The Iroquois Confederacy

On December 6th, 1811, the New York Historical
Society invited former Senator and future almost-President DeWitt Clinton to give a
speech at their annual meeting. Clinton took them up on their offer, and used
the opportunity to deliver a 90 minute monologue arguing that the Iroquois were, in his words,
“the Romans of the Western world.” Clinton’s overall argument was that New York
academia was not spending enough time studying the Iroquois Confederacy. This was true. The Iroquois definitely deserved some serious
scholarship, but not for the reasons given by DeWitt Clinton. It was a common trope at the time to draw
this artificial link between the Iroquois and the Romans, but in the final analysis,
this turned out to be reductive, and lazy, and fundamentally wrong. Today, we can do better. There’s a saying that goes: “the beginning
of wisdom is to call things by their proper name.” The name Iroquois doesn’t really tell us anything
useful, and the reason for that is that it’s not their proper name. The Iroquois are known among themselves as
the Haudenosaunee, which means “the People of the Longhouse.” That should give us a clue as to who these
people are. The Haudenosaunee are not one people, but
many peoples, knit together by a common culture and political system. The Five Nations of the Haudenosaunee were,
in descending order of size, the Seneca, the Mohawk, the Cayuga, the Onondaga, and the
Oneida. These Five Nations formed a confederacy, each
semi-autonomous, but united under one supranational government. We’re gonna tackle that government in a few
minutes, but in order to understand it, we must first understand the Haudenosaunee’s
most potent political entity. Any guesses as to what that was? If only we had some kind of clue. Oh wait. We do. Proper names, they make history easy! For centuries, longhouses were some of the
largest and most sophisticated buildings on the continent, with some approaching 100 metres
long. The typical longhouse supported 6 to 10 nuclear
families, each with their own little section, kinda like an apartment. Families opposite each other shared communal
fires, which ran the length of the building. Pay attention, because the imagery of the
longhouse and the communal fire is going to come up a lot when we get into the Haudenosaunee
government. But we’re not there yet. First we need to discuss who got to participate
in that government, because it’s no simple thing. Haudenosaunee society was a matriarchy, meaning
that ultimate political power rested with women. The most important manifestation of this power
was in the position of Clan Mother. The Clan Mother was basically the head of
each family, but in this case the word “family” had a pretty expansive meaning. The term included the Clan Mother’s spouse
and children, obviously, but also her daughters’ spouses, and their children, as well as her
own sisters, their spouses, and their children. As you can imagine, a Clan Mother’s family
could easily number in the hundreds, which is where the “clan” part of the name came
from. Everybody in a Clan Mother’s extended family
were were lumped together and thrown into one or several longhouses. On all political matters, the Clan Mother
spoke on behalf of the entire longhouse. This was the most important political relationship
in Haudenosaunee society. Each Clan Mother was empowered to appoint
men from her own clan into key political positions. While in those positions, these people became
the personal representatives of the Clan Mother, and through her, the entire longhouse. This meant that she was also allowed to un-appoint
them at any time, for any reason. Historian William N. Fenton has said that
there’s no evidence of one of these political appointees ever, let me repeat, ever defying
the wishes of his Clan Mother. All political appointees are simply known
by the catchall term “chief.” There were 4 kinds of chiefs: Civil Chiefs,
War Chiefs, Peace Chiefs, and Sachems. As you can imagine, Civil Chiefs governed
settlements, War Chiefs did strategic war planning, and Peace Chiefs dealt with diplomacy
and trade. We can ignore Sachems for the moment because
we’re gonna get into that later. The most important thing to remember is that
every chief was backed by a Clan Mother, and that the clans, through the Clan Mothers,
remained the most important political unit. All clans within each Nation were arbitrarily
divided into two groups which ethnographers call moieties. There’s not that much to say about moieties
right now since they are largely ceremonial, but you need to know what they are because
they’re going to come up later. To summarize, one or several longhouses made
a clan, several clans made a moiety, and two moieties made a Nation. Clan Mothers picked the chiefs, and the chiefs
helped administer each Nation. But there’s one more thing we haven’t considered
yet. The actual subject at hand. The fact that Five Nations made a Confederacy. The Five Nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy
met in Onondaga territory and formed the Haudenosaunee Council. Who did this? Sachems. Remember, Sachems were the fourth category
of chief that I said we’d get into later. WELL, BUCKLE UP, ‘CAUSE WE’RE GETTIN’ INTO
IT NOW. The Haudenosaunee Council consisted of 50
Sachems from across the Five Nations. Membership in the Council broke down like
this: The Mohawk sent 9 Sachems, the Onondaga sent
14, the Seneca sent 8, the Oneida sent 9, and the Cayuga sent 10. It would be embarrassing if that didn’t add
up to 50. Oh, good. Under the Confederacy, the Five Nations considered
themselves one family, living under the same longhouse. This symbolism was extremely important. The Mohawk were the founders of the Confederacy,
and as such they were recognized as the theoretical eldest sibling of this theoretical family
in this theoretical longhouse. The Onondaga were recognized as the middle
sibling, and the Seneca were recognized as the youngest sibling. Then, for a change of pace, the Oneida and
the Cayuga were recognized as another set of child-siblings, with the Oneida being the
elder and the Cayuga being the younger. This wasn’t just for fun. The exact positioning within this family was
the end result of some tough negotiations, and would have real world implications. I explained moieties a minute ago, and that’s
going to come in handy now. This family structure divided the Five Nations
into two moieties. The Mohawk, the Onondaga, and the Seneca formed
the Senior Moiety, and the Oneida and the Cayuga formed the Junior Moiety. Remember how different nuclear families would
come together to share a fire in the centre of the longhouse? That conceptual framework came into play here. Council meetings took place around the eternal
fire of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. As hosts, the Onondaga Nation was entrusted
with maintaining this fire year round. During actual council meetings, for both symbolic
