Flag of the Iroquois

Among the Haudenosaunee (the "Six Nations," comprising the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora peoples) the Great Law of Peace (Mohawk: Kaianere’kó:wa), also known as Gayanashagowa, is the oral constitution of the Iroquois Confederacy. The law was written on wampum belts, conceived by Dekanawidah, known as the Great Peacemaker, and his spokesman Hiawatha. The original five member nations ratified this constitution near modern-day Victor, New York, with the sixth nation (the Tuscarora) being added in 1722.

The laws were first recorded and transmitted by means of wampum, shell-bead belts that encoded the message in a sequence of pictograms. Later, it was translated into English and other languages. The Great Law of Peace is presented as part of a narrative noting laws and ceremonies to be performed at prescribed times. The laws, called a constitution, are divided into 117 articles. The united Iroquois nations are symbolized by an eastern white pine tree, called the Tree of Peace. Each nation or tribe plays a delineated role in the conduct of government.

The exact date of the events is not known, but it is thought to date back to the late 12th century (c. 1190).[1]

Narrative, constitution, and ceremony

The narratives of the Great Law exist in the languages of the member nations, so spelling and usages vary. William N. Fenton observed that it came to serve a purpose as a social organization inside and among the nations, a constitution of the Iroquois Confederacy or League, ceremonies to be observed, and a binding history of peoples.[2] Fenton also observed some nine common points focusing more simply on the narrative story line,[2] though Christopher Vecsey identified 22 points shared across some two dozen versions of the narrative or parts of the narrative both direct and indirect:[3]

  1. The Migration and Separation of the People (pre-history of the area)
  2. The Birth and Growth of Deganawida
  3. The Journey to the Mohawks, the Situation, and the Mission Explained
  4. The Mother of Nations Accepts Deganawida's Message
  5. The Cannibal Converts
  6. The Prophets Prove Their Power
  7. Tadadaho the Wizard Prevents Peace
  8. Hiawatha's Relatives Are Killed
  9. Hiawatha Mourns and Quits Onondaga
  10. Hiawatha Invents Wampum
  11. Hiawatha Gives the Mohawks Lessons in Protocol
  12. Deganawida Consoles Hiawatha
  13. Scouts Travel to Tadadaho
  14. Deganawida and Hiawatha Join Oneidas, Cayugas, and Senecas to Mohawks
  15. The Nations March to Tadadaho, Singing the Peace Hymn
  16. Deganawida and Hiawatha Transform Tadadaho
Constitution of the Confederacy and social order of the member peoples
  1. Deganawida and Hiawatha Establish Iroquois Unity and Law
  2. Deganawida and Hiawatha Establish League Chiefs and Council Polity
  3. The Confederacy Takes Symbolic Images
  4. The League Declares Its Sovereignty (the Constitutional laws of the Confederacy)
  1. The Condolence Maintains the Confederacy (a sequence of ceremonies for grieving over a deceased chief and appointing a new one)
  2. Deganawida Departs

Barbara Mann has gathered versions featuring conflicting but harmonized elements (who does what varies, but what happens is more consistent than not), or stories that tell distinct elements not shared in other versions, into a narrative she includes in the Encyclopedia of the Haudenosaunee published in 2000.[4]

Published accounts


An untranslated version has been posted by the Smithsonian Institution.[5] Another is mentioned being presented to Michael Foster.[6]


There are several Mohawk versions that made it into print and several of those were printed more than once. Horatio Hale published one in 1883 he traced somewhat earlier[7] which was reprinted by William N. Fenton, following Arthur Caswell Parker, in 1968.[8] J. N. B. Hewitt published one in 1928 based on a much earlier fragment.[9] Joseph Brant and John Norton commented on details of the narrative as early as 1801 and published since.[10][11] Dayodekane, better known as Seth Newhouse, arranged for some versions that were published differently near 1900 - first from 1885 included in a book by Paul A. W. Wallace in 1948,[12] and a second version published in 1910 by Arthur C. Parker.[13] Fenton discusses Newhouse' contributions in a paper in 1949.[14] Wallace also published a separate book without stating his source in 1946 called The Iroquois book of Life - White Roots of Peace, which was later revised and extended with endorsements by Iroqouis chiefs and Iroquoian historian John Mohawk in 1986 and 1994.[15]


