Was it 1100 or 1450 or some other date? Even on that, historians disagree. But just in time in any event as European explorers were on the horizon with Columbus making landfall in 1492, Giovanni Cabot in 1497 and Jacques Cartier in 1534.

The origin of the Great Law of Peace greatly resembles the origin of law on the European continent. Charles Man, in his book 1491, new revelations of the Americas before Columbus, writes of the circumstances in which the Great Law of Peace arose:

"Sometime around 1000 A.D., the Indian agricultural trinity of maize, beans and squash appeared in the area (near the modern day American city of Syracuse). Population rose, as has happened time and time again when human societies make the transition from foraging to farming. The burgeoning cultures took to fighting with each other. Because the abduction, injury or death of a family member had to be revenged, every violent incident that to us pile of brutal, tit-for-tat skirmishes."

The peace accord, circa 1100, between the Cayuga, Mohawks, Senecas, Oneidas and Onondagas Indians (or First Nations and collectively, the "Iroquois") is also referred to by legal historians as the Constitution of the Five Nations Indian Confederacy. But it is known to the aboriginal peoples of North America by other, several different names:

  • Great Law;
  • Great Law of Peace;
  • Gayanashagowa; and even
  • Great Law of Peace, Kaianerekova of the Haudenausaunee, Iroquois Confederacy, founded by the Great Peacemaker, Time Immemorial.

"The Seneca, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk, and Cayuga tribes forged the League of the Hodenosaunee, or Iroquois, in the area that is now New York State, somewhere between A.D. 1000 and 1450... Seth Newhouse, a Mohawk, transcribed the Great Law, which had been passed down orally from generation to generation, into English in about 1880."1

Great Law of the IroquoisAn alternate version to Newhouse's (there are at least six versions extant) proposes this as the Preamble to the 1100 (or 1450?)  Constitution:

"I am (the Peacemaker)... with the statesmen of the League of Five Nations, plant the Tree of Peace .... Roots have spread out .... There nature is Peace and Strength. We place at the top of the Tree of Peace an eagle.... If he sees in the distance any danger threatening, he will at once warn the people of the League.... The smoke of the Council Fire of the league shall ever ... pierce the sky."

The text which follows is verbatim from Seth Newhouse, but see note at the bottom of the page as to difficulties in piecing together the precise wording of the 1100 oral understanding, into a legal document. By necessity, even the numbering is artificial but as to Newhouse's version, authentic.

This is wisdom and justice of the part of the Great Spirit to create and raise chiefs, give and establish unchangeable laws, rules; and customs between the Five Nation Indians, viz the Mohawks, Oneidas (also "People of the Standing Stone"), Onondagas (also "Senecas"), Cayugas ("People of the Great Swamp") and the other nations of Indians here in North America. The object of these laws is to establish peace between the numerous nations of Indians. Hostility will be done away with, for the preservation and protection of life, property and liberty.


1. The number of chiefs in this Confederation of the Five Nation Indians are 50 in number, no more and no less. They are the ones to arrange, to legislate and to look after the affairs of their people.

2. The Mohawks, an Indian Nation, forms a part of the body of this Five Nation Indians Confederation, and their representatives in this Confederation is 9 chiefs.

3. The Oneidas, an Indian Nation, forms a party of the body of this Five Nation Indians Confederation, and their representatives in this Confederation is 9 chiefs.

4. The Onondagas, an Indian Nation, form a part of the body of this Five Nation Indians Confederation, and their representatives in this Confederation is 14 chiefs.

5. The Cayugas, an Indian Nation, forms a part of the body of this Five Nation Indians Confederation, and their representatives in this confederation is 10 chiefs.

6. The Senecas, an Indian Nation, forms a part of the body of this Five Nation Indians Confederation, and their representatives in this confederation is 8 chiefs.