and practical reasons, the job of maintaining the fire fell to the 14 Onondaga Sachems,
who sat in the centre of the longhouse, closest to the fire. In the literature these are sometimes called
the Onondaga Firekeepers. The two remaining Nations from the Senior
Moiety sat together on one side of the fire, and the two Nations from the Junior Moiety
sat on the other. Let’s get into how the Council worked. Step 1: Somebody introduces a thing. Am I going too fast? This would normally be a foreign policy thing,
so for the sake of clarity we’re going to pretend that one of the Mohawk Sachems introduced
a peace treaty or something. Step 2: Whichever Nation brought the proposal
would debate the issue among themselves, with everybody else looking on. Multiple speakers were given a chance to make
their case, but eventually, the Sachems within that Nation had to come to some sort of consensus. Without consensus, the proposal died. Step 3: Once a consensus was reached, the
question got passed to the other Nation within the same moiety. In this case, since the Mohawk were in the
Senior Moiety, that would mean the Seneca. For the time being, the Onondaga Firekeepers
remained separate from this process. Within that sibling nation, the same process
played itself out. There was another internal debate, and again,
speakers got a chance to make their case. Just like last time, the question could not
proceed until there was consensus. Now it starts to get complicated. If the two Nations within the same moiety
came to different consensuses, they would have to start the whole thing over again. Step 4: If that moiety reached a consensus,
the issue got kicked across the fire for the other moiety’s consideration. That moiety, in this case the Junior Moiety,
would debate as one, and the issue would not proceed until they reached a consensus. However, and this is key, the two moieties
did not have to reach the same consensuses. Just to keep things interesting, we’re going
to pretend that that happens here. Step 5: Finally, the Onondaga Firekeepers
got to weigh in. As the host Nation, they got to position themselves
as a neutral third party. Just like everybody else, the Onondaga had
to reach an internal consensus. Now, in this case, where the two moieties
disagreed, the Onondaga got to play the role of tiebreaker, and whatever they decided would
become the final result. If, on the other hand, we were in a situation
where the two moieties agreed, one of two things could happen. The Onondaga could simply endorse the group’s
decision, simple enough, or they could send the question all the way back to the beginning
for a second round of debate. If, after that second round, it came back
to them again, they had no choice but to agree. Still with me? It’s complicated, so let’s do a simplified
summary. A person would introduce a question, then
their nation would debate, then their sibling nation would debate, then the other moiety
would debate, then the Onondaga would debate and offer their final approval. Each one of these steps required internal
consensus. Let’s consider the implications of a system
like this. Internally, the Confederacy was extremely
unbalanced. The two most powerful Nations were the Mohawk
and the Seneca, and nobody else even came close. These two Nations also happened to be located
at opposite ends of the Confederacy. So take a moment and think: which situation
would the Haudenosaunee want to avoid at all costs? It makes sense when you look at the map. What they wanted to avoid was the Mohawk taking
one position, the Seneca taking another position, everybody in the middle being forced to pick
a side. A situation like that can lead to a civil
war. Instead, what did they do? They said “Mohawk, Seneca, the group isn’t
even going to discuss your proposal until you two agree.” If the two heavyweights could not reach a
consensus, the smaller Nations never entered the debate. A similar things happened if the proposal
came from the other side of the fire. If there was consensus among the smaller Nations
but the Mohawk and the Seneca couldn’t come to terms, the issue was dropped, nothing happened. What else would the Haudenosaunee want to
avoid? Well, you wouldn’t want the Mohawk or the
Seneca dominating the Council, lest you spawn some kind of Mohawk or Seneca Empire. So how did they stop this? The Council isolated the two most powerful
Nations in the Senior Moiety. Remember, the two moieties did not have to
agree, so if the smaller Nations said one thing, and the powerful Nations said another
thing, the Onondaga, another small Nation, got to break that tie. In other words, if the Mohawk and the Seneca
decided to gang up on the rest of the Council, the smaller Nations could still bypass them. The Council counteracted the imbalance within
the Confederacy. It’s really a remarkable invention. In the early 18th century, the Tuscarora Nation
lost a war against the Europeans, and then migrated north, straight into Haudenosaunee
territory. The Oneida proposed offering the Tuscarora
full membership into the Confederacy. The Tuscarora were also People of the Longhouse. Same language, same culture. It made a lot of sense. Since the Oneida proposed the idea, the Cayuga
were consulted next. After some internal debate, they agreed. With the Junior Moiety in agreement, the proposal
was kicked across the fire to the Senior Moiety, who agreed as well. Finally, the Onondaga Firekeepers were consulted. They gave the thumbs up, and with that, proposal
was adopted. In 1722, the Five Nations became the Six Nations. The Tuscarora were adopted into the Junior
Moiety as a new, youngest sibling. However, in a move that tells us that the
Tuscarora were in no position to negotiate, they were not given any representation on
the Council. Up until the mid-18th century, whenever European
settlers wanted something from the Haudenosaunee, they would would ask to see their chief. If you’re made it this far, you should understand
that that was a confusing request. Which chief? Even if they sent somebody, they couldn’t
make any decisions without first consulting with their Clan Mother, and they certainly
could not conduct foreign policy without the Council’s approval. This centuries long miscommunication was completely
avoidable. In 1811, when DeWitt Clinton delivered his
speech before the New York Historical Society, academia was just beginning to take the Haudenosaunee
seriously. It was long overdue. That’s why he devoted so much time trying
to convince his peers that the Haudenosaunee were, in fact, “the Romans of the Western
world.” It’s unfortunate phrasing, and by now you
understand that it’s not remotely true. What he could have said is “you should take
the Haudenosaunee as seriously as you take the Romans.” After all, unlike the Romans, they’re still
here, still running what can plausibly be called the world’s oldest democracy.

