The Constitution of the Iroquois Nations: The Great Binding Law, Gayanashagowa Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“The Great Creator has made us of the one blood and of the same soil he made us and as only different tongues constitute different nations he established different hunting grounds and territories and made boundary lines between them.”

Summary Overview

The constitution, or Gayanashagowa, of the five (later six) tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy (or, to use their name for the group, Haudenosaunee) is the oldest democratic governing system in North America. According to Iroquois histories, Dekanawidah, the Peacemaker, gave a set of laws to the tribes that specified a representative form of government that would unify the five tribes, which had been ravaged by intergroup blood feuds and warfare. These blood feuds had not only created strife between Iroquois groups, but had left them divided and vulnerable to attack from the Algonquian groups that surrounded them. The unity of these tribes created a strong force in present-day New York that was able to withstand the pressures from Euro-American colonists for nearly two hundred years and would provide a model for participatory democracy that American founder Benjamin Franklin found compelling enough to partially integrate in his proposed model for the government of the United States.

Defining Moment

Dekanawidah—known to the Iroquois as the Peacemaker because using a name other than his proper one was a sign of respect—composed the Gayanashagowa (or Great Law of Peace) and then spent his life working to see it accepted among the Iroquois tribes, so that they would be a united people. He and Hiawatha, who helped him spread the Great Law, are seen as the founders of the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois Confederacy, which was the dominant American Indian force in the New York and Great Lakes region from the fourteenth century through the early eighteenth century. As early as his childhood, Dekanawidah determined that his mission was to bring the five Iroquois tribes, who were linguistically and culturally related to his own Huron people, together in a Great Peace. After his own people rejected his message, he traveled to the Mohawks, and while on his way met a woman named Jigonsaseh, who was assisting Mohawk warriors traveling to attack the other Mohawks. Dekanawidah communicated his vision of a Great Peace and convinced her to stop supporting the bloodshed and spread his message.

After converting a number of Mohawk war leaders to his cause, he came across an Onondaga known as Hiawatha, who had been adopted by the Mohawks and was a very good speaker. Dekanawidah convinced him to help spread his message among the five tribes. Both were quickly deemed holy men and walked among the tribes without fear for their lives. Dekanawidah then traveled to the Oneida tribe, then Hiawatha’s Onondaga people, then the Cayugas, and finally the Senecas, and most of the leaders accepted his message and plan for peace. Once accepted by the five tribes, the blood feuds ceased and the representative government implemented by the Iroquois allowed them to maintain a consensus and cohesion. They became the strongest single Indian force in the Northeast. Maintaining the Great Law of Peace led the Iroquois to only make war when all of the leaders, and the women who chose them and supplied the war parties, agreed. When the residents of the English colonies along the Atlantic coast looked for a model of an operational representative democracy, they only had to look to their west to find the Iroquois Confederacy, which Benjamin Franklin wrote about and saw as a model for the new republic in 1776.

Author Biography

Dekanawidah, the Peacemaker, was born near the Bay of Quinte on Lake Ontario in present-day southern Ontario, during the twelfth or thirteenth century. The period in which he was born was a time of great internal and external strife for the Iroquois. A member of the Huron tribe of the Iroquois, according to Iroquois histories communicated orally and preserved in wampum belts, he was born to a virgin who had not yet entered puberty when she became pregnant. Afraid of being stigmatized, the young girl’s mother tried three times to kill the baby before his existence became known. Upon failing to do so, she realized that he must have a special mission in life and that he should be protected and raised carefully. When he came of age, he left his home village in a canoe and rowed across Lake Ontario to Mohawk lands, bringing with him not only a message of unity and peace, but also the means to implement it—the Great Law of Peace. Miraculous occurrences, such as surviving a fall from a very tall tree into a waterfall, confirmed his status and convinced the Mohawks, along with Hiawatha, to accept his teachings and help him spread the word of the new model for peace.

