Iroquois “Great League of Peace” : Tribal Sovereignty


Great Law of Peace

Gayanashagowa or the Great Law of Peace of the Iroquois (or Haudenosaunee) Six Nations (Oneida, Mohawk, Cayuga, Onondaga, the Seneca and Tuscarora) is the oral constitution whereby the Iroquois Confederacy was bound together. The law was written on wampum belts, conceived by Deganawidah, known as The Great Peacemaker, and his spokesman Hiawatha. The original five member nations ratified this constitution near present-day Victor, New York , with the sixth nation (the Tuscarora) being added in ca. 1722.

The laws were first recorded and transmitted not in written language, but by means of wampum symbols that conveyed meaning. In a later era it was translated into English. The Great Law of Peace is divided into 117 articles. The united Iroquois nations are symbolized by an Eastern White Pine tree, called the Tree of Peace. Each nation or tribe plays a delineated role in the conduct of government.


Iroquois League

Iroquois history goes back to its formation by the Peacemaker in the 15th century or earlier, bringing together five distinct nations in the southern Great Lakes area into “The Great League of Peace.”  Each nation had a distinct language within the Iroquoian family, a territory, and a function within the League.

The League is governed by a Grand Council, an assembly of fifty chiefs or sachems, each representing one of the clans of one of the nations

The Iroquois and most Iroquoian peoples have a matrilineal kinship system; descent passing through the maternal lines, and children are considered born into their mother’s clan. Their clan mothers, or elder women of each clan, are highly respected. The women of a clan nominate the chief for life, and own the symbols of his office.

French, Dutch and British colonists in both Canada and the Thirteen Colonies recognized a need to gain favor with the Iroquois people who occupied a significant portion of lands west of colonial settlements. Thus, for nearly 200 years the Iroquois were a powerful factor in North American colonial policy-making decisions. Alignment with Iroquois offered political and strategic advantages. The Iroquois remained a politically unique, undivided, large Native American polity up until the civil war between the settlers known as “the American Revolution.” The Iroquois kept their treaty promises to the British Crown, and when it was defeated, many Iroquois had to abandon their lands in the Mohawk Valley and elsewhere and relocate in the northern lands retained by the British.


The Iroquois (/ˈɪrəkwɔɪ/ or /ˈɪrəkwɑː/), also known as the Haudenosaunee /ˈhdənɵˈʃni/, or the Six Nations

Mohawk is the official language of Council, and in that language, they are known as Hotinonsionni; to the Senacas as Goano’ganoch’sa’jeh’seroni  or Ganonsyoni, are a historically powerful and important northeast Native American confederacy known to the French as the “Iroquois League” and later as the “Iroquois Confederacy”, and to the English as the “Six Nations”, comprising the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora Nations.

The Iroquois peoples have absorbed many others into their cultures by adoption and by offering shelter to displaced nations. There is the concept of “Orenda”, meaning “spiritual force”, which historically meant the adoption of other peoples, including war captives, to replace the loss of spiritual force by death. They are vibrant today in languages, cultures, independent governance, and political activism. In 2010, more than 45,000 enrolled Six Nations people lived in Canada, and about 80,000 in the United States.


Formation of the League

The Iroquois League was established prior to European contact. Most archaeologists and anthropologists believe that the League was formed sometime between about 1450 and 1600.

According to tradition, the League was formed through the efforts of two men, Dekanawida, sometimes known as the Great Peacemaker, and Hiyonwantha, a name later appropriated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as “Hiawatha”. They brought the Peacemaker’s message, known as the Great Law of Peace, to the squabbling Iroquoian nations, who were fighting, raiding and feuding with one another as often as they fought other tribes

When anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan studied the Grand Council in the 19th century, he interpreted it as a central government. This interpretation became influential, but Richter argues that while the Grand Council served an important ceremonial role, it was not a government in the sense that Morgan thought.] According to this view, Iroquois political and diplomatic decisions are made on the local level, and are based on assessments of community consensus. A central government that develops policy and implements it for the people at large is not the Iroquois model of government.