7. When the Five Nation Indians Confederation chiefs assemble to hold a council, the council shall be duly opened and closed by the Onondaga chiefs, the Firekeepers. They will offer thanks to the Great Spirit that dwells in heaven above: the source and ruler of our lives, and it is him that sends daily blessings upon us, our daily wants and daily health, and they will then declare the Council open for the transaction of business, and give decisions of all that is done in the council.

8. There are three totems or castes of the Mohawk Nation, viz. the Tortoise, the Wolf and the Bear. Each has 3 head chiefs, 9 in all. The chiefs of the Tortoise and Wolf castes are the council by themselves, and the chiefs of the Bear castes are to listen and watch the progress of the council or discussion of the two castes; and if they see any error, they are to correct them and explain where they are wrong; and when they decide with the sanction of the Bear castes then their speaker will refer the matter to the other side of the council fire, to the second combination chiefs, viz The Oneidas and Cayugas.

9. The council of the five Nations shall not be opened until all of the 3 castes of the Mohawk chiefs are present. If they are not all present it shall be legal for them to transact the business of the council if all the 3 totems have one or more representatives present, and if not it shall not be legal except in small matters; for all the 3 castes of the Mohawk chiefs must be present to be called a full council.

10. The business of the council of the Five Nation Indians is transacted by two combination of chiefs; viz first the Mohawks and Senecas, and second the Oneidas and Cayugas.

11. When a case or proposition is introduced in the council of the Five Nations, the Mohawk chiefs with the Senecas shall first consider the matter, and whatever the decision may be; then the speaker will refer the matter to the other side of the council fire; to the second combination chiefs, the Oneidas and Cayugas, for their consideration, and if they all agree unanimously then the speaker of the council shall refer the matter to the Fire-keepers; and it is then their duty to sanction it; and their speaker will then pronounce the case as passed in council.

12. If a dissension arises between the two combination chiefs in council, and they agree to refer the matter to the Fire-keepers to decide, then the Fire-keepers shall decide which of the two or more propositions is most advantageous to their people, and their decision is final.

13. When any case or proposition has passed unanimously between the two combination chiefs, and the case or proposition is then referred to the Fire-keepers for their sanction: and if the Fire-keepers see that the case or proposition is such that it will be injurious and not to the advantage of their people, then they will refer the case or proposition back to the Mohawk chiefs, and point out where it would be injurious to the people and then they will reconsider the case. When it is right the case is then referred again to the Fire-keepers and then they will pass it.

14. When there is a case, proposition, or any subject before the council of the Five Nation Indians, no chief or chiefs has any right to stand up to speak without permission from the council, and if he has anything to say by way of explanation, he can do so in a low tone to the combined chiefs whereof he is a member.

15. When anything is under the consideration of the council, they must agree unanimously if possible before it is referred to the other side of the council fire, to the second combination chiefs; otherwise it would be illegal so to do by one or more chiefs, unless sanctioned by the rest of the combined chiefs of which he or they is a member.

16. The speaker of the council of the Five Nations council shall be appointed from time to time when it is necessary, by the first combined chiefs (viz the Mohawks and Senecas) during the day or days when the council is in session.

17. The duty of the speaker of the council as aforesaid is to order the Fire-keepers to open and close the council, and to address the council when necessary and to refer cases, propositions, etc. to the second combined chiefs and to the Fire-keepers, and to proclaim sanctioned cases, or anything when passed by the council.

18. A speaker of the Fire-keepers shall be chosen from time to time, as occasion shall require; by the Onondaga chiefs themselves.

19. The speaker of the Second Combined Chiefs appointment, shall be on the same condition as the speaker of the Fire-keepers.

Great Law of Peace20. Each of the Principal chiefs has one war chief and a runner, and should war break out, then the office of the principal chief ceases during the war. The war chiefs will take their places and council for the Five Nations until the end of the war; then the office will cease and the principal chiefs shall resume their places and their duties as before.

21. If the Principal chief desires to have anything to do with the war, this he can do by giving up the emblem which he received by his relatives when he was first made chief.

