The Seven Nations of Canada
The Other Iroquois Confederacy

by Darren Bonaparte


If one were to gather all of the books, research papers, and magazine articles about the Iroquois Confederacy in one place, you would need to reinforce the floor with steel beams. No other native group has garnered as much ink as the League of the Six Nations, also known as the Haudenosaunee, or "People of the Longhouse." Inexplicably, there is another "Iroquois Confederacy" that has somehow slipped through the cracks of popular history, yet its role in the unfolding colonial drama of the northeast woodlands is just as critical.

This "other" Iroquois Confederacy was known variously as the Seven Nations of Canada, the Seven Fires, and the Seven Tribes. This alliance of villages, located along the St. Lawrence River and its tributaries, consisted of Iroquois, Algonquins, Hurons, Abenakis, and Nippissings who were allies of New France until the British conquest of 1760. The Mohawks, who played a leading role in its inception, referred to it in their own language as Tsiata Nihononwenstiake, or the "Seven Lands."

While past historians have emphasized the role of French clerics in the inception of the Seven Nations of Canada, a closer analysis reveals that this alliance is actually an example of cultural persistence among those very same Mohawks who have been accused of having "cast off" the old Indian ways by moving to the St. Lawrence River Valley in the late 1600’s. In light of the traumas suffered by the Mohawks who stayed behind in the wars of the 1700’s, relocating themselves to the northern frontier of their own hunting territory may have actually served to preserve certain aspects of traditional Mohawk culture—their very lives, for instance.

In these pages, we will discuss the history of this little-known alliance. We will also explore the relationship between this alliance and the one from which it sprung, the Iroquois Confederacy. Although warriors from each of these confederacies often found themselves on opposite sides of the battlefield, the history of diplomacy and friendship between their respective communities is often over-looked and misunderstood, yet it emerges as another example of the strong cultural and familial bond that continued to exist between them, regardless of their political associations with competing colonies. It was this bond that transcended and rendered meaningless the attempts to categorize and differentiate them according to European concepts of national identity.

Children Of Gaihondariosk
Ancient Mohawks On The St. Lawrence River

More than a hundred centuries have passed since the northeast woodlands were entombed in a glacier several miles thick. Human habitation of this region, therefore, must have followed the retreat of the glacial mass, though much of the land itself was for many years after covered with what is known as the Champlain Sea. This body of water once encompassed the lower St. Lawrence, eastern Ontario, southern Quebec, and Lake Champlain, but further climate changes lowered the water levels over time and left behind the lakes and rivers we know today and a thick layer of extremely rich topsoil ready to be cultivated. It would not be long before the first humans began to show up to hunt, fish, and trap along the waterways. By the time Europeans began to make their way up the St. Lawrence River, the natives they found thriving in villages and camps along the river had established a fairly sophisticated trading network that extended hundreds of miles and an agricultural base that allowed for advances in their socio-political development.

Since the scope of this study precludes a detailed description of the cultural sequence that archaeologists have identified to chart aboriginal migration into the region, we will simplify matters somewhat by identifying the two important language groups that called this area home. First were the Algonquian, who in those early times were a hunter/gatherer culture that was constantly on the move. Today we know them as the Algonquin, Montaignais, the Mic Mac, and Abenaki, among others, and they are found throughout eastern Canada and the eastern United States. The next major language group to make its presence known was the Iroquoian, thought by some to originate somewhere south of the Great Lakes. This group was noted for its agricultural practices as well as its somewhat advanced social organization. Like the Algonquian, the Iroquoian peoples spread themselves out over time. They are known to us today as the Wendat (also known as Huron,) Neutral-Wenro, Erie, Laurentian (or St. Lawrence Iroquoian,) Susquehannock, Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk, Tuscarora, Nottaway, and Cherokee.

While the specifics of the divisions and migrations of these Iroquoian peoples seem knowable only through archaeological investigation, at least one Mohawk oral tradition recorded in the early 1700's casts some light on this nebulous time by linking the Mohawk and the lower St. Lawrence River:

The Indians, in general, are not unaware that they are foreigners in the lands in which they inhabit at present. They say that they came from afar from the direction of the west, that is to say, from Asia. The Agnie [Mohawk] Iroquois assure us that they wandered a long time under the leadership of a woman named Gaihondariosk. This woman led them all through the north of America. She made them go to the place where the city of Quebec is now situated but, finding the terrain too irregular and the country, perhaps, too disadvantageous because of the cold, she stopped at last at Agnie [Mohawk] where the climate seemed to her more temperate and the lands more suitable for cultivation. She then divided the lands for cultivation and thus founded a colony which has maintained itself ever since. This is the Mohawk's story of their individual origin which they claim is a little different from that of the other four Iroquois nations for they claim not to be included under the name of Agonnonsionni or Builders of Lodges, by which the others are called. I do not know the reason for it [this claim on their part.] The French and the other Indian tribes, however, do not make this distinction and generally, under the name of Iroquois or Agonnonsionni, there are included five peoples who speak as many different dialects of the same language. (Lafitau 1974 I: 86-87)

This tradition was recorded by Father Joseph Francois Lafitau, a missionary at Kahnawake (formerly misspelled as Caughnawaga) from 1712 to 1717. Not only does it recount ancient history, it names names—well, one, anyway—and places Mohawks as far down the St. Lawrence as Quebec City before they settled the Mohawk Valley. It also hints at a possible connection to the "St. Lawrence Iroquoians" encountered by Cartier in 1535 at the villages of Stadacona (today's Quebec City) and Hochelaga (today's Isle of Montreal.)

The cultural identity of the St. Lawrence Iroquoians has been the subject of considerable debate among historians, anthropologists, archaeologists, and linguists for generations. Based on Cartier's descriptions, there is little doubt that the Hochelagans were Iroquoian: they lived in bark longhouses, ate cornbread, wheat, and fish, and surrounded their village with an imposing stockade. When they danced, they danced in a great circle, the men, women and children each having a circle of their own. By the time Samuel de Champlain came to the area in 1603, Hochelaga had vanished, as had many of the settlements further up the St. Lawrence River. About a hundred years ago historians assumed that the Hochelagans didn't disappear at all but simply moved south and became the Mohawks, since Mohawk archaeology at that time had not yet established a much earlier Mohawk presence in the Mohawk Valley.

Although they generally agree that the St. Lawrence Iroquoians were a distinct group from the Mohawk with their own pottery and pipe styles, archaeologists do not yet agree as to the fate of these Iroquoians. Some suggest that epidemics acquired from Cartier's expedition gradually spread up the St. Lawrence, forcing survivors to seek refuge elsewhere, such as Mohawk and Huron country where their distinctive artifacts have turned up. Others suggest that either the Huron or the Iroquois attacked the St. Lawrence Iroquoians and took them captive, with the object of gaining access to the new European trade making its way up the St. Lawrence. Keeping in mind the fact that Mohawks adopted large number of Huron captives in the 1600's, some of whom, presumably, were actually captured St. Lawrence Iroquoians, we can identify at least one and possibly two influxes of St. Lawrence Iroquoians into the ranks of the Mohawks.

At least one unidentified Indian voice from the past was able to weigh in on the fate of the St. Lawrence Iroquoians. The French historian Charlevoix, in his Histoire de la Nouvelle France, described the following conversation that occurred after the first Mass was celebrated at Ville Marie in 1642. Like the previous native oral tradition, it is largely ignored in the current debate about the fate of the St. Lawrence Iroquoians:

"The evening of the same day M. de Masionneuve desired to visit the Mountain which gave the island its name, and two old Indians who accompanied him thither, having led him to the top, told him they were of the tribe who had formerly inhabited this country." "We were," they added, "very numerous and all the hills (collines) which you see to the south and east, were peopled. The Hurons drove thence our ancestors, of whom a part took refuge among the Abenakis, others withdrew into the Iroquois cantons, a few remained with our conquerors." They promised Masionneuve to do all they could to bring back their people, "but apparently could not succeed in reassembling the fragments of this dispersed tribe, which doubtless is that of the Iroquois which I have spoken of in my Journal." (Lighthall 1899: 208)

The Jesuit Pere Lalemant in 1646 mentions that among the Algonquin were smaller groups, one of which, the Onontchataronons or Iroquet, was said to have been driven out from the island of Montreal. An old man of about 80 years told them, "my mother told me that in her youth the Hurons drove us from this island." (Lighthall 1899: 208) The fact that the St. Lawrence Iroquoians were dispersed to so many different nations (the Algonquins, Abenakis, Huron, and Iroquois) suggests another motivating factor for those very same nations establishing villages on the St. Lawrence River generations later: they were simply reoccupying ancient homelands.

Before we discuss this resettlement of the St. Lawrence Valley, however, we will turn our attention to Mohawk country, and the impact the Europeans were beginning to have on their ancient confederation.

