Home Up

Other Authors in the Oral Tradition

Bushmen ] Maori ] Eskimo ] Bantu ] Ifaluk ] North American Indian ] Bedouin ] Yukaghir ] [ Dekanawidah ]

Click Up For A  Summary Of Each Author





The Great Peace

Admission of Other Nations

Opening the Council

Deliberative Bodies

Procedures Among Nations

Matrilineal Vesting of Chiefship

Replacement of a Confederate Chief

Wampum Records

Death of a Confederate Chief

Election of Pine Tree Chiefs

Names, Duties and Rights of War Chiefs

Clans and Consanguinity

Rights of Royaneh Women

Symbols of the Confederacy 

Removal of Erring Chiefs

Emblems of Unity

Rights of Inhabitants

Powers of War

Rights of the People

Protection of Rites and Festivals

Protection of Dwellings






Dekanawidah is regarded as the author of the Great Law of the Iroquois Confederacy that bound together five Indian Nations, probably early in the late Fifteenth or early Sixteenth Century. A somewhat similar Huron Confederacy is believed to have been instituted in 1450. The Iroquois Great Law replaced cycles of murder, revenge, and violent destruction of villages with a system of justice administered by hereditary chiefs. It is one of the earliest North American constitutions of which we have some knowledge, having been passed down orally with the mnemonic aid of shell-bead patterns, or wampum.

The names of the five nations—Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas—were recorded by the first European explorers early in the Seventeenth Century. However, it was not until the Eighteenth Century that the legends of the formation of the Confederacy began to be written down. The process continued, with variations and successive elaboration, into the early Twentieth Century. In early versions, Hiawatha plays an important role in drawing Dekanawidah’s attention to the evils of war besetting Indian Nations, symbolized by a mad and grotesque shaman who had destroyed Hiawatha’s family. 

In a version of the legend attributed to Seneca Chief John A. Gibson, Dekanawida travels widely, suggesting an extended period of reflection and consultation before the Great Law was drawn up. On the south shore of Lake Ontario he encounters men whose village has been destroyed. They warn him that he may encounter men who will kill him on sight and eat his flesh. He asks where such people live. They answer, "Everywhere". Dekanawida subsequently meets with such a person (sometimes identified with Hiawatha), who then gives up cannibalism. Later, Dekanawidah explains his plans for a confederation to the chief matriarch: "I will call it Ganonhsyoni, the Extended House, and also I will designate it Gayenenhsegonah [or Gayanashagowa], the Great Law or commonwealth. And the reason that it shall have the name of the Extended house is that in fact it shall come to resemble only a single household when it is completed. And furthermore, mind or reason will become the source of law, or human welfare; thinking shall replace killing and welfare eventuate; and thus we shall all be peacefully disposed in the minds of the constituent maternal families."  In this version, Dekanawidah puts forward three essential goals: the "good word" [righteousness], "power" [civil authority], and "peace" [a healthy society].

The fullest version of the Great Law that has gained currency comes from Seth Newhouse, an Onondaga with a strong command of rhetoric. He joined the Mohawks, spoke at the Council of Chiefs, and produced a variety of manuscripts in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries about the formation of the Confederacy. One dealing with the Great Law was reworked by a committee for the Chiefs of the Six Nations Reserve. This version, further edited, appears to have been acquired by Arthur Parker, who published his English version in 1916, without making the original available. This has become the standard version, from which extracts are given below. The language makes strong use of repetition and metaphor, both of which provide vividness of expression and an aid to memorization. 

This version of Dekanawidah’s Great Law puts the burden of settling disputes on chiefs, who are required to be men of peace, patient and free from anger. It sets up a society that respects the chiefs but also has the means of advising them and, when necessary, removing them. These powers are to be primarily exercised through the women of Iroquois society, which is matrilineal. The women are given hereditary powers of appointing chiefs.  In 1744, the success of the Confederacy led Canatago, an Onondaga, to advise the governors of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia that they might to well to follow the same course as the Five Nations: "We heartily recommend union and good agreement between you, our brethren . . . Our wise forefathers established union and amity between the five nations; this has made us formidable, this has given us great weight and authority with neighboring nations." The success of the Confederacy led the Tuscaroras to join in the Eighteenth Century, and the Confederacy has since been called the League of Six Nations. 



The Great Peace


1. I am Dekanawidah and with the Five Nations' Confederate Chiefs I plant the Tree of Great Peace. I plant it in your territory, Adodarhoh, and the Onondaga Nation, in the territory of you who are Firekeepers.

