THE IROQUOIS FEDERATION
13. Daganoweda's Plan. We have already mentioned that the Iroquoian nations located in the
region southward of Lake Ontario were, during the fourteenth century, engaged in a long series of
wars among themselves over the control of the region they had occupied.
In accordance with the regular habit of the eastern tribes in war time, peace conferences were
convened every time a war broke out, resulting in a constant and rapid alternation of peace and war.
A peace conference convened and made peace, then dissolved when its work was done; then new
causes of difference arise, starting another war, to be ended in Its turn by another peace conference,
and so on endlessly.
An Onondaga by the name of Daganoweda, living near where is at present located the city of
Syracuse, had noticed this everlasting alternation of peace and war, and thought something ought to
be done about it. His habits of dreaming and meditating, and doing nothing had resulted in his being
looked down on as a dreamer, if not slightly insane; but still he persisted with his dreaming. As he
meditated over the fact that the frequent peace conferences could stop wars, but that the wars
returned when the peace conferences went home, he thought that those five neighboring and related
nations, which should by rights be brothers instead of enemies, could possibly be kept at peace if
only the peace conference could be made a permanent organization.
This Idea is a simple one after it has been in practice four hundred years; but only a visionary
like Daganoweda could have originated a plan which, at the time, seemed so impossible and bizarre.
And this Idea was a step in advance such as would be difficult to parallel in the entire world's
history of social and civil organization. Daganoweda's plan¯the permanent peace conference
governing the relations of several independent units¯has since come to be known as Federation,
and its importance can hardly be exaggerated. It was distinctly American in origin, and America has
always remained its home, attempts at imitating it elsewhere having almost invariably been
But the originator of this remarkable plan was without any means of having it carried out. In
the first place, with his reputation as an idle dreamer, he could hardly expect a good hearing from
the Onondagas; in the second place, Daganoweda was himself a stutterer, and without any
persuasive ability, so that he could not expect to get any hearing for his ideas, even apart from his
But Daganoweda had a friend named Hayowentha (now more generally known as Hiawatha),
who became interested in Daganoweda's idea, and who was resolved to find some way of getting
the plan adopted. The two friends first discussed the details of such a plan, so that a complete and
practicable plan of union could be presented to the Iroquois nations. The development of the plan
was mainly Hiawatha's, and he based his idea of the federative plan on what he thought was its most
persuasive feature, that such a union could make the Iroquois the most powerful people in the land.
Hiawatha's Idea was thus the formation of a greater and stronger Iroquois nation, where the dreamer
Daganoweda had been thinking of a way to prevent future wars. Hiawatha was thinking of war, and
Daganoweda of peace; Hiawatha's was a super-national, and Deganoweda's an international, idea.
As the plan was finally worked out, it was the joint creation of both men, but depending on
Hiawatha, the only orator of the two, for any chance it might have of adoption. As the plan was thus
formed, the common council that was to result from Daganoweda's proposed permanent peace
conference was not merely to preserve peace between the five nations, and to govern and arbitrate
between those nations and their members, but also to make common cause against the enemies of
any of the five nations, to treat with outside nations as a unit, and to supervise defeated nations to
prevent their arming again for war. And, where Daganoweda would have liked his federation to be
open to any nation that wanted the benefits of permanent peace, it became transformed in
Hiawatha's hands into a union open only to nations of Iroquois language and race.
Both planners were working together, though, on the main principle of federation, and to
prevent internecine warfare among the Iroquois nations. Thus the plan was worked out in detail,
after long discussions between the two men, as a combination of the two tendencies. The hardest
part of the task, that of carrying it into execution, was yet to come.
As the Onondagas doubted even Hiawatha's complete sanity on account of his association with
Daganoweda, it proved useless to try to persuade them. So Hiawatha worked out a plan to campaign
for the federation idea in some other Iroquois nation―it being understood that he himself would
have to do all the actual campaigning, and take Daganoweda along to act as a "coach." Of course, it
appeared even more difficult to get attention from perfect strangers than from their own people,
especially as, in another nation, they might be regarded as enemies or plotters. But they took the
chance, and left secretly one night for the Oneida country, disguised as couriers to facilitate their
admission among the Oneidas as well as to give more weight to their words.
The tribal council of the Oneidas proved more willing to listen to the new idea than the
Onondagas had been, and they thought the proposition was a very good one. They were willing to
have the idea presented the next time a peace conference was called, and would introduce the two
proponents of the idea, so that they, could present their own plan in person.
This opportunity came a few years later, when, after one of the usual wars among the five
nations, a peace conference was called an usual, and all the sachems of all five nations were
assembled on the shore of Lake Onondaga. There the Oneida sachems introduced the two
Onondagas, Hiawatha and Daganoweda, who had a peace plan which they hoped would make a
lasting peace between the five Iroquois nations. Hiawatha presented the plan as he and Daganoweda
worked it out. The Onondagas were quite surprised to see the two men they had despised coming
back so prominently, but even their objections were apparently met when they found that the
Onondagas were to be given first place in the new federal council.