Oneida versions have been noted in various places. One from New York,[16] has been echoed/summarized by the Milwaukee Public Museum.[17] Another has been published by the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin in two sections.[18] Another account is also reported.[19] Paula Underwood, an oral historian who traces her history to an Oneida ancestor, was also related to Benjamin Franklin. Her familial oral history describing Shenandoah's close relationship and collaboration with Benjamin Franklin on the writing of the US Constitution was published in 1997.[20]


Parts of Horatio Hale's work The Iroquois Book of Rites is said to have Onondaga sources. J. N. B. Hewitt recorded Chief John Buck and included his presentation in 1892.[21] John Arthur Gibson shared several versions that have gathered notable awareness among scholars like Fenton and others. His first version was in 1899.[22] Gibson then participated in a collective version with many Chiefs from the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve in 1900 which was reprinted a number of times: first in 1910/1,[23] and then included in another work.[24] A final version was offered to Alexander Goldenweiser but wasn't finished translated and published until 1992 by Hanni Woodbury.[25]


Newspaper editor[26] William Walker Canfield published a book The Legends of the Iroquois in 1902[27] based on found notes he was given purporting to be written from comments of Cornplanter reportedly to an employee of the surveyor company Holland Land Company, perhaps John Adlum, known friend of Cornplanter.[28] It is the primary source of the mention of a solar eclipse. Another Seneca version was given by Deloe B. Kittle to Parker and was published in 1923.[29]


The Tuscarora joined the Iroquois Confederacy in 1722.[30][31] There is a version of the Great Law of Peace attributed by Wallace "Mad Bear" Anderson of the Tuscarora published in 1987.[32] However, there is a claim this was borrowed.[33]

Influence on the United States Constitution

See also: History of democracy § Indigenous peoples of the Americas

Some historians, including Donald Grinde, have claimed that the democratic ideals of the Kaianere’kó:wa provided a significant inspiration to Benjamin Franklin, James Madison and other framers of the U.S. Constitution. They contend that the federal structure of the U.S. constitution was influenced by the living example of the Iroquois confederation, as were notions of individual liberty and the separation of powers.[34] Grinde, Bruce Johansen and others[35] also identify Native American symbols and imagery that were adopted by the nascent United States, including the American bald eagle and a bundle of arrows.[34] However, eagles and bundles of arrows are common imagery in European heraldry, which is the more likely influence.[36] Their thesis argues the U.S. constitution was the synthesis of various forms of political organization familiar to the founders, including the Iroquois Confederation. Franklin's Albany Plan is also believed to have been influenced by his understanding of Iroquois government.

John Rutledge of South Carolina, delegate to the Constitutional Convention, read excerpts of various Iroquois Treaties to the drafting committee [37] In October 1988, the U.S. Congress passed Concurrent Resolution 331 to recognize the influence of the Iroquois Constitution upon the American Constitution and Bill of Rights.[38]

The extent of the influence of Six Nations law on the U.S. Constitution is disputed by other scholars.[39] Haudenosaunee historian Elisabeth J. Tooker has pointed to several differences between the two forms of government, notably that all decisions were made by a consensus of male chiefs who gained their position through a combination of blood descent and selection by female relatives, that representation was on the basis of the number of clans in the group rather than the size or population of the clans, that the topics discussed were decided by a single tribe. Tooker concluded there is little resemblance between the two documents, or reason to believe the Six Nations had a meaningful influence on the American Constitution, and that it is unclear how much impact Canassatego's statement at Lancaster actually had on the representatives of the colonies.[40] Stanford University historian Jack N. Rakove argued against any Six Nations influence, pointing to lack of evidence in U.S. constitutional debate records, and examples of European antecedents for democratic institutions.[41]

Journalist Charles C. Mann has noted other differences between The Great Law of Peace and the original U.S. Constitution, including the original Constitution's allowing denial of suffrage to women, and majority rule rather than consensus. Mann argues that the early colonists' interaction with Native Americans and their understanding of Iroquois government did influence the development of colonial society and culture and the Suffragette movement, but stated that "the Constitution as originally enacted was not at all like the Great Law."[41][42]

In Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior political anthropologist Christopher Boehm considers the U.S. Constitution to be a counter dominance strategy that allows citizens to dominate their leader rather than the other way around. He also concludes that the Founding Fathers borrowed wisely from the Iroquois government in forming the Constitution.[full citation needed]