    I name the tree the Tree of the Great Long Leaves. Under the shade of this Tree of the Great Peace we spread the soft white feathery down of the globe thistle as seats for you, Adodarhoh, and your cousin Chiefs.

    We place you upon those seats, spread soft with the feathery down of the globe thistle, there beneath the shade of the spreading branches of the Tree of Peace. There shall you sit and watch the Council Fire of the Confederacy of the Five Nations, and all the affairs of the Five Nations shall be transacted at this place before you, Adodarhoh, and your cousin Chiefs, by the Confederate Chiefs of the Five Nations.


Admission of Other Nations


2. Roots have spread out from the Tree of the Great Peace, one to the north, one to the east, one to the south and one to the west. The name of these roots is The Great White Roots and their nature is Peace and Strength.

    If any man or any nation outside the Five Nations shall obey the laws of the Great Peace and make known their disposition to the Chiefs of the Confederacy, they may trace the Roots to the Tree and if their minds are clean and they are obedient and promise to obey the wishes of the Confederate Council, they shall be welcomed to take shelter beneath the Tree of the Long Leaves.

    We place at the top of the Tree of the Long Leaves an Eagle who is able to see afar. If he sees in the distance any evil approaching or any danger threatening he will at once warn the people of the Confederacy.


Opening the Council


3. To you Adodarhoh, the Onondaga cousin Chiefs, I and the other Confederate Chiefs have entrusted the caretaking and the watching of the Five Nations Council Fire.

    When there is any business to be transacted and the Confederate Council is not in session, a messenger shall be dispatched either to Adodarhoh, Hononwiretonh or Skanawatih, Fire Keepers, or to their War Chiefs, with a full statement of the case desired to be considered. Then shall Adodarhoh call his cousin [associate] Chiefs together and consider whether or not the case is of sufficient importance to demand the attention of the Confederate Council. If so, Adodarhoh shall dispatch messengers to summon all the Confederate Chiefs to assemble beneath the Tree of the Long Leaves.

    When the Chiefs are assembled the Council Fire shall be kindled, but not with chestnut wood [throws out sparks], and Adodarhoh shall formally open the Council.

    Then shall Adodarhoh and his cousin Chiefs, the Fire Keepers, announce the subject for discussion.

    The Smoke of the Confederate Council Fire shall ever ascend and pierce the sky so that other nations who may be allies may see the Council Fire of the Great Peace.

    Adodarhoh and his cousin Chiefs are entrusted with the Keeping of the Council Fire.


4. You, Adodarhoh, and your thirteen cousin Chiefs, shall faithfully keep the space about the Council Fire clean and you shall allow neither dust nor dirt [issues] to accumulate. I lay a Long Wing before you as a broom. As a weapon against a crawling creature [threats to peace] I lay a staff with you so that you may thrust it away from the Council Fire. If you fail to cast it out then call the rest of the United Chiefs to your aid.


Deliberative Bodies


5. The Council of the Mohawk shall be divided into three parties as follows: Tekarihoken, Ayonhwhathah and Shadekariwade are the first party; Sharenhowaneh, Deyoenhegwenh and Oghrenghrehgowah are the second party, and Dehennakrineh, Aghstawenserenthah and Shoskoharowaneh are the third party. The third party is to listen only to the discussion of the first and second parties and if an error is made or the proceeding is irregular they are to call attention to it, and when the case is right and properly decided by the two parties they shall confirm the decision of the two parties and refer the case to the Seneca Chiefs for their decision. When the Seneca Chiefs have decided in accord with the Mohawk Chiefs, the case or question shall be referred to the Cayuga and Oneida Chiefs on the opposite side of the house.


8. The Firekeepers shall formally open and close all councils of the Confederate Chiefs, and they shall pass upon all matters deliberated upon by the two sides and render their decision.

    Every Onondaga Chief (or his deputy) must be present at every Confederate Council and must agree with the majority without unwarrantable dissent, so that a unanimous decision may be rendered.

    If Adodarhoh or any of his cousin Chiefs are absent from a Confederate Council, any other Firekeeper may open and close the Council, but the Firekeepers present may not give any decisions, unless the matter is of small importance.


