From Anarchy In Action
Iroquois Confederacy Flag, Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iroquois
Iroquois painting of Tadodaho receiving two Mohawk chiefs. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iroquois#/media/File:Atotarhoreceivingtwomohawkchieftains.png

The Haudenosaunee ("People of the Longhouse", called the "Iroquois" by Europeans) are a traditionally horticultural and egalitarian confederation of six (originally five) indigenous nations in northeastern North America.

According to oral history, five nations (Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas) lived in a state of perpetual war against each other, until an Onondaga chief named Hiawatha and a Huron named Dengawidah went from village to village and convinced the nations to unite under a Great League of Peace.[1] Later on, a sixth nation, the Tuscarora, joined the Haudenosaunee.

Scholars estimate that the confederation formed either in 1142 or in the late fifteenth century. Scholars who support the earlier date note that Seneca oral history recalls that Senacas joined the Great Law of Peace after a solar eclipse, and the 1142 total eclipse is the only one that fits their description.[2] The ethnohistorian Daniel Richter argues that the League formed in the late fifteenth century, since villages before that time were "heavily fortified against military attack, and their cemeteries contained the corpses of both friends and enemies clearly slain in combat."[3]

European settlers consistently recognized the extreme freedom existing within the Haudenosaunee polity. Colonial administrator Cadawaller Colden reported in 1749 that the Haudenosaunee had "such absolute Notions of Liberty that they allow of no Kind of Superiority of one over another, and banish all Servitude from their Territories."[4] Historians today have tended to share this view, and Richter describes the Haudenosaunee traditional society as a "democratic near-anarchy."[5] The journalist Charles Mann writes that when he asked seven scholars (anthropologists, archeologists, and historians) whether in 1491 they would have preferred to live with the Haudenosaunee or the Europeans, all seven answered that they would have rather lived with the Haudenosaunee.[6]


In the seventeenth century, the Haudenosaunee lived in large towns, of up to 2,000 people.[7] It was believed that illness resulted from having unfulfilled desires. As a result, Haudenosaunee allowed children almost complete freedom and never punished them. They taught children to be independent and not submissive to authority.[8]

Women held an equal status to men's, although there was a gendered division of labor. Ethnohistorian Judith Brown notes, "The powerful position of Iroquois women was the result of their control of the economic organization of their tribe." One mechanism for women's autonomy and high status was that women controlled the distribution of food within the local community. [9] “In terms of everyday affairs,” the anthropologist David Graeber assesses, “Iroquois society often seems to have been as close as there is to a documented case of a matriarchy.”[10] Society was matrilineal, so a man would move in with his wife once he married. Extended families lived together in buildings called longhouses, and a woman could easily initiate a divorce by putting her husband's belongings outside.[11]

According to Bruce Johansen, "The Iroquois’ law and custom upheld freedom of expression in political and religious matters, and it forbade the unauthorized entry of homes."[12] The Great Law of Peace, indeed, ensured freedom of expression, as evident in its permission of "lords" (delegates) to dissent from the Confederate Council's decisions as long as they did not actually disobey the agreed-upon rules. "If a lord is guilty of unwarrantably opposing the object of decisions of the council and in that his own erroneous will in these matters be carried out, he shall be approached and admonished by the chief matron of his family and clan to desist from evil practices..."[13]


From the longhouse level to the confederal level, Haudenosaunee decisions were generally made and enforced without any coercion. Those elected (by the women) to be headmen were expected to use persuasion and gift-giving, rather than violence, to win people over. As one seventeenth-century Mohawk explained, "[W]e have no forcing rules or laws amongst us." Richter summarizes that the Haudenosaunee had a "nonstate society" with "democratic near-anarchy" with a culture based on "a shared belief in the ideal of consensus."[14]

At the most local level, in the longhouse, a council comprised entirely of women made decisions. Longhouses joined together into villages, and villages into nations. Councils at the village and the national levels were made of both men and women. At the league level, only men made decisions, but a women's council could veto decisions that they didn't like. So, women had more power in local affairs and men had more power at the league level. Council members were elected from a pool of possible heirs. They held no coercive power and received no significant material rewards.[15]

Councils made decisions by consensus.[16] When a village did not reach consensus, the council tried to facilitate discussions to reach some compromise. In extreme cases where consensus was not possible, the village would split into two villages. Members of the councils were expected to be extremely patient and slow to anger.[17]


The Haudenosaunee traditionally had an economy based on gift-giving and use-rights. Abandoned land was free for anyone to take, but people could only own as much as they could personally use. In times of shortage, everything was communally owned. Labor was collective and divided by gender. Men hunted, fished, traded, cleared forests, fought wars, and served as diplomats. Women gardened and raised the children. Teiowí:sonte Thomas Deer describes traditional Haudenosaunee economies as communist. Haudenosaunee frequently gave each other wampum beads (made from whelks and quahog clams) in rituals and diplomatic acts, but they did not use wampum as currency.[18]

