Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:

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


Iroquois Confederation



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico . It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]


[Consult the article on the Iroquois Confederacy at the Encyclopedia of North American Indians.]



A political league for offense and defense was sometimes formed by two or more tribes, who entered into a compact or formal statement of principles to govern their separate and collective action. A looser, less formal, and less cohesive alliance of tribes was sometimes formed to meet some grave temporary emergency. The unit of a confed­eration is the organized tribe, just as the clan or gens is the unit of the tribe. The con­federation has a supreme council composed of representatives from the several contracting tribes of which it is composed. The tribes forming a confederation surrendered to the league certain powers and rights which they had exercised individually. The executive, legislative, and judicial functions of the con­federation were exercised by the supreme coun­cil through instruments appointed in the com­pact or afterward devised. Every tribe of the confederation was generally entitled to repre­sentation in the supreme federal council. The chiefs of the federal council and the sub-chiefs of each tribe constituted the local council of the tribe. The confirmation of officials and their installation were functions delegated to the officers of the confederation. The supreme federal council had practically the same officers as a tribal council, namely, a speaker, fire­keeper, door-keeper, and wampum-keeper or annalist. In the Iroquoian confederation the original 5 tribes severally had a supreme warchief, the name and the title of whom were hereditary in certain specified clans. The supreme federal council, sitting as a court without a jury, heard and determined causes in accordance with established principles and rules. The representation in the council of the Iroquois confederation was not based on the clan as its unit, for many clans had no representative in the federal council, while others had several. The supreme federal council of this confederation was organized on the basis of tribal phratries or brotherhoods of tribes, of which one phratry acted as do the presiding judges of a court sitting without a jury, having power to confirm, or on constitutional or other grounds to reject, the votes or conclusions of the two other phratries acting individually, but having no right to discuss any question beyond suggesting means to the other phratries for reaching an agreement or compromise, in the event that they offer differing votes or opinions, and at all times being jealously careful of the customs, rules, principles, and precedents of the council, requiring procedure strictly to conform to these where possible. The constituent tribes of the Iroquois confederation, the Mohawk, Oneida , Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca, constituted three tribal phratries, of which the Mohawk and Seneca formed the first, the Oneida and Cayuga the second, and the Onondaga the third; but in ceremonial and festal assemblies the last tribe affiliated with the Mohawk-Seneca phratry.


Among the looser confederations, properly alliances, may be mentioned that of the Chippewa, Ottawa , and Potawatomi; the 7 council fires of the Dakota; and the alliance of the tribes of Virginia and Maryland called the Powhatan confederacy. To these may be added the loose Caddo confederacy, which, like the others, was held together largely by religious affiliation. The records are insufficient to define with accuracy the political organization of these groups.


[The text of the Iroquois confederal constitution is reproduced at the University of Oklahoma Law Center.]


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada , Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada , Ottawa , 1913, 632p., pp. 109-110.

© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College