9. All the business of the Five Nations Confederate Council shall be conducted by the two combined bodies of Confederate Chiefs. First the question shall be passed upon by the Mohawk and Seneca Chiefs, then it shall be discussed and passed by the Oneida and Cayuga Chiefs. Their decisions shall then be referred to the Onondaga Chiefs, (Fire Keepers) for final judgement.

    The same process shall obtain when a question is brought before the council by an individual or a War Chief.


Procedures Among Nations


10. In all cases the procedure must be as follows: when the Mohawk and Seneca Chiefs have unanimously agreed upon a question, they shall report their decision to the Cayuga and Oneida Chiefs who shall deliberate upon the question and report a unanimous decision to the Mohawk Chiefs. The Mohawk Chiefs will then report the standing of the case to the Firekeepers, who shall render a decision as they see fit in case of a disagreement by the two bodies, or confirm the decisions of the two bodies if they are identical. The Fire Keepers shall then report their decision to the Mohawk Chiefs who shall announce it to the open council.


11. If through any misunderstanding or obstinacy on the part of the Fire Keepers, they render a decision at variance with that of the Two Sides, the Two Sides shall reconsider the matter and if their decisions are jointly the same as before they shall report to the Fire Keepers who are then compelled to confirm their joint decision.


12. When a case comes before the Onondaga Chiefs (Fire Keepers) for discussion and decision, Adodarho shall introduce the matter to his comrade Chiefs who shall then discuss it in their two bodies. Every Onondaga Chief except Hononwiretonh shall deliberate and he shall listen only. When a unanimous decision shall have been reached by the two bodies of Fire Keepers, Adodarho shall notify Hononwiretonh of the fact when he shall confirm it. He shall refuse to confirm a decision if it is not unanimously agreed upon by both sides of the Fire Keepers.


13. No Chief shall ask a question of the body of Confederate Chiefs when they are discussing a case, question or proposition. He may only deliberate in a low tone with the separate body of which he is a member.


14. When the Council of the Five Nation Chiefs shall convene they shall appoint a speaker for the day. He shall be a Chief of either the Mohawk, Onondaga or Seneca Nation.

    The next day the Council shall appoint another speaker, but the first speaker may be reappointed if there is no objection, but a speaker's term shall not be regarded more than for the day.


15. No individual or foreign nation interested in a case, question or proposition shall have any voice in the Confederate Council except to answer a question put to him or them by the speaker for the Chiefs.


16. If the conditions which shall arise at any future time call for an addition to or change of this law, the case shall be carefully considered and if a new beam [for the "Extended House"] seems necessary or beneficial, the proposed change shall be voted upon and if adopted it shall be called, "Added to the Rafters".


Matrilineal Vesting of Chiefship


17. A bunch of a certain number of shell (wampum) strings each two spans in length shall be given to each of the female families in which the Chiefship titles are vested. The right of bestowing the title shall be hereditary in the family of the females legally possessing the bunch of shell strings and the strings shall be the token that the females of the family [royaneh] have the proprietary right to the Chiefship title for all time to come, subject to certain restrictions hereinafter mentioned.


Replacement of a Confederate Chief


18. If any Confederate Chief neglects or refuses to attend the Confederate Council, the other Chiefs of the Nation of which he is a member shall require their War Chief to request the female sponsors of the Chief so guilty of defection to demand his attendance of the Council. If he refuses, the women holding the title shall immediately select another candidate for the title.

    No Chief shall be asked more than once to attend the Confederate Council.


19. If at any time it shall be manifest that a Confederate Chief has not in mind the welfare of the people or disobeys the rules of this Great Law, the men or women of the Confederacy, or both jointly, shall come to the Council and upbraid the erring Chief through his War Chief. If the complaint of the people through the War Chief is not heeded the first time it shall be uttered again and then if no attention is given a third complaint and warning shall be given. If the Chief is contumacious the matter shall go to the council of War Chiefs. The War Chiefs shall then divest the erring Chief of his title by order of the women in whom the titleship is vested. When the Chief is deposed the women shall notify the Confederate Chiefs through their War Chief, and the Confederate Chiefs shall sanction the act. The women will then select another of their sons as a candidate and the Chiefs shall elect him. Then shall the chosen one be installed by the Installation Ceremony. . .


20. If a Chief of the Confederacy of the Five Nations should commit murder the other Chiefs of the Nation shall assemble at the place where the corpse lies and prepare to depose [remove] the criminal Chief. If it is impossible to meet at the scene of the crime the Chiefs shall discuss the matter at the next Council of their Nation and request their War Chief to depose the Chief guilty of crime, to "bury" his women relatives [deem their family extinct] and to transfer the Chiefship title to a sister family. . .