Other critics of the Iroquois-influence theory include Samuel Payne, who considered the Iroquois division of powers as seen by Adams as being unlike those in the U.S. Constitution;[43] William Starna and George Hamell, who described errors in Grinde's and Johansen's scholarship, particularly on Canassatego and the Lancaster Treaty;[44] and Philip Levy, who also wrote that Grinde and Johansen had misused Adams's material, stating that he was not describing the Iroquois Confederacy government separation of powers and model of government, but that he was instead describing England's structure.[45]

Example articles

§37: There shall be one war chief from each nation, and their duties shall be to carry messages for their chiefs, and to take up arms in case of emergency. They shall not participate in the proceedings of the Council of the League, but shall watch its progress and in case of an erroneous action by a chief, they shall receive the complaints of the people and convey the warnings of the women to him. The people who wish to convey messages to the chiefs of the League shall do so through the war chief of their nation. It shall always be his duty to lay the cases, questions, and propositions of the people before the council of the League.
§58: Any Chief or other person who submits to Laws of a foreign people is alienated and forfeits all claim in the Five Nations.
§101: It shall be the duty of the appointed managers of the Thanksgiving festivals to do all that is needful for carrying out the duties of the occasions. The recognized festivals of Thanksgiving shall be the Midwinter Thanksgiving, the Maple or Sugar-Making Thanksgiving, the Raspberry Thanksgiving, the Strawberry Thanksgiving, the Corn Planting Thanksgiving, the Corn Hoeing Thanksgiving, The Little Festival of Green Corn, the Great Festival of Ripe Corn, and the Complete Thanksgiving for the Harvest. Each nation's festivals shall be held in their Longhouses.
§107: A certain sign shall be known to all the people of the Five Nations which shall denote that the owner or occupant of a house is absent. A stick or pole in a slanting or leaning position shall indicate this and be the sign. Every person not entitled to enter the house by right of living within upon seeing such a sign shall not enter the house by day or by night, but shall keep as far away as his business will permit.


