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Hiawatha Belt. Photo by Flickr user Qabluna. June 11, 2016. Used under Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0).

The Haudenosaunee Confederacy and the Constitution

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The United States commemorates Constitution Day on September 17, the anniversary of the signing of the Constitution in Philadelphia in 1787. Celebrations usually include readings and discussions of the history of the document and its writing and influences. Many say that the United States, one of the oldest continuous democracies in the world drew influence for its constitution and governmental structure from an even older democracy, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.


May Day–Haudenosaunee Flag, Five Nations Flag. Photo by Flickr user Ryan [Metrix X]. May 1, 2013. Used under Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0).

The Senate recognized the influence of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy on the construction of the Constitution in a resolution read on September 16, 1987, that noted, “the original framers of the Constitution, including most notably, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, are known to have greatly admired the concepts, principles and governmental practices of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. Whereas the confederation of the original Thirteen Colonies into one republic was explicitly modeled upon the Iroquois Confederacy as were many of the democratic principles which were incorporated into the Constitution itself (3-4).”

The Haudenosaunee Confederacy established Gayanesshagowa, the Great Law of Peace, as its governing principle in 1142. The Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, and Onondaga joined in the Great Law of Peace to form a confederacy; the Tuscarora joined them later. The Law of Peace includes its Chiefs, Clan Mothers, and Faith Keepers, the delegates that form the regulatory bodies of the confederacy. “Within Grand Council meet the Chiefs of each nation which then divide into sections of Elder Brothers and Younger Brothers”; the bicameral Congress is similar. The Clan Mothers have been compared to a high court; they serve for life, have been selected by consensus, and have the authority to remove council members.

The symbols of the union include the long house, the Tree of Peace, the eagle, and a cluster of arrows. The symbols represent a determination of peace and alliance for the group and the power of a unified front. Similarly, the U.S. adopted an eagle as its protector, and one of its symbols is thirteen arrows bound together. The tradition is that the chiefs maintained the council fire and met to discuss confederacy issues beneath the tree; the eagle that flew over the tree guarded the confederacy looking out for enemies, and a bunch of five arrows, one representing each nation, were bound together, with the observation that it is much harder to break a bundle of five arrows than just one arrow.

Constitutional convention members such as Benjamin Franklin were very familiar with the Haudenosaunee Confederacy nations and their founding principles. He reviewed Cadwallader’s The history of the five Indian nations depending on the province of New-York in America, and he wrote the article, “Short Hints Towards a Scheme for Uniting the Northern Colonies.” Franklin wrote to his printing partner, James Parker, “It would be a very strange Thing, if [the] Six Nations… should be capable of forming a Scheme for such an Union, and be able to execute it in such a Manner, as that it has subsisted Ages, and appears indissoluble; and yet that a like Union should be impracticable for ten or a Dozen English Colonies, to whom it is more necessary, and must be more advantageous.” He worked on the Albany Plan of Union and members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy attended the Albany Congress, where members of northern colonies discussed forming a general council for their common defense.

Each of the Six Nations rule themselves while enjoying the peace and support brought to them by the Confederacy today. They have adapted as necessary over time; for example, an elective system was established in 1924. The world’s oldest democracy still thrives. The  Onondaga Faithkeeper, Oren Lyons said, “What Indians are about, I think, first of all is community. They’re about mutual support, they’re about sharing, they’re about understanding what’s common land, common air, common water, common and for all. They’re about freedom.”


KF26.5.I4 1987r  United States. Congress. Senate. Select Committee on Indian Affairs. Iroquois Confederacy of Nations: hearing before the Select Committee on Indian Affairs, United States Senate, One Hundredth Congress, first session, on S. Con. Res. 76 … December 2, 1987, Washington, DC.

E99.I7 C6 2017 Colden, Cadwallader. The History of the Five Indian nations depending on the province of New-York in America.

Oren, Lyons, and Moyers Bill. “Oren Lyons the Faithkeeper.” BillMoyers.Com, 14 Sept. 2015. Accessed September 10, 2023.

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Comments (2)

  1. I was lucky enough to learn a great deal about New York State native American tribes in 7th grade. It was a detailed and lengthy unit of 7th grade social studies. Unfortunately, this information is now taught in a different grade, 4 th grade. I believe that this rich history should be taught in high school. What do you think?

  2. This should be taught in multiple grades. Amazing!! The Native’s taught people how to create a Peaceful method of Governance!

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