Iroquois - Sociopolitical Organization



Social Organization. The members of matrisibs cooperated in economic activities and were obligated to avenge the death or injury of any other member. Moieties had reciprocal and complementary ceremonial functions and competed against one another in games. Matrisibs cut across tribal boundaries so that members were found in each tribe and Village and often within each longhouse.

Political Organization. The Iroquois confederacy operated under a council of fifty sachems representing the five original tribes. When the Tuscarora joined the League in 1722, no new sachem positions were created for it. The Council was a legislative, executive, and judicial body that deliberated only on the external affairs of the confederacy, such as peace and war, and on matters common to the five constituent tribes. The council had no voice in the internal affairs of the separate tribes. Tribal representation on the council was unequally distributed among the five tribes, although abuse of power was limited by the requirement of unanimity in all council decisions. Below the level of the League council were separate tribal councils concerned with the internal affairs of each tribe and each tribe's relations with external groups. The tribal council was composed of the sachems who represented the tribe on the League council. Sachem positions were hereditary within each tribe and belonged to particular matrisibs. The women of the matrisib nominated each new sachem, who was always a male, and had the power to recall or "dehorn" a chief who failed to represent the interests of his people. Theoretically, each sachem was equal to the others in power, but in practice those with better oratorical skills wielded greater influence. After the confederacy had been functioning for a period of time a new, nonhereditary office of pine tree chief was created to provide local leadership and to act as adviser to the council sachems, although later they actually sat on the League council and equaled the sachems in power. Pine tree chiefs held their position for life and were chosen by the women of a matrisib on the basis of skill in warfare. Iroquois involvement in the fur trade and war with the French increased the importance and solidarity of the League council and thereby strengthened the confederacy. Its strength continued to grow until the time of the American Revolution when Iroquois alliances were divided between the British and the American colonists.

Social Control. Part-time religious specialists known as keepers of the faith served in part to censure antisocial behavior. Unconfessed witches detected through council proceedings were punished with death, while those who confessed might be allowed to reform.

Conflict. Witchcraft was the most serious type of antisocial behavior. The Iroquois believed that witches, in concert with the Evil Spirit, could cause disease, accident, death, or other misfortune. Because witches were thought to be able to transform themselves into other objects, they were difficult to catch and punish.


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