22. The duty of the messenger or runner is to carry tidings from place to place by order of the Five Nation Indians Confederation session, or by his superior chiefs.

23. If the Principal chief does fail in his judgement in the five Nation Indians Confederation council, of course the duty of his war chief is to assist him, and he is bound to listen.

24. The duty of the Head Principal Chief of the Onondagas, Ododarho, is to keep the Five Nation Indians Confederation council fire clean all around, that no dust or dirt is to be seen. There is a long wing of a bird and a stick is placed by his side, and he will take the long wing and sweep or dust the dirt away from the council fire, and if he sees any creeping creature crawling towards the Five Nation Indians council fire, he will take the stick and pitch the crawling creature away from the fire, and his cousin chiefs of the Onondagas will act with him at all times, and the crawling creature signifies any case or proposition or subject brought before the Five Nation Indians council which would be ruinous and injurious to their people, and they are to reject anything which on the nature would be ruinous and injurious and not to the advantage of their people, and they are to consider first by themselves during the council, and then call the attention of the council to the fact, case or proposition, and the council are not to receive it after it had been rejected by the council.

25. The Fire-keepers of the Five Nation Indians Confederation council the Onondaga principal chiefs are combined together by themselves expressly to open and close the Five Nation Indians Confederation council and to sanction, and decide any case, proposition, subject, point or points, when referred to them and all the chiefs must be present during the session, and agree unanimously, for one or two or more chiefs to sanction, and to give decision is illegal if the rest of their cousin chiefs are present and the council shall not be organized if the Onondaga chief of chiefs are not present to open and close the council, but if he or they shall not sanction, or give decision on any case, proposition, subject, point or points until all the rest of their cousin chiefs shall be present.

26. The duty of the two head Seneca chiefs (viz, Kennonkeridawi and Deyoninhohakarawen), who are stationed at the door of the Five Nations Indians Confederation session, is to watch and if they see any crawling creature entering in the session they will disallow to enter in the session. Crawling creature signifies any case of proposition which brought before the session would be ruinous, or injurious to the people; and also if they see stranger near the door they will bring the stranger in their session and ask what is their message have they with them.

27. If any one of the Five Nation Indians confederation chiefs should die, and there being no member in the caste fit for the office to succeed him, then the chiefs of the Five Nation Indians shall take the emblem of chieftainship and put it in another family of the same caste as the deceased chief, until such time as they shall have a member qualified for the office, then the emblem of chieftainship shall be restored to the said family, on the female side.

28. If the principal chief or chiefs of the Five Nation lndians Confederation disregards (this) constitution of the Five Nation Indians, then his female relatives will come to him and warn him or they to come back, and walk according to this constitution. If he or they disregards the warning after the first and second warnings, then she will refer the matter to the war chief, and the war chief will now say to him: "So, you did not listen to the warnings, now it is just where the bright noonday sun stands and it's before that sun's brightness I now discharge you as a chief and I now dispossess you of the office of chieftainship. I now give her the chieftainship for she is the proprietor, and as I have now discharged you as a chief, so you are no longer a chief, you will now go where you want it to go, and you will now go alone, and the rest of the people will not go with you for we know not of what kind of a spirit has got in you, and as the Great Spirit could not handle sin, therefore he could not come to take you out of the presence in the place of destruction, and you will never be restored again to the place you did occupy once." Then the war chief will notify the Five Nation Indians confederation of his dismissal and they will sanction it.

29. Kariwhiyho, the good message is the love of the Great Spirit, the Supreme Being. This Kariwhiyho is the surrounding guardian of the Five Nation Indians Confederation principal chiefs. And this Kariwhiyho, it loves all alike the members of the Five Nations Indians Confederation, and other nations of Indians that are attached to it through customary way of treaties, and if the Five Nation Indians Confederation principal chiefs were to submit to laws and regulations made by other people, or course he or they the chief or chiefs are now gone through outside the boundary of the Kariwhiyhos surrounding guard, but their chieftainship fell off from their heads, and it remains inside the Five Nation Indians Confederation, and he or they are now gone outside of the Kariwhiyho's surrounding guard alone without his or their chieftainship, the emblem of his or their chieftainship, their authority and honour.

