Governance at the Time of European Contact

Any study of Mohawk governance must begin far before the advent of European colonists to North America, a time known only to us through oral traditions and archaeological investigations of the old Mohawk Valley homeland. Traditions tell us that it was there that the first chiefs were “raised up” among our ancestors, although some form of leadership had guided them to that location in more ancient times.

We are told that five warring tribes—the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca—came together in a peaceful union at the urging of an Onondaga leader, Aionwà:tha and his ally, the Peacemaker. They came to be known as the Rotinonhsón:ni—the People of the Longhouse, also known as the Iroquois. It was the Peacemaker who described the qualities of patience, reason and wisdom that those ancient sachems were required to have:

The Lords 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.1

These leaders were chosen by the “clan mothers” of their nations and held office for life, but they were subject to removal should they violate the Great Law. When they died, their “titles” were given to their successors in a ceremony known as the “Condolence.” Each succeeding chief would carry the name of one of the original founders of the Iroquois League, keeping their story alive through all time. Like the original chiefs, they would wear deer antlers amidst the feathers of their kastowehs, placed there by the clan mothers. To be “de-horned” was the greatest shame a man could endure.

Similar customs prevailed among the other tribes of the Iroquoian language family. These nations were scattered throughout the Northeast in the vicinity of the eastern Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River Valley. Although these nations sprang from the same ancestral source as the Five Nations, there were rivalries and occasional warfare not only with each other, but with the Algonquian-speaking tribes surrounding them.

Several bands of these “Iroquoians” lived in the St. Lawrence River Valley when the first European explorers reached the New World. French explorer Jacques Cartier described a visit to one of their villages at what is now Montreal in 1535:

...And on reaching Hochelaga, there came to meet us more than a thousand persons, both men, women, and children, who gave us as good a welcome as ever father gave to his son, making great signs of joy; for the men danced in one ring, the women in another and the children also apart by themselves. After this they brought us quantities of fish, and of their bread which is made of Indian corn, throwing so much of it into our long-boats that it seemed to rain bread. Seeing this, the captain went on shore; and no sooner had he landed than they all crowded about him and about the others, giving them a wonderful reception.2

What kind of government did the St. Lawrence Iroquoians have? We can speculate that along with a common material culture and similar language, they shared the same style of leadership with their Iroquoian neighbors.

In his account of Hochelaga, Cartier describes “headmen” conducting what appears to be a “Wood’s Edge” ceremony familiar to modern traditionalists today:

And after marching about a league and a half, we met on the trail one of the headmen of the village of Hochelaga, accompanied by several Indians, who made signs to us that we should rest at that spot near a fire they had lighted on the path; which we did. Thereupon this headman began to make a speech and to harangue us, which, as before mentioned, is their way of showing joy and friendliness, welcoming in this way the Captain and his company.3

His description of the village itself sounds remarkably similar to later accounts of Huron and Iroquois communities:

And in the middle of these fields is situated and stands the village of Hochelaga, near and adjacent to a mountain, the slopes of which are fertile and are cultivated, and from the top of which one can see for a long distance. We named this mountain “Mount Royal.” The village is circular and is completely enclosed by a wooden palisade in three tiers like a pyramid. The top one is built crosswise, the middle one perpendicular and the lowest one of strips of wood placed lengthwise. The whole is well joined and lashed together after their manner, and is some two lances in height. There is only one gate and entrance to this village, and that can be barred up. Over this gate and in many places about the enclosure are species of galleries with ladders for mounting to them, which galleries are provided with rocks and stones for defense and protection of the place. There are some fifty houses in this village, each about fifty or more paces in length, and twelve or fifteen in width, built completely of wood and covered in and bordered up with large pieces of bark and rind of trees, as broad as a table, which are well and cunningly lashed after their manner. And inside these houses are many rooms and chambers; and in the middle is a large space without a floor, where they light their fire and live together in common.4

Cartier and his men were taken to the center of the village and seated on woven mats by the women.

When this had been done, the ruler and chief of this tribe, whom in their language they call Agouhanna, was carried in, seated on a large deer-skin, by nine or ten Indians, who came and set him down upon the mats near the Captain, making signs to us that this was their ruler and chief. This Agouhanna, who was some fifty years of age, was in no way better dressed than the other Indians except that he wore about his head for a crown a sort of red band made of hedgehog’s skin. This chief was completely paralyzed and deprived of the use of his limbs. When he had saluted the Captain and his men, by making signs which clearly meant that they were very welcome, he showed his arms and his legs to the Captain motioning to him to be good enough to touch them, as if he thereby expected to be cured and healed. On this the Captain set about rubbing his arms and legs with his hands. Thereupon this Agouhanna took the band of cloth he was wearing as a crown and presented it to the Captain. And at once many sick persons, some blind, others with but one eye, others lame or impotent and others again so extremely old that their eyelids hung down to their cheeks, were brought in and set down or laid out near the Captain, in order that he might lay his hands down upon them, so that one would have thought Christ had come down to earth to heal them.5

Oral traditions about the Peacemaker tell us that when he combed the snakes out of the hair of Atotárho, the Onondaga wizard, he also healed the crooks in Atotárho’s limbs by rubbing them. This ritual of ceremonial healing may have been common among the Iroquoians of old. Cartier was reminded of a healer from his own traditions.

The celebratory mood of the “Hochelagans” was not to last. When French explorers returned to the region decades later, Hochelaga and its inhabitants were nowhere to be found. The French quickly filled that void by establishing a colony and an outpost near the original site of the village. An entry in the Jesuit Relations (describing an event that took place in 1642) gives us a clue as to what had occurred in the intervening time between Cartier’s visit and the return of the French many years later:

After the Festival, we visited the great forest which covers this Island; and when we had been led to the mountain from which it takes its name, two of the chief Savages of the band stopped on its summit, and told us that they belonged to the nation of those who had formerly dwelt on this Island. Then, stretching out their hands towards the hills that lie to the East and South of the mountain, “There,” said they, “are the places where stood Villages filled with great numbers of Savages. The Hurons, who then were our enemies, drove our Forefathers from this country. Some went towards the country of the Abnaquiois, others towards the country of the Hiroquois, some to the Hurons themselves, and joined them. And that is how this Island became deserted.” “My grandfather,” said an aged man, “tilled the soil on this spot. Maize grew very well on it, for the Sun is very strong there.”6

The St. Lawrence Iroquoians of Hochelaga, although scattered and absorbed by the Five Nations and other surrounding tribes, would one day return to that region when their adoptive nations established settlements there in the 17th century.

1 Parker, A.C., “The Constitution of the Five Nation, or the Iroquois Book of the Great Law,” Parker on the Iroquois, Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, 1968 (1999 reprint), p. 37.
2  Pendergrast, J., and Trigger, B., Cartier’s Hochelaga and the Dawson Site, McGill’s-Queens University Press, Montreal/London, 1972, p. 333.
3  Ibid, p. 334.
4  Ibid, p. 334.
5  Ibid, p. 335-336.
Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, vol. XXII, p. 132-133.

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