Keepers Of The Eastern Door
The Mohawk Nation And The Longhouse Confederacy

As the first nation to take hold of the Great Law of Peace, Power and Righteousness, the Kanien'ké:haka or Mohawk Nation became known as the Keepers of the Eastern Door in the symbolic "longhouse" founded by the Peacemaker and Aionwatha. The Senecas were regarded similarly as the Keepers of the Western Door and the Onondagas as the Keepers of the Fire. Those hoping to deal with the confederacy had to do so through either the Mohawks or the Senecas, depending on which direction they approached it from.

The advent of European colonies in North America not only inflamed the long-standing rivalry between the Iroquois and the Algonquins, Hurons and Montaignais, but it exacerbated internal differences in the confederacy itself that threatened the very structure of the longhouse. In the 1640's, for instance, the Senecas and Mohawks teamed up to carry out raids in Huronia at the same time that the Onondagas were sending peace envoys to the same place. An Onondaga chief, having pledged his life for the sake of peace, was so distraught over the news that he went out to the woods and committed suicide rather than face his new Huron friends. (Hunt 1940: 89-90)

Eventually, the efforts of the Onondagas won out and peacefully relations were established between the Iroquois and the French, but only after Huronia was decimated and its people either dispersed, captured by the Iroquois, or dead. The French, assuming that Onondaga was the "capital" of the confederacy, at one time sought to deal directly with them by sending a missionary there. This angered the Mohawks, who felt compelled to explain the symbolism of the longhouse metaphor to them in 1654:

"Ought not one," said he, "to enter a house by the door, and not by the chimney or roof of the cabin, unless he be a thief, and wish to take the inmates by surprise? We, the five Iroquois Nations, compose but one cabin ; we maintain but one fire ; and we have, from time immemorial, dwelt under one and the same roof." In fact, from the earliest times, these five Iroquois Nations have been called in their own language, which is Huron, Hotinnonchiendi, -- that is, "the completed cabin," as if to express that they constituted but one family. "Well, then," he continued, "you will not enter the cabin by the door, which is on the ground floor of the house? It is with us Anniehronnons, that you should begin ; whereas you by beginning with the Onnontaehronnons, try to enter by the roof and through the chimney. Have you no fear that the smoke may blind you, our fire not being extinguished, and that you may fall from the top to the bottom, having nothing solid on which to plant your feet?" (Jesuit Relations XLI 1959: 87-89)

It was their previous contacts with the Dutch that taught the Mohawks the value of their strategic location as the Eastern Doorkeepers of the Longhouse Confederacy: their proximity to the trading posts on the Hudson River gave them ready access to firearms and trade goods that their fellow Iroquois envied. The other nations came to resent the Mohawks for their increasing clout. In 1657 the Mohawks asked the Dutch for help in fortifying their villages for a potential war with the other Iroquois nations, whom the Dutch usually lumped together and called the Sinnekes or Sinnekens:

The 16th of June Anno 1657, the sachems of the three castles of the Maquaes sent to Mr Lamontagne, vice-director, the chief named Sasiadego, who requested in the name of the said sachems that they might be heard the same day. Whereupon the vice-director convened the court.

At which meeting appeared the three sachems of the three Maquaes castles, who after the usual ceremonies made the following propositions:

First, they request us as old friends that we should accommodate them with some horses to haul logs out of the woods to repair their castles and that we should protect their wives and children here in the village in case they should be involved in a war with the Sinnekes, offering on this proposition a string of seawan amounting to fl. 16:12:-

Secondly, as all three castles belong to the same nation and they are bound to help each other in time of need, which can not well be done without warning each other of their distress, they ask that we should assist each of the castles with a cannon and that the same should be drawn by horses from here to the flatts (de vlackte), being 8 miles from here. Upon which proposition they offered another string of seawan, amounting to fl. 16:9:-

Thirdly, [they state] that in passing through on their way to the Mahikanders they called on us to renew the old friendship between us and them. Whereupon they offered a third string of seawan, amounting to fl.13:10:- (Minutes of the Court of Fort Orange and Beverwyck, 1657-1660, II 1929: 45.)

The Dutch gave their reply to the Mohawk chiefs on June 21, 1657. While they welcomed their peaceful overtures, they were not about to arm the "Maquaes" with a cannon in every village:

As to the first proposition, concerning the horses, the answer is that they have no horses of their own, but if they [the Indians] are willing to pay for them, they will try to persuade some people to accommodate them. As to lodging their women and children in case of war against the Sinnekens, they are ready to do so for the sake of their old friendship, but they hope that it will not be necessary.

