People and Language

The Haudenosaunee (pron. hoed-no-show-knee, meaning People of the Longhouse), called Iroquois by French colonists, are a confederacy of six indigenous tribes known as the Six Nations, viz.

    • Mohawk
    • Onondaga
    • Oneida
    • Cayuga
    • Seneca and, after 1722,
    • Tuscarora

The historic St. Lawrence Iroquoians, Huron, Erie and Susquehannock are often considered Haudenosaunee because of their similar languages and cultures, which descend from the Proto-Haudenosaunee people and language.

In 2010, more than 45,000 Six Nations people lived in Canada and about 80,000 in the United States.

Below is the Wampum belt of the Six Nations, which is their flag and Constitution:

The Wampum of the Haudenosaunee


The Haudenosaunee confederacy flag

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The map below charts the territory of the Haudenosaunee c. 1650.

Haudenosaunee territory c. 1650

Law and History

Hiawatha and the Great Peacemaker

The Great Law of Peace (Gayanashagowa) is the oral constitution that binds the Six Nations.

In the 14th or 15th c., the Five Nations–the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga and Seneca–were separate tribes at war with each other, despite sharing language and ancestry.

Haudenosaunee tradition describes the time before the Great Peace as a dark age of terror and misery. In those times, Tadodaho, the chief of the Onondaga, was the most powerful and violent warlord of the Five Nations. He is described as being transmogrified by evil: covered in scales, with serpents entwined in his hair.

Tadodaho stands before Hiawatha and the Great Peacemaker

Hiawatha, who was a member of the Onondaga (later adopted by the Mohawk) had lost his wife and three daughters to war and disease. While he grieved by the bank of a river one day, the Great Peacemaker (Deganawida) appeared through the dawning mist in a glowing white stone canoe.

The Great Law of Peace

The Peacemaker was not an eloquent speaker. In fact, it is said he had a severe speech impediment. His message, however, was clear: to bring peace and unity to the Five Nations. This is the Great Law of Peace.

The Peacemaker healed Hiawatha and asked him to help him convey the Great Law of Peace to the Five Nations, for he was eloquent. Hiawatha accepted.

Together, they traveled to convey the Great Law of Peace to the chiefs of every tribe. The Peacemaker demonstrated his authority as the Creator’s messenger by climbing a tall tree over a waterfall and ordered the people to cut it down. He then reappeared the next morning unharmed. The Peacemaker also healed some of the most “violent and dangerous men,” including Hiawatha and Tadodaho, who helped him spread the message of peace.

The Peacemaker explained that joining together would make the nations stronger and give them less reason to fight. He illustrated this by breaking a single arrow. He then bunched together six arrows and tried to break them, but could not.

Tadodaho was the last to join the confederacy. He would lead the other chiefs, and their successors would bear their names. (For instance, the leader of the Six Nations today is called Tadodaho.) The five chiefs would make decisions for the Five Nations unanimously at councils held around the fire in the longhouse of Tadodaho, who is the Keeper of the Fire. Tadodaho would have the power of veto, which could only be used when necessary. Deliberations must consider the impact of the contemplated measure on the welfare of seven future generations.

Hiawatha and the Great Law of Peace

The Great Tree of Peace

The Peacemaker had the five chiefs bury their weapons under the Great Tree of Peace to ratify the constitution. A bald eagle perched on top of the tree as a witness to and guardian of the oath.

The Tree of Peace is a symbol of peace to the Haudenosaunee and plays a historical role in diplomacy between them and Westerners. Weapons are buried under a tree to seal a peace agreement.

The Great Tree of Peace

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Heritage Minutes: Peacemaker

The Six Nations’ method of deliberation inspired aspects of the US Constitution. The eagle and arrows, for instance, inspired the Great Seal of the USA, pictured below. (The 13 arrows represent the 13 colonies of the US confederation.)

The Great Seal of the USA

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Symbolism of the Wampum

Hiawatha crafted the Wampum belt which symbolizes the constitution of the Six Nations and the Great Law of Peace. The central figure represents the Great Tree of Peace and the fire of Tadodaho. The four boxes represent the four other nations, and the lines that connect them represent the bond of peace between them. The Mohawk and Seneca at the respective eastern and western frontiers or ‘gates’ of the Five Nations’ territory must offer peace to anyone who tries to enter them. If the entrant refuses their offer of peace three times, then the Six Nations may be hostile toward it. The peace bonds extend to the edges of the Wampum belt, symbolizing the Five Nations’ openness to other nations that wish to join the confederacy. This happened when the Tuscarora people joined the confederacy in 1722, which became the Six Nations.

