In the early years of the 1500’s, long before Europeans walked on North American soil, five nations, today called the Iroquois League, formed an alliance. The League consisted of the Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, and Seneca Nations. Collectively the group called themselves the "People of the Longhouse." In the 1700’s the League was joined by another nation, the Tuscarora, and the Confederation was renamed, the Six Nations.
Governance of the Confederation was based on a constitution. According to Iroquois tradition, The Confederation was founded by Deganawidah, a spiritual leader. He accomplished what no one before him could, and that was to persuade the initial five nations to stop all intertribal warfare and to form a coalition. Hiawatha, Deganawidah's spokesman, traveled among the five tribes preaching unification. Under his influence, the tribes eventually formed a strong alliance that lasted until the American Revolution.
Some historians feel that the Constitution of the Five Nations served as a model for the United States Constitution. The document was written to not only to maintain peace and freedom for all nations, but to guarantee rights to individual tribal members. The complete Constitution can be read in its entirety. What follows is a poetic rendering by John Bierhorst.
Law of the Great Peace
With the statesmen of the League of Five Nations, I plant the Tree of Great Peace.
I name the tree the Tree of the Great Long Leaves.
Under the shade of this Tree of Great Peace, we spread the soft, white, feathery down of the globe thistle as seats for you.
Roots have spread out from the Tree of Great Peace, one to the north, one to the east, one to the south, and one to the west. These are the Great White Roots, and their nature is peace and strength.
The smoke of the council fire of the League shall ascend and pierce the sky so that other nations who may be allies may see the council of the Great Peace.
You, the League of Five Nations chiefs, be firm so that if a tree should fall upon your joined hands, it shall not separate you or weaken your hold. So shall the strength of union be preserved.
The Great Creator has made us of one blood, and of the same soil.
When a member of an alien nation comes to the territory of the League and seeks refuge and permanent residence, the statesmen of the nation to which he comes shall extend hospitality and make him a member of the nation.
Whenever a foreign nation enters the League or accepts the Great Peace, the Five Nations and the foreign nation shall enter into an agreement by which the foreign nation shall try to persuade the other nations to accept the Great Peace.
I now uproot the tallest tree, and into the hole thereby made, we cast all weapons of war. Into the depths of the earth, down into the deep underneath currents of water flowing to unknown regions, we cast all the weapons of strife. We bury them from sight and we plant again the tree. Thus shall the Great Peace be established, and hostilities shall no longer be known between the Five Nations, but peace to the united people.
Questions for Reflection: The Laws of the Great Peace
- What is the importance of symbolism in “The Laws of the Great Peace?”
- How do the laws indicate that the Constitution of the Five Nations should act as an example for other nations? How do you feel about this attitude? Do you believe that the Five Nations had a responsibility to share how they arrived at peace with other peoples? How could this be accomplished?
- Does the concept of the Five Nations remind you of any group that functions today? If so, what is the group or nation?
- What lessons can be learned from “The Laws of the Great Peace?”
- What do you find as being most impressive about “The Laws of the Great Peace?”