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Leadership and Government in Iroquois Society

The Iroquois Nations are significantly different than plains Aboriginal groups such as the Kainai (Blackfoot) or Cree. The main difference is that the Iroquois Nations were matrilineal in decent meaning that the clan mother held a significant position in the role of social and political life. The clans were a matriarchy meaning that family names were passed down on the women’s side and children belonged to the women’s side. The clan mothers selected individuals to act as representatives in tribal meetings. Iroquois women participated as equals in tribal meetings and were consulted on all matters of importance within their community and the Confederacy (League of Six Nations). Clans are named after animals that have special significance or have served in a special assistance to the people for water there was the turtle, eel, or beaver. Other clans were assisted by land animals like bear, deer, or wolf. Clans focused on the sky were represented by the snipe, heron, or hawk. If a Mohawk woman of the Wolf Clan marries a Tuscarora man of the Beaver Clan, their children will be Mohawks of the Wolf Clan. If a Tuscarora woman marries a Tuscarora of he beaver clan, their children will be Tuscaroras of the Beaver clan. If a First Nations man marries a non-First Nations woman, their children will not have a Haudenosaunee nationality or a clan.

Iroquois women also had the ability to nominate Chiefs and to have them removed from leadership if they failed to perform their duties. Women controlled the distribution of food and resources as well.

The Iroquois Confederacy consisted of six independent nations: Mohawk, Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, Onondaga, and Tuscarora, initially there were five nations as the Tuscarora joined later on. These first five Nations were divided into two groups: the Elders, consisting of the Mohawk, the Onondaga and the Seneca, and the Younger, the Oneida and the Cayuga. The Iroquois constitution is known as the Great Law of Peace and was orally passed down through the use of wampum belts, which are beaded belts that tell their history. Around the 18 th century the Great Law of Peace was written down. The government structure of the Iroquois is based on representation and consensus.

The clan mothers of the six different tribes appoint Council members to serve on behalf of their tribe. These positions are named after the original holders of the post, and each of the clans are named after animals. The posts are eternal and only the occupants temporal; that was, the office was more important than the office holder was. Certain men could be elevated to the level of Pine Tree Chief or War Chief through great deeds, though they were not allowed to decide matters at the Council Fire, only offer input. The representation on the Council was not equal amongst the tribes. The Onandaga have 14 members, the Cayuga 10, the Mohawk and Seneca nine each, and the Oneida eight. Even though membership was not equal in numbers, each tribe was equal in importance at the Council Fire. The Council Fire works on consensus agreement, not majority rule. Essentially, each tribe has veto power, so there is no concern about the unequal numbers of representatives.

Any delegation can bring up any matter for discussion, and if as little as one other tribe wished to discuss it, then the whole Council of Fifty was obliged to hear it. The Older Brothers would consider the topic first, and then informed the Younger Brothers of their opinions. If the Younger Brothers, after conferring, agreed, they would pass the opinions to the Onandaga for confirmation or re-referral to the Older Brothers for more discussion. In this way, members were to be of "one heart, one mind, and one law." If consensus can not be reached, the Onandaga extinguished the Council Fire, and the tribes are free to act anyway they saw fit, as long as they did not harm the other tribes. In this way, there is a system of checks and balances amongst the tribes, de-centralization of power, and retention of internal sovereignty of the tribes with the League.

Taken from Cook, Brian (2000) Iroquois Confederacy and the influence thesis Native Americans: past and present New Hampshire U. S. A.: Campton Elementary School

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