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  Important things to remember about Haudenosaunee:

They exist as distinct peoples in the 20th century. The Haudenosaunee are unique in that they maintain one of the very few traditional governments in North America, free from the oppression of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and free from the lunacy of tribal elections. Their leaders are selected according to the oldest constitutional democratic systems. They live a contemporary lifestyle and are not frozen in the past. While they still maintain practices that are rooted in the past, they apply those practices to define their place in the modern world. Their traditional culture is forward thinking, to assure their long-term survival. Their culture allows them to deal with the realities of the modern world, not by embracing any new fad, but continuing to absorb new traditions on their own terms. They, like other peoples, continue to maintain their culture. Culture is not just the relics of the past, but patterns of thought and cycles of behavior that form the basic building blocks of their lives. They, like other peoples, have their own world view. To say they are Haudenosaunee means that they have deep seated beliefs in their traditions and are committed to their survival. They are connected to a living earth and a spiritual universe. They have sacred duties to fulfill. They continue to live on portions of their original territories. Their lands were never conquered by outsiders. They never consented to American or Canadian authority over their territories. Their lands were never placed in trust with the United States, as are most other Indian reservations. Their current territories were defined by four federal treaties. They maintain their distinct laws and customs. Within their territories, where the Council of Chiefs are the sole governing authority, their own laws are in place, not the laws of the United States or Canada. They operate the Grand Council of Chiefs of the Six Nations under the Great Law of Peace which promotes peace, power and righteousness. They have a unique relationship to the United States and other nations. The federal treaties they have are very distinctive and provide the Haudenosaunee with a special status in Indian law. They are independent nations, sovereign and free in their own territories.

Who are the Haudenosaunee?

Haudenosaunee is the general term they use to refer to themselves, instead of "Iroquois." The word "Iroquois" is not a Haudenosaunee word. It is derived from a French version of a Huron Indian named that was applied to their ancestors and it was considered derogatory, meaning "Black Snakes." Haudenosaunee means "People building an extended house" or more commonly referred to as "People of the Long House." The longhouse was a metaphor introduced by the Peace Maker at the time of the formation of the Confederacy meaning that the people are meant to live together as families in the same house. Today, this means that those who support the traditions, beliefs, values and authority of the Confederacy are to be known as Haudenosaunee. The founding constitution of the Confederacy that brought the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk nations under one law. Together they were called the Five Nations by the English, and Iroquois by the French. The Tuscarora joined around 1720, and collectively they are now called the Six Nations. They also refer to themselves as "Ongwehonweh," meaning that they are the "Original People" or "First People" of the land. The Haudenosaunee is actually six separate nations of people who have agreed to live under the traditional law of governance that they call the Great Law of Peace. Each of these nations have their own identity. In one sense, this is their "nationalities." Many of the names that we have come to know the tribes by are not even Indian words, such as Tuscarora or Iroquois. The original member nations are:

  • Seneca, "Onondowahgah," meaning The People of the Great Hill, also referred to as the Large Dark Door
  • Cayuga, "Guyohkohnyoh," meaning The People of the Great Swamp
  • Onondaga, "Onundagaono," meaning The People of the Hills
  • Oneida, "Onayotekaono," meaning The People of the Upright Stone
  • Mohawk, "Kanienkahagen," meaning The People of the Flint
  • Tuscarora, known as "Ska-Ruh-Reh" meaning the Shirt Wearing People
What is the role of the Cheifs?

The Haudenosaunee call the male leaders Roiá:neh (or Caretaker of the Peace). The English word is Cheif. Each nation has a different number of Roiá:neh, but all of the Roiá:neh have the same power and authority. The Roiá:neh is the "voice" of the family clan. Some clans have more than one Roiá:neh. There is no "head" chief. here are other traditional leaders, appointed because of their special skills and are referred to as "Pine Tree Chiefs." Each chief would also have a sub-chief to help him with his duties. The chief's title's rest within the clan and the Clan Mother can remove a delinquent Chief from his position as a fail safe mechanism, but generally a Chief is installed for life. In looking for man to become the chief of the clan, a Clan Mother would look for some one who could be trusted to look after the welfare of the people. It is said that the Chief holds the law, the people and the religion in the palm of their hand. It is a sacred trust and duty to assure the safety of all of that for the generations to come. The following qualities would be make a man a good candidate to become a chief:

  • Pleasant personality
  • Honest
  • Not committed any crimes
  • Must have ability to reason, not acting foolishly
  • Knowledge of what the Confederacy laws represent
  • Knowledge of the ceremonies
  • Must have never left his family
  • Must be able to uphold the Great Law
  • Must be able to represent the people fairly
  • Must be kind hearted
  • Must be able to withstand criticism
What is the role of the Clan Mother?

Peacemaker selected Chiefs and Clan Mothers to represent the clans. The oldest woman of the clan is called the Clan Mother. The clan mother, whose position is hereditary, is responsible for the welfare of the clan. She names all the people of the clan; she holds a position in nominating, installing and removing the male chief, called Hoyaneh, meaning Caretakers of the Peace. She also monitors his actions and counsels the people of her clan. Her job in the past was to arrange marriages, counsel members, select the male candidate for chief, monitor his actions and remove him from office if necessary. The Clan Mother's title rests within the clan and it is usually passed on to her female relatives, looking first at her eldest sisters, other sisters, then her eldest daughter and other daughters to find the one deemed most appropriate to become the next Clan Mother. The rights of the women within a clan include the following:

  • Descent of blood that determines citizenship
  • Possession of official titles for clan mothers, Roiá:neh, faithkeepers, pine tree chiefs and war chiefs
  • Own the home and all of the furnishings
  • Children belong to her family
  • Use of clan lands
  • Food distribution
  • Right to nominate, confirm, and depose male chiefs
  • Right to adopt foreigners or prisoners
  • Power to forbid brothers and sons from going to war
  • Power to grant life or death of prisoners
  • Power to maintain the national resources
  • Right to burial grounds for sons, brothers, daughters and sons
What are Clans?

The clan is the basic unit of social organization among the Iroquois, with the women holding primary responsibility for the function of the clans. A clan is a group of families that share a common female ancestry. Members of one clan are considered relatives and intermarriage in the same clan is forbidden. Clans are named after animals that have special assistance to the people - water (Turtle, Eel, Beaver); land (Bear, Deer, Wolf), sky (Snipe, Heron, Hawk). Clanship identity is very important to the Haudenosaunee. Children inherit the clan of their mother. 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 Indian man marries a non-Indian, their children will not have a Haudenosaunee nationality nor a clan. Identity can be seen as a series of concentric circles. In the center is the fireside family (mother and father and sisters and brothers); next is the extended family (clan); next is nationality (the nation); then is union of nations (Haudenosaunee). Each nation has a different number of clans, with all having the turtle, bear and wolf clans. Each clan may have more than one Roiá:neh. As an example, among the Mohawk, there are three turtle Roiá:neh, three wolf Roiá:neh, and three bear Roiá:neh, making nine chiefs altogether that make up their national council of chiefs, who serve as the Mohawk delegates to the Grand Council of Chiefs. The Onondaga have 14 Roiá:neh; the Seneca have 8; the Cayuga have 10; the Oneida have 9; and the Tuscarora have 6.

What is the Grand Council?

It is the assembly of the fifty chiefs of the Confederacy that represent all of the clans of all of the member nations. In the past, the Grand Council met yearly to resolve disputes between member nations and plan mutual strategies to protect the member nations and the welfare of the people. Today, the Grand Council still meets regularly at Onondaga, which is considered the capitol of the Confederacy. There is another Grand Council on the Canadian side at the Grand River Reserve that has been in operation from about 1784, when nearly half of the Haudenosaunee left their homelands to live in Canada after the Revolutionary War. Both councils agree that the central fire and the position of Tododaho rests within the Onondaga Nation, located near Syracuse, NY.


Text: © Haudenosaunee Resource Center     |    Used with permission from Haudenosaunee Resource Center

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