Page 2 of 4

1. The Structure Of The Great Law Of Peace In Wampum

      The above illustration shows some of the symbols that the Peacemaker gave to the Haudenosaunee and to Hiawatha who was his spokesperson. (4) Through oral tradition and wampum, the Haudenosaunee date the origins of the Great Law of Peace to be between 1000 and 1400 AD. However, Anglo-American scholars set the date to be, based on written accounts, at about 1450 AD. It is unfortunate that many Anglo-scholars, do not accept wampum belts as a legitimate form of writing, for these symbols when read by the elders, speak volumes.  

      The Peacemaker envisioned the Haudenosaunee as one united extended Longhouse in which each nation had its own hearth. (5) This concept is written symbolically into the Hiawatha belt, which is the broad belt to the right of the tree of Peace in John Fadden's illustration (above). To the novice, the belt looks like interlocking squares on each side of a tree, but to the Haudenosaunee, the entire story of how the Great Law of Peace developed is encapsulated within these symbols.

The Hiawatha belt represents the unity of the original Five Nations and is read from the right to the left. The first square, on the right, represents the Mohawk Nation. The second square represents the Oneida Nation. The heart or the tree in the middle of the Hiawatha belt represents the Onondaga Nation. The square to the left of the tree represents the Cayuga Nation, and the farthest square to the left represents the Seneca Nation. The small white lines that lead away from the Seneca and Mohawk Nations represent paths that welcome others to join the Confederacy. (6) These nations have agreed to follow the Peacemaker's message of the Great Law of Peace.


2. Great Law Of Peace Government Structure

      The Peacemaker provided through the Great Law of Peace, a complex structure allowing for the separation of powers, checks and balances, ratification, public opinion, and equality of all peoples. As the Onondaga Clan Mother, Audrey Shenandoah, states:

Within our society we maintain a balance between the responsibilities of the women, the responsibilities of the men, of the chiefs, of the faithkeepers. All the people in between have a special job to do to help to keep this balance so that at no time do we come to a place within our society where anyone has more power than any of the rest, for our leadership all have equal power. They must be able to listen to one another.(7)

      Each Nation has its own autonomy to deal with its internal affairs, and there is a Grand Council that deals with problems that may affect all of the nations within the Confederacy. (8)


a. The Autonomy Of The Council Of The Mohawk

      In the written accounts of the Great Law of Peace, which merely scratch the surface of what the Great Law of Peace truly contains, the "11th Wampum" of the Great Law of Peace describes the duties and the responsibilities of the Council of the Mohawk. (9) The Mohawk Nation is comprised of 9 chiefs, which are divided into 3 Wolf Clan Chiefs, 3 Bear Clan Chiefs, and 3 Turtle Clan Chiefs.

The Turtle Clan Chiefs get the issue first, and if it is of importance, the matter is discussed and deliberated. When they come to a conclusion, they then pass the issue over to the Wolf Clan for their consideration. If the Wolf Clan agrees upon the solution given by the Turtle Clan, the issue then goes back to the Turtle Clan. The Turtle Clan then takes the solution and gives it to the Bear Clan who have heard the Turtle and Wolf Clan's discussion, and they further discuss the issue. If the Bear Clan Chiefs agree to the conclusion, they then will sanction the agreed upon solution. Therefore, when all of the Mohawks are of one mind, they are in accordance with the Great Law of Peace and the solution is reached through consensus. (10)

      This is an example of the self-autonomy that each nation of the Confederacy possesses to govern the internal affairs of their own nation, and it is similar to the relationship between the United States and each individual state. If one refers back to the Peacemaker's symbols (at the top of the page), one can easily ascertain that what he meant through his message of the one extended Longhouse was that all nations shall be united but each have a separate hearth fire.

b. The Grand Council

      The Grand Council is composed of the original Five Nations and the Tuscarora, who joined the Confederacy in approximately 1714. The Grand Council of the League's "decision-making process somewhat resemble[s] that of a two-house congress in one body, with the 'older brothers' and 'younger brothers' each comprising a side of the house."(11) The Onondaga occupy "an executive role, with a veto that could be overridden by the older and younger brothers in concert."(12)

      The Elder Brothers consist of the Seneca and the Mohawk and the Younger Brothers are the Cayuga and the Oneida. Today the Tuscarora also sit with the Younger Brothers during Grand Council meetings. The combined bodies of the chiefs work out all of the matters concerning the Haudenosaunee. Generally the matter first goes to the Mohawk and Seneca for deliberation, and then the matter goes to the Cayuga and Oneida for their deliberation. The matter then is given to the Onondaga, the Keepers of the Fire who have many responsibilities one of which is to keep records of the meetings, for their final confirmation and final ratification.

      The "22nd Wampum" illustrates that after all of the Chiefs have debated, there is one Onondaga Chief, Hononwiretonh, whose duty it is to sit and listen to all of the debate, the matter is then turned over to him for final approval, if all are in consensus. If he refuses to sanction the solution, then no other chief has the authority to pass the legislation. Hononwiretonh is not allowed to refuse sanctioning the matter unless there is a strong basis for his refusal. (13) As can be seen, the Great Law provides for numerous checks and balances of power and depends on consensus of all fifty chiefs for its decision making.

C. The Importance Of Women Within The Great Law OF Peace

      The Great law was structured to keep all things in balance. Women have an important role in Haudenosaunee society, which unfortunately is not adequately illustrated in the written versions of the Great Law of Peace (also known as the Great Law of Peace). While only men could become chiefs, it was the duty and responsibility of the Clan Mothers to select the chiefs.

The chiefs were elected for life, but if they went astray, did not have the best interests of the people and Natural World in mind, after three warnings, the Clan Mothers could "dehorn" them. Dehorning means that the deer antlers that chiefs wear on their kastowehs (feathered hats) to show that they are chiefs, would be removed from the chief's headdresses; thus, stripping him of his authority as chief. The Clan Mothers when picking the chiefs, look for a man who is of the Good Mind and is married and has children so he will love his people and his country like he does his own children.

      In the preceding paragraphs, is just a snippet of the Great Law of Peace and how the Haudenosaunee used wampum has been examined in an attempt to give the reader a general understanding of how the Haudenosaunee themselves understand some of the important aspects of the Great Law of Peace. One important aspect of the Great Law of Peace that often goes untold and is hard to explain, is the idea that the government is not separated from the Haudenosaunee religion, culture, or way of life, for these things are all rolled up into one. In the next section, the interaction between the Haudenosaunee and the founding fathers will be examined.




6. WAMPUM, supra note 3, at 7-8.

7. KNOWLEDGE OF THE ELDERS, supra note 5, at 24.


9. Id. at 34.

10. See The Founding of the Kahniakehake (Mohawk) Nation Council, INDIAN TIME, Aug. 9, 1996, at 4 (discussing that the philosophy of the Great Law of Peace is to live by Karwiio (the Good Message), Skennen (peace) and Kashatensera (Power) all united they become the Great Law of Peace).

11. FORGOTTEN FOUNDERS supra note 2 at 25.

12. Id

13. TRADITIONAL TEACHINGS supra note 8 at 38..

Back                                                                                    Next Page


last updated 6-23-99