5 arrows US coin30. There is 5 arrows bound together. This is the symbol of union, power, honour and Dominion of the Five Nations Indians confederation, and if one of the 5 arrows was to be taken out then the remainder is easily broken asunder. This signifies if one of the Five Nations were to emigrate to a distant country of course they now withdrawn from the Confederation, therefore the Power of the Five Nation Indians confederation decreased.

31. Adodarho, the head chief of the Ononadagas or Fire-keepers, it is them are entrusted the care of the Five Nation Indians Confederation council fire, and if there is any business to be transacted, they will send a messenger to the head chief of the Fire-keepers Adodarho; and state the nature of the business to him. Then Adodarho will call his cousin chiefs together and hold a council by themselves and consider the matter, and if they find that the matter is worth the consideration of the council of the Five Nations, then Adodarho will send a messenger and notify the rest of the chiefs of the five nations to assemble at their council house, or wherever their residence where the council fire is kept, and its smoke ascends up perpetually to the sky, this it signifies that other Indian Nations are allies to the Five Nation Indians confederation, and as an imperial council fire, and when the chiefs assemble together and the council fire opened according to their rules, then the Fire-keepers will announce to the council the nature business for which they came together to consider.

32. And when the Five Nation Indian chief dies, the council will be adjourned 10 days if it is in session, and if it is not in session it will not be summoned before the 10 days expire; and if the 3 Brothers, viz; Mohawks, Ononadagas and Senecas, should lose one by death of their number, then the 4 brothers Yadathewah, Oneidas and Cayugas, shall come to the residence of the deceased chief on the 10th day and comfort and cheer up their spirits again and if it is to Yadathawah that loses one of their number then the 3 Brothers will perform the ceremony according to their customs by passing a certain number of strings of wampum. During the ceremony is in progress, a successor must be pointed out to them. Then the female relatives of the deceased chief shall select one out of kindreds fit for the office of a chief. And if they are not ready, then they will postpone it until another time, and when they are ready; all the chiefs will assemble together to perform a long ceremony of what is called Okayondontshera to install the new chief or chiefs.

33. Yohhedodaoe, this is the title of a chief, and it is a peculiar way of how he becomes chief when a warrior assists the chiefs in their councils and otherwise, and he is found to be a wise councilor in war and peace, and of sober habits trustworthy and honest, then the chiefs will place him among the rest of the chiefs; as a chief and proclaim in their council, that such a one has become what is called Wakadinedothese he now becomes a chief. And also if a warrior do exploits that will tend to the advantage and interest of his people, he also will become Yonedodaoe amongst them as well, so his class of chiefs are not of the same order as the principle chiefs; for when he departs this life no one is to take his place or succeed him, and if he does wrong in their councils he could not be put out of the council, but he will not be allowed any more to speak in their council, and if he resign his office no one is able to prevent him.

The Great Law of Peace34. If the Five Nation Indian Confederation chief die, then, his comrades will send a messenger to notify the rest of the confederate chiefs to attend his funeral.

35. When the Five Nation Indians Confederation chief get sick, and as he is now approaching unto death, then his female relatives, or his comrade chiefs will come and dispossess him (of) the emblem of his chieftainship.

36. You can create an install a new chief or chiefs when you will hear my words again, and the way that you will hear my words again is when you will read the wampums, for it is the wampums that tells all my Laws, Rules, Customs, which I gave you, the Five Nations Indians, on this occasion you can create and install a new chief in the first combined chiefs, the second and the third as well.

37. And when one is made chief, his skin are said to be seven Niyoroekarake (each of the seven is six inches) in thickness and they were made so when they were made a chief or chiefs. This symbolizes, that when they are in council and engaged in their duties they will not willingly offend, and they are not easily to be offended, and they are not to take offence in anything that might be said in council against them; but to go one calmly, and of a good conscience to deliberate whatever is before them to council!.

