tuscaroras, as the Younger Brothers, sit opposite to the Senecas and Mohawks and would listen to the presentation by the other side then deliberate among themselves, seeking a consensus on the matter.
4) The Younger Brothers Announce their decision.
5) If both sides arrive at a mutually agreeable conclusion, the Elder Brothers announce the decision to the Onondaga of the resolution and generally the Onondaga would reaffirm the decision if it does not violate any of the rule of the Great Law. If the two sides could not agree, then the Mohawks present the situation to the Onondagas who would render a binding decision on the matter or table any further action, because the sides cannot agree. The matter may be brought up at future meeting.
6) Even if both sides had agreed, the Onondaga could ask for each side to reconsider the decision and return the matter to the Elder Brothers so that the process would start over. If the Onondaga feel that the decision of the Brothers is good, they would announce it to all of the people and it becomes a law of the Grand Council.
What are the Symbols of the Haudenosaunee?
There are several artistic and cultural symbols that transcend the generations, and are used by each succeeding generation of Haudenosaunee artists. These symbols come for the oral history of the people. Events and knowledge of the past has been shaped into visual symbols in order to covey the essence of those events and knowledge. Designs can have deep meaning and we can see several important symbols that reoccur in the art of the Haudenosaunee over the generations. These include the following:
Arrows bundled together = This symbolizes brotherhood and unity for the original Five Nations. The Peace maker took one arrow and showed how easily it broke. He then took five arrows, wrapped a cord around them, and showed that it was impossible to break them. United in thought, belief and action, the Haudenosaunee would be strong.
Circle = Symbol of unity, strength and cycles of life. The Peace Maker gathered the original chiefs in a circle around the Tree of Peace. he told them to hold hands to make their circle strong. He showed them that if they kept their circle united, they would always be able to keep the Tree of Peace standing. If they let go of their grip to each other and broke the circle the Tree could fall to the ground.
Eagle = The protector of Peace that sits atop the Tree of Peace to sound alarm if danger approaches the Confederacy. The eagle is the messenger to the Creator and is considered sacred. This is why the Haudenosaunee where eagle feathers in their headdress, to symbolically connect to the spirit of the eagle.
Four Directions = The cardinal points are represented by four white roots of Peace that grow from the Tree of Peace that was planted at Onondaga. The four winds come from the four directions. There are four beings who help the Creator. The number four has special meaning as a result.
Sky World = A huge overhead dome from where life came is symbolized by an arch. This semi-circle is seen in quill and beaded designs on Haudenosaunee clothing.
Turtle Island = The symbol for North America, also referred to as Mother Earth, is a turtle. The thirteen plates on the turtle’s back represent the thirteen moons of the year, showing a connection between the Mother Earth and the Grandmother Moon.
Underworld = The dark, and dangerous is represented by horned serpents, snakes and the underwater panther (the Senecas call “long tail) with horns and a long, serpent-like tail. They are the monster serpents that live deep within the lakes, rivers and earth and can cause great harm to people who travel the waterways.
Tree of Peace = Tall white pine that was planted to represent the Great Law of Peace that unified the Five Nations under one law to form the Confederacy that is the oldest constitutional government in the world that is still in operation.
Celestial Tree = This is reference to the tree of lights that stands in the Sky World. It is often shown as a tall tree with round “lights” at the end of the branches.
Where are the Haudenosaunee National Territories?
If you lay the Hiawatha wampum belt over a map of New York State, you would have a cultural map of the aboriginal territories of the Haudenosaunee. To the east is the Mohawk Nation in the land of the Flint. In the center are the Onondaga in the land of the hills. To the west is the Seneca in the Genesee River Valley. The Haudenosaunee still occupy some of their original territory and the Mohawk, Cayuga and Tuscarora moving to new lands over the last two hundred years. These lands we still occupy are called reservations, because they present portions of the original territory that were “reserved” for the exclusive use of the nation. These remaining portions are only a tiny part of the original lands and are the result of sale and lease agreements with New York State and the federal government. Land was lost through fraud, coercion, and bribery, often in violation with international treaties. But it was also lost because our own people forgot the original instructions, that land was to be held in trust for the future. Unfortunately the Grand Council in the past saw fit to sell the land, a serious breach of trust and as a result we have little land left today.
