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Iroquois League: 16th - 18th century

Five American Indian tribes, sharing the Iroquois language, form a defensive league in the late 16th century against their enemies, the Huron. The tribes (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca) call themselves the Five Nations of the league.

According to Indian tradition the league is founded by Hiawatha, a leader of the Mohawks, on the inspiration of a holy man, Deganawidah. An epic poem, supposedly the words of Deganawidah, becomes a sacred text of the league. Handed down as an oral tradition, it is recited from memory at important ceremonies.


The Five Nations manage their affairs through a highly organized parliament or senate. A council of fifty is the ultimate authority. The council members are all 'sachems' (peace chiefs), whose appointment is for life. Each has been nominated by the women of his own extended family, speaking through a powerful matron. This reflects the domestic life of the Iroquois, who live in long houses as family groups linked through the female line.

The five tribes have different numbers of representatives on the council, but they vote as a tribe (one vote for each tribe) and decisions must be unanimous.


In the early 18th century the Tuscarora, an Iroquois-speaking tribe in the region of what is now North Carolina, are under pressure from English settlers. They move north and are offered protection by the Iroquois League.

When the Tuscarora officially join, in 1722, the league becomes known as the Six Nations. Friendship with the nations is important for the European colonists, for the Iroquois territories lie beteen the British colonies and French Canada. The French have befriended the Huron, traditional enemies of the Iroquois in the region of the Great Lakes. So the inclination of the Iroquois League is to make treaties with the British.


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