As to the second proposition, about the request for a cannon, the answer is that the cannon do not belong to them, but to their superiors, who have given them to them for their defense, so that they can neither give them away nor loan them without their consent. They will write about it to the director general and await his reply.

As to third proposition, about renewing the old friendship between us and them, the answer is that they are ready to maintain it and thank them for the favorable disposition which show toward us. (Minutes of the Court of Fort Orange and Beverwyck, 1657-1660, II 1929: 47-48.)

When the Dutch surrendered their colonial posts on the Hudson to the English in 1664, the Mohawks made sure that they understood the doorkeeper concept as well. The English knew that the Iroquois were both respected and feared by other native nations throughout the northeast due to the strength of their confederacy. By picking up where the Dutch left off and taking hold of the "Covenant Chain" of peace and friendship with the Iroquois, the English hoped to acquire an American empire through the Iroquois and their expansive network of trade and alliances. The Iroquois, for their part, were happy to find themselves being courted by the two dominant colonial superpowers of the time, England and France. By playing them off of each other, they were able to deal with them on their own terms and further increase their clout with the other native nations.

While many historians have stressed Iroquois unity as the key to this diplomatic, economic and military strength, member nations continued to make their own peace with enemy nations without the consent of the other league members. Strong as the confederacy was, it never supplanted the sovereignty and autonomy of each member nation, or, for that matter, the clans themselves.

Turtles, Bears, And Wolves
Mohawk Resettlement Of The Northern Frontier

The basic social unit of the Mohawk and all other Iroquoian peoples is the matrilineal clan. In colonial times, the Mohawk located their villages along the river according to the clans, with the Turtles in the east, the Bears in the middle, and the Wolves to the west. Each clan generally had one or more villages, depending on the size of the community at any given time. A clan village didn't imply that only people of one clan lived there, since women chose husbands from other clans. In the words of Lafitau:

… it is said that only the men among the Indians are really free and that the women are only their slaves. Nothing is more real, however, than the women's superiority. It is they who really maintain the tribe, the nobility of blood, the genealogical tree, the order of generations and conservation of the families. In them resides all the real authority: the lands, fields and all their harvest belong to them; they are the soul of the councils, the arbiters of peace and war; they hold the taxes and the public treasure; it is to them that the slaves are entrusted; they arrange the marriages; the children are under their authority; and the order of succession is founded on their blood. The men, on the contrary, are entirely isolated and limited to themselves. Their children are strangers to them. Everything perishes with them. A woman alone gives continuity to the household, but, if there are only men in the lodge, however many there may be, whatever number of children they may have, their family dies out with them. And, although the chiefs are chosen among them, they are purely honorary. The Council of Elders which transacts all the business does not work for itself. It seems that they serve only to represent and aid the women in the matters in which decorum does not permit the latter to appear or act. (Lafitau 1974:69)

The earliest Europeans struggled with the idea that the wisened chiefs who greeted them in councils were only spokesmen for the women, the real power in Iroquois country. Such notions were alien to them, since their own women had very few rights and were treated like property. They also confused the hereditary aspects of chief selection with their own "divine right of kings" and often dubbed the chiefs with lofty titles like "King Hendrick." When it became obvious to them that the women and "their chiefs" weren't easily won over by the usual trinkets and gifts, they focused their efforts on the Iroquoian institution known as the "war chief."

A "war chief" was a man who, by virtue of past conquests on the hunt or battlefield, had earned himself the right to lead war parties against enemy nations. This was a right-of-passage tradition that often frustrated the diplomacy of the chiefs and clan mothers. When Europeans added alcohol to the equation, it became almost impossible to keep control of the hot-headed warriors eager to make their mark on the world. This resulted in some very dark times for the Iroquois Confederacy, the most notable of which was the American Revolution. During this conflict, bands of young Oneidas and Tuscaroras took up arms for the colonies against the wishes of their elders, resulting in untold death and destruction from one end of the Longhouse to the other.

