In 1945, 50 different countries came together to form an organization called the United Nations that would enforce world peace and human rights. But after 70 years of existence, the UN has yet to realize its founders’ hopes. Wars continue, and human rights abuses are worse than ever.
But this was not the first United Nations. That distinction belongs to the Iroquois Confederation, a much more successful organization that continues to this day. It was formed when five powerful American Indian nations, the Oneida, Onondaga, Mohawk, Cayuga, and Seneca, decided to stop fighting each other, and instead cooperate to form a communal government. Historians’ best guess is that this occurred in 1451 A.D.
These five nations were often referred to as Iroquois (literally meaning “rattlesnakes”) by outsiders, but they preferred the name Kanonsionni, which means “people of the longhouse” after the long structures they built out of tree bark and saplings. Their form of government was also the first American democracy. Centuries later, American patriots like Benjamin Franklin would recommend patterning the U.S. government after the Iroquois’ unique arrangement.
For centuries, the Iroquois had been hated and feared by the other Indians for their cruel and warlike reputation. Then a man known as the Peacemaker came to the five nations. He said that the Creator wanted them to follow a new way, to give up their cruelty and warring ways. The new way the Peacemaker preached was called the “Great Law.” An important part of the Great Law was women’s rights. The Peacemaker taught that women were life-givers, and should be honored. They had a major role to play in the peace that would follow. One of the first to listen to the Peacemaker was a man named Hiawatha. He helped persuade the five nations to band together and follow the Great Law.
Once the Five Nations joined the Confederation, the Peacemaker helped them form a government under new rules. In all five nations, men were chosen as chiefs from every family group, or clan. Every clan had a “clan mother,” a wise older woman chosen to lead her clan. These clan mothers were the ones who chose the chiefs. Together, the chiefs formed the governing council of the Iroquois. These chiefs met together to discuss matters and vote on them. Their system consisted of two houses of government, similar to the U.S. Congress. The Seneca and Mohawk chiefs were represented in one house, while the Oneida and Cayuga were in the other. The Onondagas were assigned to break any ties that came up, and veto decisions when necessary. The Five Nations also had an unwritten, though well understood, Constitution.
Centuries after they first banded together, the Five Nations voted to come to the aid of the struggling Tuscarora Indians, who were decimated by disease and starvation. In 1722, they were accepted into the Confederation as its sixth member. My grandmother, who passed away last year, was a full blooded Tuscaroran. She was born and raised on the Tuscarora Reservation, located near Niagara Falls.
Today the Six Nations of the Iroquois still assemble together for yearly festivals and celebrations, just like they did hundreds of years ago. My father and my sister, Kath, attended this year's Tuscaroran festival in July. They had a great time visiting with relatives and attending the festivities.