The Iroquois Confederacy was comprised of five original nations, each with their own clans. The leaders of these tribes, or sachem, were chosen by the women and represented their tribe at the Council. Three tribes - the Mohawks, Seneca, and the Onondaga - were known as the "older brother" tribes because they represented the important parts of a long house - the eastern and western doors, and the fire. The other two - the Cayuga and Oneida - were the "younger brothers." However, this was only symbolic, and did not refer to precedence or superiority in any way over the "younger brother" tribes. The five tribes were known as the following:

The  Mohawk were the easternmost tribe, and owned the most land of all the tribes. In the confederacy, they were known as "the keepers of the eastern door" of the long house, and protected the confederacy from attacks from the east.. In their own language, they were the "Kanienkehaka"- the people of the flint. However, the word "Mohawk" was given to them by their enemies, and meant "man eaters."

The Oneida tribe was the second most eastern tribe, and was the only of the "younger brother" tribes whose territory did not include a part of Lake Ontario. The Oneida were the only of the original five tribes that joined the Patriots, and therefore turned the American Revolution into an Iroquois civil war. They were also the larger of the two "younger brothers." In their own language, they called themselves the "Onyotaa:ka" - the people of the standing stone.

The Onondaga tribe was located in the heart of the Confederacy, and the smallest of the "older brother" tribes. In the confederacy, they were known as the "keepers of the Great fire" and the council meetings took place in their territory. In addition, they also controlled wampum. Wampum was seashell beads that were either purple or white, and were usually strung into belts. The word "Onondaga" comes from their word "Onndagaono" - the people of the hills.

The Cayuga are the second westernmost tribe, and the one with the least original land. During the Sullivan Expedition in 1779, the Cayuga homeland was ravaged by the Patriots, and many villages were burned or ransacked. In their own language, the Cayuga call themselves the "Guyohkohnyo" - the people of the mucky land.

The Seneca were the westernmost of all the tribes, and were the only tribe whose land extended partially outside of what is now New York State. In the Confederacy, they were known as the "keepers of the western door" of the longhouse, and protected the Iroquois from attacks originating in the west. In their own language, they called themselves the "Onödowága'" - the great hill people.


In 1570, a man known only as the Peacemaker visited the leaders of the Seneca, Cayuga, Mohawk, Onondaga, and Oneida tribes with a chief, Hiawatha, to discuss peace and an alliance between the nations. The leaders of each tribe agreed, and the Council of Chiefs was formed. When the Peacemaker wrote the Constitution of the Iroquois, every chief agreed to adhere to its laws and regulations. By uniting 5 separate tribes into the "League of Nations," the Iroquois became one of the greatest powers on the east coast.

The Iroquois had a government where political power was driven from the bottom up, from the people. Although some political roles were held by men, women had the main  vote in the selecting representatives. Their government was the earliest form of participatory democracy. The Iroquois valued freedom and independence, and did not believe in  excessive government. Their democratic system were very  impressive. In fact Benjamin Franklin invited the Iroquois to explain their system to a delegation who then developed a document that later served as a model for the Articles of Confederation and then the Constitution of the United States.