Iroquois Confederacy

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"Called the Iroquois Confederacy by the French, and the League of Five Nations by the English, the confederacy is properly called the Haudenosaunee Confederacy meaning People of the long house. The confederacy was founded by the prophet known as the Peacemaker with the help of Aionwatha (146kb/1sec)sound bite, more commonly known as Hiawatha. The exact date of the joining of the nations is unknown and said to be time immemoriall making it one of the first and longest lasting participatory democracies in the world. The confederacy, made up of the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas was intended as a way to unite the nations and create a peaceful means of decision making. Through the confederacy, each of the nations of the Haudenosaunee (179kb/2sec)sound bite are united by a common goal to live in harmony. Each nation maintains it own council with Chiefs chosen by the Clan Mother and deals with its own internal affairs but allows the Grand Council to deal with issues affecting the nations within the confederacy.

The Haudenosaunee symbol of the long house, provided by the Peacemaker, is recognized in traditional geographic locations. Upon confederation each nation took on a role within the metaphorical longhouse with the Onondaga being the Keepers of the Fire. The Mohawk, Seneca and Onondaga acted as the Elder Brothers of the confederacy while the Cayuga and Oneida were the Younger Brothers within Grand Council. The main meeting place was and still exists today on Onondaga territory.

Often described as the oldest, participatory democracy on Earth, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy’s constitution is believed to be a model for the American Constitution. What makes it stand out as unique to other systems around the world is its blending of law and values. For the Haudenosaunee, law, society and nature are equal partners and each plays an important role." (



"Each council meeting must have representation from every nation. The Onondaga opened council by greeting other members and offering thanks to the Earth and to the Creator. The Fire Keepers, the Onondaga, formally open and closed all councils and were responsible for passing on all matters deliberated upon by both sides and render their decision. Adodarhoh and the Chiefs of the Onondaga announce the issue for discussion.

The method for debating policies began with the Senecas and Mohawks. Once their decision is achieved it is then thrown across the fire to the Oneida and Cayuga for discussion. With their decision made the Oneida and Cayuga then give the discussion back to the Senecas and Mohawks for confirmation. The matter is then put before the Onondagas who shall make the final decision in the case of a disagreement between the Younger and Elder brothers or shall confirm the decisions if they agree.

With the decision before the Onondagas they may at this point raise objections only if they believe the plan of action is inconsistent with the Great Law. With the Onondaga agreement in place it is then passed on to Tadadaho and Honowireton, ceremonial leaders, to confirm the decision that has been reached. This decision is shared with the Mohawks and Senecas who are at will to announce it to the open council." (

2. Chris Hedges:

"The Iroquois Council of the Gens, where Indians came together to be heard as ancient Athenians did, was, Marx noted, a “democratic assembly where every adult male and female member had a voice upon all questions brought before it.” Marx lauded the active participation of women in tribal affairs, writing, “The women [were] allowed to express their wishes and opinions through an orator of their own election. Decision given by the Council. Unanimity was a fundamental law of its action among the Iroquois.” European women on the Continent and in the colonies had no equivalent power." (


What U.S. Democracy owed to the Iroquois

Tom Atlee:

"Few Americans or people in other modern "democracies" realize how much our government structures owe to the Iroquois. We talk about ancient Greece giving us democracy. True, ancient Athens gave us the idea of "one man one vote" when adopting laws. But some scholars suggest that the Iroquois gave us our federal system (an alliance of free states under one greater power), the idea of "balance of powers", and much of our sense of personal privacy and liberty from government interference, as well as the idea of taking turns while speaking in an assembly.

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We might note that America's founders chose not to adopt the Athenian or Iroquois approaches to selecting leaders - oligarchy-resistant random selection in the case of Athens and patriarchy-resistant dialogue among women in the case of the Iroquois - nor did they adopt the Iroquois practices of consensus decision-making and women's close monitoring of male leadership. Unlike both the Greeks and the American founders, the Iroquois League gave women real political power.

My own activism was born in the peace movements of the 1950s and 60s. It was only in the 1980s and 90s that I realized that real peace (not just the absence of war) and real democracy (not just elections) were intimately related. In their finest forms, both peace and democracy involve people successfully co-creating good lives and futures together.


This congruence between peace and democracy was recognized many centuries ago by the legendary Native American prophet and diplomat known as The Great Peacemaker. With his spokesman, the renowned orator Hiawatha, he drew together five major warring nations in what is now northeastern North America into the great and lasting Iroquois League known as the Haudenosaunee - meaning "the people of the longhouse" or "they are building a longhouse". Tradition says The Great Peacemaker convened tribal leaders around the Tree of Peace, under which they buried their weapons and adopted The Great Peacemaker's Great Law of Peace, their oral (and now written) constitution. Among other things, the Great Law of Peace established procedures for cultural unity, conflict resolution and making collective decisions to govern the entire League - resulting in an elegant merger of peace and democracy."


Marx and the Iroquois

Bob Goupillot:

"Marx saw aspects of these ancient societies as progressive and worthy of preservation during the socialist transition to Communism. He felt that they were in some ways superior to societies based on alienated labour and commodity production. Iroquois society, in particular, impressed him. Marx admired not just their democratic culture but also their whole way of life: egalitarianism, independence, reverence for life and personal dignity.

Marx praised Iroquois participatory democracy as expressed in their councils as a "democratic assembly where every adult male and female member had a voice upon all questions brought before it."

He quotes a letter from a missionary sent to Morgan,

- The women were the great power among the clans as everywhere else. They did not hesitate, when occasion required, to knock off the horns, as it was technically called from the head of a chief, and send him back to the ranks of the warriors. The original nomination of the chiefs also always rested with them…………. women were free to to express their opinions, through an orator of their own choosing. (Rosemont, p.205, italics in original)

However, an all male council made decisions. Nevertheless, Iroquois women experienced freedom and social power beyond that experienced by women and men in so called advanced civilizations.

- The Iroquois "red skin hunter" was, in some ways, more essentially human and liberated than a clerk in the City and in that sense closer to the man of the socialist future. (Late Marx and the Russian Road, T. Shanin, p.15)

From Marx’s perspective to be in Iroquois society was a higher level of humanity than to exist in capitalist society no matter how awash with commodities. This does not mean that Marx was, or that we should be, backward looking. Rather comparison with the Iroquois illustrates how our humanity is degraded by capitalism. It also points towards the higher social relations that humanity might achieve in a socialist society, resting on the technological achievements inherited from capitalism, rather than bows and arrows. Through Morgan, Marx became vividly aware of the reality of an actually existing non-capitalist human society. This wasn’t just interesting anthropology, but part of Marx’s search for new paths to social transformation.

Reading about the Iroquois,

- ….gave him a vivid awareness of the actuality of indigenous peoples and perhaps even a glimpse of the then – undreamed – of possibility that such peoples could make their own contributions to the global struggle for human emancipation. (Rosemont, p.207) (

Sources of above discussion:

  • Rosemont F. Karl Marx and the Iroquois in Arsenal – Surrealist Subversion, page 201, Black Swan Press.
  • Shanin, T. Late Marx and the Russian Road: Marx and The Peripheries of Capitalism London:Routledge and Kegan Paul (1984)
  • Wheen, F. Karl Marx, Fourth Estate, London, paperback (2000)