Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
January 2005

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


The Organization of the Iroquois



[This text was written in 1898 by the famous Mohawk writer Pauline JOHNSON (Tekahionwake). For the full citation, see the end of the document.]



WHEN the Iroquois first settled in Canada after their long and stormy battle for Britain , and loyal adherence to her flag through the American war of independence, they were a wealthy people so far as real estate was concerned. At that time the Imperial grant to the Six Nations comprised the territory lying within six miles on either side of the Grand River from its source to its mouth, a tract that embraced. the larger portion of the present counties of Wellington, Waterloo, Brant, and Haldimand.


That was more than a century ago, and to-day all the land that these Indians can call their own is the little corner situated along the boundary of the last two named counties, and known as the Grand River Reserve, consisting of fifty-three thousand acres of uninteresting, timberless, and, in many instances, marshy land, which, however, is yearly improving under the industry of farming, and the Statute Labour Law, which is most urgently enforced by the native pathmasters. The history of the Iroquois is unquestionably the most interesting of the myriad native tribes in the Americas, from the formation of the great Iroquois Confederacy more than four hundred years ago, down to the present day, when the sons and the daughters of this notable race are beginning to hold their own in social, political, and Collegiate Canada and to fear no excellence in advancement that they cannot rival.


To be the offspring of a people that held the balance of power in their red palms during the most tempestuous period in the history of the New World, is no small heritage, and, probably, no nature in the world possesses the almost rabid patriotism of the Iroquois, though he can to-day call no country his own, save the little corner that a greater power than he vouchsafes to allow him to live in. This corner was at one period a hunting and fishing ground unequalled in the country, but a century of insidious inroads made by incoming settlers of a civilization not always wisely conducted, has despoiled the Iroquois of his game and the greater portion of his lands, which latter slipped out of his possession in a frequently unrecorded manner. But as the pioneers settled the country the demand for river lands in Upper Canada became urgent and the Iroquois were induced to surrender their territory bit by bit, much of it being purchased by the Government, and honourably paid for, until now in lieu of their erstwhile real estate the Six Nations have deposited with the Dominion Government upwards of eight hundred thousand dollars, the interest on which they draw bi-annually and individually - the amount varying in accordance with the expenditure they make on public works within their own Reserve.


Some ten years ago these Indians received in common with various other tribes throughout Canada the franchise, which entitles them to a voice in the Dominion Government, a privilege which, though long delayed is well merited, considering the facts that they keep their Reserve up to, and, in many instances, above the standard of the surrounding counties; that they cost the white voters nothing; and that they pay with their own moneys a large and efficient staff of clerks in the Government at Ottawa to attend to their business without further cost to the country.


No greater argument for the principles of sound government can be advanced than a glance at the history of the Iroquois. Always a thrifty people, the first explorers found them settled in the lands of what is now northern New York State, living in log houses, farming in a crude fashion, and astonishing the Europeans with their fields of maize and pumpkins. They were never a nomadic, although a fighting race, for later it was this seemingly peaceful people that produced the few thousand fighting men who held the balance of power when France and England battled for the Continent and the red arm of the Iroquois helped to win it for the latter.


Perhaps the secret is one that has only recently come to light through the researches of a careful and philosophic investigator, the Hon. L. H. Morgan, that their internal polity was marked by equal wisdom, and had been developed and consolidated into a system of Government embodying many of what are deemed the best principles and methods of political science - representation, federation, self-government through local and general legislatures, all resulting in personal liberty, combined with strict subordination to public law. As Dr. Horatio Hale says, however, in his Law-Giver of the Stone Age, "it has not been distinctly known that for many of these advantages the Five Nations were indebted to one individual, who bore to them the same relation which the great reformers and law-givers of antiquity bore to the communities whose gratitude has made their names illustrious."


The name of this individual, Hiawatha, has been singularly, fatally, denied its historical claims, through the unintentioned errors of Longfellow, who having clothed it in immortal guise, denuded it previously of the place it rightfully occupies, as the name borne by one of the greatest statesmen, politicians, and reformers known to the world's history. About the middle of the 15th century lived this Hiawatha, a chief of high rank and of Onondago blood, a tribe ruled under the iron rod of a crazy and tyrannical chief, Atotarho by name. Dreaded, hated, and feared by his people, Atotarho waged incessant war against the Cayugas and Senecas, whose tribes bordered on his territory. At the same period the Mohawks, lying east of him, together with the Oneidas, were bearing the brunt of constant onslaught from the Mohicans, who possessed the tracts along the Hudson River south of them. Feuds, bloodshed, extermination threatened the entire Five Nations. The earth was soaked in blood, the very air impregnated with it. Then stepped forth Hiawatha out of the pages of Indian history, braving his terrible chief, Atotarho, with a scheme that could only have had its birth in the brain of a perfect diplomat.


