The Iroquois Confederacy (or Haudenosaunee) was a group of Five Nations (later Six) historically located in upstate New York. They consisted of (from west to east) the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk. Combined the Five Nations were one of the most powerful entities in the northeast. The land size of the Iroquois Confederacy consisted of roughly 39,000 sq miles at one point.
The origins of the confederacy arose from a legendary figure called “The Peacemaker”. This man famously united the then warring nations primarily through a simple demonstration. Taking one arrow, he broke it easily. He then took 5 arrows at once though was unable to break them. This showed the nations that individually they were weak, but together they could be strong.
This confederacy was likely established around the early 13th century, thus historians estimate that the Iroquois are among the oldest living participatory democracies in the world. Their leadership structure was defined by a Grand Council of 50 members split among the nations. They ruled by Consensus: in that all 50 members must agree for a ruling to be made or law passed.
Opposite the Grand Council were the Clan Mothers. This was a group of women that appointed the Council members. They also had the authority to remove any council member that did not best serve the interests of the nation. In this sense, the Iroquois were much more egalitarian than most societies at the time.
Land Size of the Iroquois Confederacy by Nation
With this system, the Iroquois thrived for centuries. They expertly grew the “Three Sisters” (maize, beans and squash) and hunted deer for sustainable and established trade networks with neighboring nations extending as far away as the Atlantic coast and Chesapeake Bay. This all changed for the worse when the Europeans arrived.
The Iroquois fought on the side of the British in the Seven Years War, hoping that cooperation would lead to the British protecting their lands. Unfortunately, this was not the case, and they were yet again forced to choose between the British and the colonies during the Revolutionary War.
Though they tried to remain neutral, eventually the confederacy was split, with some nations supporting the colonies and the rest siding with the British. It was a no win situation, as the new American nation reneged on land treaties. Even the nations loyal to the colonists would go on to lose their lands anyways.
The legacy of the Iroquois nation lives on today. One only has to look at the US constitution to see how the founders utilized Iroquois ideals when crafting their own democracy. The official seal of the US features a bald eagle holding 13 arrows. The arrow allegory can be traced back to the Iroquois founding, and the eagle was considered a guardian to their nations.