21. Certain physical defects in a Confederate Chief make him ineligible to sit in the Confederate Council. Such defects are infancy, idiocy, blindness, deafness, dumbness and impotency. When a Confederate Chief is restricted by any of these conditions, a deputy shall be appointed by his sponsors to act for him, but in case of extreme necessity the restricted Chief may exercise his rights.


22. If a Confederate Chief desires to resign his title he shall notify the Chiefs of the Nation of which he is a member of his intention. If his coactive Chiefs refuse to accept his resignation he may not resign his title.

A Chief in proposing to resign may recommend any proper candidate which recommendation shall be received by the Chiefs, but unless confirmed and nominated by the women who hold the title the candidate so named shall not be considered.


Wampum Records


23. Any Chief of the Five Nations Confederacy may construct shell strings (or wampum belts) of any size or length as pledges or records of matters of national or international importance.

    When it is necessary to dispatch a shell string by a War Chief or other messenger as the token of a summons, the messenger shall recite the contents of the string to the party to whom it is sent. That party shall repeat the message and return the shell string and if there has been a summons he shall make ready for the journey.

    Any of the people of the Five Nations may use shells (or wampum) as the record of a pledge, contract or an agreement entered into and the same shall be binding as soon as shell strings shall have been exchanged by both parties.


24. The Chiefs of the Confederacy of the Five Nations shall be mentors of the people for all time. The thickness of their skin shall be seven spans -- which is to say that they shall be proof against anger, offensive actions and criticism. Their hearts shall be full of peace and good will and their minds filled with a yearning for the welfare of the people of the Confederacy. With endless patience they shall carry out their duty and their firmness shall be tempered with a tenderness for their people. Neither anger nor fury shall find lodgment in their minds and all their words and actions shall be marked by calm deliberation.


25. If a Chief of the Confederacy should seek to establish any authority independent of the jurisdiction of the Confederacy of the Great Peace, which is the Five Nations, he shall be warned three times in open council, first by the women relatives, second by the men relatives and finally by the Chiefs of the Confederacy of the Nation to which he belongs. If the offending Chief is still obdurate he shall be dismissed by the War Chief of his nation for refusing to conform to the laws of the Great Peace. His nation shall then install the candidate nominated by the female name holders of his family.


27. All Chiefs of the Five Nations Confederacy must be honest in all things. They must not idle or gossip, but be men possessing those honorable qualities that make true royaneh. It shall be a serious wrong for anyone to lead a Chief into trivial affairs, for the people must ever hold their Chiefs high in estimation out of respect to their honorable positions.


28. When a candidate Chief is to be installed he shall furnish four strings of shells (or wampum) one span in length bound together at one end. Such will constitute the evidence of his pledge to the Confederate Chiefs that he will live according to the constitution of the Great Peace and exercise justice in all affairs. . .


Death of a Confederate Chief


32. If a Chief of the Confederacy should die while the Council of the Five Nations is in session the Council shall adjourn for ten days. No Confederate Council shall sit within ten days of the death of a Chief of the Confederacy.

    If the Three Brothers (the Mohawk, the Onondaga and the Seneca) should lose one of their Chiefs by death, the Younger Brothers (the Oneida and the Cayuga) shall come to the surviving Chiefs of the Three Brothers on the tenth day and console them. If the Younger Brothers lose one of their Chiefs then the Three Brothers shall come to them and console them. And the consolation shall be the reading of the contents of the thirteen shell (wampum) strings of Ayonhwhathah. At the termination of this rite a successor shall be appointed, to be appointed by the women heirs of the Chiefship title. If the women are not yet ready to place their nominee before the Chiefs the Speaker shall say, "Come let us go out." All shall leave the Council or the place of gathering. The installation shall then wait until such a time as the women are ready. The Speaker shall lead the way from the house by saying, "Let us depart to the edge of the woods and lie in waiting on our bellies."

    When the women title holders shall have chosen one of their sons the Confederate Chiefs will assemble in two places, the Younger Brothers in one place and the Three Older Brothers in another. The Chiefs who are to console the mourning Chiefs shall choose one of their number to sing the Pacification Hymn as they journey to the sorrowing Chiefs. The singer shall lead the way and the Chiefs and the people shall follow. When they reach the sorrowing Chiefs they shall hail the candidate Chief and perform the rite of Conferring the Chiefship Title.


