Henry Rowe Schoolcraft.

An address delivered before the Was-ah Ho-de-no-son-ne, or, New Confederacy of the Iroquois (Volume 2) online

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Online LibraryHenry Rowe SchoolcraftAn address delivered before the Was-ah Ho-de-no-son-ne, or, New Confederacy of the Iroquois (Volume 2) → online text (page 1 of 4)
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AUGUST 14, 1845.











Sign of the American Eagle, Butrulu-Strect.

■ 1 8 l(i .

the public mind becomes settled and compacted, is, to take
away from men the prestige of names snd titles ; to award
but little, on the score of antiquarian merit, and to weigh
every man's powers and abilities, political and literaiy, in
the scale of absolute individual capacit}^, to be judged of,
by the community at large. If there are to be any "or-
ders," in America, let us hope they will be like that, whose
institution we are met to celebrate, which is ibunded on
the principle of intellectual emulation, in the fields of his-
tory, science and letters.

Such are, indeed, the objects which bring us together on
the present occasion, favored as we arc in assembling
around the light of this emblematic Council Fire. Hon-
ored by your notice, as an honorary member, in your young
institution, I may speak of it, as if I were myself a fellow
laborer, in your circle : and, at least, as one, understand-
ing somewhat of its plan, who feels a deep interest in its

Adopting one of the seats of the aboriginal powers,
wliich once cast the spell of its simple, yet complicated,
government, over the territory, a central point has been
established here. To this central point, symbolizing the
whole scheme of the Ixoquois system, other points of sub-
centrahzation tend, as so many converging lines. You come
from the east and the west, the north and the south. You
have obeyed one impulse — followed one principle — come
to unite your energies in one object. That object is the
cultivation of letters. To give it force and distinctness, by
which it may be known and distinguished among the efforts
made to improve and employ the leisure hours of the young
men of Western New York, j'ou have adopted a name de-
rived from the ancient confederacy of the Iroquois, who
once occupied this soil. With the name, you have taken
the general system of organization of society, within a so-
ciety, held together by one bond. That bond, as existing
in the TOTEMIC tie, reaches, witli a peculiar force, each

individual, in sucli society. It is an idea nolilc in itself,
and vvorty of the tliought and care, by wliich it lias been
nurtured and moulded into its present auspicious form. —
The union you thus form, is a union of minds. It is a band
of brotherhood, but a brotherhood of letters. It is a con-
federacy of tribes, but a literary confederacy. It is an as-
semblage of warriors, but the labor to be pursued is exclu-
sively of an intellectual character. The plumes with which
you aim to pledge your literary arrows, are to be plucked
from the wings of science. It is a council of clans, not to
consult on the best means of advancing historical research ;
of promoting antiquarian knowledge ; and of cultivating
polite literature. The field of inquiry is broad, and it is
to be trodden in various ways. You seek to advance in
the paths of useful knowledge, but neglect not the flowers
that bedeck the way. You aim at general objects and re-
sults, but pursue them, through the theme and story of that
proud and noble race of the sons of the Forest, whose name,
whose costume and whose principles of association you
assume. Symbollically, you re-create the race. Thus
aiming, and thus symboUzing your labors, your objects to
resuscitate and exhume from the dust of by-gone years,
some of those deeds of valor and renown which marked
this hardy and vigorous race. There is in the idea of your
association, one of the elements of a peculiar and national
literature. And whatever may be the degree of success,
which characterizes your labors, it is hoped they will bcnr
the impress of American heads and American hearts. We
have drawn our intellectual sustenance, it is true, from
noble fountains and crystal streams. We have all Eng-
land, and all Europe for our fountain head. But when this
has been said, we must add, that they have been ofl-scls
from foreign fountains and foreign streams. And nurtured
as we have been, from such ample sources, it is time, in
the course of our national developments, that wc begin to
produce somclhing characteristic of the land that gave us


l)irth. No pcop!e can bear a true nationality, whicli does
not exfoliate, as it were, from its bosom, something that
expreses the peculiarities of its own soil and climate. In
building its intellectual edifice, we must have not only suit-
able decorations, but there must come from the broad and
deep quarries of its own mountains, foundation stones, and
columns and capitals, which bear the impress of an indi-
genous mental geognosy.