At the eastern door of that Longhouse, the Mohawks knew all too well what kind of a divisive effect Europeans could have. After French invasions destroyed their villages in 1667, they were forced to rebuild and make peace. They then allowed Jesuit missionaries to come into their villages to tend to the spiritual needs of their numerous captives from their wars against the Huron and Algonquin. These captives had been baptized before their capture and were glad to see the priests establish small chapels in the Mohawk villages. Although many of the Mohawks were suspicious of the Jesuits, a few of them took an interest in the prayers and stories told by these "praying Indians." They asked to be baptized in spite of the heat they were sure to receive from their fellow Mohawks. When word reached them that a new village was being established on the banks of the St. Lawrence called La Praire de la Magdeleine, where Christian Indians could worship in peace, they promptly packed up their possessions and headed north.

Many of these new Mohawk converts were from the Turtle clan village of Kahnawake (recorded by the Jesuits as Gandaouagué,) a Mohawk worded meaning "at the rapids." With so many of its people gone, the village eventually faded away. The Turtles who stayed behind eventually merged with the two remaining villages. A third Mohawk village on the Schoharie creek, south of the present Iroquois Museum, was eventually established, but because some of the people there were natives from other non-Iroquois nations, there is no indication that it ever inherited the "Turtle clan" designation of the old village of Kahnawake. For that matter, the abundance of Hurons and Algonquins among the Mohawks at La Prairie also casts doubt upon a strong Turtle affiliation with that new settlement, even if they did bestow upon it the same name as the village they had left behind. Like it's namesake, the new Kahnawake was located near rapids.

While many today argue that economic and political reasons had more of an influence on this move than Christianity alone, the result was still the same: by the end of the 17th century, 2/3 of the Mohawk had left their villages on the Mohawk River to live on the St. Lawrence. Fortunately, an influx of natives from New England would come into the Mohawk Valley as refugees, filling up some of the gaps left behind by the northern exodus. (In Mohawk Country 1996: 185)

Relations between the Mohawks who moved to the north and those who stayed behind remained as ambiguous as when they were together, with warriors from both camps joining war parties against the other during the periodic colonial wars that followed their separation. At one point, the Mohawks who stayed behind are said to have renounced those who left. What was implied by this "renouncement" is not exactly known, since the southern Mohawks continued to ask the northern Mohawks to return when relations between their respective allies were peaceful. Since the only mention of this comes to us from non-native accounts, the possibility exists that the appearance of a complete political separation between the northern and southern Mohawks may have been over-emphasized by the various Europeans for their own reasons.

The Mohawks weren't the only Iroquois to take advantage of the end of hostilities by extending themselves to the north. By 1670, the other Iroquois nations began to establish small hunting and fishing villages on the western and northern shores of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River Valley. The former territory had been the southern range of Huron hunting ground while the latter was a type of "no-man's land" where Mohawks ambushed Huron fur traders on their way to Montreal. These Iroquois villages, which appear on French maps of the period, were laid out in a similar settlement pattern as the villages south of the lake. West of Lake Ontario was Quinaouatoua; to the east of that was Teyaiagon near the mouth of the Humber River; to the east of that was Ganestiquiagon on the Rouge River; Quintio, on Rice Lake; Ganaraske, at the mouth of the Ganaraska River; Quinte, near the isthmus of the Quinte peninsula, and Ganneious, on Napanee Bay, an arm of the Bay of Quinte. Historian V.A. Konrad has suggested that these villages were Seneca, Cayuga, and Oneida. (Konrad 1981:135-136)

It is not known what kind of northern advances the Onondaga made at this time, but an Iroquois presence near the mouth of the Raquette River (in the present Akwesasne territory) was detected by Count Frontenac on July 4, 1673:

Made three leagues this forenoon, and halted at a spot more delightful than any we had yet seen : it was near the little channel leading to the Long Sault on the North side, and opposite the mouth of a River by which people go to the Mohawks. The Great River, here, is only a musket shot across. Sieur Le Moine was sent to examine that which goes to the Mohawks, and reported that it formed a large, circular, deep and pleasant basin behind the Point in front of which we had halted, and that the Iroquois, whom we found there, had informed him that there was five days' easy navigation in that river, and three when the waters were lower. (NYCD IX:99)

Eventually the Seneca, Cayuga, and Oneida villages on the western and northern shores of Lake Ontario welcomed an influx of Mississaugas from the north. The Iroquois moved back to the south of the lake, leaving the Mississaugas in possession of these villages. Generations later, the British would have to negotiate with the Mississaugas for permission to allow the Iroquois to set up new communities on the Grand River and Bay of Quinte.