34. If a Chief dies and there is no candidate qualified for the office in the family of the women title holders, the Chiefs of the Nation shall give the title into the hands of a sister family in the clan until such a time as the original family produces a candidate, when the title shall be restored to the rightful owners.

    No Chiefship title may be carried into the grave. The Chiefs of the Confederacy may dispossess a dead Chief of his title even at the grave.


Election of Pine Tree Chiefs


35. Should any man of the Nation assist with special ability or show great interest in the affairs of the Nation, if he proves himself wise, honest and worthy of confidence, the Confederate Chiefs may elect him to a seat with them and he may sit in the Confederate Council. He shall be proclaimed a "Pine Tree sprung up for the Nation" and shall be installed as such at the next assembly for the installation of Chiefs. Should he ever do anything contrary to the rules of the Great Peace, he may not be deposed from officeno one shall cut him downbut thereafter everyone shall be deaf to his voice and his advice. Should he resign his seat and title no one shall prevent him. A Pine Tree chief has no authority to name a successor nor is his title hereditary.


Names, Duties and Rights of War Chiefs


36. The title names of the Chief Confederate Chiefs' War Chiefs shall be:

        Ayonwaehs, War Chief under Chief Takarihoken (Mohawk)
        Kahonwahdironh, War Chief under Chief Odatshedeh (Oneida)
        Ayendes, War Chief under Chief Adodarhoh (Onondaga)
        Wenenhs, War Chief under Chief Dekaenyonh (Cayuga)
        Shoneradowaneh, War Chief under Chief Skanyadariyo (Seneca)

The women heirs of each head Chief's title shall be the heirs of the War Chief's title of their respective Chief.

The War Chiefs shall be selected from the eligible sons of the female families holding the head Chiefship titles.


37. There shall be one War Chief for each Nation and their duties shall be to carry messages for their Chiefs and to take up the arms of war in case of emergency. They shall not participate in the proceedings of the Confederate Council but shall watch its progress and in case of an erroneous action by a Chief they shall receive the complaints of the people and convey the warnings of the women to him. The people who wish to convey messages to the Chiefs in the Confederate Council shall do so through the War Chief of their Nation. It shall ever be his duty to lay the cases, questions and propositions of the people before the Confederate Council.


38. When a War Chief dies another shall be installed by the same rite as that by which a Chief is installed.


39. If a War Chief acts contrary to instructions or against the provisions of the Laws of the Great Peace, doing so in the capacity of his office, he shall be deposed by his women relatives and by his men relatives. Either the women or the men alone or jointly may act in such a case. The women title holders shall then choose another candidate.


Clans and Consanguinity


42. Among the Five Nations and their posterity there shall be the following original clans: Great Name Bearer, Ancient Name Bearer, Great Bear, Ancient Bear, Turtle, Painted Turtle, Standing Rock, Large Plover, Deer, Pigeon Hawk, Eel, Ball, Opposite-Side-of-the-Hand, and Wild Potatoes. These clans distributed through their respective Nations, shall be the sole owners and holders of the soil of the country and in them is it vested as a birthright.


43. People of the Five Nations members of a certain clan shall recognize every other member of that clan, irrespective of the Nation, as relatives. Men and women, therefore, members of the same clan are forbidden to marry.


44. The lineal descent of the people of the Five Nations shall run in the female line. Women shall be considered the progenitors of the Nation. They shall own the land and the soil. Men and women shall follow the status of the mother.


45. The women heirs of the Confederated Chiefship titles shall be called Royaneh for all time to come.


46. The women of the Forty Eight [now fifty] Royaneh families shall be the heirs of the Authorized Names for all time to come. . .


49. If any of the Royaneh women, heirs of a titleship, shall wilfully withhold a Chiefship or other title and refuse to bestow it, or if such heirs abandon, forsake or despise their heritage, then shall such women be deemed buried and their family extinct. The titleship shall then revert to a sister family or clan upon application and complaint. The Chiefs of the Confederacy shall elect the family or clan which shall in future hold the title.


Rights of Royaneh Women


50. The Royaneh women of the Confederacy heirs of the Chiefship titles shall elect two women of their family as cooks for the Chief when the people shall assemble at his house for business or other purposes. It is not good nor honorable for a Confederate Chief to allow his people whom he has called to go hungry.


51. When a Chief holds a conference in his home, his wife, if she wishes, may prepare the food for the Union Chiefs who assemble with him. This is an honorable right which she may exercise as an expression of her esteem.


