A History of Six Nations Governance

This is an ambitious summary of a complicated and multifaceted history compiled from many different sources. This version represents only one perspective and may vary from other teachings.

Despite what Hollywood tells you, indigenous people have always had a form of government. To co-exist for hundreds of thousands of years in complex societies requires organization and sophistication.

In ancient times the longhouse people organized themselves into clan families who had clan council fires ever burning. These were the first systems of government in this land and there is some evidence to suggest these societies existed in North America for at least 65,000 years. Oral tradition says since time immemorial.

The most intimate foundation for ancient governance was the Men’s and Women’s council fires. These councils were equal to each other and had continual discussions about the welfare of society. The embers of these fires gathered together to form a larger clan fire and when all of the clan fires assembled together it became a national council fire.

Consensus was reached from the bottom up and everyone had their voice represented and honoured when a matter was decided.

A man named the Peacemaker brought a good message of peace and unity to the longhouse people and united five nations together into a greater network of governance. The Mohawk, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida and Seneca became the first United Nations of the world and operated together in unity without sacrificing national autonomy.

When the Peacemaker arrived onto the scene he codified longhouse society into the GAYANESHAKGOWA, which some call the Great Law of Peace or simply, the Great Peace. Clans were represented by animal motifs and wampum was used to symbolize the constitution of this unified Confederacy.

All of these things happened hundreds or perhaps thousands of years before the European visitors reached the Atlantic shores. It should be noted that our great societies had geographical knowledge and traded tobacco, food and furs with the Arawak, Taino and Kali’na tilewuyu Caribs of the Bahama Islands. We may have even traded with the Norse, the Maori and distant mainland nations.

The first European explorers to reach the Five Nations Confederacy was the French in the mid-1500s until the Dutch arrived in the Hudson Valley of New York around 1610. A guest pass was given to these visitors and was also extended to the British in 1688.

The Tuscarora people joined the Confederacy in 1722 and it was known thereafter as the Six Nations. Benjamin Franklin was jealous of the indigenous form of government as noted in a letter he wrote to his printer colleague James Parker in 1751.

“It would be a strange thing if Six Nations of ignorant savages 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.”

 The European problem got out of hand and by the 19th century, disease and colonization reduced the population of indigenous people by 90%. A death toll researcher Henry F. Dobyns estimated the actual number of Indigenous lives lost at 90 million.

As the guest decided to become master of the house, an insidious law was devised to control and exterminate all indigenous people, a law called the Indian Act. Studying the Indian Act is synonymous with studying the history of Canada. From April 15, 1755 when Sir William Johnson was appointed Superintendent of Indian Affairs, to 1969 when Pierre Trudeau and John Chretien unveiled the final solution called the White Paper; a complete and exhaustive history of Canada unfolds.

The Indian Act gradually seeped into effect on Six Nations when certain segments of the community began to question the ability of the Confederacy to bring progress to the reserve. These people then regularly petitioned for a “Municipal” style of government at Six Nations.

The writhing tentacles of the Indian Act grasped and took hold upon the Six Nations in 1922 and finally in 1924 when the RCMP imposed Imperial law over and above the ancient indigenous law by removing the Confederacy Hodiyaneso (Chiefs).

An entire book could be written about this subject alone. Some say there was partial corruption within the Confederacy but this point is still debated.

Freemasonry, whose Six Nations roots began with the Mohawk leader Joseph Brant, may have played a part in this corruption and some say it still does to this day.

In 1925 a total of 56 ballots were counted but only 26 people actually voted for the Six Nations Elected Council. It was reported that some of the voters were women which was not legal in Canada at that time, some were non-native government officials and some people even voted twice. In other words the 1925 election was a total sham.

A petition was then created that garnered 800 signatures of people who were against the election.

The Six Nations people fought back in 1959 in an attempt to reclaim traditional governance but once again RCMP responded with force and the resistance was quelled. Colonial reservation life resumed and things were more or less quiet.

In 2006 three Six Nations women decided to pass out pamphlets along Highway #6 near Caledonia. They wanted to gently inform their neighbours that the land they were building upon belonged to the Six Nations people.

This escalated into the largest land reclamation in history known to the world as either Douglas Creek or more fondly as Kanonhstaton – the Protected Place. Dozens of indigenous activists were charged and arrested and the colonial forces of Canada responded en force as they usually have. Except this time the good guys won. After the OPP was pushed back negotiations begun.

Both Elected Council and Confederacy Council sat in on these negotiations with the Province. Deals were reached and financial arrangements negotiated and after matters seemed to be settled it became apparent to both Councils that there was money to be made in reclaiming traditional lands.

This led to the formation of the Haudenosaunee Development Institute which now provides consultation and accommodation on behalf of  the Confedaracy to the Provincial and Federal Canadian government. The validity of the HDI Corporation is now in question but people seem to agree that our ancient government should have jurisdiction over Six Nations lands.

The Confederacy is now known as the HCCC (Haudenosaunee Confederacy Chiefs Council) and has become but a shadow of its former self through no fault of its own: colonization and Christianization of the Six Nations people has wreaked havoc in the clan system.

The Six Nations seemed to split in half at Buffalo Creek so now there is an Onondaga Confederacy in NY State and a Grand River Confederacy in Ontario. This has created problems in governance due to mutiple titles which means two Chiefs are sometimes sitting in the same seat.

There are so many names for the Six Nations it is confusing. Are they the Haudenosaunee, the League of Five Nations or the Wisk Nihonohnwenstiake? Maybe they are the Iroquois or the Six Nations Confederacy?

Even more mysterious is who actually has authority to represent Six Nations? In 2012, a protocol agreement between the HCCC and the Ontario Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs was signed on behalf of all Six Nations “Iroquois” Confederacy Grand River Country by Hazel E. Hill – who is neither an elected official nor a hereditary official.

In centuries past the hereditary Chiefs of the Confederacy, who are the mouth piece for their clan would meet daily, but now they meet only once per month – that’s 12 times per year – and sometimes due to unforeseen circumstances those meetings must be cancelled in order for ceremonies to be carried out. 

There is a faction called the Mohawk Workers who do not recognize the legitimacy of the Grand River Confederacy as they say it was the Mohawks who should have jurisdiction over these lands.

Most Mohawks and some others of the Six Nations do not accept the teachings of the prophet Handsome Lake who revised the Great Law of Peace in  the 19th century. They say that religion has no place in the Great Law and mainly focus on the political aspects of tradition instead of the ceremonial.

This could be one reason why there is only one Mohawk Chief sitting on the Elder Brothers bench – the Mohawks should be nine in number.

There are unforeseen difficulties with adapting the ancient form of governance into the capitalist North American landscape. In yesterdays society there was no form of debt or currency.

Hundreds of years ago the clans would  live together in a multifamily longhouse but today the people are scattered into distant reserves and nuclear family homes.

There is still a glimmer of hope with young people being taught the language as the culture of the Haudenosaunee Six Nations is slowly restored year by year.  The total population of the Six Nations Haudenosaunee people is estimated at approximately 300,000 worldwide.

It’s sad that this history isn’t taught in Canadian schools until students reach a University level of education.

Unfortunately concerned Canadian citizens have absolutely no basis of reference to understand governance on Six Nations. Canada is responsible for the colonization and cultural genocide of the Six Nations so therefore the onus should be upon them to educate their people.

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