And where ! when we survey the length and breadth of
the land, can a more suitable element, for the workbe found,
than is furnished by the history and antiquities and insti-
tutions and love, of the free, bold, wild, independent, na-
tive hunter race f They are, relatively to us, what the
ancient Pict and Celt were to Britain, or the Tueton, Goth
and Magyar to Continental Europe. Looking around, over
the wide forests, and transcendent lakes of New York, the
founders of this association, have beheld the footprints of
the ancient race. They saw here, as it were, in vision, the
lordly Iroquois, crowned by the feathers of the eagle, bear-
ing in his hand the bow and arrows, and scorning, as it
were, by the keen glances of his black eye, and the lofti-
ness of his tread, the very earth that bore him up. History
and tradition speak of the story of this ancient race. —
They paint him as a man of war — of endurance — of in-
domitable courage — of capacity to endure tortures without
complaint — of a heroic and noble independence. They
tell us that these precincts, now waving with yellow corn,
and smiling with villages, and glittering with spires, were
once vocal with their wtir songs, and resounded with the
chorusses of their corn feasts. We descry, as we plough
the plain, the well chipped darts which pointed tlieir arrows,
and the elongated jiestlcs, that crushed their maze. Wc
exhume from their obliterated and simple graves, the pipe
of steatite, in which they smoked, and offered incense to
these deities, and the frngmonts of the culinary vases,
around which, the lodge circle gathered to their forest meal.

Mounds and trenches and dilchcs, speak of the movement
of tribe against tribe, and dimly siuidow forth the overthrow
of nations. There are no plated columns of marble ; no
tablets of inscribed stone — no gates of rust-coated brass.
But the MAN himself survives, in his generation. He is a
WALKING STATUE bcforc US. His looks and his gestures
and his language remain. And he is himself, an attractive
monument to be studied. Shall we neglect him, and his an-
tiquarian vestiges, to run after foreign sources of intellectual
study ? Shall we toil amid the ruins of Thebes and Pal-
myra, while we have before us the monumental enigma of
an unknown race ? Shall philosophical ardor expend it-
self, in searching after the buried sites of Ninevah, and
Babylon and Troy, while we have not attempted, with
decent research, to coUect, arrange and determine, the
leading data of our aboriginal history and antiquities ? —
These are inquiries, which you, at least, may aim to an-

No branch of the human family is an object unworthy
of high philosophic inquiry. Their food, their language,
their arts, their physical peculiarities, and their mental
traits, are each topics of deep interest, and susceptible of
being converted into evidences of high importance. Mis-
taken our Red Men clearly were, in their theories and
opinions on many points. They were wretched theologists,
and poor casuists. But not more so, in three-fourths of
their dogmas, than the deciples of Zoroaster, or Confucius.
They were polytheists from their very position. And yet,
there is a general idea, that under every form, they ac-
knowledged but one divine intelligence under the name
of the Great Spirit.

They paid their sacrifices, or at least, respects, to the
imaginary and phantastic gods of the air, the woods and
water, as Greece and Rome had done, and done as blindly
before them. But they were a vigorous, hardy and brave
off-shoot of the original nice of iiian. They wcic full of


humanities. They had many qualities to command admi-
ration. They were wise in council, they were eloquent
in the defence of their rights. They were kind and hu-
mane to the weak, bewildered and friendless. Their lodge-
board was ever ready for the way farer. They were con-
stant to a proverb, in their jyrofesscd friendships. They
never forgot a kind act. Nor can it be recorded, to their
dispraise, that they were a terror to their enemies. Their
character was formed on the military principle, and to ac-
quire distinction in this line, they roved over half the con-
tinent. They literally carried their conquests from the gulf
of St. Lawrence to the gulf of Mexico. Few nations have
ever existed, who have evinced more indomitable courage
or hardihood, or shown more devotion to the Spirit of inde-
pendence than the Iroquois.