After much convincing over a period of years, the five tribes accepted Dekanawidah’s teachings and implemented his vision for a revitalized Iroquois society based on the Great Law of Peace. The biggest impediment was the conversion of Adodarhoh, a very powerful chief among the Onondaga people. It took supernatural power and temporal persuasion—including a powerful position for Adodarhoh in the new Grand Council—for Dekanawidah and Hiawatha to persuade him to accept the teaching and seek peace. However, once the Five Nations accepted the Great Peace, blood feuds ceased and the Iroquois became a united force, eventually defeating Dekanawidah’s own Huron people. Very little is known of Dekanawidah’s life after he communicated the Great Law. One version has it that after he was successful in implementing the Great Law among the five tribes, he covered himself in elm bark and then was lowered into the earth, from where he would be able to hear how successful the Iroquois tribes were in keeping his law. This has fueled speculation that he would return if his people lost the Great Law, which they have communicated orally and with the aid of wampum belts ever since.

Iroquois Six Nations c. 1720.

(R. A. Nonenmacher)
Document Analysis

When the first Europeans ventured into the wilderness that was upstate New York in the seventeenth century, they found that the natives of the region were far from the savages many of them had read or heard about. Rather, the five nations of the Iroquois Confederacy were well organized and politically and militarily strong, basing their society on the type of representative democracy that would not be adopted by the European settlers for over one hundred years. Though their territory centered in present-day upstate New York, they exercised influence as far north as the St. Lawrence River, as far south as Pennsylvania, and as far west as Illinois. Had European settlers arrived two or three hundred years prior, they might have found the barbarism they assumed would be there.

One might think that the basis for such dominance was military power, and certainly the Iroquois were a powerful military force in the region that the colonial powers and, later, the young United States would be forced to respect. But the foundation for the influence of the Iroquois was based more on political and ethnic unity—a unity with its foundation in the Constitution of the Iroquois, also known as the Great Law of Peace. It was this Great Law, given to the Five Nations by Dekanawidah, the Peacemaker, that turned these peoples who had been warring against one another and other Algonquian tribes for centuries into a united people governed by a participatory democracy that was the first of its kind and a model for later, non-Indian government in what would become the United States. As Dekanawidah’s teachings gained acceptance, the confederacy became more and more cohesive. Intra-Iroquois blood feuds were prohibited, which caused their populations to increase, villages to gain stability, and the Iroquois to develop the political mechanisms for solving their internal problems as well as presenting a more united front in negotiating with their Algonquian neighbors over hunting territories.

However, to posit that the Grand Council set up by the Great Law operated as a central government would be overstating the case. Matters brought before the Grand Council were not the same as matters brought before a national legislative body, such as the US Congress. The league was a common body that existed primarily to create unity in thought among the Iroquois peoples. This was done by the creation of a confederacy to make sure there was consensus between the tribes, by ensuring that the matrilineal nature of Iroquois society was reflected across the tribes, by guaranteeing basic rights to the members of the tribes, and by coordinating and creating unity in the response of the tribes to outside people and nations.

The Grand Council of the Haudenosaunee

The Grand Council was made up of fifty representatives from each of the five member tribes. Although the number of lords on the council from each tribe was different, the potential for one group or another to dominate the Grand Council was mitigated by the requirement of consensus in all council decisions. The council dealt with matters common to all the tribes, but it had no say in how the free and equal tribes ran their day-to-day affairs. However, no tribe was allowed to make war by itself. The Grand Council did not make laws that superseded the traditions of the individual Iroquois nations. Rather, it functioned only in matters that affected all of the nations.

Longhouse architecture, which was used both for the common dwellings of most Iroquois people and for the ceremonial home of the Grand Council, was also the model for their society; Iroquois people refer to the confederacy itself as a “Great Longhouse.” This metaphor can be seen in the language employed to specify the methods by which additions and changes to the Great Law can be made: “[I]f a new beam seems necessary or beneficial, the proposed change shall be voted upon and if adopted it shall be called, ‘Added to the Rafters.’” The entire home territory of the Five Nations was seen in this way as well, as the Mohawks were at the “eastern door,” the Senecas at the “western door”, and the Onondagas as the “Firekeepers”—in the middle where the fireplace in a longhouse would be. The land of the Onondagas, at the center of the Haudenosaunee longhouse, is where the Grand Council convenes. This longhouse symbolism has been passed down through the wampum belts that are the means by which the Iroquois recall the Great Law of Peace. One of the most noted belts, known as the Hiawatha Belt, has an image of a longhouse with five hearths, representing the Five Nations.