Referring again to the writings of the late Dr. Hale (and no more authentic translations of the Iroquois Wampum records are in existence than those which he made his life study), this scheme is best given in the eminent historian's own words:


"With much meditation he (Hiawatha) had elaborated in his mind the scheme of a vast confederation which would ensure universal peace. The system which he devised was not a transitory league, but a permanent government. Each nation was to retain its own council and its management of local affairs, the general control was to be lodged in a federal senate composed of representatives elected by each nation, holding office during good behaviour and acknowledged as ruling chiefs throughout the confederacy. Still further and more remarkably this confederation was not to be a limited one; it was to be indefinitely expansible. The avowed design of its proposer was to abolish war altogether, and he wished the Federation to extend until all the tribes of men should be included in it, and peace should reign everywhere."


Twice did this young reformer summons his tribe together to debate the advisability of adopt­ing his proposals. Twice the dreaded Atotarho scowled upon the proceedings and dispersed the people in fear and trembling. At the third sum­mons not a single warrior attended the council, and Hiawatha realized that his own tribe had rejected his movement for reform. Then he formed a bold project, and decided that if the councils of his own people were closed to him he would appeal to those of other tribes. Briefly, after many and various discouragements, he succeeded in winning, by his marvellous eloquence and sincerity, the great Chief of the Mohawks - DeKanawidah. Then followed the Oneidas , Cayugas, and Senecas, only the great Atotarho of the Oneidas refusing to consider the project, and rejecting again the proposal to come into the League. In desperation, the now enthusiastic tribes sent an embassy to the lordly Onondago with flattering proposals and inducements. Atotarho yielded to these, where sound argument had failed previously, and thus was founded the great Confederacy which lived through centuries of war and devastation, and is to-day solid, intact, powerful as ever - the basis of rule amongst the Iroquois in the Grand River, and the government acknowledged by many able thinkers of our day as the purest polity known to civilization.


That Hiawatha, unaided, devised and executed a federal system that has lasted unshaken for four centuries ; that he swayed the first council of fifty-two chiefs from hatred and bloodshed to peace and brotherhood ; that he consolidated a government which exists to-day, conducted by the lineal descendants of those very fifty-two chiefs, is what has made him immortal to his own people, and should entitle him to a high place amongst the world's reformers.


It is a curious fact, though one which has frequently repeated itself in history, that Hiawatha's own tribe was the last to acknowledge his genius. The always fighting Mohawks were first to lend their ear to peaceful measures, going so far as to eventually adopt the young patriot into their tribe. Embassies to extend the "Great Peace," as the League was called, were sent in all directions, even as far as the distant Cherokees, who, however, declined their advances. Later the Tuscaroras joined the confederation, which was known far and near as the Iroquois Nation.


Subject to the criminal and civil laws of Canada , the Six Nations' Council now conducts its own local laws and affairs with a wisdom worthy its noble progenitor. Wisely the old Chiefs pass no Bill they know will be rejected by the Government at Ottawa . With equal tact Ottawa inflicts no measure upon the Indians which she knows their Council will fail to pass. Herein perhaps lies the success which Canada has always enjoyed with her Red compatriots.


To those who still cling to Longfellow's beautiful but erroneous interpretation of the greatest of all Indian historical legends, the writer urges the authenticity of the ancient Wampum records of the Iroquois, which are as undeniably accurate as the jealously guarded literature and chronicles of any extremely conservative nation can well be. These Wampum records of great age and value are the national treasures of the Iroquois, and during the American war of independence were buried for a considerable period for safe-keeping.


The writer also takes this opportunity to express in the name of the Iroquois nation a sincere and affectionate tribute of gratitude to the memory of the late Dr. Horatio Hale, whose untiring and faithful application to the study of the most sacred and ancient ordinances of the Iroquois Confederation has been the means of giving our national history an accurate place in the literature of the English-speaking peoples of our day.


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Source : E. Pauline JOHNSON, "The Organization of the Iroquois", in Canada . An Encyclopaedia of the Country , Vol. 1, J. Castell HOPKINS, ed., Toronto, Linscott Publishing Company, 1898, 540p., pp. 215-217.



© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College