Iroquois Confederacy Councils and the Sachems
The valley of Onondaga, as the seat of the central tribe, and the place where the Council Brand was supposed to be perpetually burning, was the usual though not the exclusive place for holding the councils of the confederacy. In ancient times it was summoned to convene in the autumn of each year but public exigencies often rendered its meetings more frequent. Each tribe had power to summon the council, and to appoint the time and place of meeting at the council house of either tribe, when circumstances rendered a change from the usual place at Onondaga desirable. But the council had no power to convene itself.
Originally the principal object of the council was to raise up sachems to fill vacancies in the ranks of the ruling body occasioned by death or deposition; but it transacted all other business which concerned the common welfare. In course of time, as they multiplied in numbers and their intercourse with foreign tribes became more extended, the council fell into three distinct kinds, which may be distinguished as Civil, Mourning, and Religious. The first declared war and made peace, sent and received embassies, entered into treaties with foreign tribes, regulated the affairs of subjugated tribes, and took all needful measures to promote the general welfare. The second raised up sachems and invested them with office. It received the name of Mourning Council because the first of its ceremonies was the lament for the deceased ruler whose vacant place was to be filled. The third was held for the observance of a general religious festival. It was made an occasion for the confederated tribes to unite under the auspices of a general council in the observance of common religions rites; but as the Mourning Council was attended with many of the same ceremonies it came in time to answer for both. It is now the only council they hold, as the civil powers of the confederacy terminated with the supremacy over them of the state.
When the sachems met in council at the time and place appointed, and the usual reception ceremony had been performed, they arranged themselves in two divisions and seated themselves upon opposite sides of the council-fire. Upon one side were the Mohawk, Onondaga, and Seneca sachems. The tribes they represented were, when in council, brother tribes to each other and father tribes to the other two. In like manner their sachems were brothers to each other and fathers to those opposite. They constituted a phratry of tribes and of sachems, by an extension of the principle which united gentes in a phratry. On the opposite side of the fire were the Oneida and Cayuga and at a later day the Tuscarora sachems. The tribes they represented were brother tribes to each other and son tribes to the opposite three. Their sachems also were brothers to each other, and sons of those in the opposite division. They formed a second tribal phratry. As the Oneidas were a subdivision of the Mohawks, and the Cayugas a subdivision of the Onondagas or Senecas, they were in reality junior tribes; whence their relation of seniors and juniors, and the application of the phratric principle. When the tribes are named in council the Mohawks, by precedence, are mentioned first. Their tribal epithet was "The Shield" (Da-go-e-o'-do). The Onondagas came next, under the epithet of "Name-Bearer" (Ho-de-san-no'-ge-to), because they had been appointed to select and name the fifty original sachems. Next in the order of precedence were the Senecas, under the epithet of "Door-Keeper" (Ho-nan-ne-ho'-ont). They were made perpetual keepers of the western door of the Long House. The Oneidas, under the epithet of "Great Tree" (Ne-ar'-de-on dar'-go-war), and the Cayugas, under that of "Great Pipe" (So-nus'-ho-gwar-to-war), were named fourth and fifth. The Tuscaroras, who came late into the confederacy, were named last, and had no distinguishing epithet. Forms, such as these, were more important in ancient society than we would be apt to suppose.
Unanimity among the sachems was required upon all public questions, and essential to the validity of every public act. It was a fundamental law of the confederacy. They adopted a method for ascertaining the opinions of the members of the council which dispensed with the necessity of casting votes. Moreover, they were entirely unacquainted with the principle of majorities and minorities in the action of councils. They voted in council by tribes, and the sachems of each tribe were required to be of one mind to form a decision. Recognizing unanimity as a necessary principle, the founders of the confederacy divided the sachems of each tribe into classes as a means for its attainment. This will be seen by consulting the table (supra, p 30). No sachem was allowed to express an opinion in council in the nature of a vote until he had first agreed with the sachem or sachems of his class upon the opinion to be expressed, and had been appointed to act as speaker for the class. Thus the eight Seneca sachems being in four classes, could have but four opinions, and the ten Cayuga sachems, being in the same number of classes, could have but four. In this manner the sachems in each class were first brought to unanimity among themselves. A cross-consultation was then held between the four sachems appointed to speak for the four classes; and when they had agreed they designated one of their number to express their resulting opinion, which was the answer of their tribe. When the sachems of the several tribes had, by this ingenious method, become of one mind separately, it remained to compare their several opinions, and if they agreed the decision of the council was made. If they failed of agreement the measure was defeated and the council was at an end. The five persons appointed to express the decision of the five tribes may possibly explain the appointment and the functions of the six electors, so called, in the Aztec confederacy.
By this method of gaining assent the equality and independence of the several tribes were recognized and preserved. If any sachem was obdurate or unreasonable, influences were brought to bear upon him, through the preponderating sentiment, which he could not well resist, so that it seldom happened that inconvenience or detriment resulted from their adherence to the rule. Whenever all efforts to procure unanimity had failed, the whole matter was laid aside because further action had become impossible.
Under a confederacy of tribes the office of general, "Great War Soldier," (Hos-go-o-geh'-da-go-wo), makes its first appearance. Cases would now arise when the several tribes in their confederate capacity would be engaged in war, and the necessity for a general commander to direct the movements of the united bands would be felt. The introduction of this office as a permanent feature in the government was a great event in the history of human progress. It was the beginning of a differentiation of the military from the civil power, which, when completed, changed essentially the external manifestation of the government; but even in later stages of progress, when the military spirit predominated, the essential character of the government was not changed. Gentilism arrested usurpation. With the rise of the office of general, the government was gradually changed from a government of one power into a government of two powers. The functions of government became, in course of time, co-ordinated between the two. This new office was the germ of that of a chief executive magistrate for out of the general came the king, the emperor, and the president, as elsewhere suggested. The office sprang from the military necessities of society and had a logical development.