100 thoughts on “The Iroquois Confederacy

  1. As a resident of New York State, we were forced to learn about the Iroquois(Haudenosaunee) peoples in school at an early age. This video really makes me appreciate their peoples and how complex but fascinating the political systems they had into place, more than I ever did as a younger kid. Keep up the great work, the videos are fantastic and I will always support you on Patreon as long as you keep them coming!!

  2. It’s complex and cool but I feel like in some areas it’s very flawed. This could include things like not being able to react quickly enough to a sudden problem or not being able to implement radical change when needed. It’s a very stable system but I think it is too stable making it somewhat questionable. Overall, I would rate western politics more suitable for a prosperous nation (although flawed as well but hey, which political system isn’t!)

  3. So the men make the decisions but you call it 'matriarchal'. The feminist pussyhole- ism strong in this one is mmmMMMMmmm

  4. Uggh that french name. Give em the respect of their right name in the title

  5. Love this video. Where do you get your maps? I'd love to have a high-quality image of North America that's easy to draw boundaries and fill-color in MS Paint.

  6. I am getting a heart attack just thinking about how unstable this confederacy must have been.
    First; there ate two similarities between them and the romans and not in a good way:
    They require consensus on everything, for an example of why this is a bad idea one does not need to look any further than your series on Rome. when Caesar was disobeying the Senate something had to be done and they were able to pass laws on the subject but because it was a polarizing issue people kept vetoing it and that was definitely the wrong option.
    Secondly, there is no separate judicial organization, in Rome this resulted in everyone except Cato bribing people to get elected and there is also the matter of judicial review which is very important.
    There are plenty of non roman issues, too. I am concerned by how locally the power is based. The clan mothers are the real power behind the throne and this would have lead to the confederacy's decline, especially without a federal executive branch able to lead everyone. The voting happening in nations seems bad to me, too. This confederacy is simply too loose to survive without luck and benevolent politicians, and those will not always be present.

    I have more to say but I am going to sleep and will probably never get back to this so please help me by commenting your reasons for why the Haudnosaunee confederacy is unstable.