  1. ^ "Cayuga Nation". Cayuga Nation. Retrieved December 24, 2020.
  2. ^ a b William Nelson Fenton (1998). The Great Law and the Longhouse: A Political History of the Iroquois Confederacy. University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 978-0-8061-3003-3.
  3. ^ Christopher Vecsey (Spring 1986). "The Story and Structure of the Iroquois Confederacy". Journal of the American Academy of Religion. 54 (1). Oxford University Press: 79–106. doi:10.1093/jaarel/liv.1.79. JSTOR 1464101.
  4. ^ Barbara Alice Mann (1 January 2000). "The Second Epoch of Time: The Great Law Keeping". In Bruce Elliott Johansen; Barbara Alice Mann (eds.). Encyclopedia of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy). Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 265–284. ISBN 978-0-313-30880-2.
  5. ^ "Cayuga version of the Deganawida legend 1890 (untranslated)". Manuscript 1582, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution. 2014 [1890]. Archived from the original (pdf) on September 23, 2015.
  6. ^ Denis Foley (2010). "Iroqouis Mourning and Condolence Installation Rituals: A Pattern of Social Integration and Continuity" (PDF). In Christine Sternberg Patrick (ed.). Preserving tradition and understanding the past: Papers from the Conference on Iroquois Research, 2001-2005 (PDF). The New York State Education Department. pp. 25–34. ISBN 978-1-55557-251-8. ISSN 2156-6178. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2015-09-26.
  7. ^ Horatio Hale (1883). "Okayondonghsera Yondennase / Ancient rites of the Condoling Council". In D.G. Brinton (ed.). The Iroquois Book of Rites. Library of aboriginal American literature. Vol. II. D.G. Brinton. pp. 116–145 (plus notes), (in Cayuga, Onondaga, and English)((cite book)): CS1 maint: postscript (link)
  8. ^ Arthur Caswell Parker; William Nelson Fenton (1968) [1883]. "Book Three - The Constitution of the Five Nations". Parker on the Iroquois. Syracuse University Press. ISBN 978-0-8156-0115-9.
  9. ^ John Deserontyon; translated by J. N. B. Hewitt (1928). F. W. Hodge (ed.). A Mohawk Form of Ritual of Condolence, 1782. Indian Notes and Monographs. Vol. 10. Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation. pp. 95–100.
  10. ^ Douglas W. Boyce (Aug 15, 1973). "A Glimpse of Iroquois Culture History Through the Eyes of Joseph Brant and John Norton". Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. 117 (4). American Philosophical Society: 286–294. JSTOR 986696.
  11. ^ John Norton; Carl Frederick Klinck (1970). Carl Frederick Klink; James John Talman (eds.). The Journal of Major John Norton, 1816 (reprint). Publications of the Champlain Society. Vol. 72. Toronto: Champlain Society. pp. 98–105. ISBN 978-0-9810506-3-8.
  12. ^ Dayodekane - Seth Newhouse; Paul A. W. Wallace (October 1948). "The Return of Hiawatha by Wallace". New York History. 29 (4). New York State Historical Association: 385–403. ISSN 0146-437X. JSTOR 23149546.
  13. ^ Arthur C. Parker; Dayodekane - Seth Newhouse (April 1, 1916). "The Dekanawida Legend (1910)". The Constitution of the Five Nations. Albany, The University of the State of New York. pp. 14–60. ((cite book)): |journal= ignored (help)
  14. ^ William N. Fenton (May 16, 1949). "Seth Newhouse's Traditional History and Constitution of the Iroquois Confederacy". Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. 93 (2). American Philosophical Society: 141–158. JSTOR 3143434.
  15. ^ Paul A. W. Wallace (1994) [1946]. White Roots of Peace: The Iroquois Book of Life. Clear Light Publishers. ISBN 978-0-940666-30-6.
  16. ^ North American Indian Travelling College (1984). Traditional teachings. North American Indian Travelling College.
  17. ^ "Oneida Oral History (Adapted from "Our Traditional Teachings", 1984, North American Indian Traveling College: Cornwall Island, Ontario)". Milwaukee Public Museum.
  18. ^ - see Christopher Buck (1 April 2015). God & Apple Pie: Religious Myths and Visions of America. Educator's International Press. p. 391. ISBN 978-1-891928-26-0.
    • Robert Brown – Anahalihs ("Great Vines"); Clifford F. Abbott (Feb 11, 2013). Randy Cornelius (Tehahuko’tha) (ed.). "Kayanla'kó, The Great Law (part 1)" (PDF). Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin. Archived from the original (PDF) on Sep 24, 2015. Retrieved Sep 25, 2015.
    • Robert Brown – Anahalihs ("Great Vines"); Clifford F. Abbott (Feb 11, 2013). Randy Cornelius (Tehahuko’tha) (ed.). "Kayanla'kó, The Great Law (part 2)" (PDF). Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin. Archived from the original (PDF) on Sep 24, 2015. Retrieved Sep 25, 2015.
  19. ^ by Demus Elm, "An Oneida Account of Events Antecedant to the Establishment of the Great Peace" unpublished accounts from 1950 and 1971, translated by Floyd Lounsbury, circa 1990s ("preparing for publication" according to Woodbury in 1992 but Lounsbury died in 1998.)
  20. ^ Underwood, Paula; Franklin Listens When I Speak, published by A Tribe of Two Press, 1997.