No such southern retreat was in store for the northern Mohawks, who found themselves in a much more strategic location—geographically and economically—than ever before. No longer did they have to worry about the rivalry between themselves and the Onondagas and Senecas. They now had an opportunity to reinvent themselves and their confederacy, this time with themselves at the center. Just as they had with the Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas, the Mohawks of Kahnawake made peace with their former enemies, the Hurons and Algonquins, and formed an entirely new alliance. In keeping with custom, wampum belts were woven to commemorate the establishment of peace, some of which still exist today.

From then on a Great Council Fire would burn at Kahnawake.

Tsiata Nihononwentsiake
The Seven Nations Of Canada

Much ink has been given to the notion that the Mohawks who moved to the "Praying Indian" village on the St. Lawrence were "kicked out of" the Iroquois Confederacy sometime in the late 1600's, resulting in the formation of a new confederacy with the Catholic Abenaki, Algonquin, and Huron. This confederacy, which the Iroquois dubbed Tsiatak Nihononwentsiake (literally, "Seven Lands"), was known more commonly as the Seven Nations of Canada. While the creation of this new confederacy certainly occurred, the same cannot be said for the claim by some writers that the northern Mohawks were formally kicked out of their former alliance. Those who make that claim ignore the fact that a nation can be part of more than one confederacy at any given time. Throughout the northeast woodlands were numerous confederacies that "overlapped" each other; this appears to be a natural part of native diplomacy.

While some non-natives came to view the "Caughnawagas" and the "Mohawks" as two completely separate nations, there is little documentary evidence that the Mohawks themselves recognized such a split. The St. Lawrence Mohawks continued to identify themselves as "Iroquois" and were loath to attack their southern kin, a fact that aroused the suspicions of their French allies on more than one occasion. Even Joseph Brant, who was personally embroiled in disputes with the Kahnawake and other Seven Nations Mohawks in the late 1700's, failed to mention this "national division" when asked about the history of the Kahnawake community in 1801:

After the seduction of the Algonquins, and the evacuation of Cataraqui by the French; {the} Governor of Canada sent an Officer and Five Jesuits to the Five Nations to convert them [;] these were all burnt--- – after this this the Five Nations had a great sickness among them that carried of great numbers, they considered this as a judgment inflicted by Heaven upon them for their having burnt the priests—when this came to the French Governor's ears he sent others—these were well received—the one that {went} was among the Mohawks seems to have been more active than the others, and gained more proselytes after some time he intimated his intentions of going home to his friends and severals of them accompanied him, when they arrived at Le prairie near Montreal the Jesuit went to see the Governor telling his Indian friends, that he made no doubt but that they would be handsomely rewarded for their kindness to him ; and it was so for the Governor sent to them great quantities of goods—after this their father the Jesuit said, children you had better hunt about here and amuse yourselves—this they did and meeting with others from the Mohawk River, induced them to accompany them to trade there on account of the goods being better, and cheaper than at Albany After this their number increased considerably and in the spring their father told them they had better plant [;] this they did and it became a considerable settlement. The Jesuit then went to France and obtained a grant of that tract of land for their society—they {he} then persuaded the Indians to remove to the head of the rapids, out of their grant, and it is from that situation at the Rapids that they got their name of Caghnawagas—(Boyce 1973: 289)

Had the "renouncement" of the northern Mohawks been as important as historians have implied, it seems likely that Joseph Brant would have noted it. His dispute with the Kahnawake Mohawks in the 1790's had been quite acrimonious, with both groups making accusations that the other had sold off their land. It had only been resolved two years before this historical account was offered.

Another argument for distinguishing them as two separate nations is the fact that the St. Lawrence Mohawks and the Mohawk Valley Mohawks spoke for themselves in councils with the Europeans. They did so out of necessity, being quite isolated from each other geographically, and naturally had their own separate agendas, especially during times of war. Nevertheless, they continued to refer to each other as members of the same family, and in some cases actually were members of the same family. Family was the basis of the Iroquois clan system, and, by extension, the basis of Iroquois nationhood, whereas Europeans differentiated themselves by geographical and socio-political concepts that may as well have evolved on another planet. Thus, it seems odd to apply the terminology and definitions of one to the other, yet that is what has always been done and what continues to be done today.

The term "Seven Nations of Canada" is one such example. This was a European name that may have been applied more out of respect for the communities themselves than out of recognition that each community of this alliance was a separate "nation." By referring to these seven villages as nations, the French may have sought to impress their enemies with the strength of their native allies. Many times these communities were referred to simply as the Seven Villages, the Seven Tribes, and the Seven Fires. The people themselves used these terms interchangeably, a reflection of the increased autonomy each village began to enjoy as time went on.