Each of the lords from the nations making up the Haudenosaunee had to be male, but this did not mean that women were powerless in Iroquois society and politics. Compared to Euro-American women, Iroquois women historically exercised a great deal of power and influence over the direction of the tribe and also over the Haudenosaunee itself. The power and influence of female Iroquois can be seen in every part of Iroquois society, from the family to the tribe to the Grand Council.

As opposed to European family structure, the Iroquois family was matrilineal, with family membership determined through the female line. Upon marriage, the husband would leave his mother’s home to move in with his wife’s family. Both sexes were equally important in maintaining the community and in guiding its direction. Women had a powerful position when it came to making war, as they supplied the war parties with everything they needed. Thus, withholding the supplies gave the women a large amount of power over military affairs. This position of respect and shared authority translated to the political realm as well. The senior women of the community, called clan mothers, would name the men to represent their clan or village at tribal councils, as well as naming the lords who formed the Grand Council. Also, although the chiefs were elected for life, if it was found that they did not have the best interests of their people in mind, the clan mothers could “dehorn” them. Deer antlers worn by the lords were a symbol of their status, and the clan mothers were the only ones who could remove the antlers that represented the lords’ authority.

The Great Law of Peace

As opposed to purely democratic forms of government that are based on the supremacy of the will of the majority while sometimes marginalizing the rights of the minority, the Great Law is built on the idea of consensus. This is an important distinction because as the American political system demonstrates, democracy can be polarizing. Two groups of people can form that see things quite differently, and whichever one happens to have the majority of followers can largely dictate what course is followed, alienating those who disagree. By contrast, the Iroquois system, as laid down in the Great Law, holds unity as its highest virtue. Decisions are not made by a vote, but rather by discussion between bodies of chiefs from the different nations, until a solution acceptable to all of the tribes is reached.

The Great Law gives each of the Iroquois nations specific roles to play in the maintenance of the confederacy. Two houses (to use a legislative term) take up any matter. The first house is made up of the Mohawks and the Senecas. The Mohawks are the first to take up any matter, in deference to the fact that they were the first to accept Dekanawidah’s teaching. In fact, the council cannot meet unless the Mohawks are present. They then discuss the matter with the Senecas, and a consensus is reached. Then,

when the Mohawk and Seneca Lords have unanimously agreed upon a question, they shall report their decision to the Cayuga and Oneida Lords who shall deliberate upon the question and report a unanimous decision to the Mohawk Lords. The Mohawk Lords will then report the standing of the case to the Firekeepers, who shall render a decision as they see fit in case of a disagreement by the two bodies, or confirm the decisions of the two bodies if they are identical. The Fire Keepers shall then report their decision to the Mohawk Lords who shall announce it to the open council.

Whereas the Mohawks begin the process, the Onondaga, Hiawatha’s people, have the final say on any matter. Nonetheless, coming to consensus is necessary at each step along the way: The Mohawks and Senecas must agree, then the Cayugas and Oneidas must agree, and then the Onondagas must agree, producing a final product.

The Great Law of Peace contains a number of provisions that guarantee the rights of various groups and individuals. The first section, which enumerates the rights of foreign nations, is built on the idea that Dekanawidah’s teachings are not just for the Iroquois, but can and should be employed by all peoples to ensure peace. He states that all people, although they speak different languages and come from different tribes and territories, are made by God to be of “one blood,” and are, in fact, the same. This sense of the equality of human beings is reinforced in the teachings of the Great Law on the topic of the acceptance of outside people or nations into the Haudenosaunee. Dekanawidah states that “if any man or any nation outside the Five Nations shall obey the laws of the Great Peace and make known their disposition to the Lords of the Confederacy, they may trace the Roots to the Tree and if their minds are clean and they are obedient and promise to obey the wishes of the Confederate Council, they shall be welcomed to take shelter beneath the Tree of the Long Leaves.”