Unanimity in public acts was essential to the Council. In 1855, Minnie Myrtle observed that no Iroquois treaty was binding unless it was ratified by 75% of the male voters and 75% of the mothers of the nation. In revising Council laws and customs, a consent of two-thirds of the mothers was required. The need for a double supermajority to make major changes made the Confederacy a de facto consensus government.

The women traditionally held real power, particularly the power to veto treaties or declarations of war. The members of the Grand Council of Sachems were chosen by the mothers of each clan. If any leader failed to comply with the wishes of the women of his tribe and the Great Law of Peace, the mother of his clan could demote him, a process called “knocking off the horns”. The deer antlers, emblem of leadership, were removed from his headgear, thus returning him to private life.

Councils of the mothers of each tribe were held separately from the men’s councils. The women used men as runners to send word of their decisions to concerned parties, or a woman could appear at the men’s council as an orator, presenting the view of the women. Women often took the initiative in suggesting legislation

Wampum belts

Wampum Belt

The term “wampum” refers to beads made from purple and white mollusk shells. Species used to make wampum include the highly prized quahog clam (Mercenaria mercenaria) which produces the famous purple colored beads. For white colored beads the shells from the channeled whelk (Busycon canaliculatum),knobbed whelk (Busycon carica), lightning whelk (Busycon sinistrum), and snow whelk (Busycon Laeostomum) are used.

Wampum was primarily used to make wampum belts by the Iroquois. Wampum belts are used to signify the importance of a specific message being presented. Treaty making often involved wampum belts to signify the importance of the treaty. A famous example is “The Two Row Wampum” or “Guesuenta” meaning ‘it brightens our minds’ which was originally presented to the Dutch settlers, and then French, representing a canoe and a sailboat, moving side by side along the river of life, not interfering with the others course. All non-Native settlers are, by associations, members of this treaty.

“The Covenant Belt” which was presented to the Iroquois at the signing of the Canandaigua Treaty. The belt has a design of thirteen human figures representing symbolically the Thirteen Colonies of the United States. The house and the two figures directly next to the house represent the Iroquois people and the symbolic longhouse. The figure on the left of the house represent the Seneca Nation who are the symbolic guardians of the western door (western edge of Iroquois territory) and the figure to the right of the house represents the Mohawk who are the keepers of the eastern door (eastern edge of Iroquois territory).

The Hiawatha belt is the national belt of the Iroquois and is represented in the Iroquois Confederacy flag. The belt has four squares and a tree in the middle which represents the original five nations of the Iroquois. Going from left to right the squares represent the Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida and Mohawk. The Onondaga are represented by an eastern white pine which represents the Tree of Peace. Traditionally the Onondaga are the peace keepers of the confederacy. The placement of the nations on the belt represents the actually geographical distribution of the six nations over their shared territory, with the Seneca in the far west and the Mohawk in the far east of Iroquois territory.

International relations

The Haudenosaunee government has issued passports since 1923, when Haudenosaunee authorities issued a passport to Cayuga statesman Deskaheh (Levi General) to travel to the League of Nations headquarters.

More recently, passports have been issued since 1997. Before 2001 these were accepted by various nations for international travel, but with increased security concerns across the world since the September 11 attacks this is no longer the case. The Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team was allowed by the U.S. to travel on their own passports to an international lacrosse tournament in England after the personal intervention of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on July 14, 2010, after previously being refused. But, the British government refused to recognize the Iroquois passports and denied the team members entry into the United Kingdom.

The Onondaga Nation spent $1.5 million on a subsequent upgrade to passports designed to meet 21st century international security requirements.[76]

The Iroquois Nationals are considered a country-level organization in international lacrosse competition. It is the only international sport in which the Iroquois tribes field a team.

Iroquois passport


The Iroquois passport is a form of identification and an “expression of sovereignty” used by the nationals of the Iroquois League (Iroquois:Haudenosaunee).