  21. ^ J. N. B. Hewitt; Chief John Buck (April 1892). "Legend of the Founding of the Iroquois League". American Anthropologist. 5 (2). Washington D.C.: American Anthropological Association of Washington: 131–148. doi:10.1525/aa.1892.5.2.02a00030. Retrieved Sep 25, 2015.
  22. ^ * John Arthur Gibson; J.N.B. Hewitt (2012) [1899(1900)]. Abram Charles; John Buck Sr.; Joshua Buck (eds.). "Founding of the League; Deganawida tradition". Smithsonian. Retrieved Sep 25, 2015.
  23. ^ Committee of Chiefs of the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve; presented by Duncan Campbell Scott (1911). "Traditional history of the Confederacy of the Six Nations". Proceedings and Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada. 3. 5 (2): 195–246. Retrieved Sep 25, 2015.
  24. ^ Committee of Chiefs of the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve (edited by Arthur C. Parker); Arthur C. Parker (April 1, 1916). "The Code of Dekanahwideh (together with) The Tradition of the origin of the Give Nations' League". The Constitution of the Five Nations. Albany, The University of the State of New York. pp. 14–60. ((cite book)): |author1= has generic name (help); |journal= ignored (help)
  25. ^ John Arthur Gibson; Hanni Woodbury; Reginald Henry; Harry Webster; Alexander Goldenweiser (1992). series editor John D. Nichols; Associate Editor H. C. Wolfart (eds.). Concerning the League: The Iroquois League Tradition as Dictated in Onondaga by John Arthur Gibson. Algonquian and Iroquoian Linguistics. ISBN 0-921064-09-8. ((cite book)): |editor1= has generic name (help)
  26. ^ "WILLIAM CANFIELD, Utica Editor, Dies". New York Times. Aug 28, 1937. Retrieved Sep 25, 2015.
  27. ^ Several versions online:
  28. ^ Robert S. Cox; Philip Heslip (August 2009). "Finding aid for John Adlum Papers 1794-1808". Manuscripts Division, William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan. Retrieved Sep 25, 2015.
  29. ^ Couple versions online:
  30. ^ MacIntyre, James R. (2015). "Tuscorora". In Danver, S.L. (ed.). Native Peoples of the World: An Encyclopedia of Groups, Cultures and Contemporary Issues. Taylor & Francis. p. 501. ISBN 978-1-317-46400-6. Retrieved 28 June 2018.
  31. ^ Ray, C. (2014). The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Volume 6: Ethnicity. University of North Carolina Press. p. 243. ISBN 978-1-4696-1658-2. Retrieved 28 June 2018.
  32. ^ a couple version published:
  33. ^ Edmund Wilson (1959). Apologies to the Iroquois. Syracuse University Press. p. 21. ISBN 978-0-8156-2564-3.
  34. ^ a b Bruce E. Johansen; Donald A. Grinde, Jr. (1991). Exemplar of liberty: native America and the evolution of democracy. [Los Angeles]: American Indian Studies Center, University of California, Los Angeles. ISBN 0-935626-35-2.
  35. ^ Armstrong, VI (1971). I Have Spoken: American History Through the Voices of the Indians. Swallow Press. p. 14. ISBN 0-8040-0530-3. "The New Republic owed a substantial debt to its Native American heritage—for its distinctive American identity, for the concept of federalism, for the practice of state legislatures appointing senators, and for providing a model for unity without imperialism across a vast geographic expanse." p. 215
  36. ^ "On the Origins of America's Great Seal and Its Attributes: Eagle, Arrows, Olive Branch". www.leidenartsinsocietyblog.nl. 2019-07-04. Retrieved 2023-06-22.
  37. ^ Payne, Samuel B. “The Iroquois League, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution.” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 53, no. 3, 1996, pp. 605–20. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/2947207. Accessed 29 May 2024.
  38. ^ "H. Con. Res. 331, October 21, 1988" (PDF). United States Senate. Retrieved 2008-11-23.
  39. ^ Shannon, TJ (2000). Indians and Colonists at the Crossroads of Empire: The Albany Congress of 1754. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. pp. 6–8. ISBN 0-8014-8818-4.
  40. ^ Tooker E (1990). "The United States Constitution and the Iroquois League". In Clifton JA (ed.). The Invented Indian: cultural fictions and government policies. New Brunswick, N.J., U.S.A: Transaction Publishers. pp. 107–128. ISBN 1-56000-745-1.
  41. ^ a b Rakove, J (2005-11-07). "Did the Founding Fathers Really Get Many of Their Ideas of Liberty from the Iroquois?". George Mason University. Retrieved 2011-01-05.
  42. ^ Mann, Charles (2005-07-04). "The Founding Sachems". The New York Times. New York.
  43. ^ Payne, Samuel B. (1996). "The Iroquois League, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution". The William and Mary Quarterly. 53 (3): 605–620. doi:10.2307/2947207. ISSN 0043-5597. JSTOR 2947207.
  44. ^ Starna, William A.; Hamell, George R. (1996). "History and the Burden of Proof: The Case of Iroquois Influence on the U.S. Constitution". New York History. 77 (4): 427–452. ISSN 0146-437X. JSTOR 23182553.
  45. ^ Levy, Philip A. (1996). "Exemplars of Taking Liberties: The Iroquois Influence Thesis and the Problem of Evidence". The William and Mary Quarterly. 53 (3): 588–604. doi:10.2307/2947206. ISSN 0043-5597. JSTOR 2947206. S2CID 146842153.


Further reading

Ganienkeh Territory Council Fire, Onkwehonwe people