How did they govern themselves?
Answer: The League of Nations
The Iroquois view of nature was based on sharing and cooperation. They took that same attitude into their daily life, history, and government. Because of their attitude, they were able to accomplish something spectacular, something that had never been done before. They were able to form the League of Nations.
The Legend of Hiawatha: Legend says... Once upon a time, there was a Mohawk leader named Hiawatha. He was tired of the endless fighting between the five nations. He wanted things to change. One day, he met a great Iroquois speaker named Dekanawida.
Dekanawida convinced him that the way to bring peace was to form a new nation, a single Iroquois Nation, where all five nations would have voice in government, so that things could be solved peacefully.
An old Iroquois legend says this is what he told them:
"We bind ourselves together by taking hold of each other's hands so firmly and forming a circle so strong that if a tree should fall upon it, it could not shake nor break it, so that our people and grandchildren shall remain in the circle of security, peace, and happiness."
And so it was done. Each of the five great Iroquois Nations banded together to form the League of Nations.
The Iroquois Indians: There were many woodland Indians, but the most powerful group were the Iroquois Nations - the Seneca, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, and Cayuga.
All the Iroquois people spoke the same language. They believed in the same gods. They had many similar customs. They believed in cooperation.
Central Government: The Iroquois Indians had a unique form of representative central government. It was called the League of Nations. These were not tribes that joined together to form a nation. These were nations that joined together to form the League of Nations. Much later in their history, these five nations were joined by the Tuscaronra Nation, bringing the League to a total of six.
Written Constitution: The League had a written constitution, a set of rights and agreements that all the people had to honor. The constitution was recorded on 114 wampums.
Council: The League had a Council. Each Iroquois Nation had a set number of seats on the Council. The decisions of the Council were binding on every person in all Iroquois Nations.
Primary Purpose: The League's primary purpose was the Great Law of Peace. This law said that the Iroquois should not kill each other.
Debates: The League did not try to create rules for each tribe and village. That was the job of local government or regional government - the village council and the tribal councils. Only major issues were debated on the floor of the League of Nations.
Council speakers were eloquent and persuasive. Some members of the council were selected not because they were great warriors, but because they were great speakers.
Votes: There were groups inside the League that acted a great deal like today's political parties. The war-like Mohawk and Oneida often teamed up in the debates. The peaceful Seneca and Cayuga speakers would team up to oppose them. Fortunately, one of the League's constitutional rules was that the Chief of the League would always be selected from the Onondaga Nation. The peace loving Onondaga held 14 seats in the council. That was a lot of seats. The Onondaga were able to keep peace simply by reminding all representatives that their block of votes could swing either way.
Although each member's vote carried the same weight, there was a pecking order. The Mohawk, Onondaga, and Seneca were addressed as "elder brothers" and the Oneida, Cayuga, and Tuscarora were addressed as "younger brothers".
Unanimous Decisions: If there was a weakness to this system, it was that all decisions had to be unanimous. By the 1600's, the Iroquois knew it was essential to present a united front to the colonists. Debates, although heated, nearly always led to a unanimous decision. The Nations stood together, and that made them strong.
During the American Revolution, the clan mothers could not decide whether to fight on the side of the colonists or on the side of the British. The Iroquois Nations tried very hard to not take sides at all. When that did not work, they let each village decide for themselves. Some fought on the side of the colonists. Some fought on the side of the British.
Borrowing Ideas: When the early colonists began to design a system of government for what would become the United States of America, they borrowed many ideas from the League of Nations. It was an incredible system of government. It worked for Iroquois, and it worked for the new American government. Both governments - the Iroquois League of Nations and the Government of the United States are still in operation today.