But all their efforts would have ended in disappointment,
had it not been for that principle of confederation, which,
at an early day, pervaded their councils, and converted
them into a phalanx, which no other tribe could success-
fully penetrate, or resist. It is this trait, by which they
are most distinguished from the other hunter nations of
North America ; and it is to their rigid adherence to the
verbal compact, which bound them together, as tribes and
clans, that they owe their present celebrity, and owed their
former power.

It is proposed to inquire into the principles of this con-
federacy, and to make a few brief suggestions on its origin
and history. In the time that has been given me, 1 have
had but little opportunity for research, and even this littley
other engagements, have not permitted me, fully to employ.
The little that I have to offer, would indeed have been
confined to the reminiscence of former reading, had I not
been called, the present season, to make a personal visit to
the reservation still occupied by the ptincipal tribes.

i. Prominent in its effects on thc'rise and progres of na-
tions, m the geographical character f>t the country they


occupy. And in this respect, the Iroquois were singularly
favored. They lived under an atmosphere the most genial
of any in the temperate latitude. Equally free from the
extremes of heat, and humidity, it has been found eminently
favorable to human life. Inquiries into the statistics of
vitality will abundantly denote this. Many of the civil
sachems lived to a great age. And the same may be said
of those warriors who escaped the dart and club, until they
came to the period, not a very advanced one, when they
ceased to follow the war path.

They possessed a country, unsurpassed for its various
advantages, not only on this continent, but on the globe. —
It afforded a soil of the most fruitful kind, where they could,
with ease and certainty, always cultivate their maize. Its
forests abounded in the deer, elk, bear and other animals,
whose flesh supplied their lodges. It Was irrigated by
some of the sublimest rivers of the continent, whose waters
ran south and north, east, and by the Alleghany's, west,
till they all found their level, at distatant points, either in
the Gulfs of St. Lawrence and Mexico, or in the interme-
diate shores of the Atlantic. Lakes of an amazing size,
compared to those of Europe, bounded this territory on the
north and north east. Its own bosom, was spotted, with
secondary sheets of water, like thai; of the Cayuga, upon
whose banks we are asscmljlcd. These added freshness
and beauty to the thick, and almost unbroken continuity
of these forests.

Nations doubtless owe some of their characteristics to
the natural scenes of their country, and if we grant the
same influence to the red sons of the forest, they had sour-
ces of animating and elevating thoughts around them. —
Men who habitually cast their views to the Genesee and
the Niagara — who crossed in their light cancic, the Ontario
and Erie, wending their way into the sublime vista of the
upper lakes: men, who threaded those broad forests in
search of the deer, or who descended the powerful and


rapid channels of tlic AUcgUany, ihc Susquchannah, thu
Delaware and the St. Lawrence, in quest of their foes, must
have felt the influence of magnitude and creative gran-
deur, a):d could not but originate ideas favorable to liberty
and personal independence. Their very position, became
thus the initiatory step in their assent to power.

2. Such was the country occupied, at the era of the dis-
covery, by the Iroquois. They lived, to employ their own
symbolic language, in a long lodge extending east and
west, from the waters of the Ca-ho-ha-ta-tea* to those of
Erie. Their most easterly tribe, the Mohawks, extended
their occupancy to a point which they still call, with dia-
lectic variations, Skan-ck-ta-tea, Ijeing the present site of
Albany. To this place, or, as is more generally thought,
to this geographical vicinity, the commercial enterprize of
Holland, sent an exploring ship in 1609. Here begins the
certain and recorded history ot" the Iroquois. We have
only known them 260 years. All beyond this, is a field of
anlicjuarian inquiry.