52. The Royaneh women, heirs of the Chiefship titles, shall, should it be necessary, correct and admonish the holders of their titles. Those only who attend the Council may do this and those who do not shall not object to what has been said nor strive to undo the action.


53. When the Royaneh women, holders of a Chiefship title, select one of their sons as a candidate, they shall select one who is trustworthy, of good character, of honest disposition, one who manages his own affairs, supports his own family, if any, and who has proven a faithful man to his Nation.


54. When a Chiefship title becomes vacant through death or other cause, the Royaneh women of the clan in which the title is hereditary shall hold a council and shall choose one from among their sons to fill the office made vacant. Such a candidate shall not be the father of any Confederate Chief. If the choice is unanimous the name is referred to the men relatives of the clan. If they should disapprove it shall be their duty to select a candidate from among their own number. If then the men and women are unable to decide which of the two candidates shall be named, then the matter shall be referred to the Confederate Chiefs in the Clan. They shall decide which candidate shall be named. If the men and the women agree to a candidate his name shall be referred to the sister clans for confirmation. If the sister clans confirm the choice, they shall refer their action to their Confederate Chiefs who shall ratify the choice and present it to their cousin Chiefs, and if the cousin Chiefs confirm the name then the candidate shall be installed by the proper ceremony for the conferring of Chiefship titles.


Symbols of the Confederacy 


55. A large bunch of shell strings, in the making of which the Five Nations Confederate Chiefs have equally contributed, shall symbolize the completeness of the union and certify the pledge of the nations represented by the Confederate Chiefs of the Mohawk, the Oneida, the Onondaga, the Cayuga and the Senecca, that all are united and formed into one body or union called the Union of the Great Law, which they have established.

    A bunch of shell strings is to be the symbol of the council fire of the Five Nations Confederacy. And the Chief whom the council of Fire Keepers shall appoint to speak for them in opening the council shall hold the strands of shells in his hands when speaking. When he finishes speaking he shall deposit the strings on an elevated place (or pole) so that all the assembled Chiefs and the people may see it and know that the council is open and in progress.

    When the council adjourns the Chief who has been appointed by his comrade Chiefs to close it shall take the strands of shells in his hands and address the assembled Chiefs. Thus will the council adjourn until such time and place as appointed by the council. Then shall the shell strings be placed in a place for safekeeping.

Every five years the Five Nations Confederate Chiefs and the people shall assemble together and shall ask one another if their minds are still in the same spirit of unity for the Great Binding Law and if any of the Five Nations shall not pledge continuance and steadfastness to the pledge of unity then the Great Binding Law shall dissolve.


56. Five strings of shell tied together as one shall represent the Five Nations. Each string shall represent one territory and the whole a completely united territory known as the Five Nations Confederate territory.


57. Five arrows shall be bound together very strong and each arrow shall represent one nation. As the five arrows are strongly bound this shall symbolize the complete union of the nations. Thus are the Five Nations united completely and enfolded together, united into one head, one body and one mind. Therefore they shall labor, legislate and council together for the interest of future generations.

    The Chiefs of the Confederacy shall eat together from one bowl the feast of cooked beaver's tail. While they are eating they are to use no sharp utensils for if they should they might accidentally cut one another and bloodshed would follow. All measures must be taken to prevent the spilling of blood in any way.


58. There are now the Five Nations Confederate Chiefs standing with joined hands in a circle. This signifies and provides that should any one of the Confederate Chiefs leave the council and this Confederacy his crown of deer's horns, the emblem of his Chiefship title, together with his birthright, shall lodge on the arms of the Union Chiefs whose hands are so joined. He forfeits his title and the crown falls from his brow but it shall remain in the Confederacy.

    A further meaning of this is that if any time any one of the Confederate Chiefs choose to submit to the law of a foreign people he is no longer in but out of the Confederacy, and persons of this class shall be called "They have alienated themselves." Likewise such persons who submit to laws of foreign nations shall forfeit all birthrights and claims on the Five Nations Confederacy and territory.

    You, the Five Nations Confederate Chiefs, be firm so that if a tree falls on your joined arms it shall not separate or weaken your hold. So shall the strength of the union be preserved.


