Great Empires of North America, Part 6: Masters of the Plains
Previous Kingship, Knowledge, and the Path to Gnosis
They created North America’s first democracy, and played chess with European empires. Meet the Iroquois — the Northeast’s unstoppable Native confederacy.
He was called the Peacemaker – and people would later say he was born of a virgin.
to anguish by his people’s ceaseless cycle of warring, kidnapping and
torture, he “set his teeth together,” and wandered in the wilderness for
One afternoon he reached a clear, smooth-flowing stream, where he knelt to pray.
The man looked up and saw a great white eagle, eyeing him keenly.
of the eagle’s feathers drifted down, and the Peacemaker picked it up
and planted it in the ground, saying, “This shall represent the Great
Idea: our people must cease arguing with one another. They must unite
under the Tree of Peace. They must live in harmony and justice.”
Peacemaker traveled from town to town, preaching his message to all who
would listen – but many scoffed at his suggestion that they should give
up their wars and blood sacrifices, and live in peace with one another.
all began to change when a young warrior named Hiawatha, mad with grief
over the slaying of his daughters, fled into the forest, and ran
straight into the Peacemaker.
Did this meeting happen by chance – or was it fate? No one knows.
Peacemaker spoke powerful Words of Condolence over Hiawatha, drying the
tears from his eyes, opening his ears to hear, and opening his throat
it was Hiawatha who went forth as the prophet of the Great Idea,
visiting each of the Five Peoples in turn, speaking the magical Words of
Condolence over them, and converting them one by one to the ways of
In one village, Hiawatha met an old sorcerer named
Tadadaho, the Hater of All Mankind. Tadadaho had gone insane with rage,
and constantly incited his people to war. So filled with hate was
Tadadaho that his hair had become a tangle of snakes.
But Hiawatha combed out the tangled snakes, whispering the Words of Condolence in the sorcerer’s ear.
the time he was finished, the old sorcerer had let go of his rage, and
became the chief council member of a new society founded on the
This new society – co-founded by the Peacemaker, Hiawatha, and a mysterious woman named Jigonsaseh
– would come to be known as the Great League of Peace and Power, or the
League of Five Nations. Later, English colonists would name its people
the Iroquois Confederacy.
In their own tongue, these people called themselves the Haudenosaunee — the People of the Longhouse.
their empire was modeled on the structure of the longhouse – a
bark-lined building as long as a football field, where entire clans of
Iroquois people lived, worked, sheltered from the winter cold, and
gathered around a great central fire to tell tales.
The center of the Haudenosaunee “Great Longhouse” was the Hudson River Valley, in the area that would someday be called New York. To the west, the Senecas and Cayugas controlled their own river valleys – and to the east, the Mohawks and Oneidas controlled theirs.
Musical accompaniment for this story:
In the heart of the Hudson Valley, the Onondaga Nation kept watch over the sacred council fire, where the fifty great sachems (chiefs) of the Five Nations assembled for annual councils.
Where once they made war, they now sought to soothe grievances with the Words of Consolation.
And on the whole, the Haudenosaunee “Longhouse” worked astonishingly well for centuries.
For hundreds of years (some experts estimate the founding of the League as early as 1142), the Five Nations apparently maintained an unbroken peace – transforming the Northeast from a battleground to a cultural melting pot, where trade and agriculture thrived on an unprecedented scale.
Trade and treaties were ratified through wampum belts, which served a wide range of purposes.
These belts, woven with wampum –
a type of bead made from the shells of sea snails and clams – were
originally presented to bereaved families, in order to avert a mourning
war. Over time, however, wampum belts evolved into a form of quasi-currency, exchangeable for goods and services throughout the “Great Longhouse.”
Powerful families often collected wampum belts – particularly ones with purple beads made from the shell of the rare quahog clam – and displayed them with pride. Many sachems even wore their most prized wampum belts in public, as symbols of office and demonstrations of clout.
These two institutions — assemblies and wampum belts — helped transform the Five Tribes into the Great League of Peace.
But like the Pax Romana
of the Roman Empire, Haudenosaunee ideals of peace and prosperity
applied only to their own citizens – never to the outside world. While
tribal sachems spoke Words of Consolation, the League’s armies waged relentless war on the surrounding Algonquian peoples.
like the Romans before them, the Haudenosaunee preserved certain sacred
traditions from their not-so-peaceful past. They believed with great
conviction that if a warrior’s death in battle went unavenged, that
warrior’s family would quite literally go insane with grief.
And so, every year, Haudenosaunee raiding parties waged their infamous “mourning wars.”
wars served a highly practical purpose: to replace warriors lost in
battle with captives from neighboring tribes. Killing was seen as a
regrettable last resort – which was, nevertheless, sometimes unavoidable
in the heat of battle.