While Richter describes Haudenosaunee traditional economies as including "private property," this so-called property more closely resembled personal possession in Proudhon's terms. Richter explains that ownership "rested on need and use [...] Food, clothing, tools, houses, land, and other forms of property belonged to those individuals and kin groups who needed and made active use of them. Conversely, excess or abandoned property was largely free for the taking, and in times of shortage all shared in the meager fare.[19]

In 1758, the Senecas captured fifteen year-old settler Mary Jemison and adopted her into their society. Later when Jemison was given a choice to leave, she chose to stay among the Seneca. Jemison wrote about Seneca women's farming, weaving, and food preparation: “Our labor was not severe...In the summer season, we planted, tended and harvested our corn, and generally had all our children with us; but had no master to oversee or drive us, so that we could work as leisurely as we pleased.”[20] According to Judith Brown, "Parker (1910) tends to agree with Mary Jemison that the work of women was not hard."[21]


The Haudenosaunee constitution provided a long-term perspective, mandating that the confederacy look after "not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground -- the unborn of the future Nation."[22]

Everything or nearly everything was "alive with spiritual power" and humans had reciprocal obligations with nonhuman entities including animals, trees, and the wind. If humans fulfilled their obligations, the animals would offer flesh for meat and the trees would offer themselves for wood. If humans did not provide the proper ceremonies thanking their nonhuman surroundings, then "the results could be hunger, sickness, injury, or death."[23]

The Mohawks' “Thanksgiving Address” teaches gratitude for the earth, and the Mohawks have for decades been involved in struggles to protect the environment, including a major struggle against General Motors over contamination of Mohawk land with PCBs.[24]


Anthony Wallace describes how the Haudenosaunee used diffused sanctions to respond to crime:

Behavior was governed not by published laws, enforced by police, courts, and jails, but by oral tradition, supported by a sense of duty, a fear of gossip, and a dread of retaliatory witchcraft. Theft, vandalism, armed robbery, were almost unknown.”[25]

Similarly, Gray Nash explains that without any laws, jails, or police, the Haudenosaunee “maintained a strict sense of right and wrong...He who stole another's food or acted invalourously in war was 'shamed' by his people and ostracized from their company until he had atoned for his actions and demonstrated to their satisfaction that he had morally purified himself.”[26]

Neighboring Societies

In precolonial times, the Haudenosaunee signed a treaty with the Nishnaabeg called Gdoo-naaganinaa, meaning "Our dish." The treaty recognized the fact that the two parties ate from a shared "dish" since they shared hunting areas and overlapping plant and animal species depended on the health of both parties' lands. The treaty said that neither party could abuse the landbase, and Nishnaabeg and Haudenosaunee delegates were required to regularly gather for meetings and rituals.[27]

In the seventeenth century, the Haudenosaunee waged war against the Wendat (Huron) that Murray Bookchin described as a “genocidal”. Stephen Arthur responds that the “conflict is better understood as a civil war of political unification among Iroquois speakers...the result was far from genocide of their opponents—rather, it was the political unification of most northern Iroquois peoples” under the Haudenosaunee confederation.[28]

"Warp and Weft," from The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson

In The Years of Rice and Salt (2001), an alternate-speculative history written by anti-authoritarian scifi author Kim Stanley Robinson (KSR), book five, entitled "Warp and Weft," imagines an encounter between a Japanese rebel and the Haudenosaunee in the geographical location now known as New York. Before passing to an examination of this intriguing chapter, a note about The Years of Rice and Salt: this text imagines a world wherein over 99% of Europeans perished from the Black Plague, such that the destruction and contributions provided by Europeans over the past 5 centuries are enacted (to lesser or greater degrees) by other peoples, such as the Chinese and different peoples identifying with Islam (dar al-Islam, the geographical "House of Islam"). For example, in Years, the continents known in our world as the Americas are "discovered" by accident by an errant Chinese naval expedition that gets stuck in the doldrums, while various scientific advances made in European history by people like Newton and Einstein are made by two intellectuals, Iwang and Khalid, from Central Asia (Samarqand, Tashkent, Bokhara). In this alternate timeline, the inter-cultural clash between indigenous peoples and the Chinese is not as totally genocidal as it was with the Europeans in actual fact, though the Chinese did enslave the peoples of the Incan Empire to extract wealth from them, and smallpox and other diseases killed indigenous peoples of the West Coast (the Bay Area of our California). However, the Haudenosaunee resist and survive, playing a formidable role as protagonists advancing global revolution in this book.

In "Warp and Weft," KSR envisions an encounter between a samurai who became a rinon (wandering soldier) after abandoning his cruel master with a council of the Haudenosaunee League. Named Busho, this samurai had settled on what we would call the West Coast of the U.S. with other ronin and Japanese settlers, but then the Chinese invaded and destroyed their community, in their goal of expansion. Busho becomes committed to preventing "the Chinese [from] overrun[ing] Turtle Island as they are overrunning the great world island to the west [Asia], if I could help it." Busho travels east for months to meet the Haudenosaunee, whom he considers "the first people I had heard of who might be able to defeat the invasion of the Chinese." Busho remarks that, outside the Haudenosaunee polity, "Everywhere else in the world, guns rule," and emperors and despots own the land, enslaving the people (374-5). He then speaks of the Haudenosaunee alternative:

"Now, I have watched the Hodenosaunee as closely as a child watches its mother. I see how sons are brought up through their motherline, and cannot inherit anything from their fathers, so that there can be no accumulation of power in any one man. There can be no emperor here. I have seen how the women choose the marriages and advise all aspects of life, how the elderly and orphans are cared for. How the nations are divided into the tribes, woven so that you are all brothers and sisters through the league, warp and weft. How the sachems are chosen by the people, including the women [...]. I have seen how this system of affairs brings peace to your league. It is, in all this world, the best system of rule ever invented by human beings." (376)

Busho warns the Haudenosaunee of the grave threat posed to this revolutionary society by Chinese expansionism: if the Chinese are not resisted, "So it will be, until you look around you, and find there are foreigners all around you, in your valleys, in forts on your hilltops, and insisting that they own the land of their farm as if it were their tobacco pouch, and willing to shoot anyone who kills an animal there, or cuts a tree. And at that point they will say their law rules your law, because there are more of them and they have more guns." (379)

Busho emphasizes the geographical advantage the Haudenosaunee possess, in terms of having a vast ocean dividing them from Asia. He notes this advantage to be special and even indicative of the millenarian "mission" of the League as a political example. After smoking considerable "tobacco," he declares: "You have the finest government on this Earth, no one else has understood that all are noble, all are part of the One Mind. But this is a burden too, do you see? You have to carry it--all the unborn lives to come depend on you! Without you the world would become a nightmare [...]. When the foreigners arrive in their canoes to take your land, you can face them as one, resist their attacks, take from them what is useful and reject what is harmful, and stand up to them as equals on this Earth. I now see what will happen in the time to come, I see it! [...] The people I will become dream now and speak back to me, through me, they tell me all the world's people will stand before the Hodenosaunee in wonder at the justice of its government. The story will move from longhouse to longhouse, to everywhere people are enslaved by rulers, they will speak to each other of the Hodenosaunee, and of a way things could be, all things shared, all people given the right to be a part of the running of things, no slaves and no emperors, no conquest and no submission, people like birds in the sky. Like eagles in the sky! Oh bring it, oh come the day, oh oooohhhhhhhh...!" (386)

Though the connection is not made explicit, it is implied in the Years that Busho's warning to the Haudenosaunee is a critical moment for the development of subsequent history, for the Haudenosaunee later mount an effective resistance campaign against the capitalistic Chinese with the assistance of the anarchistic Travancori League, led by the military commander Kerala ("The Age of Great Progress, pp. 479-547).

  1. Colin G. Calloway, First Peoples: A Documentary Survey of American Indian History, Fourth Edition (Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2012), 56.
  2. Bruce E. Johansen, "Dating the Iroquois Confederacy," Ratical, accessed 12 May 2019, https://ratical.org/many_worlds/6Nations/DatingIC.html.
  3. Daniel Richter, The Ordeal of the Longhouse: The Peoples of the Iroquois League in the Era of European Colonization (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992), 31.
  4. Charles Mann, 1491: New Revalations of the Americas Before Columbus (New York: Vintage Books, 2006), 375.
  5. Richter, The Ordeal of the Longhouses, 44-45.
  6. Mann, 1491, 376.
  7. Stephen Arthur, “'Where License Reigns With All Impunity': An Anarchist Study of the Rotinonshó:ni Polity,” Common Struggle, 14 February 2007, nefac.net/anarchiststudyofiroquois.
  8. Graeber, Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value 141. Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States, 1492-Present (New York: HarperPerrenial, 2003), 20.
  9. Judith K. Brown, "Iroquois Women: An Ethnohistoric Note" in Toward an Anthropology of Women, edited by Rayna R. Reiter (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975), 251.
  10. Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 122.
  11. Zinn, A People's History of the United States, 20.
  12. Bruce E. Johansen, Forgotten Founders: Benjamin Franklin, the Iroquois and the Rationale for the American Revolution (Ipswich: Gambit, 1982), Introduction.
  13. "The Iroquois Great Law of Peace" in Calloway, First Peoples, 63.
  14. Richter, The Ordeal of the Longhouses, 44-45.
  15. Graeber, Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value, 122.
  16. Calloway, First Peoples, 57.
  17. Richter, The Ordeal of the Longhouse, 41, 46.
  18. Arthur, “'Where License Reigns With All Impunity'”.
  19. Richter, The Ordeal of the Longhouse, 21.
  20. Mary Jemison, excerpt from A Narrative of Her Life in Calloway, First Peoples, 198.
  21. Brown, "Iroquois Women," 245.
  22. Constitution of the Iroquois Nations, Portland State University, http://tuscaroras.com/index.php/iroquois-constitution?start=1.
  23. Richter, The Ordeal of the Longhouse, 24.
  24. Winona LaDuke, All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life (Cambridge: South End Press, 1999), 14, 23.
  25. Arthur, 'Where License Reigns With All Impunity'”.
  26. Zinn, A People's History of the United States, 21.
  27. Simpson, "Looking after Gdoo-naaganinaa," 100.
  28. Stephen Arthur, “'Where License Reigns with All Impunity.”