Removal of Erring Chiefs


59. A bunch of wampum shells on strings, three spans of the hand in length, the upper half of the bunch being white and the lower half black, and formed from equal contributions of the men of the Five Nations, shall be a token that the men have combined themselves into one head, one body and one thought, and it shall also symbolize their ratification of the peace pact of the Confederacy, whereby the Chiefs of the Five Nations have established the Great Peace.

    The white portion of the shell strings represent the women and the black portion the men. The black portion, furthermore, is a token of power and authority vested in the men of the Five Nations.

    This string of wampum vests the people with the right to correct their erring Chiefs. In case a part or all of the Chiefs pursue a course not vouched for by the people and heed not the third warning of their women relatives, then the matter shall be taken to the General Council of the women of the Five Nations. If the Chiefs notified and warned three times fail to heed, then the case falls into the hands of the men of the Five Nations. The War Chiefs shall then, by right of such power and authority, enter the open council to warn the Chief or Chiefs to return from the wrong course. If the Chiefs heed the warning they shall say, "we will reply tomorrow." If then an answer is returned in favor of justice and in accord with this Great Law, then the Chiefs shall individually pledge themselves again by again furnishing the necessary shells for the pledge. Then shall the War Chief or Chiefs exhort the Chiefs urging them to be just and true.

    Should it happen that the Chiefs refuse to heed the third warning, then two courses are open: either the men may decide in their council to depose the Chief or Chiefs or to club them to death with war clubs. Should they in their council decide to take the first course the War Chief shall address the Chief or Chiefs, saying: "Since you the Chiefs of the Five Nations have refused to return to the procedure of the Constitution, we now declare your seats vacant, we take off your horns, the token of your Chiefship, and others shall be chosen and installed in your seats, therefore vacate your seats."

    Should the men in their council adopt the second course, the War Chief shall order his men to enter the council, to take positions beside the Chiefs, sitting between them wherever possible. When this is accomplished the War Chief holding in his outstretched hand a bunch of black wampum strings shall say to the erring Chiefs: "So now, Chiefs of the Five United Nations, harken to these last words from your men. You have not heeded the warnings of the women relatives, you have not heeded the warnings of the General Council of women and you have not heeded the warnings of the men of the nations, all urging you to return to the right course of action. Since you are determined to resist and to withhold justice from your people there is only one course for us to adopt." At this point the War Chief shall let drop the bunch of black wampum and the men shall spring to their feet and club the erring Chiefs to death. Any erring Chief may submit before the War Chief lets fall the black wampum. Then his execution is withheld.

    The black wampum here used symbolizes that the power to execute is buried but that it may be raised up again by the men. It is buried but when occasion arises they may pull it up and derive their power and authority to act as here described.


Emblems of Unity


60. A broad dark belt of wampum of thirty-eight rows, having a white heart in the center, on either side of which are two white squares all connected with the heart by white rows of beads shall be the emblem of the unity of the Five Nations.

    The first of the squares on the left represents the Mohawk nation and its territory; the second square on the left and the one near the heart, represents the Oneida nation and its territory; the white heart in the middle represents the Onondaga nation and its territory, and it also means that the heart of the Five Nations is single in its loyalty to the Great Peace, that the Great Peace is lodged in the heart (meaning the Onondaga Chiefs), and that the Council Fire is to burn there for the Five Nations, and further, it means that the authority is given to advance the cause of peace whereby hostile nations out of the Confederacy shall cease warfare; the white square to the right of the heart represents the Cayuga nation and its territory and the fourth and last white square represents the Seneca nation and its territory.

    White shall here symbolize that no evil or jealous thoughts shall creep into the minds of the Chiefs while in Council under the Great Peace. White, the emblem of peace, love, charity and equity surrounds and guards the Five Nations.


65. I, Dekanawida, and the Union Chiefs, now uproot the tallest pine tree and into the cavity thereby made we cast all weapons of war. Into the depths of the earth, down into the deep underearth currents of water flowing to unknown regions we cast all the weapons of strife. We bury them from sight and we plant again the tree. Thus shall the Great Peace be established and hostilities shall no longer be known between the Five Nations but peace to the United People.


Rights of Inhabitants


73. The soil of the earth from one end of the land to the other is the property of the people who inhabit it. By birthright the Ongwehonweh (Original beings) are the owners of the soil which they own and occupy and none other may hold it. The same law has been held from the oldest times.

    The Great Creator has made us of the one blood and of the same soil he made us and as only different tongues constitute different nations he established different hunting grounds and territories and made boundary lines between them.


