The League of the Iroquois

About 400 years ago, according to Indian legend, a chieftain named Hiawatha persuaded the five tribes of the Iroquois to form a league for the purpose of keeping peace among themselves. Instead of fighting with each other when there was a disagreement, the members of the League settled their quarrels by talking over the thing that was causing trouble. Tribes who did not join the League were thought of as enemies. Several of these were later destroyed when the League went to war against them.

The map on this page shows the land claimed by each of the tribes. On the west, overlooking the Genesee Valley, were the Seneca, the "keepers of the western gate." Next were the Cayuga, and midway the Onondaga or "keepers of the council fire," where the League held its meetings. East of the Onondaga were the Oneida, whose land extended to the country of the Mohawk, the "keepers of the eastern gate."

The League of the Iroquois was thought of as a "great long house" in which all the member tribes lived. Within this imaginary long house each tribe made its own rules for family conduct. But things that were important to the whole Confederacy, such as questions of war or peace, or disputes between tribes, were settled by the League. All five of the tribes had to agree to a proposal before it was adopted. Later, in 1722, the Tuscarora joined the League. They had recently migrated to this region and had been allowed to settle on land belonging to the Oneidas. The Iroquois Confederacy then became known as the League of the Six Nations.

The tribes gathered in a Great Council whenever one of them issued an invitation to meet. This was done by sending the other tribes an invitation wampum-a string or belt of beads made of shells woven into certain patterns. Then leaders from each tribe, called sachems, went to the Council. There they discussed their problems, but they also took time for playing games, dancing, feasting, and smoking tobacco.

The Indians taught the white man to use tobacco. It played an important part in many Indian ceremonies. For example, if all the delegates to a peace conference puffed on a pipe passed from hand to hand around the council fire, this was taken as a pledge of peace.

The League of the Iroquois was the only one of its kind in North America. No other group of. Indian tribes was ever able to form an alliance so well organized and powerful. Later in the year we shall learn of the important role the Iroquois played in the life and history of the 13 Colonies and the young United States.