Male and female captives would be marched back to Haudenosaunee villages, where their fates would be decided one by one.
a bereaved family was in a forgiving mood (or in desperate need of more
skilled hands), they might adopt a captive as a “nephew” or “niece.”
These honorary family members were treated as full members of the
village – and might even join the mourning wars themselves later in
Many captives, however, suffered a crueler fate. As bereaved
families hurled curses in their faces, these captives would be painted
red and black, tied to poles at the center of the village, and tortured
to death while grieving mothers, fathers and children watched in grim
cycle of war, capture, and (sometimes) adoption achieved far more than
just assuaging the grief of bereaved families. As the years went by, it
helped launch a population explosion among the Haudenosaunee.
Soon, the mighty armies of the Haudenosaunee erupted outward across the Northeast America.
exact timeline of their expansion is unclear, since our main source is
oral tradition – but by the 1530s, the Haudenosaunee controlled
territory as far west as Lake Ontario, as far south as Virginia, and as
far north as Canada: upwards of 4,000 square miles (10,300 sq. km.) in
the time French explorer Jacques Cartier arrived in the Hudson Valley
in the 1530s, the Haudenosaunee numbered in the tens of thousands,
supported by a thriving agricultural complex, and supplementing their
population with a booming trade in war captives.
Haudenosaunee clans lived in fortified hilltop compounds surrounded by palisade walls.
those walls stood four or five longhouses, each housing a matriarchal
clan consisting of thirteen to sixteen families. Every clan was named
for a totem animal (such as Bear, Hawk or Deer), and tended to
specialize in a particular trade, such as hunting or fishing.
Haudenosaunee men were also famous for their prowess at a game known as O-tä-dä-jish′-quä-äge (a.k.a. lacrosse). Teams were made up of members of two sets of clans, each of which tried to throw a deer skin through a goal with a netted stick.
women were experts at cultivating the Three Sisters – maize, beans and
squash – along with gardens of artichokes, leeks, cucumbers, turnips,
pumpkins, and berries. They also perfected the art of harvesting maple
sap and boiling it into delicious syrup.
Each village’s women
managed domestic life – which meant not only cooking, sewing, and
tanning hides, but administering the entire household. Clans were
matrilineal (tracing descent through the mother, not the father), and
when a man married, he went to live in the longhouse of his wife’s
For Haudenosaunee men, the most honorable occupation was the making of war.
Haudenosaunee man might be a mighty hunter, a brilliant fisherman and a
clever builder – but he had little hope of marriage or social
advancement until he joined a mourning war, and dragged home captives of
his own for adoption or torture.
spirituality centered around the Great Spirit, who gave life to animals
and weather, and the Three Sisters, who made the crops grow. The People
of the Longhouse also believed in a life-giving essence called Orenda.
This Orenda essence flowed through all things, and could be sculpted and controlled with the right rituals.
of those rituals, such as the New Year Festival, served the dual
purpose of summoning Orenda and banishing evil spirits – accomplished by
burning sheaves of tobacco and dancing in False Face Masks. Each mask
served a unique and powerful purpose, and could only be worn by a member
of the False Face Society.
But the traditional Haudenosaunee world was rapidly crumbling beneath new ideas and ways of life.
the early 1600s, French traders – and their muskets and luxury goods –
had become a familiar presence in eastern New York. The nearby Huron and
Algonquin peoples enjoyed a booming fur trade with these newcomers, who
feared to tread too far into Haudenosaunee territory.
Haudenosaunee weren’t about to miss out on such a lucrative market.
Throughout the 1610s, they directed their mourning wars toward a more
focused purpose: the capture of muskets and other exotic European
treasures from the Hurons and Algonquins.
Until now, Haudenosaunee contact with Europeans had been mostly indirect, through trade goods.
Five Nations had certainly acquired a taste for fine-toothed combs,
silk shirts, and other European luxuries. They’d also suffered several
outbreaks of European smallpox (from these trade goods, and/or through
contact with infected Huron and Algonquin traders).
But the Haudenosaunee heartland remained gloriously free of European encroachment.
That all changed in 1613, when a party of Dutch traders sailed right into the heart of Haudenosaunee country, set up a trading post, and cheerfully began trading with all customers – regardless of their tribal affiliation.
It didn’t take long for the Dutch newcomers to figure out which way the political wind was blowing.
The Dutch quickly learned that the Haudenosaunee – particularly the Mohawk Nation who ruled the east end of the “Great Longhouse” – were engaged in on-and-off war against the local Mahican people.
Although Dutch traders did their best to organize a treaty between the two nations, leaders on both sides fiercely contested their rights to certain riverside areas. Soon the negotiations erupted into open war.