  7. Basically, it's like England, but there are more speakers and the house has 4 parties that has 2 superparty.

  8. Thank you for doing this great video! I love all your videos, but it's especially neat to see something from the Americas! i look forward to all your new content and I hope you can cover more turtle island tribes in the future.

  9. What stopped Mohawk and Seneca of ignoring the Council and pushing other around?

  10. The most overlooked principle of historical references is that each clan is a family and that there are 49 families, each family has a totem and from the grass roots level each family DID CHOOSE and DEPOSE if necessary the clan mother and PUBLIC SERVANT , which upon the coming of European influence became replaced with the mindset of CHIEF for purposes of propping COLOR of authority into the hands of a few. The consensus of the family was first needed in order for the public servant to take it to the Nation Council, then upon each family’s consensus, the servant of each family would deliberate with the other servants of the nation, each servant carrying the consensus of the family they represented into the deliberation at the nation level.THEN , it would go to the Confederacy level as stated in the video, The people weren’t foolish enough in the beginning to allow their freedoms to be dictated to them by a handful of Chiefs and clan mothers. The name for the servants is Hoyane (ho-yawn-nay) which laterally means he is righteous, no reference at all to chief and clan mother is agoyane (ago-yawn-nay) she is righteous. Additionally, the 50th representative afore mentioned in the video, was the speaker of the Grand council assembled for the nations. There isn’t any one family represented by this Title because it represents all nations together and carried with limited and specific duties to open, recite the agenda , keep the agenda on topic , to summarize the conclusion of the nations assembled , and to close the assembly and that was it, not a CHIEF of all CHIEFS. Again the genuine people of this highly sophisticated concept wouldn’t throw away their freedoms like us modern dumbed down people do.YES I SAID IT!! And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

  11. Has someone studied the durability or longevity of matriarchies compared with patriarchies? Or how durable matriarchies are when in contact with patriarchies?

  12. Wow, I’ve been researching online articles for hours, and nothing has been half as helpful as this was

  13. And this system of government predates the Magna Carta. Great video and channel, thanks!

  14. "Can plausibly be called world oldest democracy".. How is rule by chiefs picked by .. clanmothers (hereditary position I suppose- or did they vote for mothers??) a demoracy? Is it 'murican style democracy – the clanmothers and chiefs rule with permission of their people because they have not been killed with beararms? 😛 OK – "can be plausibly"

  15. Wait. Where are the civil wars? The corruption? The horrifically violent class structure oppressing the common people to extract riches off them whilst they toil? The coups, revolutions, counterrevolutions?

  16. This is awesome! As an Oglala Lakota, this is one of the best pieces on tribal societies I've ever seen. Maybe the story of the Hopewell, Powhatan Confederacy, or Confederated Lakota tribes

  17. Clinton: "The Romans of the western world". uhm the Romans were the Romans of the Western World. The Iroquois might be the Romans of the New World or The Americas etc.

  18. With some adjustment to compensate and modernise the concept of relying on bloodlines, I believe this could set the basis for an amazing governmental system that may work even today, especially well in more moderate sized populations, such as each state. Ingenious concept, really. This deserves to be taught not just in the depths of Anthropology but as part of the history of Natives. This is especially relevant to their interactions with settlers, misunderstandings of this system caused and heightened many issues between them.

  19. Very cool video. You're doing extremely important work. Thank you! Consider signing up with Brave browser. I would love to send you a tip

  20. They basically told Tuscarora "you are on this council, but we do not grant you the rank of master"

  21. Literally rewatched this whole video cause its so interesting. By far my favorite. Its exciting to see something so complicated yet balanced and I love it

  22. So much of native american history seems like it's plagued by weird mistranslations or transliteration that nobody ever bothered to correct.

  23. Really hyped to see your channel growing! Great content!

  24. Can’t say I’ve ever heard someone pronounce Iroquois the way you do. I’ve always heard it as “Ir-o-coy”

  25. I had to watch this for homework, youtube PLEASE do not recommend this stuff on my feed lmao

  26. I had to wait OVER THREE MINUTES before I got to see little squares.
    I don't approve.

  27. “The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms.”

    Socrates (470 – 399 B.C.)

  28. I get the impression there’s a lot of western projection going on in this video. Things like territorially defined nations or government administrators with highly formalized powers and limitations seems like a western projection.

  29. Totally fascinating. I'm from Arkansas so what little knowledge I had was on Cherokee, Osage, Quapaw, Caddo, etc (I believe – long time since high school). Makes me happy and proud to have a lot of Native American heritage and makes me want to learn more, but it's totally sad and devastating the hand the natives were dealt. I believe we could have coexisted – it just seems like any time a more "technologically" advanced civilization comes into contact with another civilization, they destroy/assimilate them.