14. Formation of the Federation. Thus was formed a true federation of nations, far the first
time in the history of the world. The federal council was simply a joint meeting of the sachems of
all the tribes, that is to say, the five tribal councils meeting in joint session. Unanimous agreement
was required before any action could be taken, although single nations might adopt a measure that
had the approval of all their sachems, even if it failed to pass the entire federal body.
The delegates to the federal council were the various sachems of genses in the various nations,
chosen in the old traditional way; that is, the sachemship passed from uncle to nephew, the women
of the constituent gens going through the form each time of electing a new sachem, with the option
of some choice among the nephews. Only men were eligible as sachems, but only women could
vote in the election. Each sachem had to adopt a certain official name that went with his seat in the
federal council, which replaced his former name, and which his successor adopted after him as part
of the office. The two foremost sachemships were named Hiawatha and Daganoweda (reserved for
the federation's founders―the despised names becoming the highest honors of all), and, in their
memory, those vacancies in the federal council were never filled after the founders' deaths, but two
empty places are still left at the council meetings in their honor; there are sixty federal sachemships,
in the Iroquois constitution, but only 58 are actually filled.
The federation was not merely to take charge of the relations between the five Nations, but
also to attend to relations between the Five Nations and outside peoples, and see that the Five
Nations acted in concert in that connection. For arbitration between members of different nations of
the Five, Hiawatha's plan called for a special court, to sit in an isolated village to be used only by
people having court business, the judge to be a girl. This particular form of Federal Supreme Court
was abandoned about fifty years later, when the judge eloped with a young defendant; after which,
special arbitration committees were provided.
As the Iroquois were particularly proud of the difference between their houses and those of
their Algonquin neighbors, it was this feature that determined the federation's name. The lroquois,
instead of living is small tepees like their neighbors to the westward, or in single-family wooden
houses like their Penacook neighbors to the east, lived in "long-houses," the prototype of the log
cabins which the white peoples used in the southern mountains where an isolated section of the
Iroquoian stock had gone. These long-houses were "apartment houses," long log cabins divided into
numerous apartments by crosswise partitions, and the residents of apartments in the middle had to
pass through all intervening apartments to get in or out. But, in spite of this noticeable lack of
privacy, and the resulting crowded quarters, the Iroquois considered their mode of housing superior
to the Algonquins' private wigwams, and distinguished themselves as the People of the Long
House. Thus the federation formed an this occasion by the five Iroquois nations was the League of
the Hodenosaunee, the federation of the people of the Long House, and it was represented on
wampum writings by a design of a long-house.
An important feature of the Iroquois Federation was the qualification for admission into the
union. The federation was originally presented by Hiawatha, and accepted by the Five Nations, on
the ground that they were really estranged brothers having a family reunion; so that the Iroquois
considered common origin and common language the important criterion for admissibility of a
nation into their federation. It was on the basis of this criterion that the Iroquois federal council
constantly advised the British colonies in America to federate, because those colonies all had
migrated from the same homeland, and spoke the same language. When the Tuscarora nation asked
for admission to the Long House federation, in 1719, the community of language was first
established, and then Tuscarora traditions of early migrations were examined to establish the claim
that their ancestors had come from the Iroquois people.
Such a federability test―practically an issue of ancestry―is what might be expected from
nations whose chieftainships were hereditary. In the case of the British colonies, when they finally
federated according to that standard of federability, their federation showed from the very beginning
a wide rift which at one time amounted to actual civil war; thus suggesting that the Iroquois
federability test is not necessarily the most practical one. But, as in the Iroquois case the federability
test by ancestry followed from their hereditary sachemships, it might be expected that, when the
principles of federation and democracy were finally combined, a different sort of federability test
developed to fit the new circumstances. This new step, that of a democratic federation, was another
great forward step, soon to be taken by the red people of this continent.
15. Iroquois Empire and Counter-Federation. The Iroquois federation was the first time in
history that a true federation, a real nation of nations, was formed. It was a combination that
surrounding nations were unable to withstand, since a war between the Hodenosaunee and a
neighboring nation was always an Iroquois victory, for the enemy would be outnumbered five to
one. Thus the Iroquois federation was soon surrounded by a large number of conquered nations,
definitely defeated where before they could at the most have been raided. The new problem arose of
dealing with those nations.
There was no attempt at occupying or ruling the defeated nations, as would have been done in
other parts of the world where property or slavery were recognized. Instead, it was merely
attempted to render the defeated nations harmless as future enemies by forcing them to disarm; and
the Hodenosaunee exercised just enough supervision over the former enemy to prevent those
nations from arming or making war. Defeated nations were similarly not allowed to negotiate
treaties: but the Five Nations undertook both defense and diplomatic relations for the nations whom
they thus rendered helpless. But those nations were otherwise allowed to continue governing
themselves. A strong analogy to the Territories of the United States suggests itself.