78. Whenever a foreign nation enters the Confederacy or accepts the Great Peace, the Five Nations and the foreign nation shall enter into an agreement and compact by which the foreign nation shall endeavor to persuade other nations to accept the Great Peace.


Powers of War


79. Skanawatih shall be vested with a double office, duty and with double authority. One-half of his being shall hold the Chiefship title and the other half shall hold the title of War Chief. In the event of war he shall notify the five War Chiefs of the Confederacy and command them to prepare for war and have their men ready at the appointed time and place for engagement with the enemy of the Great Peace.


80. When the Confederate Council of the Five Nations has for its object the establishment of the Great Peace among the people of an outside nation and that nation refuses to accept the Great Peace, then by such refusal they bring a declaration of war upon themselves from the Five Nations. Then shall the Five Nations seek to establish the Great Peace by a conquest of the rebellious nation.


83. When peace shall have been established by the termination of the war against a foreign nation, then the War Chief shall cause all the weapons of war to be taken from the nation. Then shall the Great Peace be established and that nation shall observe all the rules of the Great Peace for all time to come.


84. Whenever a foreign nation is conquered or has by their own will accepted the Great Peace their own system of internal government may continue, but they must cease all warfare against other nations.


Rights of the People


93. Whenever a specially important matter or a great emergency is presented before the Confederate Council and the nature of the matter affects the entire body of the Five Nations, threatening their utter ruin, then the Chiefs of the Confederacy must submit the matter to the decision of their people and the decision of the people shall affect the decision of the Confederate Council. This decision shall be a confirmation of the voice of the people.


94. The men of every clan of the Five Nations shall have a Council Fire ever burning in readiness for a council of the clan. When it seems necessary for a council to be held to discuss the welfare of the clans, then the men may gather about the fire. This council shall have the same rights as the council of the women.


95. The women of every clan of the Five Nations shall have a Council Fire ever burning in readiness for a council of the clan. When in their opinion it seems necessary for the interest of the people they shall hold a council and their decisions and recommendations shall be introduced before the Council of the Chiefs by the War Chief for its consideration.


96. All the Clan council fires of a nation or of the Five Nations may unite into one general council fire, or delegates from all the council fires may be appointed to unite in a general council for discussing the interests of the people. The people shall have the right to make appointments and to delegate their power to others of their number. When their council shall have come to a conclusion on any matter, their decision shall be reported to the Council of the Nation or to the Confederate Council (as the case may require) by the War Chief or the War Chiefs.


97. Before the real people united their nations, each nation had its council fires. Before the Great Peace their councils were held. The five Council Fires shall continue to burn as before and they are not quenched. The Chiefs of each nation in future shall settle their nation's affairs at this council fire governed always by the laws and rules of the council of the Confederacy and by the Great Peace.


98. If either a nephew or a niece see an irregularity in the performance of the functions of the Great Peace and its laws, in the Confederate Council or in the conferring of Chiefship titles in an improper way, through their War Chief they may demand that such actions become subject to correction and that the matter conform to the ways prescribed by the laws of the Great Peace.


Protection of Rites and Festivals


99. The rites and festivals of each nation shall remain undisturbed and shall continue as before because they were given by the people of old times as useful and necessary for the good of men.


Protection of Dwellings


107. A certain sign shall be known to all the people of the Five Nations which shall denote that the owner or occupant of a house is absent. A stick or pole in a slanting or leaning position shall indicate this and be the sign. Every person not entitled to enter the house by right of living within it upon seeing such a sign shall not approach the house either by day or by night but shall keep as far away as his business will permit.




The Introduction is based on information contained in The Great Law and the Longhouse, A Political History of the Iroquois Confederacy by William N. Fenton. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma, 1998. Fenton’s bibliography lists the various sources for the Great Law and the legends of its formation.


Extracts from The Great Law are derived from the text form prepared by Gerald Murphy (The Cleveland Free-Net - aa300), distributed by the Cybercasting Services Division of the National Public Telecomputing Network, and rendered into HTML by Jon Roland of the Constitution Society. The full text is presented at the web site of the Constitution Society. The section numbers correspond to those of Constitution Society text. Variations of this version use different titles for the different levels of leadership—statesmen, chiefs, lords, etc. Here the term "chief" is used, which is close to the 1970 Mohawk version.


Mohawk text: The Great Law of Peace of the People of the Longhouse, drawings by John Fadden. White Roots of Peace, Mohawk Nation at Akwesasne, New York, 1970.