  30. If you'd like to learn the history, there are plenty of places available to visit within New York State. After all, the Confederacy and Six Nations still exist. You're never too old to learn!

  31. thats an insult to the romans, clinton is a moron, they were hunter gatherers who built a big wigwam, that's it, how they conducted themselves with each other doesn't make them anything like the romans GIVE ME A FUCKING BREAK !!!!!

  32. If he became president the native Americans could have more history in the American education system…

  33. "Longhouse where the most sophisticated structures on the continent"

    Mesoamerica: "Am I a joke to you?"

  34. Weird video. It's only accurate to certain time periods and you get the structure of the "congress" wrong. It was sort of bicameral for a while, split between men and women, which I would have expected you to get given the emphasis on the power of women. But then again, the consulting of whatever chief with the clan mother was not a requirement and it was obviously not a democratic system. A multi-group confederacy is not democratic by definition, and here we get lots of appointments and consensus, which usually has a lot to do with power politics, not elections. This is actually very conservative. It DID bear some resemblance to the Roman system, which had been doing similar things split between patrician and plebian, with more democratic elements, 2,000 years prior.

  35. At the end you say it is plausbile to call it a democracy.

    Arguably at the council, the Sachems have some form of democratic system, but at the more fundamental stages it is unclear.

    The Sachems/Chiefs are appointed by the Clan Mothers, correct? So the council's decision making power derived ultimately from the Clan Mothers.

    So, if it is a 'democracy', then we need to see if the Clan Mother's were given this role due to the will of the people of a particular Clan.

    So, if you are in a Clan, what say did you have over who the Clan Mother was, or was it inherited like a royal position?
    If it is inherited, then the Clan Mothers are participating in a democracy with each other, but not the individual clan members.

  36. It seems this is only a freeze frame of what their government was like when someone with writing showed up. I say this because these nations certainly DON"T predate Athens and AREN"T the oldest democracy. In practice, their government structure is a formalized war of words, and it's debatable how the system would have evolved if their Confederacy grew beyond some scattered communities.

  37. Oh wow. Took it a little too far by the end I'm afraid. Pacifist progressive and beneficial goverment system for sure, but not really a democracy; more like a consensus-based oligarchy with democratic elements in their organization and checks and balances that did not stem from the mandate of the people, but still worked as means to maintain stability.

  38. I am 1/3 Kanien'kehá:ka ( mohawk) but I had the idea of the haudenosaunee Confederacy was the idea of them

  39. The remnants of the Conestoga tribe joined with these nations, after their numbers were decimated by fighting with the colonists. I lived near the Susquehanna river, in N.E. Pa. People still find lots of artifacts in that area. Many of the towns have Iroquois names, Wyomissing, Wyalusing, Tamaqua, Shickshinny, Mocanaqua….a name given to a little girl, Frances Slocum, who was abducted by "Indians" around 1778, and was found living with them over 50 years later. Mocanaqua means Little Bear. You can Google her story. ✌

  40. Wait, they actually debated and reached a consensus?
    No lobbyism, no bribery, no gerrymandering, no backdoor deals? Damn, what an uncivilized confederacy!

  41. How were the Clan Mothers chosen? We’re they elected by the people (or maybe just women?) of each clan?

  42. We represented and encouraged a form of democracy in our own image in the name of our women which carried the seed of our culture.

  43. Kind of an electoral college before the electoral college between separate states before the us states

  44. "The romans of the western world"
    What even is Europe anymore?
    The "Middle world"?

  45. I've watched this video many times. It's one of my favorite videos on this channel. The way the historical information is weaved with the image and sound is nothing short of a work of art.

  46. What happens if the Onondaga propose something? Which way would debate go?

  47. 0:42 I like how you make it felt that the wrongs of past can be righted by learning and understanding history and its truth.

  48. I live in Irondequoit, and I'm quite knowledgeable about "Clinton's Folly." It's nice to see someone get the history of my area correct, for all intents and purposes.

  49. 14:10
    So it's ok for the Haudenosaune to rule without representation but when Britain does it, it's wrong.

  50. Recommend: Take a look at the other / competitor confederacies at this time, such as the Wabenaki confederacy and the Huron nation.

  51. Obviously there are some problems in calling this system a democracy, but considering the age of it, this is a remarkably sophisticated system of governance.
    I love how it maintains its cohesion as a method of representation while simultaneously acting as a large scale metaphor for how they live.

  52. I grew up in northern New York State, and I remember learning about this in jr high. Really well done!

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