The Wampum of the Haudenosaunee


The Haudenosaunee Confederacy flag

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Stories of the beginning of mankind revolve around the first woman, Aientsik (Skywoman), whose daughter, Tekawerahkwa, bore the twin brothers Tawiskaron and Okwiraseh. Tawiskaron created vicious animals and river rapids while Okwiraseh created “all that is pure and beautiful.” The twin brothers fought and Okwiraseh defeated Tawiskaron, who was confined to the “the dark areas of the world,” where he governed the night and destructive creatures.

Orenda (Spirit)

Orenda refers to the spirit that resides in people and their environment. The Haudenosaunee believe Orenda flows through all things. If people are respectful of nature, the Orenda will bring positive results. The Haudenosaunee traditionally distinguish between three types of spirits:

    • those who live on earth
    • those who live in heaven
    • the Great Spirit beyond heaven, also known as the Great Creator or Master of Life

The Haudenosaunee believed in numerous spirits, including

    • the Great Spirit
    • the Thunderer and
    • the Three Sisters (the spirits of beans, maize and squash)

The Great Spirit created plants, animals and humans to control “the forces of good in nature” and guides people.

The Haudenosaunee commune with spirits mainly in two ways: through dreams and sacred pipe rituals. Dreams reflect a person’s desires, enable one to commune with spirits or prompt one to realize a vision.

Blowing smoke from the sacred pipe is connected to breath, which is the essence of spirit or life, comparable to the Hebrew nefesh and ruach. It is not done recreationally, which is sacrilegious. The ritual is comparable to burning incense in Eastern Rites.


After death, the soul goes on a journey, where it undergoes a series of ordeals, before it arrives at the Skyworld. This journey takes a year, during which the Haudenosaunee mourn the deceased. After the period of mourning, they hold a feast to celebrate the soul’s arrival at the Skyworld.

The Teachings of Handsome Lake

After the arrival of the Europeans, some Haudenosaunee became Christians. The Seneca sachem (chief) Handsome Lake, also known as Ganeodiyo, introduced a new religious system to the Haudenosaunee in the late 18th c., which incorporated Quaker beliefs along with traditional Haudenosaunee culture. Handsome Lake’s teachings focus on peace, parenting and appreciation of life. A key aspect of Handsome Lake’s teachings is the principle of equilibrium where each person contributes their talent to help the community flourish. By the 1960s, at least 50 percent of the Haudenosaunee followed this religion.


Haudenosaunee ceremonies are primarily concerned with farming, healing and thanksgiving. Key festivals correspond to the agricultural calendar. Festivals were given by the Creator to balance evil with good. In the 17th century, Europeans described the Haudenosaunee as having 17 festivals, only 8 of which are observed today. The most important of these are the Green Corn Festival in late August, which celebrates the maturing of corn, and the New Year Festival. Other festivals include:

    • the Maple Festival in late March to celebrate spring
    • the Sun Shooting Festival, which also celebrates spring
    • the Seed Dance in May to celebrate the planting of the crops
    • the Strawberry Festival in June to celebrate the ripening of the strawberries
    • the Thunder Ceremony to bring rain in July
    • the Green Bean Festival in early August
    • the Harvest Festival in October

Masked Ceremonies

During festivals, men and women from the False Face Society, the Medicine Society and the Husk Face Society dance with their masks to honour and entertain good spirits and scare away evil spirits who cause disease.

Member of the False Face Society

False Face Masks are worn during healing ceremonies by three different medical societies:

    • the False Face Society, whose members perform rituals to scare away evil spirits,
    • the Medicine Society, whose members perform healing rituals and
    • the Husk Face Society, whose members receive messages from spirits through dreams.

Keepers of the Faith

Keepers of the Faith are part-time specialists who conduct religious ceremonies. Both men and women can be appointed as Keepers of the Faith by tribe elders.


“Iroquois” (last updated 23 April 2019), online: Wikipedia <>.