What is interesting to note is the fact that of these seven nations, three of them were located in one village at Kanesatake, also known as Oka and the Lake of Two Mountains. The Algonquins and Nippissings lived in separate neighborhoods from the Iroquois and were counted as separate "nations." The other four nations were the Hurons of Wendake, or Lorette, located near Quebec City; the Abenakis of Odanak, or St. Francis; the Iroquois of Sawekatsi, or Oswegatchie, at present-day Ogdensburg, New York; and finally the Iroquois of Kahnawake, also known as the Great Council Fire. With the addition of the newer settlement at Akwesasne, or St. Regis, the Seven Nations became the Eight Nations, returning to Seven again when the village at Sawekatsi broke up.

The Iroquois of Kahnawake, Kanesatake, and Akwesasne were largely Mohawk, although there were a substantial number of Onondagas, Oneidas, a few Cayugas and undoubtedly a homesick Seneca or two. The Mohawk language has emerged as the dominant dialect, with variances of accent between the three villages. The only remnant of non-Mohawk origin at these villages occurs in the persistence of non-Mohawk clans such as Deer, Eel, Heron, and Snipe, although the Turtle, Bear and Wolf occur in all of the Iroquois nations and are not, by themselves, indisputable evidence of Mohawk origin. This being said, the three communities of Kahnawake, Kanesatake, and Akwesasne consider themselves today to be Mohawk communities, presumably because of the historic supremacy of the Mohawk culture and language.

The Great Council Fire
An Abenaki Perspective

Historians who have taken up the trail of the Seven Nations of Canada are often startled to find that this alliance is largely forgotten among the Mohawk communities who were once members. Even in Kahnawake, which was the site of the "Great Council Fire," inquiries into oral traditions about the Seven Nations of Canada often draw puzzled looks from the average Mohawk citizen and confusing answers from local historians and leaders. (These same people will speak at length about the Six Nations, however.) At Akwesasne, a number of interested community members have banded together as an informal historical society to find more information about this seemingly forgotten aspect of Mohawk history. Others at Akwesasne share Kahnawake's "amnesia" about the Seven Nations. Perhaps the majority of people in these Mohawk communities identify more strongly with the Iroquois Confederacy because it is more well-known and predates European contact. Discussions with Akwesasne elders, however, reveals that the Seven Nations of Canada and its system of "life chiefs" continued up until the 20th century and was even informally "revived" for a time within recent memory.

Unencumbered, as the Iroquois were, by what I call the "six or seven dilemna," the Abenaki (or Wobanakik) maintained their own perspective on the history of the "Great Council Fire" and the Seven Nations of Canada. Researchers such as Frank Speck, Gordon M. Day, Colin G. Calloway, and Fred Wiseman have shed much light on the Abenaki Confederacy and its relationship to the Seven Nations. Their work reveals a much more elaborate system of aboriginal protocol in operation. This diminishes the claims made by some that the Jesuits were the biggest influence on its inception.

The following document offers a rare glimpse at a Penobscott tradition about the founding of the "Great Council Fire." It is based on a speech given by "Captain Sopiel Selma." This may be a reference to Sapiel Selmore, who was one of the Passamaquoddy's last delegates to "Great Council Fire" in 1870. (Speck 1915: 492-508) The document itself bears no date and was found on the Early Canadiana Online website. It is quoted verbatim herein with the handwritten annotation at the top of the page in italics.

in Maine legislature, was circulated as a translation of Sopiel's speech at
the "reading of the wampum".

History of the Indian Wampum and Peace Treaty
..... BETWEEN THE .....
Six and Seven Nations of Indians,
..... AND THE .....
Abnakies, the People of the Northern Lights,