Thus the Iroquois soon gathered a fair-sized empire around themselves. The subjected nations
formed a ring of buffers for the Iroquois, who could thus unite to repel all possible invaders long
before they could come near the Iroquois territory proper. It is true that the disarmed nations around
the outskirts of the Iroquois empire proved tempting bait for the attacks of enemies, but an invasion
of the unarmed border resulted usually in a defeat by the superior forces of the federation, and
frequently a new addition to the Iroquois empire. This use of an unarmed border is probably unique
in the world's history, but it seems to have been the prototype of the later unarmed border which has
succeeded in preserving peace between the 'United States and Canada for over a century, and which
incorporated part of the Iroquois border.
Thus the League of the Hodenosaunee became, shortly after its formation, the master of
territory extending from the Connecticut River on the east to the Cuyahoga River on the west. The
population of this empire is estimated at about 400,000―more persons than were under any single
national rule anywhere in America north of Mexico, for almost two hundred years after that. Thus
the Iroquois, by this apparently visionary scheme of the dreamer Daganoweda, became the most
powerful nationality in North America, and, as we shall see, were later strong enough to shift the
balance of world power.
To nations outside the spread of the Iroquois empire, however, the rapid spread of that empire
became alarming. In many cases they were forced to seek some plan of protecting themselves as
late as the last moment, when danger had already gone too far. The only successful procedure was
the adoption of the enemy's tactics, and federate as the Iroquois did, meeting the menace with
another federation, another nation of nations.
Thus the red nations gradually began forming federations in all directions around the Iroquois
empire. The Lenape federation on the seacoast to the southeast, the Pottawatomie federation still
farther south, the Ottawa and Illini federations to the westward, the Penacook federation beyond the
Connecticut River, and the Wabanake federation still farther east, were all cases of how this process
worked. Each such federation became in its turn a center around which more counter-federations
had to be built, and it is very probable that, had the transatlantic invasion been delayed for two or
three hundred years―had it taken place, for instance, in the twentieth instead of the seventeenth
century―the entire continent of North America might have been covered with federations of red
nations, and those federations in turn might have been able themselves to federate into a superfederation,
by way of a peace pact similar to that between the Iroquois nations so that, in such a
case, the invasion from Europe would have met with a formidable, gigantic nation of red men,
which would have made it difficult for any colonization to take root in North America. The old
Mound-Builders' empire had recently been destroyed when the Iroquois federation was begun; what
originated in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was the germination a new national power,
erected on a federative basis.
But, as it was, federation among the red nations was not allowed to reach its full development,
on account of the invasion from Europe pouring in during the interregnum between the destruction
of an empire and the formation of a large federative super-nation of independent nations. Either
much before or much after the seventeenth century, such an invasion could not have been
successful; which may explain why the invasion did take place at that particular time. But the white
invaders of North America were themselves not exempt from the necessity of counter-federating in
the same way as the red nations in the northeastern part of the continent were forced to do. Thus the
white invasion of that section of North America was a series of attempts to federate finally resulting
in the formation of a great federated nation such as no other part of the world could possibly
16. Federation as a New Departure. The institution of federation of independent nations,
uniting nations under a central control without the separate individual nations giving up any
measure of their independence, was something never before known, as far as any historical records
or traditions indicate. Of course, it had frequently happened that nations had become united by
conquest; or a nation might set up administrative subdivisions; but, in either case, there was no
independence of the units. Sometimes the leadership of one nation over a group of neighboring but
weaker nations might simulate federation to some extent, as has been the case with Germany and
Russia; but, in such cases, the domination of the leading nation is the underlying motif of the entire
unity, and is rather an incomplete conquest than an actual federation. There have also been alliances
between nations; but these differ from a federation in having no federal authority which is as
supreme in its field as the separate nations are in theirs. But none of these things are true federation.
Federation―a group of nations retaining their national independence, but submitting themselves for
certain specific purposes to a central organization representing all of them was never before tried. It
was definitely a plan first put into operation by the Iroquois, and which has become a standard form
of governmental organization in North America; though (with the exception of Australia, whose
federative features were definitely copied from America) it was never either completely adopted or
understood outside America.
A peculiar idea that grew naturally out of federation was that of limiting the authority of a
government. In a federation, some agreement must be reached or understood delimiting the exact
functions of the federal organization, as well as of the individual member nations; so that a
successful working federation implies a government with definite limitations to its authority. This is
also a conception peculiar to America, and (again with the exception of Australia) never known
elsewhere. And likewise the idea of a written constitution specifying the exact functions of a
government and defining limits which it must not overstep, is one that originated from the Iroquois
Federation, where it is represented by the wampums which recorded the terms of the peace treaty by
which the federation was formed. No such documents were ever known to have been drawn up
before; and the numerous written constitutions that now are found in so many parts of the world,
defining the form of organization of most present-day governments, are all directly or indirectly
following the Iroquois precedent, and in many cases the outstanding features of most written
constitutions can be traced to the constitution of some red federation. But it is the Iroquois
Federation that started all this train of ideas―federation of nations, disarmament of borders, written
constitutions, limitations of the power of governments―in short, it was this which laid the
foundation for most of the modern advances in the art of government. And the idea of federation,
wherever it has proved workable, has shown itself to be unequalled as a means of both preserving
internal peace and securing external protection.