This Mohawk-Mahican war became the first of many armed conflicts sparked by the interference of European colonialists.
the Haudenosaunee had engaged in mourning wars since time immemorial,
they now fought for control of a highly profitable resource – the
European contact had set off a vicious
cycle: to hold onto their power in the region, the Haudenosaunee needed
to control the trade in pelts. To do that, they needed muskets to fight
the surrounding peoples (and the Europeans), who had muskets of their
As the pace of change accelerated, so did the viciousness and deadliness of the fighting.
at the peak of the conflict, a pestilence struck. An unstoppable wave
of smallpox swept through almost every Haudenosaunee village. The very
old and very young were the first to perish – but by the early 1640s, at
least half of all Haudenosaunee people lay dead.
great dying set off a further cycle of mourning wars, in which
Haudenosaunee warriors desperately sought to repopulate their failing
villages with captives from the Hurons, the Wyandots, and any other
tribe they could raid.
In the early 1660s, as many as two-thirds of the people in a Haudenosaunee village were captives from other tribes.
wasn’t just village life that had changed. More than 3,000 French
colonists now dwelled in settled towns along the East Coast, which they
dubbed “New France.” Black-robed Jesuit priests were converting many
Algonquin people to the worship of their strange European God.
the French were only one tribe of Europeans to be dealt with. The
British, who had already established colonies (Jamestown, Plymouth and
Virginia) south of Haudenosaunee territory, now founded a colony called
Connecticut just east of the Hudson Valley – right in the eastern
doorway of the “Great Longhouse.”
The English, for their part, were struggling with an entirely different warrior confederation: the Wampanoag.
These Algonquian-speaking people had famously helped the English colonists survive their first winter in New England – but as the English continued to expand throughout the region, the Wampanoag had begun to turn against their colonizers.
In the early 1670s, the Wampanoag were led by a new leader named Metacom (a.k.a. “King Philip”), who believed the European colonists would take over all local land, culture and religion unless they were driven out.
And so, the Wampanoag went to war. Hundreds of English and Wampanoag warriors died in the ensuing conflict – and it wasn’t long before the English turned to the Haudenosaunee for help. In 1676, an army of Mohawks arrived on the field, routed Metacom and his army, and drove the Wampanoag south into New England.
With this victory, the Haudenosaunee had secured their eastern flanks – and they turned again to France and the fur trade.
the British (allegedly) agreed to arm the Haudenosaunee in this renewed
conflict with the French and their allies, the promised muskets and
cannons never appeared.
Even then, the Haudenosaunee refused to
give up. Year after year, the Five Nations assembled the largest armies
they could, and launched a relentless series of guerilla assaults on
French and English outposts in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Virginia.
Haudenosaunee fighters managed to deal some significant defeats to the
French, they found themselves facing an ever-growing, increasingly
well-armed coalition of angry local tribes – including the Western
Iroquois, their own blood relatives –
Along with a French-Canadian military that was, by now, well-versed in the arts of woodland guerilla warfare.
1696, the Haudenosaunee suffered a series of brutal reverses and
defeats in southeastern Canada, and were forced to abandon many of their
villages in the area. By 1701, they were little more than the tattered
remains of a once-mighty confederation.
But soon, the Haudenosaunee would find themselves at the center of the world stage, in a way they’d never been before.
Just a year later, in 1702, war broke out
again between France and England. The British remembered how fiercely
the Haudenosaunee had fought for them before, and sent messengers to the
Mohawk (easternmost of the Five Nations) to secure a new alliance.
The Mohawk were still licking their wounds after their recent military failures – due at least in part, they insisted, to the British reneging on their agreement to provide muskets and cannons for the previous war – and were hesitant to embark on a new alliance that would cost even more warriors’ lives.
But as the tide of war turned against the English, the mayor of New York made a radical move. He arranged for four sachems to take an all-expenses-paid trip to London, where Queen Anne herself would wine them, dine them, and lavish them with gifts, as befitted powerful diplomats.
And so it was that in 1710, “Four Mohawk Kings” were received as visiting dignitaries at the court of St. James’s Palace.
In return for military aid – along with a complement of Anglican missionaries to help their people resist conversion to French Catholicism – the Haudenosaunee agreed to join the English alliance. In 1711, they pushed the French back into Canada as promised – and in 1712, the French signed a treaty ceding Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and the Hudson Bay to the English.
The Haudenosaunee, for their part, were handed over to the English as “sovereign subjects” – vassals in their own homeland.
the 1720s, the English put on a good show of diplomacy – proposing new
alliances every few years, and always making sure to file the correct
paperwork for each new tract of land they snatched out from under the
Haudenosaunee resisted – but by the 1730s, the English outnumbered them
on their own lands. More were arriving every day, pushing westward
across the Shenandoah Valley, shelling out gold from a limitless
treasury in exchange for Haudenosaunee ancestral lands.