Then he specifies the terms of admittance of any foreign people into the Haudenosaunee, allowing any person or group of people who agree to live by the Great Law to become temporarily adopted into the Haudenosaunee. Such groups are given equal rights with other members of Iroquois nations, with the exception of representation in the Grand Council. The newcomers are then charged to help spread the Great Peace by seeking to convince other tribes to accept Dekanawidah’s teaching as well. The Grand Council even gives the newcomers a chance if they, somehow, do not live up to the ideals embodied by the Great Law. Even if they do wrong, causing loss or suffering, they are only reprimanded. Only on a second offense are they asked to leave. The same provisions and restrictions govern the acceptance of non-Iroquois individuals into the Haudenosaunee.

Provisions for the conditions leading to war and the conduct of warfare are important to the Great Law, as its purpose is to prevent warfare between the Five Nations. The main reason given for declaring war on an outside people is their refusal to accept the Great Law of Peace. This gives the Haudenosaunee the right to engage in a war of conquest against that tribe in order to establish the Great Peace among them by force. However, even after conquest, the defeated tribe can retain its own internal forms of government as long as it subscribes to the Great Peace and the authority of the Grand Council. The lords themselves, with the exception of the war chiefs of each of the Five Nations, are not to engage in warfare, unless they temporarily lay aside their title as lord, to take it up once again when hostilities have ceased.

Although not a strict democracy, when there is a threat to the existence of one or more of the Five Nations, the lords have a responsibility to seek the direct counsel of their people and to let that guide their deliberations in the Grand Council. Both the men and women of the different Iroquois nations and clans may meet in separate councils in order to come to a consensus before presenting their views to the Grand Council. In this way, the councils of the clans and nations are honored, and their internal traditions continued, though subsumed under the auspices of the Grand Council. Finally, although a number of set festivals are observed by all Iroquois, differences in religious observance between the tribes are to be respected and their traditions maintained.

The provisions of the Great Law of Peace governed the Iroquois Nations effectively, allowing them to maintain both an ethnic and ideological union, which proved vital when Europeans began arriving in the early seventeenth century. Whereas other tribes were left to fight the onslaught of colonization in isolation or in small confederacies, the Haudenosaunee ensured that the Iroquois would be a united force, politically and militarily, effectively dictating the terms under which Europeans would be allowed into their territory.

The Haudenosaunee were eager to accept the benefits of contact with the Europeans. During the 1660s–80s, French fur trappers and Jesuit missionaries were allowed to enter their territory. The presence of Europeans was easily accommodated by the Great Law, and relations were largely friendly. However, when the French began establishing relations with tribes further west, the Iroquois saw this as a threat to their goal to spread the Great Peace among the other tribes, and relations with the French worsened. This brought them into closer contact with the English settlers, which would help the Haudenosaunee to maintain a position of power in New York well into the eighteenth century. At the same time, the Haudenosaunee continued their mission to spread the Great Peace among other tribes. When the Tuscarora War of 1711–13 resulted in the defeat of a group of Iroquoian people in North Carolina, the survivors came north and joined the Haudenosaunee as a sixth nation in 1722. However, no adjustments to the workings of the Grand Council were made to accommodate them. As they were Iroquoian, they were allowed to accept the Great Law and join the Grand Council, but they did not hold the status as lords in the deliberations. The addition of this sixth nation involved the Haudenosaunee more deeply in the political and military struggle for control in North America, first between France and England and later between England and its own colonists.

Essential Themes

The Great Law of Peace that governed the Haudenosaunee was not only of political significance to member tribes, but of social and spiritual importance as well. It championed a number of principles that were hundreds of years ahead of European development, such as freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and the right of women to participate in government. It also laid out Iroquois legislative procedures, foreign relations directives, and immigration policy.