The Iroquois government has issued passports since around at least 1923, when Haudenosaunee authorities issued a passport to Cayugastatesman Deskaheh to travel to the League of Nations headquarters in Geneva. The Iroquois passport evolved from negotiations with theState Department, Canada, Britain and other countries and has been used since 1977.

In 2005 Japan allowed a delegation travelling on the Iroquois passport to visit that country for the World Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions.

The Iroquois passport is not accepted for entry into Canada. In early 2010, a delegation from Kahnawake to an environmental conference inBolivia was unable to return to Canada on the passport, stranding the group in El Salvador for several weeks before they were allowed, under escort, to transit via the United States. On June 18, 2011, yet another incident has occurred at the Cornwall, Ontario, port-of-entry into Canada where an Akwesasne Mohawk woman’s Haudenosaunee passport was confiscated and a Certificate of Indian Status card had to be used to cross the border. When asked about this incident, a spokesman for the Canada Border Services Agency confirmed that the Iroquois passport is not on Canada’s list of acceptable identification.

In July 2010 the United Kingdom did not accept the tribal passports of the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team for travel to the UK for the 2010 World Lacrosse Championship, initially as it was unclear if the United States government would allow the team back into the US. The United States government offered to immediately issue United States passports to the team-members, and several days after this offer was rejected, issued waivers that would allow the team back into the US; the UK continued to refuse to issue visas.


The validity of an Iroquois passport for various purposes has been questioned, and the issue is entangled with the larger issue of Iroquois sovereignty. In July 2010 the Bloc Québécoissovereigntist organization voiced its opposition to the validity of the passport, saying that a passport should only be issued by a country, not a nation.[11] The Isle of Man has issued public warnings rejecting the document as a valid form of either identification or nationality and regards holders as U.S. or Canadian citizens,[12] and the European Union does not recognise it as a valid travel document and has issued guidelines stating that visas cannot be affixed to the passport, barring holders from the Schengen area.[13][14] Both list the Iroquois passport as a “fantasy passport”, a document issued by a minority, sect, population group or private organization, which according to the Isle of Man has “no authority and to which no official recognition has been given”.

The governments in the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada have refused to endorse the document as valid document for international travel. Additionally, the document does not appear on the list of acceptable identification to cross into Canada. The Iroquois passport has, however, been successfully used for international travel,[15] like the novelty passport of the “Conch Republic” micronation.

The passports do not currently meet the requirements put forth by the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which went into effect in 2009, although upgrades are in progress.

Tribal sovereignty in the United States

Native American sovereignty and the Constitution

The United States Constitution specifically mentions the relationship between the United States federal government and Native American tribes three times:

  • Article I, Section 2, Clause 3 states that “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States … excluding Indians not taxed.” According to Storey’s Commentary on the U.S. Constitution, “There were Indians, also, in several, and probably in most, of the states at that period, who were not treated as citizens, and yet, who did not form a part of independent communities or tribes, exercising general sovereignty and powers of government within the boundaries of the states.”
  • Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution states that “Congress shall have the power to regulate Commerce with foreign nations and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes”, determining that Indian tribes were separate from the federal government, the states, and foreign nations; and
  • The Fourteenth Amendment, Section 2 amends the apportionment of representatives in Article I, Section 2 above.

These basic provisions have been changed and/or clarified by various federal laws over the history of the United States. Regulate, historically means facilitate. Therefore, the Congress of these United States was to be the facilitator of commerce between the states and the tribes.

These Constitutional provisions, and subsequent interpretations by the Supreme Court (see below) are today often summarized in three principles of U.S. Indian law:

  • Territorial Sovereignty. Tribal authority on Indian land is organic and is not granted by the states in which Indian lands are located.
  • Plenary Power Doctrine. Congress, and not the Executive Branch, has ultimate authority with regard to matters affecting the Indian tribes. Federal courts give greater deference to Congress on Indian matters than on other subjects.
  • Trust Relationship. The federal government has a “duty to protect” the tribes, implying (courts have found) the necessary legislative and executive authorities to effect that duty.


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