Before the treaty of peace, these Indians, Abnakies and Six Nations are bitter enemies; they fight every time they meet; many cruel battles are fought, and many prisoners tortured; when they fought their last battle, some of the wise men of both parties viewed the battle field and saw the number of killed and wounded, and said among themselves, this work of cruelties must be stopped at once, and something must be done. So they notify the head chiefs of the tribes and the great chief of the Iroquois call for a general meeting (this meeting took place some where near what is called the St. Lawrence River), and every tribe mentioned send their smartest and wisest men to attend the general Indian Conference, and when they all reached their destination, the meeting was called, choosing seven of the smartest and wisest Indians to make the treaty of peace; the wigwam they entered called "Wigwam of Silence," they going in at early morn when the sun rises and not leaving it until the sun sets. During all these long hours not a word was spoken or even whispered, but they formed their ideas in their hearts. This "Wigwam of Silence" lasted seven days, and on the eighth day they going again, not only seven, but many other representatives of the various tribes, and each of the seven wisest men made speeches, saying "This work of cruelties and tortures shall no longer continue, because its going to destroy our people, and if the white people begin to come, if we continue to fight amongst ourselves, they can destroy us much easier." About this time the Indians began to know the Great Spirit, their Creator; they knew him by the teachings of the white men, then they knew they were doing wrong; they heard the Great Spirit made great light that enlightens the whole world—religion. So the Indians guided by this light can see their way and when they meet, they know each other and make friends; the war hatchet shall be forever buried as long as they see the rising and the setting of the sun.

This treaty of peace and Indian Laws inscribed on the Wampum: First.—The Salutation wampum; when the tribe visited another tribe as soon as they are in sight of the Indian Village, they display a white flag with a red cross in the middle; the Indians of the village knowing at once what is coming, the captains of the tribe make preparations to receive the strangers according to the law inscribed on the wampum; as soon as the village is reached the Captain or Chief of the tribe sang his saluting song, answered by a yell (or war whoop) by the other tribe; after this ceremony is finished, the entire party enter a wigwam of Prayer (Church), to say their prayer together. After the religious ceremonies are over, they all going to Gwandowan or dance hall; there dancing commences, performed by men, woman and children, old and young. Every village of each tribe has one of the Lights (religion), and they establish the GREAT COUNCIL FIRE or the greater light, in this place, where they meet every seven years; this place in situated on the River St. Lawrence, now called Cognowaga; Capt. Sopiel Selma of the Passamaguoddies, has been representative three terms at this Indian Conference.

Second—Wampum of Punishment; all the Indian tribes inscribed on the wampum are threatened with death, if they violate the treaty. All these tribes represented in the wampum are strongly united together in a wigwam, strongly protected by larkalosnihigan or strong fence; this wigwam of protection is situated in Conowaga, and the Chief of that wigwam is called by the Indians (Knikigan), our Parent or Master. He is the authorized Chief to use (ebiss) the rod to punish his children if they do not mind him; only a few years ago, a tribe of Indians violated the wampum or treaty rules and are exterminated, and a number of skulls distributed to the head of each Nation. One of the skulls was sent to the Micmac Tribe and the Abnakies are threatened, and will share the same fate if they also violate the treaty of peace. Since the Indians made the treaty of peace, not a single battle has been fought, but remain good friends to this day.

Wampum of choosing Chief of the Passamaquoddies—When the Chief dies, the tribe will mourn for him for a whole year; they suppose they are in darkness during that time. When the time expires, if the dead Chief left a widow, the Indian women make bright clothes for the widow and paint her cheeks with bright red; and then all going to the dance hall, they dance for two nights, and everybody is happy again; and the second Chief called by the Indians, Steerer, who guides his people, send his captains to different parts of the country, Micmac, Penobscot, Norridgewock and Lisigontogook, to notify them of the death of their Chief, and that they want their assistance to make another (according to the Wampum law no tribe can make their Chief). The captains are received according to the regulations and rules, and are taken to the Wigwam of Prayer (or church) and from there to the dance hall, and when the usual ceremonies are over, the captains tell the Indians of their mission, and are answered by the Chief who was willing to help them. So he sent his men, sometimes women, to attend the ceremony of choosing the Chief; the Abnakies always requiring four or five different tribes to make a Chief.

After they all got together, the first thing they do is to erect a flag pole, raised by five tribes, then the usual ceremonies began: Ceremony of inaugurating Chief.—The visiting Chiefs, placed the medal on the neck of the new Chief, and they put on his new hat on his head with the usual speech, then the new Chief is raised from the ground and carried by the Chiefs and taken to the hall, and they dance what they called Moyowagan, and they placed a new robe on his back; his captains are also chosen the same way; they dance behind him and four women from other tribes also dance behind him; new robes are also placed on them. After the dance Moyowagarn is over, then they dance other dances, such as Micmac, Penobscot and Passamaquoddy.

If youve arrived at this page from a search engine,
click graphic below to visit the Wampum Chronicles homepage.

The Wampum Chronicles