The enduring influence of the Great Law of Peace can be seen from the fact that the Haudenosaunee represented a strong power in the New York area from the precontact era through most of the eighteenth century. Its people traded furs with the British, and the Five Nations sided with them against the French in the French and Indian War (1754–63), which was waged for colonial dominance over North America. The British might not have won that war without the support of the Haudenosaunee.

Iroquois society in general and the Haudenosaunee in particular remained a powerful force until the American Revolution. Then, for the first time, the Grand Council could not reach a consensus on whether to support the British or the rebelling American colonists. Initially deciding to remain neutral in 1775, the pressures from both sides to form alliances overcame the consensus of the Grand Council. The Oneidas and Tuscaroras fought with the colonists and the Cayugas, Onondagas, Mohawks, and Senecas fought with the British. As a result, the Iroquois sustained heavy losses. Those who had sided with the British went north into British-held Canada, and the political and military influence the Haudenosaunee once asserted in New York was greatly diminished.

However, the seeds of influence of the Great Law of Peace on the new United States were already sown, as Benjamin Franklin had become friends with Conrad Weiser, a colonist adopted into the Mohawk nation. Weiser attended Grand Council proceedings and explained the Great Law of Peace to Franklin, who saw elements of it as a model for the new United States. There is no disputing the overwhelming influence of the European Enlightenment on the American founders; however, the Iroquois example was also significant as it showed a functioning group with a separation of powers, restraints on the power of the military, the ability to recall a member of a governing body, and, perhaps most important, a sense of equality between the people. Additionally, the Haudenosaunee influenced the development of American Indian policy in the new nation, as their example did away with the impression of Indian people as bloodthirsty savages, and put forth the idea, which would be taken up by Chief Justice John Marshall in the early nineteenth century, that the relationship between the United States and the Indians who lived within its bounds was not, in theory, one of a conquering nation and small conquered tribes, but rather a relationship between nations carried out by treaties.

  • Barreiro, Jose, and Carol Cornelius. Knowledge of the Elders: The Iroquois Condolence Cane Tradition. Ithaca: Akwekon, 1991. Print.
  • Deloria, Vine, Jr., and Clifford M. Lytle. American Indians, American Justice. Austin: U of Texas P, 1983. Print.
  • Johansen, Bruce E. Forgotten Founders: Benjamin Franklin, the Iroquois, and the Rationale for the American Revolution. Ipswich: Gambit, 1982. Print.
  • Richter, Daniel K. The Ordeal of the Longhouse: The Peoples of the Iroquois League in the Era of European Colonization. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1992. Print.
  • Richter, Daniel K., and James H. Merrell. Beyond the Covenant Chain: The Iroquois and Their Neighbors in Indian North America, 1600–1800. Rev. ed. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 2003. Print.
  • Schaaf, Gregory. „From the Great Law of Peace to the Constitution of the United States: A Revision of America’s Democratic Roots.“ American Indian Law Review 14.2 (1988/89): 323–31. Print.
  • Schaaf, Gregory, and Chief Jake Swamp. The US Constitution and the Great Law of Peace: A Comparison of Two Founding Documents. Santa Fe: CIAC P, 2004. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Carpenter, Roger M. The Renewed, the Destroyed, and the Remade: The Three Thought Worlds of the Iroquois and the Huron, 1609–1650. East Lansing: Michigan State UP, 2004. Print.
  • Fenton, William N. The Great Law and the Longhouse: A Political History of the Iroquois Confederacy. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1998. Print.
  • Hauptman, Laurence M. Seven Generations of Iroquois Leadership: The Six Nations since 1800. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 2008. Print.
  • Jennings, Francis, ed. The History and Culture of Iroquois Diplomacy: An Interdisciplinary Guide to the Treaties of the Six Nations and Their League. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1985. Print.
  • Morgan, Lewis H. League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee or Iroquois. Ed. Herbert M. Lloyd. Vol. 2. New York: Dodd, 1901. Print.
  • Tooker, Elisabeth. “The League of the Iroquois: Its History, Politics, and Ritual. Northeast. Ed. Bruce G. Trigger. Washington: Smithsonian, 1978. 418–41. Print. Handbook of North American Indians 15.

Categories: History