From the historical documents recently obtained by the
State from France, and deposited in the public oliices at
the capitol, it is seen that this people are sometimes called
the Nlne nations of the Iroquois. Algonquin tradition,
which 1 have recently published, denotes that they origi-
nally consisted of Eight tribes. (Oneota.) Whatever of
truth or error, there may be in these terms, it is certain tluit,
at the period of the Dutch discovery and settlement re-
i'erred to, they uniibrmly described tliemselves as the Five
Nations, or United People, under the title of AicoNosHioNi.t
The term Ongwe Honwee, which Golden mentions as
peculiarly applied to themselves, as proudly contradistin-
guished from others, is a mere equivalent, in the several
dialects, at this day, for the term Indian, and applies
equally to other tribes, throughcjut the continent, as well as
to themselves. JJy llie admission of the Tuscaroras into

■"llutlsuii 'ijr Ho (It uo son nc


the confederacy, ihey became known as the Six Nations.
The principles of tlieir compact, were such as to admit of
any extension. They might as well, for aught that is
known, have consisted of Sixteen as Six Tribes, and like
our own Union, they would have been stronger and firmer
in their power, with each admission.

I have directed some few inquiries to their plan of union.
It appears to have originnted in a proposal to act in concert,
by means of a central council, in questions of peace and
war. In other respects, each tribe was an independency.
It had no right to receive aml)assadors from other tribes. —
Messages delivered to a frontier tribe, were immediately
transmitted to the next tribe in position, and by them passed
on, to the central councils. They affirm that these mes-
sages were forwarded, with extraordinary celerity, by run-
ners who rested not, night or day. The power to convene
the general council, for despatch of public business, was
in the presiding or executive chief of the Central Tribe.

This power to make war or peace, or cession of sover-
eignty, was given up, on the principle of an equal union in
all respects, without regard to numbers. It was strictly
federative, or a union of tribes. The assent to a measure,
was given by tribes. Whether all were required to assent,
or a majority was sufficient, is not known. It is believed
they required entire unanimity.

3. But another principle, of the deepest importance, ran
throughout the organization of all the tribes, more remote
in its origin, and stiU more influential, it may be thought,
in forming a more perfect union, and giving strength and
compactness to the government. It was the plan of the
ToTEMic Bond. This bond was a fraternity of separate
clans in each tribe. It was based on original consanguinity,
and marked by a heraldic device, as the figure of a quadru-
ped, or bird. This appears to be an acient feature in their
organization, and is also found among otiier North Ameri-
can tribes. The Algonquin iribcs, who possess the same


organization, and from whose vocabulary we take the name,
call it the Totem. The institution of the totem, or inter-
fratcrnily of clans, existed, and is also found, with well
marked features, among the Iroquois. It had, however,
one characteristic, which was peculiar, to these nations. —
It was employed to mark the descent of the chiefs, which
ran exclusively by the female. The law of marriage, in-
terdicting connexions within the clan, and limiting them to
another, was probably established in ancient times, among
the other nations who adhere to this institution, but, if so,
it lias dropped, or dwindled into mere tradition.

Totem, is a term denoting the device, or pictorial sign,
which is used by each individual, to determine his family
identity. As many as have the same totem are admitted
to be of the same family or clan. In this respect, it is
analogous to coats of arms. It differs from them in this,
that no person can marry another of the same arms and
totem. They are related. The reason for keeping up this
interdict, in cases where the degree of relationship must
often be very small, or is entirely lost, appears to be one
of policy, and will be, as far as possible, explained.

Originally, there appears to have been three leading
families or clans, among all the North American Indians,
whose devices were, respectively, the turtle, the wolf,
and the bear. This triad of honored clans, existed and
still exists among nations diverse in their languages, and re-
mote in position, and may be considered as a proof of their
common origin. These totems were regarded as of the
highest authority — a fact which may denote either original
paternity in these clans, or some distinguished action or
services, analogous, perhaps, to the well known events of
the Curatii and Horatii.

It is certain, at least, that amongst each of the Iroquois
tribes, as well as the great Algonquin family, there existed
the totem or clan of the turtio, the wolf, and the bear. I
will take, iiowever, as an illustration of the Totemic organi-


zation of the 1ril)es, the instance of tlio Nun-do-wa-ga, or
Senccas. The facts here employed liave recently been
communicated to me by their distinguished chief De-o-ne-
Ho-GA-WA. The tribe consists of eight clans. They are,
in the order communicated, the wolf, the turtle, the bear,
the beaver, the snipe or plover, the falcon or hawk, the deer
and the cranes. The present reigning clan is the wolf, the
clan to which the noted orator, Red Jacket, and my infor-
mant, both belonged. We may assume, that what appear
to have been fundamental principles, were actually so, and
are to be regarded as the constitutional basis.

