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Topic – The League of Six Nations

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The League of Six Nations

Between 600 and 700 years ago, five of the Eastern Woodlands farming nations formed a military and political association known as a confederacy. These five nations were the Cayuga, Kanienkehaka (Mohawk), Oneida, Onondaga, and Seneca. In the 1700s, the Tuscarora nation joined, so the confederacy became known as the League of Six Nations.

Clans, Matrons, and Sachems

Traditional Chief of the Onondaga Nation, Todadaho Sid Hill. Photo credit to Wikimedia Commons

There were nine clans in the League of Six Nations: Bear, Beaver, Deer, Eel, Hawk, Heron, Snipe, Turtle, and Wolf. Each family in the clan had a clan mother or matron, and each of these women chose a chief, or sachem, to speak for her family. Since the women put the sachems into power, they could remove them if they didn’t do a good job.

There were 50 sachems on the Grand Council who created the laws for the league. Important issues were discussed by all of the sachems, and decisions were made only when a majority agreed.

In Onondaga, in what is now New York State, was the council house where the Grand Council met and the confederacy’s records were kept.

Symbols of the Six Nations

pine tree

A pine tree is still the symbol of the League of Six Nations. The roots of the tree are an important part of the symbol, and they are shown spreading out in all directions. This represents how any person looking for peace can follow the roots and find the shelter of the great peace. High atop the tree, an eagle stands guard. It protects anyone who takes shelter under the pine tree.

Wampum belt

Carefully woven sashes known as wampum belts documented agreements, ceremonies, and treaties. Made of hand-drilled and polished shells, wampum belts worked as memory guides to help the elders recite the history of the Six Nations.

The condolence cane is a symbol of great authority within the Six Nations and is still used today. Listed on the cane are the fifty sachems in the confederacy.

The Great Law of Peace

Iroquois Chiefs from the Six Nations Reserve, 1871

At ceremonial events, a story was often told of how the League of Six Nations was formed. Long ago, there was a time of constant war for the farmers of the Eastern Woodlands. Many people lost their lives and it seemed that the war would never end. Finally, two people named Deganawideh (also called The Great Peacemaker) and Hiawatha started to talk about bringing peace to the peoples.

The two men talked and negotiated for many years. Finally, they were able to bring the five nations together to form a league. It was based on the Great Law of Peace or the Gayanashagowa.

Under the Great Law of Peace, people are viewed as being members of one family. This family has just one body, one heart, and one mind. Freedom, harmony, and peace are all important parts of the Great Law of Peace.

Today, about 50,000 Six Nations people live in Canada. The Six Nations reserve is the largest First Nations reserve in Canada. It is located near Brantford, in southwestern Ontario.


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