Powerless as the Haudenosaunee felt, they tried to make the best of the situation.
taught the English colonists to grow the Three Sisters, and acquired
the arts of growing wheat and oats in return. They took to dressing in
English clothes, and abandoned their longhouse villages to dwell in
Over the next forty years, many
Haudenosaunee families grew accustomed to the comforts of English farm
life: cozy cottages, soft beds, tailored shirts and trousers – and the
steady middle-class incomes that sustained this luxurious lifestyle.
seemed to be looking up. In fact, in 1722, the Tuscarora Nation hitched
their fortunes to those of the League, becoming the official Sixth
Nation, nestled just south of the Onondaga at the heart of the “Great
But then, in 1775, the British colonists declared war on their own king.
first, the Haudenosaunee weren’t sure what to make of this. They’d been
playing the English against the French for more than a century – but
what side should they take in a war of English against English? It was
as if one of the Five Nations had declared war against the others.
very idea seemed unthinkable – but it carried a prescient note. Within
the year, the Six Nations themselves would find themselves torn apart by
this English war. The Oneida and Tuscarora nations chose to side with
the colonists, while the Cayuga, Mohawk, Onondaga, and Seneca allied
with the British.
For the first time since the coming of the Peacemaker, the Nations of the League rode to war against one another.
in so many previous wars, Mohawk raiding parties launched rapid-fire
guerilla strikes against colonial farms and villages, burning crops and
houses, taking many captives, and slaying those they couldn’t capture.
1779, the colonists struck back – under orders from a young general
named George Washington, who commanded the soldiers “not merely [to]
overrun, but destroy” the Haudenosaunee and their British allies.
colonial army swept across the lands of the Longhouse, burning villages
and farms, destroying storehouses, and sending streams of Haudenosaunee
refugees fleeing north to Canada.
By the end of the war, only scattered Haudenosaunee populations remained on American soil.
1783, Britain signed a treaty granting the newborn United States their
independence. For the Haudenosaunee who had fought and died under
American orders, however, the treaty provided nothing – not a single
word guaranteeing them any rights at all.
The Americans, for their part, seemed unwilling or unable to distinguish the Oneida and Tuscarora, who had fought on their side, from the Cayuga, Mohawk, Onondaga, and Seneca, who had fought against them. The “Iroquois” were lumped together as an untrustworthy bunch, worthy of subjugation at best – or extermination at worst.
And by 1794, the Five Nations had signed away all their ancestral homelands to the Americans.
Many settled in woodlands around the Ohio River Valley, where they sank into poverty and alcoholism, watching wave after wave of white settlers pour westward, building cities, damming rivers, and laying railroad tracks across the land the Haudenosaunee had ruled not so long ago.
Haudenosaunee people in Canada fared somewhat better (as did many indigenous peoples who settled north of the U.S. border). Many continued to prosper as fur traders well into the 1800s, while others specialized in the manufacture and sale of riverboats.
by the early 20th century, both Canada and the U.S. were pressuring
native peoples to assimilate into the European population –
appropriating tribal funds, revoking trusteeship over reservation land,
and overruling tribal laws with those of the state.
The battle for Haudenosaunee sovereignty is still far from over.
A 2012 court case determined that the Haudenosaunee gave up their status as a sovereign tribe when they gained U.S. citizenship. As of this writing, the Haudenosaunee are still seeking formal recognition from a U.S. federal court.
And while the Mohawk Nation is officially recognized in Canada, their tribal laws are sometimes ruled unconstitutional by federal authorities – effectively making their sovereign status a toss-up from one case to the next.
Many Haudenosaunee traditions are alive and well — but the struggle for recognition continues.
To this day, Haudenosaunee sachems gather at annual councils to discuss and debate tribal decisions. False Face Societies
are still active in many Haudenosaunee communities, where they perform
the seasonal rituals for the banishment of evil spirits and the
summoning of Orenda.
And while many Iroquoian languages are
extinct or severely endangered in the U.S., more than 3,500 people in
Canada (and some in New York) still speak the Mohawk language, which can be found on road signs and public buildings on Haudenosaunee lands.
Haudenosaunee civilization has also left its permanent stamp on American and Canadian culture.
The prophet Hiawatha has become a legendary figure in American folklore, while his relationship with the Peacemaker forms the story of a popular book.
Lacrosse remains a widely played sport in the northern U.S. and Canada –
where Haudenosaunee athletes are still highly respected.
leaders, for their part, continue to protest their nations’ lack of
recognition from the U.S., Canada and the United Nations. Their protests
are peaceful: they speak the Words of Consolation, and hold up wampum belts to remind colonialists of the treaties they have broken.
the chain of leadership remains intact. And though they have been
displaced from their heartland in the Hudson River Valley –
The sachems of the Onondaga tribe still keep the sacred council fire alight.
P.S. – I want to give an extra-special thanks to artist Robert Griffling, whose evocative paintings appear throughout this article.
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