Reservations were first established to divide the native people onto small pieces of land and isolate them from the growing non-Indian communities. Whole nations were split by this division of territories in the conflict for control of the land. The non-Indian land speculators began to purchase and resell the right to purchase land from Indians if they decided to sell. The State of New York attempted to gain title to all the Six Nations land and often used unscrupulous means to get our lands. In the 1830s the United States sanctioned a removal policy to relocate all Indians to the west of the Mississippi River. This deeply effected the Haudenosaunee. In 1838, the Haudenosaunee signed a treaty whereby they relinquished all of their remaining lands in Western New York, including the Tuscarora reservation. The treaty was proved to have been fraudulently approved and a Compromise treaty of 1842 restored some of the lands, but 200 had decided to move west in 1846 to Kansas. This group included about 40 of the 312 of the Tuscaroras. About 70 of these people died in their new lands and most decided to return to Western New York in 1847.
This is why there are some Oneida in Wisconsin and some Seneca in Oklahoma today. Some also resettled among the Haudenosaunee at the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario.
Fortunately, some Haudenosaunee refused to move. The U.S. Congress tried to rectify the situation and passed a Compromise Treaty in 1842 that allowed the Seneca to retain some of their reservation lands. The Tonawanda Seneca had to purchase their own lands back from the land speculators who had acquired title after the fraudulent treaties were enacted. Unfortunately they could not afford to by back all of the original lands of their old reservation. The Tuscarora Nation was left out of the Compromise treaty and it was only after repeated petitions that a reservation was established for them. The Seneca Nation deeded the Tuscarora a small plot, one square acre.
There are 17 Iroquoian communities altogether. The Haudenosaunee reside on the territory of their ancestors, known as reservations at Tonawanda, Cattaraugus, Allegheny, Onondaga, Oneida (New York), St. Regis and Cornwall Island (Akwesasne), Oneida (Wisconsin), Seneca-Cayuga (in Oklahoma) and the Six Nations, Caughnawaga (Kahnahwawke), Oka (Kahnahsatke), Deseronto (Tyendinega), and Gibson Reserves in Canada. The Tuscarora has had to relocate several times. Original lands in North Carolina were lost as a result of two wars with the English and Cherokee Indians. The Tuscarora migrated north to Virginia, Pennsylvania and eventually to central New York near Binghamton. During the Revolutionary War, the Tuscarora villages were destroyed by the American army and the Tuscarora came to the protection of the British at Fort Niagara and were eventually give a mile square plot of land at the present location of the reservation.
Reservations are the traditional territories that have remained under the possession and jurisdiction of the Haudenosaunee. These lands have been reserved for the exclusive use of the Haudenosaunee. There are about 60,000 Haudenosaunee living today. People are free to become citizens of the foreign powers, but in doing so, loose their rights under the Great Law. While we have been raised to think of ourselves as one people, there are much cultural differences between the Iroquois that grow up in Canada and the Iroquois who grow up in United States.
This is further complicated by the fact that we no longer live as one national community. There are four separate Mohawk reservations, each with it’s own governing structure. There is great tension between the elected governments, as mandated by the Indian Re-Organization Act and the traditional council of chiefs, as mandated by the Great Law. The federal governments generally recognize only the elective systems where there is a conflict. At Onondaga, Tonawanda and Tuscarora there is only the council of chiefs, and the federal and state government recognize their authority. When the Grand Council meets at Onondaga, some of the leaders from Canada attend, but it is unclear as to who are the actual 50 chiefs as called for in the Great Law.