Each clan is entititled to a chief. Each chief has a scat
in council. The chiefs are hereditary, counting by the
female line. By this law of descent, no chief could beget
an immediate successor. And herein consisted one of the
marked points of political wisdom in their system. It is
this law of descent which best distinguishes it from the
system of government of other nations on this continent,
and in Asia. No such rule is known to exist, but may
exist, among the Mongol race, or other Asiatic stocks, to
whom these people have usually been traced. If so, the
law of descent, in this regard, is indigenous and original.
What disquisitions have we not seen, that a certain Iroquois
chief was in the regular line of the chieftainship, by the
father ? whereas, it is clear, that the son of a chief could
never, in any case, succeed his father. The descent ran,
so to say, in the line of the queen-mother. If a chief die,
his brother, next in age, would succeed him. These failing,
his daughter's male children, if connected with the reign-
ing totem, would succeed. Her children constituted the
chain of transmission ; but the heir to the chieftainship,
whether by acknowledged succession, or by choice in case
of dispute or uncertainty, had his claims uniformly submit-
ted to a called council, and if approved, the sachem was
regularly installed to the office. Councils had this right
from an early day, and are known to have ever been very


scrupulous and jealous in its oxcrcisr, and continue to be
so, at this time.

By the establishment of this law of descent, the evils of
a heriditaiy chieftainship were obviated. And the succes-
sion was kept in healthy channels, by the right of the coun-
cil to decide, in all cases, and to set aside incompetent
claimants. This right was so exercised, as to give the na-
tion the advantages of the elective pov/er, and to avail it-
self of all its talent.

We perceive in this system, an effective provision for
breaking dynasties, and securing at each mutation of the
chieftainship, a fresh line of chiefs, who were subject to a
hfe limit. Each clan having the same right to one chief,
a perpetual, yet constantly changing body of sachems,
was kept up, which must necessarily change the body
entirely in one generation. Yet, like the classes in our
senatorial organization, the change was effected so slowly
and gradually, that the body of chiefs, constituted a politi-
cal perpetuity.

In contemplating this system, there is more than one
point to admire. History gives us no example of a con-
federacy in which the principle of political and domestic
union, were so intimately bound together. By the estab-
lishment of the Totemic Bond, the clans were separated on
the principle of near kindred, between which all marriage
was inhibited. Every marriage between these separated
clans, therfore, bound them closer together, and the con-
sequence soon must have been, their entire amalgama-
tion, had it not been provided, that each clan, through
the female line, should preserve inviolate forever, its own
Totemic independency. In other words, the female was
never so incorporated into a new relation by the matrimo-
nial tie, as to lose her family name, and her mother's an-
cestral rights. If, for example, a deer totem female, mar-
ried a wolf or hawk male, she was still counted in the clan
of the deer, and never gave up her political rights, to the


Wolf or hawk clans, whicli had provitlcd for her a husliand.
Her position may, perhaps, be better understood, by ob-
serving that the married woman, still retained her maiden
name — the sir name ot her family. By this means she
preserved the identity of her clan, and with it, its heraldic
and political rights. Not only so, the property of a female,
never vested in, or belonged to the husband. This trait is
still in full vogue, among each of the tribes. Its operation
has been witnessed the present year.

Matrons had also the right to attend and sit in council,
and there were occasions, in which they were permitted to
speak. For this purpose, a speaker was assigned to them,
and this person became q, standing officer in the council. —
It might pertain to the nations to bring in propositions of
peace. Such propositions might prejudice the character of
a warrior, but they were appropriate to the female, and the
wise men knew how to avail themselves of this stroke
of policy. We speak of the general and burdensome sub-
jection of the female, among our Red Men — a condition,
indeed, inseparable from the hunter state, but here is a
trait of power and consideration, which has not yet been

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Online LibraryHenry Rowe SchoolcraftAn address delivered before the Was-ah Ho-de-no-son-ne, or, New Confederacy of the Iroquois (Volume 2) → online text (page 1 of 4)