38. The title of the Five Nation Indians Confederation principal chiefs are Lords, and this title was from the beginning when the Confederation first established.

39. And if any of the chiefs resign his office as a chief, he shall tell his Brother chiefs, and if he selects one to take his place and be a chief instead, and his Brother chiefs accepts his resignation and one to fill his place, but he will not be made a chief, until sanctioned by his female relatives.

40. The Great Spirit the Supreme Being has chosen to Mohawk Nation as head in this Confederation, for it is with them that the Confederation originated. Therefore if the Mohawk chiefs disallow anything, or protest any case or proposition that is brought before the council it shall not be lawful for the council to pass it, for has chosen them to be the leader of this Confederation government, and all the affairs of the Five Nation Indians, and others that are united  with them are in their hands; and he has given the Mohawk chiefs a calm and tender hearts towards their people, and if any difficulty arise amongst them the people the chiefs in council will settle it for them.

In his book titled "1491", Charles Mann related legendary route to the Great Law of Peace  being in the of an individual known as Deganawidah, aka the peace-maker, who teamed up with the leader of the Onondaga and convinced him to promote the idea of a treaty. Apparently, the occurrence of a solar eclipse was taken as a sign from the golf to conclude the agreement.

Mann continues: "... the Onondaga have the Council fire burning ... to this day."

He further proposes that the assembly (council) of the Great Law of Peace, if as suggested, is still operational would be:

"... the second oldest continuously existing representative parliaments on earth. only Iceland's Althing, founded in 930 A.D. is older."


  • Schaaf proposes (see reference below): "The Onondaga ... (was) the fire-keeper at the heart of the confederacy.... The Mohawk and the Seneca, united as Elder Brothers, formed the upper house of a traditional Senate. The Oneida and the Cayuga, joined in 1710 by the Tuscarora, composed the Younger Brothers"....".
  • For centuries, legal and aboriginal historians have been arguing over the extent to which, if at all, the Americans themselves were inspired by the text of the Iroquois Constitution in the drafting of their own constitution in 1787. In 1988, the US Congress minted a coin (see above) and adopted a controversial resolution "acknowledg(ing) the contribution of the Iroquois Confederacy of Nations to the development of the United States Constitution", which many commentators denounced as inaccurate. "It destroys my faith in the historical literacy of the Senate", wrote Francis Jennings of the D'Arcy McNickle Center for the History of the American Indian.
  • The above version is one of six known to exist, and was presented by Seneca (Mohawk) Indian Seth Newhouse in about 1880 and until 1850, in any event, the Confederation existed only in the minds of the Indian nations and passed along from generation to generation though segments were represented on wampums. Maria Morocco writes: "Formulated when the Iroquois established their confederacy, The Great Law of Peace was not written down in English until 1880. Traditionally, its provisions were recorded on wampum belts, which were used whenever disputes arose over procedure or over the meaning of law." Other versions include the The "Chiefs' version", compiled by the chiefs of the Six Nations Council on the Six Nations Reserve, Ontario, 1900 and the "Gibson version", dictated in 1899 by Chief John Arthur Gibson of the Six Nations Reserve.

Other References:

  • Jacobs, Renée, Iroquois Great Law of Peace and the United States Constitution: How the Founding Fathers Ignored the Clan Mothers, 16 AILR 497 (1991) (also NOTE 1).
  • Jensen, Erik, Imaginary Connection between the Great Law of Peace and the United State Constitution: A Reply to Professor Schaaf, 15 AILR 295 (1990-1991)
  • Mann, Charles, 1491 - New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus (New York: Random House, 2006).
  • Morocco, Maria, Rediscovering the Roots of American Democracy, 17 Hum. Rts. 38 (1990)
  • Schaaf, Gregory, From the Great Law of Peace to the Constitution of the United States: A Revision of America's Democratic Roots>/em>, 14 AILRT 323 (1988-1989)